Every fall since 2006, I have been in the beautiful country of Macedonia, which offers a very different autumn than southwest Florida. The changes here in Florida are subtle, soft, and without fanfare. Macedonian fall weather is similar to the crisp, cool, and colorful days of northeast Ohio where I grew-up, but one of their traditions is very different and so aromatic that the wonderfully rich and dusty scent of roasting red peppers in preparation of making ajvar stays with you for life.
Ajvar (pronounced I-var) is a delicious tasting, dark-orange to deep-red, roasted red-pepper spread that can make even the coldest winter day seem a bit sunnier. Every Macedonian home has it’s “special recipe”, and each is equally delicious. To honor and share the ajvar-making process I wrote this post two years ago while visiting Macedonia; I hope you enjoy it, and if you want to give ajvar a try, which I whole-heartedly recommend, you can find it at Trader Joe’s and many Eastern-European grocery stores here in the States. It will add zest to your table and will be a perfect accompaniment to any fall party where family and friends gather to share companionship and a respect for fall traditions – including football!
In Macedonia, making ajvar is not only a tradition, it’s part of the fabric of life. Families gather in villages, towns and cities for days of roasting, plunging, peeling, cooking, and stirring deep red peppers to creamy perfection. The aroma of roasting peppers permeates the autumn air. Kilos of peppers are bought in Macedonian fresh markets (pazzars) for the equivalent of American pennies. (One kilo equals 2.2+ pounds.)
Their pungent crimson, thick, flesh dominates the cooking scene at this time of year. It seems every family has a special recipe for creating this rich spread, which is scooped into sterilized jars, set on shelves and shared with family and guests throughout the winter.
Fresh peppers are stuffed with cheese or meat and baked to perfection. Peppers of all shapes, colors, and intensity – burn-your-mouth-hot to sweet and mild – are served swimming in oil at almost every meal. The remaining peppers adorn walls and balconies, and are dried so large chunks of their leathery, slightly crisp, dusty-flavored goodness can be added to a delicious array of meats and bean dishes to warm-up meals during the colder months.
This year my American guest, Annie, and I had the honor of being on-hand for part of my friend Dragica’s ajvar-making odyssey. Dragica’s spirit and love of life flavors everything she does, her tasty ajvar being no exception.
We arrived after the ruby red capsicum had been roasted and peeled – a full day’s work. Our day of ajvar making (watching) began when the wood was burning and the peppers were slid from a huge pail into an even wider-mouth enamel pot for the long and arduous cooking and stirring process. Ajvar is always made outdoors, and city neighbors set-up shop in garages and backyards.
This year, after enjoying Turkish coffee and rakija in the mid-morning shade and chatting in broken English and Macedonian with her friendly and interesting neighbors, we moved to the steamy garage to talk with Dragica’s husband and college-aged sons, Marjan and Dan, who were home for ajvar making.
We decided the process might benefit from some literary inspiration – Dragica loves writing poetry, and within minutes we had created the following masterpieces. (Please remember these words were created with love, just like ajvar, and followed some homemade rakija sipping, which is basically moonshine-light and another great part of the Macedonian way of life. I must admit not everyone was sipping, but those of us who did felt even warmer and cozier.)
And, now without further ado . . .
The Ajvar Trilogy
Created with love and inspired by moments shared by Dragica, Marjan, Dan, Annie and me.
The Flavor of Ajvar
Red as the burning coals Hot as a chick Ladle mixing food, family and friends Circle of life Tastes so fine, makes me want to drink a bottle of wine. With bread and cheese, we will eat with ease Rex sits watching like TV.
Notes: Rex is their huge German Shepard, who sat quietly by. Can you guess which lines her sons added?
Lace in the window
Smiling faces looking down Cooling breeze Smell of smoke and peppers overtakes the day. Mother and sons, paddling together. More oil, much better.
Many friendly people sit on ajvar beach. Who asks what is that? Foreign fires burning, Roasting tradition.Sharing time with family and friends as the earth tilts away from the sun, is a wonderful way to lighten your mood and warm-up your life. I hope you take time this weekend – September 22 is the northern hemisphere’s fall equinox – to relax and reflect on how you want your life to look and feel – and, if you are lucky enough to be in Macedonia – smell!