Words and Photography by Irina Janakievska
“PIPERKI ZA AJVAR!”
PEPPERS FOR AJVAR!
It is early autumn and the cry echoes across the pazar (food market) in Skopje from nearly all the market stall holders. I am practically running past the iconic green metal market stands creaking under the weight of autumnal abundance, but still struggling to keep pace with my grandmother who is marching ahead with her willow basket specially reserved for pazar trips.
She knows a lady from Strumica who grows the best red peppers for ajvar and is determined to find her. Yes, we can come back for the black grapes your mother loves, but peppers first. There she is, at last! Thirty kilos of your freshest peppers please. Also, some of your young aubergines. How are we going to carry this back grandma?
We will manage; we always do. I help, of course: roasting the peppers and aubergines; the endless peeling and our fingers turning a charred orange; mincing the pepper and aubergine flesh through the ancient iron grinder passed down through generations of women in my family; cooking and constantly stirring the ajvar; and finally placing it in jars.
My grandmother considers this a small batch za adet (for custom) because it is unthinkable for her not to have homemade ajvar. She reassures me that she knows and trusts another lady with an excellent recipe who makes and sells ajvar so we can top up our winter reserves. Heaven forbid we run short of ajvar before next autumn. We always do.
I think of ajvar as the Balkan caviar. There is a reason for this. The word “ajvar” is likely an adaptation of the Farsi word khâvyâr or caviar, brought to the Balkans via the Ottoman Empire, or perhaps before. Historically there was significant and, for the region, economically important caviar production along the Danube River from wild sturgeon travelling from the Black Sea to Vienna.
Caviar production eventually petered out towards the end of the 19th century for various reasons including political instability. “Red caviar” – made from more readily available and environmentally sustainable red peppers and aubergines, but still retaining some suggestion of exclusivity thanks to the use of sunflower oil, a real luxury at the time – replaced the “real” caviar, and eventually became the one and only Balkan caviar. When it became “ajvar” is the stuff of legends – branded as such by restaurant owners in 19th century Belgrade, most of whom were from northern Macedonia. The rest is history. Or is it?
AJVAR IS TO THE BALKANS WHAT HUMMUS IS TO THE MIDDLE EAST
As is usual when politics and nationalism get involved with food, there is an on-going debate about who “invented” (and therefore who can claim) ajvar, as well as the most “authentic” flavours and methods of preparation. The only important thing here is that ajvar is a delicious, addictive and incredibly versatile vegetable preserve made of grilled or roasted red peppers (always, and sometimes only peppers like in Serbia) and aubergines (in certain parts of the Balkans, like North Macedonia).
North Macedonia is well known for its incredible, still mostly organic and sustainable produce, especially when it comes to red peppers and aubergines for Macedonian ajvar. As is the Leskovac region in Serbia, which produces a particular type of red pepper perfect for Leskovac ajvar. Macedonian ajvar and Leskovac ajvar are each respectively internationally registered and have protected appellations of origin.
Having said that, ajvar in all its glorious variations, is made across the entire Balkan region (especially the nations and regions which formed part of Yugoslavia, and neighbouring countries like Albania and Bulgaria) and its cultural, historic and gastronomic importance transcends (or should transcend) modern political borders and debates.
Making ajvar is part of the autumnal Balkan ritual of preparing zimnica. Zimnica is a family of preserves, relishes, and spreads prepared to last the winter, which includes ljutenica (a spicy roasted pepper, aubergine, tomato and dry fefferoni (chilli pepper) relish made across the Balkans) and zacuscă (a spread similar to ajvar which sometimes includes beans made in Romania and Moldova). Ajvar is undoubtedly the most important member of the zimnica family.
From the end of summer and well into the autumn, families, friends and neighbours gather together in their homes, gardens, or balconies to roast hundreds of kilos of red peppers (and if you find yourself in Macedonia) aubergines over wood fire, the ubiquitous and mesmerising aroma eliciting knowing smiles from passers-by.
The roasted vegetables are then rested under cover to finish “steaming” and cool down, then peeled, de-seeded, and minced. The vegetable mixture is then stewed in large cauldron-sized saucepans over a wood fire on a gentle heat for hours (to confit the vegetables and reduce the moisture), with as much sunflower oil as the vegetables will absorb until the mixture and flavour are concentrated. A little suggestion of sugar can be added to accentuate the natural sweetness of peppers. The ajvar is then seasoned with salt and stored in sterilised jars, ready for the onset of winter.
Every family across the Balkans will have their own special recipe, handed down for generations. Some families add parsley, some garlic, some black pepper, some vinegar, some a few roasted tomatoes. Some use only peppers. Some make green ajvar (using long sweet green peppers and more aubergines). Some make spicy ajvar using hot peppers.
To me, ajvar represents the essence of Balkan cuisine: seasonal and humble ingredients, with love, time and timeless cooking methods used to both draw out and imbue these ingredients with flavour, transformed into a majestic icon of the Balkan winter pantry. Peppers for ajvar! An echoed cry, a collective memory, a shared history, an enduring ritual of love. The taste of the Balkans.