Monday, October 7, 2013

Ajvar Season

It is Autumn in Macedonia. The nights are very cold, but the days can still eek out sunshine and warmth. The markets are bursting with peppers of all shapes, sizes and colors. Because the peppers are at the height of their season, it is time once again to make and preserve food for the long winter ahead. My cousins invited me to watch them and their neighbors make Ayvar, a roasted red pepper relish that is the pride of the season. When I was young, my uncle Austin and aunt Zena made a variation of Ayvar, but I was told in no uncertain terms that Ayvar is made of red peppers and garlic, and may, depending on the cook, include some spicy varieties, and of course the condiment of Macedonia; salt.

Ayvar starts it's preparation with the harvest or purchase of the  pepper used is called roga, i.e. horned — it is large, red, horn-shaped, with thick flesh and relatively easy to peel. It typically ripens in late September. 

Often, the whole family or neighbors gather to roast the bell peppers, peel them, and cook them with almost reverent ritualistic methods. In our case, it was the tenant of my cousin who roasted what seemed like an entire pallet of beautiful red peppers on a small wood burning stove. The blistering fruits made the air in the garage smell smokey and fantastic. 

After all sides of the peppers were blackened, they were dropped into a covered pail to steam. 

When the entire peck of peppers was roasted, the peppers are peeled and allowed to drain overnight. The next day, the peppers are stemmed and seeded, and cooked in a large flat pot with garlic, oil, salt and depending on the family recipe some hot peppers and chilies can be added. 

Ayvar Pan for Sale in the Market Place

What amazed me personally, and made me a bit ashamed of my own attempts at Ayvar, is the ritual that follows: a vigorous stirring of the red "gold" mixture for up to four hours. I saw a neighbor stirring her Ayvar with a large wooden paddle, all on a wood burning stove. As I walked through the neighborhood, I saw many Ayvar groups feeding their wood burring stoves and taking turns stirring.

There is something that can not be measured in any meaningful way when it comes to food. Weather it is fruits and vegetables, cheese, bread or preserves. You can have the exactly same product, same amount of calories, protein, fat and grams of seasonings, and yet there is something different when it comes to taste. You can only compare when you taste an item that is made by hand with a machine made product. I believe there is an energetic exchange with a food that passes through human hands. The human touch is a transformative one, it connects the heavens with the earth, and usually results in an incredible taste experience. Mmmm has yet to be quantified, but your tongue and your tummy knows the difference.

It is tradition that when a family makes Ayvar, a sample must be brought to the work place for all to sample. My cousin Valentina works as an Orthodontist in a large office building in Prilep. She brought her Ayvar and her co workers brought bread, sausages, wine and cheese. If the jar that contained the red relish could have been squeezed to get that last bit of pepper deliciousness out, it would have been. Our shared table looked as if the locusts had descended, there was not a crumb or flake of pepper left, to the the joyful satisfaction of all. The shared snack was completed with thick rich grainy Macedonian style coffee.

Can these traditions survive? No one I saw meticulously roasting or stirring looked young to me. There are of course prepared Ayvars on the market, but they really do not compare with the hand made relishes I have tasted. We can only hope that these traditions will be maintained. For now, you simply MUST taste this hand made relish, with bread and Kashkaval if possible

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