Serbia, Vukićevica Village, Grabovac, February 2018,
At the first handshake, Aleksandar Velimirovic explains to me the philosophy of their project. For him, it is not some new-age phrase but a way of life. A lot of people talk about it endlessly but just do not do it. Alexandar and Milan Babic were comrades in their youth. Their hobby was shooting with air rifles. Nothing military, just for fun he adds just to avoid a wrong impression. Killing animals was also not the objective. For them, it was just sports. He lost touch but later in life, they met again later in life and it proved a crucial moment. Both of them wanted to go for a passion and started Fatal Spices 3 years ago.
Milan waits on the main road for me in order to make sure I do not miss his spice farm. He has a soft but somehow sad aura around him and his determination shines through everything he says. There is so much to tell and he has so many new plans. After a divorce Milan, now in his forties, Milan left Belgrade where he was a mechanic and moved back to the village where he was born 54 years ago. When he was young everybody left:
“the fittest moved away furthest”
(Read more about emigration in Why did you not leave). Now he lives on the same hamlet of 3 houses located near the village of Vukicevica in the house of his father and mother. His sister Marija lives next door. “It is not easy to cut the ties with the city,” he says but if you want something you need to do it 100% Milan grows paprika’s, tomatoes and peppers and is the driving force of Fatal Spices (Fatalni Zacini) which he founded and runs together with his family and an intimate circle of like-minded friends. All his products are biologically grown and Fatal Spices aims to be totally ecologically responsible. Growing tomatoes and paprika’s is certainly not an unusual thing in Serbia but the way Milan does it is radically different. The soil in his area is of bad quality but Milan now uses microorganisms for enrichment. The land is now plowed but remains untouched after the harvests. The micro organism method comes from Japan and was improved in Russia near the Baikal lake. The microorganisms bind nitrogen and carbon from the air, improve the acidity and turn the soil into a unique substrate for his crop. His old comrade Alexander joined him and helps with the commercial side of the business:
“I am 24 with a trial period of 30 years”.
He still works in the IT hardware industry but his hearth is with the peppers. Actually moving to the countryside too attracts him but then his wife has different ideas. She is a psychiatrist and would like to live near the sea. But then sometimes compromises still have to be made in life.
Milan’s elderly home is full of boxes and utensils for farming and processing tomatoes, peppers and paprikas. Even his very modest bedroom is full of utensils and is heated by the heat recovery system of his self designed innovative energy-friendly wood stove.
An old fridge is converted to a smoking box but next to it already stands an improved model. Some products like the tomatoes are cold smoked at temperatures below 50 degrees C. Milan’s former profession turns in handy as he can convert.
He also built a unique rocket type heater in the greenhouse. The plants need to breed in a warm environment. The breeding tables are also kept warm. The crop is planted outside and from there on the growth is only in the open air. The taste is so much better Milan explains, when in a greenhouse the colors fade and the taste is so much better when his crop grows in the fresh air. It is winter so the fields are barren but some peppers are still visible.
During the low season, Milan dedicates his time to improving the infrastructure, processing spices, filling bottles (his neighbor had an automated filling line) and developing new tastes and products. But when the sun is out he has 4 crops yearly to harvest. This is the most labor-intensive part and he needs help. The villagers have their own land to work on so he relies on labor from the city. An hour up and down proves however a hurdle. Fatal Spices sells through 4 shops, 2 in Belgrade, 1 in Novi Sad.
But some customers make the journey to the small village to pick the unique products up themselves. They also have a webshop attached to their website. There is no lack of customers. After a tour of the greenhouse, I am invited to Milan’s house where the products are arranged Fatal spices is usually sold out and just for me the last jars of spicy strawberry jam and smoked paprikas and tomatoes in olive oil are opened. The small bottles have inspiring names like Scorpion S.O.S. Mostly the type op paprika is the name. The best have Mexican origin says Milan, the Serbian varieties can also be good but he so far has not used them. Tasting needs to be done with care and it is needed to eat some cheese or ham to neutralize the impact. Each bottle gives a new unique sensation. Spice growing and processing has developed into art here. Local government has taken a liking to their activities and will support the investment in a second greenhouse. Also, Alex could participate for free in a course that gives him a valuable diploma in green farming. Of 10 attendants he is surprised only 4 completed the course. A lot of farmers do not see the use of it. Alex does as the EU puts great value onto certified green farming and the EU is a big market. Though both are absolutely nonpolitical they observe: “We are a land of tycoons and protectors”. But isn’t that the same everywhere? There is a difference Alexandar shrugs:
“our politicians are cheaper”.
In their case the positive publicity of Milan’s and Alexandar’s project. It is a nice showcase so this works to their advantage. Shooting has again become their hobby, they even found their old instructor. But growing fatal spices is what they really go for now. New tastes are in development and new packaging too. It may take another few years to make Fatal Spices profitable but where it will lead them they will see.