Ajvar, tursija and sour cabbage - Serbia's winter delights
Sep 25, 2008, 12:10 GMT
Belgrade - Walking down a street or riding an elevator in Belgrade on any given day in September, you are bound sense an aromatic cloud which may be unpleasant for foreigners, but invariably stirs the appetites of the locals.
The scent penetrating from a closed door tells whether a neighbour is frying peppers to store theme in a mixture of cooking oil, water and herbs or to combine them with mashed tomato and perhaps aubergine.
A balcony door may release the rich, sweet smell of plums cooked with sugar and a little water, while the pungent, sour aroma from a white plastic barrel locked away in a basement betrays the presence of sour cabbage. And the recipe books are brimming with other ideas.
Some households spend several weeks labouring over these delights as dictated by the season - peppers first, beginning in late August and white grapes last, in October, with the bulk of the frantic work carried out during nightshifts in September.
The Markovic family, who live in the Belgrade borough of Zemun, convert their two-room, third floor flat into a virtual food factory, every August.
Huge 20-litre pots line the kitchen walls beside which are dozens of jars, spices, rubber bands, gauze, sealing hoods and wooden spoons all arranged to be within easy reach once the packaging starts.
Children are discouraged from entering because there are plenty of hot foods boiling on the stove and to prevent them from bringing in germs.
The path from kitchen to balcony has been covered with nylon sheets, the space around the stove and hooded vent has been lined with newspapers to save carpets from stains and the ceiling from aromatic, greasy vapours.
'We make ajvar, pindzur and tursija. In supermarkets, industrial products cost five or six times more than when we make them and they're not nearly as good,' says Draginja Markovic, 40, a nurse and mother of three boys.
The bright, red ajvar consists of cooked, mashed red peppers with tomatoes - the spicier, darker pindzur is similar, but contains aubergine.
Apart from the usual array of spices and herbs, about a third of the 12 kilogrammes of either - which is eaten on bread or as a side dish - is laced with piping hot, thin peppers.
Tursija contains green tomatoes, carrots, peppers, onions, cauliflower and broccoli pickled and tightly packed in 30 litres of salted and spiced water.
The Markovic late-summer enterprise is by no means unusual, though more and more urban households have abandoned it due to a lack of time or because they earn enough money to buy it from villagers in the market.
In addition to ajvar, pindzur and tursija, finished, labelled and sorted in their basement cubicle by mid September, the Markovics are also planning 'kiseli kupus' (sour cabbage).
They will carefully pack around 30 to 35 cabbages, weighing nearly 50 kilos, into a plastic barrel and filled it with salted water two days later.
Then they will regularly drain the liquid through a pipe on the bottom and return it through the top, while the cabbage simmers slowly without becoming spoiled - though an untrained nose may find it difficult to tell.
The cabbage is eaten from the barrel, rolled around minced meat for 'sarma' or cut into thin strips and baked in the oven with pork or turkey in 'podvarak,' the traditional winter meals.
The salty-sour liquid, brimming with vitamin C which the Serbs insist is the world's healthiest drink and the best cure for a hangover, is called 'rasol' and consumed. Cabbage and rasol must be consumed before the summer and bacteria set in.
Late September and early October are reserved for jam making - plum, apricot, pear and quince jam - and the jam's relative, the strongly sweet 'slatko' of the same fruits and also of white grapes.
Slatko, which has so much sugar that it does not spoil, like honey, is served with coffee and is not eaten like jam. Syrup is made simultaneously with the jam and produces a thick juice when diluted with water.
Draginja, who brought the recipes from her family home in a village some 60 kilometres west of Belgrade, insists she would be making her own preserves even if she had money to buy them.
'We're used to the work so it doesn't bother us and we tweaked the recipes exactly to our taste, so we don't really like to eat it elsewhere and definitely dislike factory products,' she says.