That’s what my host dad’s best friend calls ajvar. Simply put, it’s roasted pepper spread, but it’s so much more than that.
We spent the weekend processing 40 kilos of peppers and 10 kilos of eggplants to make jars and jars of the delicious stuff. It’s quickly become my favorite thing here.
I had heard it was delicious. (It was mentioned in every piece of Peace Corps literature I read leading up to my arrival.)
Throughout the last three weeks in Sveti I’ve listened enviously as my classmates described making it with their families, or worse, how incredible it is smeared on a hunk of fresh bread.
Last Friday, it was my turn.
As is becoming customary, I didn’t know what was happening when my host family beckoned me to come outside.
Bags and bags and bags of perfect, red peppers were all over the yard. A few bags of deep, purple eggplants were also propped to the side.
The first step was washing all of the produce. Everyone sat on tiny stools, grabbed old rags dunked in water and started glossing up the veggies.
This took several hours. (A kilo is about two pounds. We had 50 kilos. Math.)
Next, we popped out the stems and deseeded the polished peppers. This job ended around 10:30 p.m., which is well past the bedtime I’ve established here. (International old lady.)
My host dad’s BFF explained that the work resumed at 10 a.m. the next day. My host dad motioned that I could help whenever I got up. (Bless him.)
Saturday morning, a blast of instrumental Serbian music woke me up. It sounded like it was right outside my door.
The pepper party had begun.
I put on my finest sweats and headed downstairs to investigate the music and the smell of charred veggies that greeted me when I opened my door. (Yum!)
A flat top stove, maybe two or three feet in diameter, was going strong in the yard. The round, wood-burning stove was set up just outside the front door. I’m not sure when they started working, but the stove was already full of blistered peppers when I wandered out around 10:15 a.m.
My host dad’s BFF congratulated me on my punctuality. (Macedonians seem to have a more lax view on timeliness.)
Charring peppers and then eggplants took most of the day. I watched for a while before heading to the center of Sveti to meet some other volunteers. We picked up trash around a park that overlooks Sveti for National Clean Up Day (or something like that).
My host dad and his BFF thought that was weird, but the park is a lot cleaner for it.
I haven’t seen very many trash bins around town. There were none in the park. Recycling isn’t really done and I think they lack resources. It’s an area for improvement, but tough to implement. There are a lot of logistics involved to install trash cans, schedule pick-ups, pay for disposal, etc.
Back on the pepper watch, the charring continued until about 4 p.m. (Because, 50 kilos.)
The blackened peppers are placed in plastic bags to keep steaming as soon as they come off the stove top. This is where I come in.
We pulled out the tiny stools again and bag by bag, pepper by pepper, we stripped the skins. (Which makes me wonder why we spent all that time washing the skins, but I do what I’m told.) This process took hours and everyone pitched in, even the host grandparents and the tiny host siblings.
Some of the skins came right off (which earned a “Bravo!” from the host baba) and others were a struggle. My fingertips were stained red by the end of the evening.
We stopped for dinner. Well, I stopped for dinner. The fellas just kept sipping rakija (homemade Macedonian brandy), smoking cigarettes and processing peppers. This American cannot live on alcohol and cigarettes alone.
While I was ingesting my latest batch of carbs, the fellas set up what looked like a meat grinder. Something that looked like a power drill brought it to life and all of the freshly skinned peppers and eggplants were soon a pile of mush.
That glorious mush was cooked on the flat top stove in a giant pot for the next three to four hours. My host baba said the only other ingredient was a little oil. (I think.)
Traditionally, family members take turns stirring for the several hours of cooking, but my host dad is some sort of Macedonian MacGyver. He rigged up some automatic stirring device to keep the spread moving.
Somewhere around 10 p.m., I was told the process was over and went to bed. The next day, my host mom said she was up until 3 or 4 a.m. I’m not sure what kind of magic took place in that time, but I missed it.
The most important part though, was waiting on the kitchen table Sunday. It was worth the wait.
Hello, lovely. Can’t wait to eat jar after jar of you all winter.