Inside Silvana Mondo, Silvana Vukadin-Hoitt’s Tennyson Street art and antiques gallery, a low table surrounded by five cushioned stools that are barely higher than the floor itself awaits a group of guests, the tabletop set with a spread of dates, almonds, Turkish delight, a bottle of Bosnian sljivovic plum brandy, fresh baklava and savory pastries piled onto oval platters. The centerpiece is a tall brass implement that resembles an ornate peppermill but which Vukadin-Hoitt tells us is actually a coffee grinder from Bosnia that she uses to create the powder-fine grounds needed for Turkish coffee.
After years of globe-trotting, Vukadin-Hoitt has been settled in Denver for more than two decades; since January, she’s run her gallery in the Berkeley neighborhood, filled with a thoughtfully arranged array of new and antique furnishings and textiles, mainly from Central Asia and the famous Silk Road route, as well as jewelry and modern prints by Denver artists. But we’ve come for Turkish coffee service, the pastries Vukadin-Hoitt calls Bosnian pita and, if we want, a session of tasseography — a reading of our coffee grounds.
See our video of Silvana Vukadin-Hoit making Bosnian pita at the Raleigh Street Bakery.
Vukadin-Hoitt was born in Germany and has lived in Italy and Bangkok, but she celebrates her Bosnian heritage through food and drink. The coffee grinder has been in her family since the early 1930s, she explains, when her grandmother received it as a gift upon the birth of her first son. She passes it to her guests at the table, and it’s obvious that the heavy cylinder has seen much use; its jointed crank handle and filigreed cap are dark with the patina of time.
Before the coffee service begins, we toast — “Zivjeli!” — with the fragrant sljivovic, a potent spirit made from damson plums, then take turns grinding coffee beans. Our host explains that coffee is served in small cups throughout the night at Bosnian family gatherings, so the person making the coffee gets a good workout turning the crank to produce enough grounds for all.
As the water heats for coffee, we pass around the platter of pita — and realize that the wedge-shaped sandwiches are much more than just pockets of bread stuffed with meats and cheeses. Instead, they’re made with a flaky, layered dough that is somehow baked into an almost honeycomb pattern, each chamber bulging with savory ingredients. Vukadin-Hoitt has baked two styles for us: burek, which is stuffed with seasoned ground beef and onions, and zeljanica, made with a mixture of spinach and farmer’s cheese. Clearly a good deal of time and effort have gone into the production of each version, so we press for details.
The pita, she tells us, are made by rolling and stretching dough on a large cloth draped over a table until the dough forms a tissue-thin, transparent sheet nearly as big as the table itself. Filling is spooned in a narrow row across the sheet, which is then rolled into a long tube, using the cloth to help roll without tearing the dough. The result looks like sausage, with the thin dough acting as the casing. The entire tube is coiled into a tight spiral in a round baking dish called a tepsija, then baked until just golden on top. The coiled tube melds together while baking so that the finished pastry, usually as big as a pizza, can be cut into wedges and served without falling apart.
It’s a difficult dish to master, one that takes plenty of practice. The creator of our burek and zeljanica is more than a gallery owner and reader of coffee grounds: Vukadin-Hoitt’s résumé includes time helping her brother run a bakery in Florida that specialized in Italian pastries, so she knows a thing or two about flour. Along with the pita, we enjoy wine, more sljivovic, and conversation about the nature of community and shared meals. Vukadin-Hoitt notes that in her grandmother’s homeland (now called Bosnia and Herzegovina), the preparation of food and coffee was shared as part of family culture rather than a hurried affair.
Then she makes us coffee, emptying the fine, dark-brown coffee grounds from the grinder into a small copper pot stamped with a floral motif. The pot itself only holds a few ounces of water, so the process must be repeated for each guest. Our host says that the prevalence of Turkish coffee throughout the Balkan region is due to the Ottoman influence of centuries past. The coffee is served unfiltered, so that a thick sediment remains at the bottom of the cup; it’s rich and bitter, and we’re asked to refrain from adding sugar so as not to affect the reading of the grounds. But sugar isn’t needed, because we have diamond-shaped slices of sweet baklava, which Vukadin-Hoitt also made the day before. She anoints the walnut-filled dessert in a simple syrup flavored with a clove-studded lemon and then hands us each a plate.
And then, one at a time, we’re asked to dump our coffee grounds onto a small tray. There’s a small alcove in the back of the gallery closed off with heavy fabric; we each get a solo reading in the alcove, accompanied by tarot cards and the calming aromas of lavender and burnt sage. My reading starts with a pop; my inverted coffee cup has suctioned onto its tray, causing a slight resistance as Vukadin-Hoitt, now a gypsy fortune teller, lifts it to reveal the patterns in the grounds. “You have secrets,” she says.
But don’t we all? The remainder of the reading is relaxing, calming, nearly entrancing. Whether you believe in the prognosticating powers of the fortune teller or maintain a healthy skepticism, the session offers a chance to explore your own hopes, fears and anxieties in a meditative setting. After some very good coffee.
While handmade pastries aren’t a part of the typical customer experience at Silvana Mondo, the owner does offer private tasseography sessions. The gallery is open by appointment only, and you can request an additional thirty- or sixty-minute reading when you call 720-739-0399 or book time through the website, silvanamondo.com.
I don’t need my coffee grounds read to know that it wouldn’t be fair to indulge in delicious zeljanica and burek without sharing where you can get some for yourself. While I haven’t been able to find a restaurant that serves Bosnian specialties, you can find prepared foods and good coffee at the European Market at 1990 Wadsworth Boulevard in Lakewood. The small grocery and deli is run by Petko Georgiev, who stocks a wide range of Serbian, Bosnian and other Balkan specialties. The market also has a few tables, so you can sit down and enjoy sausage and other meats grilled just outside the front door.
The Bosnian pita, filled with either ground beef, potato or spinach and cheese, are in a small chest freezer near the front of the store. They come in an aluminum tray that you can pop into your oven at home; you can serve them with a little sour cream or crème fraîche. While they’re not quite as distinctive as Vukadin-Hoitt’s version, I can safely predict that they’ll serve as a fine introduction to Bosnian cuisine.