I’m here in Macedonia, living with a lovely Albanian family in the small community of Tearce. The family: an older couple, Faredin and Naxhije; a son, Qenan, 29, who still lives at home, but is getting married in May; a daughter, Semra, 27, who is married and living closeby. The parents don’t speak English, but Faredin speaks German, French, and Macedonian in addition to his native Albanian. (Earlier in his life he worked in Switzerland.) Naxhije only speaks Albanian. Qenan and Semra both speak English, but I don’t see as much of them. Consequently, French has been a real bonus, and I’m surprised by how much I remember.
Ajvar (pronounced like eye-var) is a traditional red pepper spread that is made every fall here in most households. Many Peace Corps Volunteers in Macedonia have written about making Ajvar, but this is my take on it.
The tools of the trade for this two-day event are these: a corer, a huge vat, bowls of water, many big platters and containers for holding the peppers, tongs for turning the peppers on the stove, a grinder, a stove, and lots of wood.
It started on Friday evening when I saw the next door neighbors roasting peppers on their stove outside. In fact, the whole neighborhood smelled like wood fires and roasting peppers. Then I saw four big bags of red peppers on our door step. Not all were slated to become Ajvar, but most were. Saturday morning dawned the clearest day here since we arrived. It was the kind of day I always associate with my birthday – warm, sunny, beautiful!
Saturday morning, Naxhije rousted me from my bed. She had already started coring the peppers. There is only one corer, so I didn’t participate in that part. She piled up the cored peppers on every available platter, to be taken to the stove to roast. I sat with Qenan as he oversaw the roasting. This is a very hot process, as he was constantly feeding the fire and turning the peppers. We had a lovely visit, as the sun grew surprisingly hot. (I didn’t bring a sunhat, so I protected my head with a scarf.)
Eventually, there were lots of roasted peppers in a bucket, and Naxhije and I started peeling them with the help of a bowl of water to help get them clean. This is the part that takes the most time. In fact, we went through the afternoon and into the evening. We didn’t finish until after dark. As it got dark, the cold drew us closer to the fire.
Then the peppers were ground. Faredin was very inventive. He took the handle off the grinder, and attached his drill to turn the mechanism, thus eliminating hours of arm motion. Inside of 20 minutes, the peppers were ground into a large bucket, where they rested until morning.
On the second day, the ground peppers were put into a vat on the stove, which had had a couple of inches of sand spread on the surface to prevent the peppers from scorching. This part of the process takes five hours, and the peppers must be stirred constantly.
Faredin then stepped in and put the ajvar into used clean jars, screwing the lids on tightly.
He turned all the jars upside down and wrapped the whole lot in a blanket. When I asked why he did that, he said he wanted the ajvar to cool very slowly.
Some people add other vegetables, like tomatoes, carrots, and/or eggplant, to the peppers to vary the flavors. Some make it spicy. Naxhije used only red peppers. After everything was finished, we sat down to a meal nearby, and the menu, of course, included ajvar. It was delicious!
Those of you who know me can understand what a marvelous time I must have had. Hmmm . . . I can envision holding a 2-day event in America upon my return . . .