Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Urban Harvest

The greatest challenge agricultural and governmental experts tell us is the fact that 50% of the worlds people currently live in cities. Within the next generation, estimates place nearly 75% of the worlds populations in urban areas, with less and less people and land available for growing food. Multinational corporations are eager to cash in on this trend, making lab grown food out of petroleum the major food source in the future. Other planners are focusing attention on developing plans for Urban Agriculture, using small spaces, vertical and roof top gardens and encouraging home made food stuffs as part of the solution to feeding 9 billion people in the next 25 years.

As I continue my delightful exploration of the land, culture and people of Macedonia in the Pelagonia region, each day I am exposed to another aspect of the traditions of this tiny nation. What also has been my observation, currently and since I have been paying attention for the last six years, is that this region has much to offer the world in terms of blending modern technology and ancient cultural practices. Each day during my visit, I am treated to a new experience that sounds mundane but ends up in a grand revelation of the senses and practical application.

After work one day, my cousins inform me that we will go pick pears and walnuts. I had visions of going into the country to lush orchards. Not so, we walked down the street to Valentina's mother's house, where there was on the tiny plot of exposed ground around the structure. It was filled with a garden containing the seasons last tomatoes and peppers, a quince, pear and apple tree, and a large walnut tree covering the garage. Harvesting was done by my stylish cousin in her beautiful Italian designer heels, and her Lawyer husband who scaled the roof in search of walnuts.

What was particularly amusing was how Vladko would shake the tree and the nuts would fall on the pavement. He did warn us of each impending shower. I felt like I was living the Macedonian version of the animated film, "Cloudy with a chance of Walnuts." Each large green fruit would fall to the pavement and crack perfectly open revealing the shelled nut inside. How convenient! I had never eaten a freshly picked walnut before, but I hope to continue this practice as the nuts are more sweet than I have ever tasted.

We went on to pick pears, quinces and apples. Later in the week, Valentina announced we would go to her father in laws land outside of Prilep to pick apples. We drove through the rolling marbled land to a small plot with a summer house. Her in laws rent the property to farmers who grow a full range of crops, raise hogs and have bee hives to produce the particularly pungent local honey from the region. 

Field of Broccoli outside of Prilep, Macedonia

The few apple trees where literally drooping to the ground the fruit was so abundant. Again, we harvested in our city clothes beautiful, organic fruit. After about an hour, and many large bags and boxes filled, it seemed that we had barely made a dent on the trees. The quinces and apples will be turned into compote, which is made with lemon juice, plums, raisins and cinnamon. It is drunk as a tea and enjoyed as a natural sweet.

What is natural and simply a seasonal chore with no fanfare is a way of life. It is also a life line and model for the future. We in the states have facebook pages, support groups and books on "foraging." Here, it is as natural as putting up seasonal decorations, only the beautiful strings of peppers, oak wine barrels and shaking of trees is how they supplement their diets with what we in the states would call local artisan food.

Local bees eat the fruit for a nectar source

Later we go to a "super market" which is spelled phonetically in Cyrillic, to pick up some cleaning supplies. I wander the aisles looking at everything, the jars of Ayvar, pickles, olives, traditional seasonings and local versions of junk food. The market is open daily and late. I wonder how long the real food sources will stay in the awareness of the populations mind. When will gardens will be seen as ornamental instead of edible, or will this ever happen here?

In the meantime, I am enjoying the delicious food from the gardens. I hope you can too! Stay tuned, we have two tours available in 2014. But more importantly, learn from the Macedonians and apply it in your own communities. Learn how to grow food in small places, it is actually the wave of the future.

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

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Food Bazaar in Prilep Macedonia

I have been coming to Prilip since 1982. That year, my father was invited to give lectures at the Dental School in Sofia Bulgaria and Skopje, then Yugoslavia. He decided to buy an Audi in Frankfurt Germany and take the family on a pilgrimage of sorts, visiting our relatives that were, because of very complex political history, located in Greece, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria.

Old Town Prilep, Macedonia

So much has changed since then, the world has new borders, new nations and new technology. Back in those days, phone calls were expensive and difficult, and letters could take months to reach their destinations.

Since my personal Slow Food Macedonia food tour in 2011, I can barely recognize the places I visited back in 1983. Macedonia in particular has all the accouterments of a western capitalist democracy, with ATM's, mini markets, malls and modern road side gas stations catering to tourists and truckers. What has not changed is the delightful spirit of the people, who are warm, generous, passionate and full of wit and sarcastic humor. What has changed the most for me, is the increasing awareness and discovery of the incredible culinary treasure that this part of the world has to offer. In the beginning, outside of my relatives homes, the food was the dull communist fare, if there was anything in the markets at all.

Today, the fates arranged for me to have a personal tour through central Prilep, in the old town Bazaar. My guide, Magdalena, I found out was a well known poet and author in the area. She took me to the library to see the collections there, and then we wandered into the Bazaar. As you may know, since I have been writing about this for some time, as well as having radio podcasts, I am very interested in the ESSEDRA project through the Balkan Slow Food partners. I received a list of 25 products that have been nominated to board the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity Ark of Taste. I was familiar with some of the products, as well as being supportive of the goals of sustainable rural development.

As I wandered the Bazaar with Magdalena, I encountered a kaleidoscope of vivid colors of all the local produce. It is the time of the Pepper and Tomato harvest, and strings of drying peppers can be seen hanging from the local apartment balconies. 

I saw bags of the K’cana salt

I met herb sellers that were offering beautiful samples from the local mountains, all I was told that would make "Chai" or tea, the Planinski caj Mountain Tea from Galicica mountain.

I saw the Bieno Sirenje Cheese that was featured in Bra at the Cheese Festival

And so many lovely different fruits, vegetables, olives and more. 

My physical presence screams "American" so the sellers were all interested in where I was from, Magdalena dutifully told them I was from San Francisco. When I asked if I could take a picture, each seller instantly grinned and posed, I even had a couple of women ask me to take their picture.

This market has been a part of Prilep since as long as there has been a community in the valley. The first recorded mention of Prilep dates from the 11th Century. Magdalena told me all the produce and cheeses come from the surrounding area, the only imports were the bananas. I had the delight of tasting a local apple, that literally tasted like rose water. The thought of these people and their centuries old way of life, along with their bountiful produce being swept away in the name of convenience brought new urgency to the importance of ESSEDRA. There must be a way to help maintain these agricultural gems, for current and future generations.

My cousin Joana, a 7th grader, informed me yesterday that McDonald's had closed in Skopje. I asked her why? She told me, "We Macedonians don't like fast food."

My cultural pride started to swell. After going to the Bazaar and tasting the local food, I can see why the Macedonians prefer their own food. I hope they can have access to this for another thousand years.

The Clock Tower, Prilep Macedonia