Home­grown pride

Balkan pep­per rel­ish stirs ap­petites and ri­val­ries

Global Times - Weekend - - DINING -

It’s a source of Balkan ri­valry but one ubiq­ui­tous smell: The wood­fire roast­ing of pep­pers waft­ing through towns and vil­lages each au­tumn as fam­i­lies pre­pare the re­gion’s best-loved rel­ish.

Slathered on bread, nib­bled with cheese or served along­side meat dishes, “aj­var” has for gen­er­a­tions filled the shelves of win­ter pantries – and the rich spread’s pro­duc­tion is a mat­ter of no lit­tle pride.

“We women all ex­change recipes, but ev­ery­one thinks theirs is the best,” said Vesna Ari­fovic, 44, in Bel­grade’s Ze­leni Venac mar­ket, where she sells hun­dreds of kilo­grams of sea­sonal red pep­pers each day.

Mak­ing aj­var (pro­nounced “eye­var”) be­gins with this juicy fruit, which is roasted and peeled, minced or chopped and sim­mered with sun­flower oil, giv­ing the rel­ish its deep rusty color.

Fla­vors di­verge across the for­mer Yu­goslavia: While Mace­do­nians add aubergine to their much-loved aj­var mix, many Ser­bian devo­tees stick to salt, su­gar and vine­gar.

“There are two kinds of peo­ple, the ones who tasted aj­var and the ones who haven’t been to Ser­bia yet,” de­clared Ser­bia’s tourist board on Twit­ter in Septem­ber.

Bos­nian pro­ducer Ivo Luk­enda – whose recipe in­cludes all of the above, plus gar­lic – be­lieves his coun­try’s aj­var is su­pe­rior.

“We con­sider our prod­uct to be the best,” the 65-year-old said proudly, over a grill of black­ened pep­pers in his cen­tral vil­lage of Lje­tovik.

Team ef­fort

Aj­var cre­ation is a la­bor-in­ten­sive rite per­formed with gusto in kitchens and yards as the leaves be­gin to turn, although some is now mass-pro­duced through­out the year.

Neigh­bors gather for a tip­ple of homemade rak­ija (fruit brandy) be­fore the painstak­ing task of peel­ing pep­pers be­gins.

“It seems to me that aj­var and pep­pers bring peo­ple to­gether... this red color seems to make them hap­pier,” said Ste­vica Markovic in his vil­lage near the town of Lesko­vac, a south­ern Ser­bian area famed for its pep­pers.

Markovic’s aj­var has be­come a source of in­come: He and his fam­ily pro­duce up to 3,000 jars a year from their ru­ral kitchen and sell them for 280 to 550 di­nars ($2.83 to 5.42) each.

He and his wife Sun­cica sit on low stools by a vat of the warm or­ange mush, fill­ing and briskly stir­ring dozens of glass jars.

“What makes Lesko­vac’s aj­var stand out is the raw ma­te­rial, the pep­per that grows in the Lesko­vac basin. We have 280 sunny days a year, very good land and enough wa­ter,” said the 44-yearold, who heads a lo­cal as­so­ci­a­tion of aj­var pro­duc­ers.

Bat­tle of brand­ing

Love of the rel­ish stretches south­west to coastal Mon­tene­gro, while the Croa­t­ian com­pany Po­dravka is among the best-known mass man­u­fac­tur­ers.

“The truth is that all the big noise about aj­var started with the idea of food brand­ing” in the for­mer Yu­goslavia, said Ta­mara Ogn­je­vic, a spe­cial­ist in gas­tro­nomic her­itage and di­rec­tor of the cul­tural Ar­tis Cen­ter in Bel­grade.

What was once the pre­serve of house­holds “be­came in­ter­est­ing to the food in­dus­try ... and ev­ery­body – Mace­do­nians, Bul­gar­i­ans, Serbs, even Slove­ni­ans – in one mo­ment started claim­ing it was theirs.”

Ogn­je­vic said that a form of veg­etable rel­ish most likely came to the Balkans with the Ot­tomans, who ruled much of the re­gion for around 500 years and im­ported New World crops such as pep­pers.

The first known use of the name aj­var was by 19th-cen­tury restau­rant own­ers in Bel­grade, most of whom were from north­ern Mace­do­nia, she said.

The next hum­mus?

“Aj­var” is thought to de­rive from the Turk­ish word “havyar” for stur­geon caviar.

The name was prob­a­bly meant to de­note a sim­i­larly ex­clu­sive prod­uct, said Ogn­je­vic, given the com­plex prepa­ra­tion and then-costly in­gre­di­ents such as sun­flower oil.

Aj­var’s mod­ern-day mak­ers are now try­ing to ex­pand its loyal fan base.

Philip Evans, a Bri­tish res­i­dent of Skopje, in 2011 co-founded Pe­lag­o­nia, a Mace­do­nian food range ex­port­ing aj­var to more than a dozen coun­tries, in­clud­ing Bri­tain and France.

“We felt that this was a prod­uct that had never found its place in world food,” the 36-year-old said.

“Look at prod­ucts like harissa or pesto or hum­mus for ex­am­ple, they’ve re­ally be­come main­stream food items for peo­ple, and we just felt that aj­var re­ally had that po­ten­tial.”

A pro­po­nent of Mace­do­nia’s sweet and sun-ripened pep­pers, Evans is aware of the “very, very pas­sion­ate” feel­ings that aj­var evokes across the Balkans.

“Ev­ery­body’s aun­tie makes the best one,” he said.

Ste­vica Markovic (left) and his wife Sun­cica fill jars with “aj­var” in their kitchen in Bresto­vac, Ser­bia on Septem­ber 25.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from China

© PressReader. All rights reserved.