Born out of conflict and chaos, Solero Mediterranean Bakery offers a delicacy-packed place for Balkan ex-pats to sample the food of home.
Before Dusan Disic lived here and imported Balkan specialty foods for Solero Mediterranean Bakery, his Junction grocery store, he was living in Belgrade, importing Canadian electronics and other goods to a country that had recently opened itself up to private enterprise. “I was part of the first generation with opportunity,” Disic recalls.
Soon, however, opportunity was trumped by chaos, as Yugoslavia’s violent dissolution made life increasingly fearful. “When we saw the war coming, we chose a country we knew we could move to.” In 1999, with the war in Kosovo unfolding and American military intervention imminent against Serbia, Disic moved to Toronto and prepared for his family to follow him soon after. But within days of his arrival, NATO jets and missiles were already striking Belgrade, where his family still lived. During frantic phone calls, Disic arranged for a friend to drive his wife and children out of the city in the middle of the night; once in Hungary, they were safely able to board a flight to Toronto.
Though the shop was born out of conflict, Solero today is a wonder of pan-Balkan food, mixing together flavours from the varied cultures of the region, influences that range from German to Turkish, and a sun-drenched Mediterranean current. “There’s no difference in our food,” Disic says of the various Balkan nations whose goods he serves. “We lived 50 years together, speak the same language, and eat the same meals.” There are shelves full of Ki-Ki brand candies (including chewy banana toffee), whole racks of fruit jams like rosehip and plum, and delicatessen cases with dark smoked pork necks, ham hocks, and thick slabs of bacon, which Disic says can be grilled over an open flame and don’t even need refrigeration (though he does keep them in the fridge). Do not think of leaving Solero without a jar of Macedonia’s Mama’s brand ajvar, a bright orange spread made from roasted red peppers and eggplant, sunflower oil, and sea salt. It’s basically summer in a bottle. Smear it on the bakery’s wide lepina buns, which are sturdy enough to brush with olive oil and grill on the barbecue, and you will easily polish off the jar in a single day.
Solero is packed with goods from chocolates and cookies to pickles and cheeses, but what draws a mixed crowd of shoppers with Balkan roots are the baked treats—specifically, the burek. Likely originating in Turkey, burek are now found all over the Balkans, Eastern Europe, and North Africa, and consist of a pastry stuffed with cheese and other fillings. Solero specializes in the traditional style of burek (it’s rounder and has more layers of dough), common to the southern town of Niš, a place so prized for its burek culture that Disic has sponsored four local bakers to immigrate to Toronto in order to make the pastry properly.
“We’re using the original recipe,” says Disic, who frequently travels back to Serbian and Macedonian villages to seek out elderly cooks and bakers and learn how they make their food. Solero’s burek, which are shipped all over the province, are large, pizza-sized pies that sandwich different fillings between layers of chewy phyllo-like dough. The most popular version is a slightly tangy mixture of ricotta and feta, and while there are variations with sour cherry, spinach and cheese, mushrooms, potato, and apple, the standout might well be the meat burek with soft onions and juicy beef. Again, try it with a dollop of ajvar or, as Disic recommends, drinkable liquid yogurt. Or both.
Solero is the type of place where you walk in for a slice of burek but leave weighed down with boxes of the amazing cakes and pastries baked on site. Baklava come in two varieties: the drier Greek style and the Balkan, which are so drenched in a lemon-kissed syrup that they straddle the line between liquid and solid. Same with the tulumba, fried little plugs of dough that taste like a churro luxuriating in a bath of sugary water. There are loaf cakes that alternate walnut paste with creamy icing and an apple pastry called a “lazy cake” (because it’s dead simple to make), but the surefire hit is the oblanda, where a mixture of semi-sweet chocolate and crushed cookies is spread between seven layers of crisp wafers.
Though his customers hail from all corners of the former Yugoslavia, Disic has made it a policy never to ask anyone’s background, and Solero’s clients seem to follow the same unspoken rule. “We don’t include politics at all in our store,” he says, noting that when people discuss the past, they generally use the words “back there” to talk about where they come from. “When you start something new, you have an intention not to go and look at the past,” he says. “My main focus is business.”
Solero Mediterranean Bakery, 3029 Dundas St. W., 416-763-2562.