Coming into our building today the smell of roasting red peppers hit as soon as the elevator doors opened. Someone was making ajvar.
Further to my first piece on the seasons in Serbia, I am amazed and delighted that making winter preserves – zimnice – is still a common practice in the autumnal Serbian countryside and, as our smokey entrance shows, hasn’t completely disappeared in the city either. At the supermarket yesterday I saw bags of jar lids on promotion. And no, that’s not a Borat-style joke about consumer choices in former socialist countries. If Serbian ladies are anything like me and my attempts at chutney making, I manage to keep jars but always lose the lids, so those on sale yesterday are more proof that zimnice is alive and well.
One of the most traditional and typically Serbian preserves is slatko, which literally means ‘sweet’. For slatko, fruit is preserved in a heavy syrup flavoured with a little lemon. Serbia has the perfect climate for soft fruit and blueberries and tiny, fragrant, wild strawberries are commonly made into slatko, as are apricots and probably most frequently, plums. I read somewhere that Serbia is the number one exporter of plums in all of Europe (OK, that was a Borat style joke), and whether that’s strictly accurate or not, the trees line the roads here, laden so heavily with purple fruit that the branches have to be propped up.
Slatko is traditionally served to guests on arrival by the hostess as a welcome and refreshment after travel. It is served in a small bowl set on a tray laid with a lace doiley along with glasses of water and guests take a teaspoonful. If they want another spoonful, they can use the water in their glass to rinse their spoon, avoiding the issue of double dipping. That said, it is so sweet, usually you need the water to rinse the sugar from your teeth! This is how it was served to us as guests visiting family in a couple of regional towns recently. However, I read in a cooking magazine (the best way to get me to do my homework- make me translate articles about cooking!) that a more modern way to serve slatko is as a sauce for icream or pancakes.
Jam and cordial making are also pretty common too. Knowing how much I love cherry juice, when we were with family for lunch, I was given a glass of homemade black cherry cordial which was completely delicious! Later that week I was sent home with home with a jar of plum jam that had only been made that morning. Although many people do have a Baba (grandma) back in the village, you don’t need to have access to the countryside to get these treats. At Kalenic Pijaca (markets) this morning there were several stalls selling slatko and various cordials made from cherry, strawberry and elderflower, amongst other things. You can tell they’re home made because they’re bottled in re-used wine or ketchup bottles.
It’s not just sweet things. My favourite preserve is ajvar, a roast red pepper relish. It’s available in shops in the UK and, I think, Australia but now I’ve had domaci (homemade), the shop-bought stuff just doesn’t cut it. It’s made by roasting kilos and kilos of red peppers over a wood fire. These are the long pointy ones, not the large capsicums. Many people have wood fired stoves or they light a fire in a 40 gallon drum and take a more DIY approach, like the old couple on the house boat on the Danube yesterday.
After roasting, the peppers then need to be peeled and de-seeded, which is a fiddly and time consuming job. My Serbian language tutor said she made ajvar last year, but never again because it was so fiddly and the seeds went everywhere. Then the chopped roast peppers are mixed with oil, mustard, garlic and salt and cooked in a huge pan for 10-12 hours, till the mix is reduced by half. Check out this huge pot on our family’s neighbour’s stove – 26 kilos of peppers went into it!