Sweets are not the first thing you would associate with Serbia and, traditionally, they did not have a prominent place in the country’s cuisine. In Serbia, the need for sugary treats was traditionally sated by plentiful fruit and preserves. Indeed, in one part of Njegoš’s epic Mountain Wreath (Gorski Vijenac), in describing his trip to Venice, duke Draško complains that the Venetians only subsisted on sweets which made their teeth bad and that he longed for the beef and pork of his homeland.
Thus it is unsurprising that before WWI, sweets in Belgrade and Serbia were mostly relicts of its Ottoman past.
Little shops selling baklava, Turkish delight (here called ratluk or lokum) were dotted around the city and staffed usually by Ottoman craftsmen who came to the city eager to make money of its growing urban class. The story of Mustafa Pelivanović who founded Belgrade’s and Serbia’s oldest pastry shop in 1851 would be typical of the time. According to the lore, Mustafa, who was a Gorani (who are dominant among Belgrade’s oriental pastry chefs), made his money as a traditional oil wrestler (pelivan is the Serbian variant of the Turkish term for a wrestling champion), and invested it in opening his shop Pelivan, which was initially located by the old Istanbul (Stambol) gate (present day Trg Republike), but after destruction in 6 April 1941 Nazi bombing, was transferred to its current location by the Czech embassy on Bulevar kralja Aleksandra. Apparently, the shop became distinguished already in Mustafa’s times for its ice cream and in its long history supplied Serbia’s royal courts, and was even mentioned by the Nobel-prize winner Ivo Andrić.
However, as Serbia tried to be more like Central and Western Europe, its appetite for sweets expanded. Central-European style cakes invaded cafes such as Ruski car, and Serbian women became obsessed with making various petits-fours (sitni kolači) for major feasts such as slavas (family Saint’s days).
As the country started industrialising from late 19th century, it was a matter of time before somebody realised that factory-produced treats would be a good business.
Enter brothers Nikola and Konstantin Šonda, who, in 1902, moved from what is present-day Greece, to produce Serbia’s first chocolate bars. They hired a German to head their small factory which was located in Jalija (the present day Mona Hotel). The business was going very well, and after Konstantin’s son Mihajlo took over the business in 1910, they expanded production and offering, and invested heavily in their marketing.
After WWI, Šonda cup was the first cup that was presented to the best football team in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and they also boosted their chocolate sales by making collectible football stickers. The business grew to include production of biscuits and candies, and became listed on the Belgrade’s stock exchange when the tragedy hit in 1941. Mihajlo Šonda died when a Nazi bomb hit the family home in Kosovka street, while their Jalija factory was also badly damaged. After the war, all of their assets were nationalised although Mihajlo’s son, Kontantin Šonda, helped the socialist authorities set up new sweets factories in Gornji Milanovac and Skopje.
Šondas, were only one of the few Serbian confectionary companies which ceased to exist after WWII. Indeed, Serbia’s most popular sweets producer, Soko Štark, which produces classics like Najepše Želje (“Best Wishes”) chocolate as well popular chocolate bananas, was born through merger of two such pre-war companies.
While, Šondas were already established in their chocolate trade in Belgrade, a new competitor was emerging across the river in Zemun. A French intelligence officer from WWI, Daniel S. Pechmajoue, decided to ride the wave of Franco-Yugoslav friendship and started importing French sweets, before turning to production in mid 1920s, setting up a factory by the Danube. Although Pehmajoue, died shortly after his company created Serbia’s first dark chocolate suitable for cooking – Roda (or “La Cigogne”) Menage. In 1928, the new owner Franja Vaja, an ethnic Hungarian from Vršac, introduced a new banana-flavoured sweet covered in chocolate called “Krem Banana” (banana crème).
Also in Zemun, in 1930s, a few Jewish businessmen, spotted a gap in the biscuit market and decided to take a leaf out of Vienna’s Jewish-run Anker bakery and launched their own steam-powered biscuit bakery “Soko”. The factory’s first manager was Jovan Fišer (Fischer), and although it business flourished in the run up to WWII, the Nazi invasion in 1941. meant that it had to be taken over by non-Jews, and Jovan Fischer, who joined the Yugoslav army, was interred in a camp PoW camp (thankfully, both he and his family survived the war, but left for Israel in 1948).
After the war, both Soko and Louit/Roda (which continued operation in Zemun during the war) were nationalised. The latter was renamed “Nada Štark“, after a female partizan and confectionery who was murdered by the Ustašas in Stara Gradiška death camp.
The two were ultimately brought together into „Soko-Nada Štark“ confectionery company in 1960s, and a new factory was opened in Voždovac in 1970s. Since then the company produced not only the old chocolatey and biscuit hits (Bananice, Najlepše želje, Piškote, Napolitanke), but also added beloved savoury snacks like Smoki and Prima.
Having realised that the industrial sweets are good business, the socialist Yugoslav government created a few confectionary factories in its push to industrialise the country in the 1960s. This push resulted in creation of one of Serbia’s (and former Yugoslavia’s) favourite biscuits – Plazma. The creation of Plazma, which is marketed on foreign markets as Lana due to a settlement with an Italian producer of similar biscuit – Plasmon, is shrouded in intrigue.
Plasmon biscuit was invented at the turn of the century and was considered a health food and a great source of energy, so much so that Ernest Shackleton brought it to his Antarctic Expedition. It was particularly popular in Italy, and in 1902, where a Plasmon factory was set. According to a popular story Plazma was created after Petar Tutavac, a Yugoslav working in Plasmon’s factory was laid off after it the factory taken over by Heinz in 1963, but not before learning about the recipe. Coming back home with this great piece of industrial espionage, he offered his services to the socialist industry and Bambi factory was set up in Požarevac in 1967.
This romantic version of the story, although popular as it shows how a socialist worker can successfully rebel against a faceless American conglomerate, was disputed by Momčilo Filipović, Bambi’s founder. In an interview for Novosti, he explained how Plazma’s creation in reality was result of his ambition to expand Leskovac’s wheat mill into biscuit production.
He toured Europe for a year to find the best biscuit, and it was Plasmon which took his fancy. After lengthy negotiations with Italian producers, Filipović and his team acquired the rights and technology, but his idea to found a factory in Leskovac was not met with enthusiasm, as the city wanted to develop its more traditional textiles industry.
After a while what was to become Bambi was built in Požarevac, and Tutovac, who was actually only a master-baker from a small biscuit factory in Croatia, was brought on the team only to rise up to become the technical director.
Bambi’s story was not the only one showing a certain spirit of confectionery entrepreneurship in Yugoslavia.
Pre-war candy factory Takovo in Gornji Milanovac, also benefited from Italian touch after it acquired a licence to produce Eurokrem, a gianduia spread, in 1970.
In 1975, in Crevnka, a group of Anglophile socialist businessmen, founded an eponymous factory which got a licence from McVitie’s to produce Jaffa cakes. In 1981, they expanded to the production of equally beloved Mančmelou, a local variant of Tunnock’s teacake.
This spirit of entrepreneurship was much dampened in 1990s as Yugoslavia started to violently fall apart and all confectionary companies started feeling the burden of hyperinflation and international sanctions.
For kids like me, who grew up during 1990s, sweets had a connotation of luxury and scarcity, as our parents often had to scramble to buy us a „bananica“ let alone a „Najlepše želje“ bar. One of the most desired birthday presents was a large chocolate bar, ideally of Austrian Milka.
After the liberalisation of 2000s, many companies struggled both through privatisations and influx of foreign products, but all of the favourite brands thankfully survive to this day.