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No better than the Balkans: The faux-rustic interior of Barnyard (photo: Joakim Blockstrom)

Blame Anthony Bourdain, the tattooed Keith Richards lookalike whose book Kitchen Confidential brought  rock ’n’ roll to food writing 15 years ago, but I wonder whether many food writers don’t have a bit of war correspondent manqué in them. You can’t turn on a cookery show without seeing some doughty gourmand duking it out with a sheep’s intestine or wrestling a squid into submission. A welcome flipside to the vanilla-perfumed prettiness of the post-Bake Off  world, perhaps, or the expression of the need to inject some Hemingway swagger into what might otherwise be perceived as a bit of a girly activity. Food critics trade face-offs with culinary oddities the way hardened hacks swap war stories at the Frontline Club, recalling that time they ate the locust in Vietnam, or swallowed a bowl of fermented mare’s milk under the unforgiving eyes of a yurt full of Mongolian tribesmen. Because food is macho, right? It’s virile and sexy and brave, and has nothing to do with spinning baskets of caramelised sugar or fretting about the texture of a brunoise. Like Hemingway, they protest too much — everyone knows that Papa didn’t really “liberate” the bar of the Paris Ritz — he was just desperate for a decent martini, once the real fighting had been done by the grunts. Show me a former war zone and the hacks won’t be far behind, wittering on about how the bullet holes really give an edgy flavour to their artisan espresso.

Belgrade is having a moment as one such destination. Now that complicated business with Milošević is over, this beautiful, ravaged city, high on a plateau overlooking the Danube, is regenerating itself as the hipsters’ mini-break of choice.

The warehouses along the riverfront have become chic post-industrial hangouts, full of impossibly long-legged girls and their excitingly dubious boyfriends, enjoying Japanese-Pacific fusion at Toro or white truffle pizza at Communale. Shelled-out buildings and former Communist concrete monoliths turned artists’ squats only add to the cool factor, but with that, the face-off between hot and authentic begins.

For real Balkan food, my man in Belgrade assured me, one has to eschew the pretty people’s hangouts and get down and dirty with the locals, which meant a trip to Potkovica, a restaurant so authentically horrible that no tourist has ever heard of it.

The space was tiny, or maybe that was just because the majority of customers were so massive. Serbian men are all man. The joint was thumping with turbo-folk, a kind of gypsy violin mixed with the worst of Celine Dion, which was apparently dreamed up by the former dictator to bludgeon the populace into aural submission. It also exuded an attractive odour of ancient cigarette smoke and rancid cooking fat. I applaud smoking sections as much as the next intelligent being who likes a fag, but I also like to see the menu through the nicotine. Except there was no menu, because Potkovica serves one thing: horse tartare. With chips. It came looking like something the horse had already eaten, a glistening lump bathed in pasty sweat, surrounded by surprisingly delicate quenelles of — what? “I wouldn’t eat those,” my companion warned me. “It’s margarine.” Quenelles of margarine? This was my Hemingway moment. Finally, I got to play with the big boys.

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