Ajvar [ajвар]! Or Ajver – whatever you prefer – is one of those terrific foods from my youth. Back then it was a real comfort food, since I didn’t have to make it myself. The grown-up part of the neighbourhood would work together on a specific day in autumn in our basement or outdoors on a old fashioned wood stove. They would make this preserve for the whole flat. And then I would just eat it. On a hunk – as Monty Don would say – of fresh white bread. The Ajvar would be topped of with some great white sheep cheese, which was/is produced in Galičnik [Галичник].
Galičnik is the village where my grandfather was born and where I have spent many of my childhood summers. The best white brine sheep cheese (sirenje [сирење]) in the world also happens to come from that village. Really! Ask anyone in Macedonia, and they will tell you this. I’m not lying.
I still suffer a small trauma from the period in my life, where I wasn’t allowed to eat this cheese due to the Tsjernobyl disaster. I don’t know how or why – I was really small – I only remember that I felt it was really unfair that we couldn’t eat cheese. I’m not sure what I was told, but I believe it was something with becoming infertile if we would eat that cheese during that period. Anyway, that year (or maybe two) I didn’t eat ‘Galičko sirenje’.
Back to the hunk of bread with Ajvar and white sheep cheese. I have many favourite comfort foods, but I think this one is really my favourite. The taste, the texture, the color and the mustache you get from eating it, put a smile on my face just by thinking about it. Unfortunately unlike many other comfort foods Ajvar isn’t really easy to make. It’s easy ingredients wise, but it takes some time to make and you have to work through many different steps.
But since it’s a preserve originally, I would just recommend you to make big batches and not one jar at a time. Get together with some friends (or stand-ins) and make a social event out of it. For those that can’t understand the video linked above: the woman in the video explains how Ajvar is something that connects people, friends, family, neighbours. It’s about the process of making and eating things together.
Now – don’t back off immediately due to all this work, because it’s really good and you really can’t find good ready-to-go Ajvar in most shops. Especially outside the Balkans. Don’t burn your fingers on the Podravka Ajvar for example. I know it’s widely available in western Europe, but it’s really not the real deal. Factory made Ajvar really taste different than the home made one. And it’s not only the production method (baking vs cooking), but it’s also about the ingredients (with or without peels or with or without carrots/aubergines). These things make a big difference.
So, now that we established that you have to make your own Ajvar, let me guide you through the process.
- about 2 kg red bell peppers
- about 400 gr eggplant
- about 150gr sunflower oil
Grill the peppers and eggplants (without any oil) in a pan or in your oven untill the skin is all black. Place the warm peppers quickly in cold water and peel the skin off while you are also removing the inside and the stem. Peel the eggplant. Keep only the paprika and eggplant flesh. It’s important to remove all the excess water – that you used to clean the paprika – from the flesh. You can use a strainer for this.
The best part is now to come, for me as a vegetarian that is. It’s time to use a meat-mincer! The meat-mincer is a vital part of the recipe. Place your peeled and drained paprika in the mincer and slowly convert it into a thick chunky paste.
Don’t use a blender or some kind of other chopping machine for this step. The meat mincer makes these little granules that just melt on your tongue, but still have some give. For me, food isn’t only about taste, but also about texture. Keep the aubergine aside and chop that one up very finely.
When that’s done, you take a big part of your oil and heat it up. When it’s warm you add the minced mixture and stir it around on a mid-high fire for some time. Don’t burn it though. It should cook in oil, so to say. It should be on a low to mid high fire. I don’t dare to tell you actually for how long you have to stay there. For at least an hour, I would say. The longer you stay, the better. You will see that during that hour your Ajvar will thicken up and the colour will change a bit. It will become darker coloured. Add salt to taste. Ajvar isn’t very salty though, so don’t overdo it. It’s just to bring up some of the flavours. Ajvar should taste mostly sweet due to the paprika’s, without adding extra sugar.
You can add some more of the oil if you think you need it. You will need oil for the taste, but also for preservation. You can use less oil if you plan on eating this immediately.
At this point you can start sanitising the jars you want to use. When both (jars and Ajvar) are done, you can fill the jars carefully. If you want to preserve it for a long time, you can add some extra warm oil on top to seal the jar off before you close it with the lid. You are done now.
Now open the jar again and start eating! Hahaha. Honestly, if you plan on eating the Ajvar immediately, don’t bother closing the jar. Let the Ajvar cool down and just dig in. That’s what I do.
After following this recipe, you might understand why most of these things are done outdoors. All that grilling and cooking during late summer and early autumn warm things up pretty well. It’s nicer to sit outside all together and spent some time socialising, while everything is being prepared in the open air.
If you want to try out more Balkan like recipes, you could try this book. Unfortunately there aren’t many other cook books available from the region in English. I’ll put it on my long to-do list!