The house has been cleaned from top to bottom, the zito (boiled wheat flavoured with nuts, spices and honey) and brandy are placed by the front door, and the kola (Slava bread) and red wine are placed on the table in front of the religious ikon. Now, the Radans – a Sydney Serbian Orthodox family – are ready for guests to arrive and celebrate their most sacred day: Krsna Slava (Saint Day).
Slava is the day on which Serbian Orthodox families celebrate their ancestors’ conversion from paganism to Christianity from the reign of emperor Heraclius about 1400 years ago. At that time, entire villages were often baptised in one day. There are many saints in Serbian Orthodoxy, with about six being the most popular and widely celebrated. Each family has its own saint that is particular to them – the Radans have Saint George – and this saint is passed on through generations from father to son, with daughters eventually taking the saint of the man she marries. Slava is an affirmation of a family’s commitment to their faith and is a day of ritual, feasting and joy. "Slava is special to me because of its traditions and culture. It’s my heritage that was passed onto me and that I am passing onto my children," says Milica Radan. In preparation for hosting up to 60 family and friends for lunch as well as dinner, Milica and her four daughters – Dusanka, Simeona, Aleksija and Ilijana – have made sure that the house is spotless before preparing traditional Serbian dishes, such as kisela corba (sour chicken soup), sarma (stuffed cabbage rolls) and peenje (roast suckling pig).
Before the meal begins, there are certain rituals that are celebrated. First, a tall candle is lit and remains burning throughout the day – this reminds everyone of the significance of the event and, in particular, symbolises that “Christ is the light of the world”. The family attends church in the morning and breaks the kola (a sweet bread decorated with the dove of peace and the sign of the cross) and the zito, both of which are blessed by the priest. Kola is a symbol of the real presence of Jesus Christ, while the zito represents their faith in the resurrection of the dead. Red wine, symbolic of the blood of Christ, is also part of the ceremony. “Slava defines our identity,” says Milica, whose parents immigrated to Australia in the mid-1950s. “So many of our traditions are linked to religious events and Slava is one of the most significant.”
Once the ceremonial part of the day is over, the celebration begins and guests help themselves to the trays laden with prosciutto (which the Radans cure at home for six months), cornichons, goat’s cheese and pita (paper-thin pastry rolled with a cheese filling). The starter is sour chicken soup that has been thickened with cream and eggs, and is served with pieces of kola. The sarma follows and there’s a mad grab for the smoked pork ribs in the rich tomato-paprika sauce that the cabbage rolls have been cooked in. For the main course, there is spit-roasted suckling pig served with simple potato and tomato salads, and peene paprike (chargrilled red peppers or bullhorn capsicums – a key ingredient in Serbian cooking). A selection of desserts – including kiflice (pastry rolled with sweet fillings) and oblande (a cake made from large wafer sheets and chocolate cream) – conclude the lavish feast.
Tradition states that the domacin, or host, stands until the end of the evening, when all the guests have been served – Milica, her husband, Rade (a Serbian Orthodox priest) and their daughters clear plates and refill glasses with efficiency. "I love that everybody comes over to celebrate with us," says daughter Aleksija as she clears the table. "And I love the feasting."
After dinner, belts are loosened and the noise levels rise as Serbian music is turned up and a few guests enjoy a shot or two of sljivovica (plum brandy). As midnight approaches, there is a moment of quiet as a piece of kola is dampened with red wine and used to extinguish the candle’s flame, symbolising that the day has come to an end. Slava may be over, but the music continues long into the night.
Photography by Alan Benson.
As seen in Feast magazine, October 2011, Issue 2. For more recipes and articles, pick up a copy of this month's Feast magazine or check out our great subscriptions offers here.