I spent a day with villagers in Armenia one fall as they prepared food for the winter. They’d all gathered at one home and planned to cook for weeks. On this particular day, they were making their version of matnakash, giant sheets of yeast dough that begin like any flatbread, but here were stretched to at least a yard. They built a wood fire in a traditional, conical oven called tonir (tandoor in other countries) and when the long sheets of dough were proofed, someone slapped one against the inside wall of the oven and let it bake until the bread was blistered and charred and just about to fall off the wall.
You can only imagine how astonishingly good that hot bread tasted, especially slathered with local hand-churned butter. We ate in silence, as if it were a sacred moment.
Few of us spend weeks in September preserving enough food for the cold months, though many people like to simmer one or two jams or make kimchee or other pickles because it feels so good to pull them out in the middle of January. I always wonder what life would be like if we had only what we grew to get through a long winter.
Like the Armenian villagers, many cultures take preserving very seriously. One popular condiment prepared from the Caucasus to Catalonia is a bright-tasting red pepper sauce such as hamin from Armenia, a smooth red pepper paste, and muhammara, a spread mixed with pomegranate molasses. Lutenitsa is the Bulgarian version, made with eggplant, while Middle Eastern kitchens produce schug, fiery with chiles and coriander, and shatta, another ground chile sauce. Romesco from Catalonia is blended with tomatoes and bread. Sweet and hot chile sauces are made throughout Asia.
Balkan cooks also grill eggplant with red peppers, which adds a little heft to their prized ajvar, a slightly sweet condiment. Katerina Nitsou writes in “Macedonia: The Cookbook: Recipes and Stories from the Balkans” that when red peppers are ready to harvest, it becomes a family event. Folks get together to roast the peppers over an open fire, grind them by hand, and make enough ajvar to last the winter. “It is quite labor intensive, and the work is typically rewarded with a meal of grilled sausages at the end of the day,” writes Nitsou, who was raised in a Macedonian-Canadian community in Toronto and now lives in Melbourne, Australia.
You can season ajvar with more ground red peppers if you want it spicier or another splash of red wine vinegar, if you like a piquant taste. Thankfully, food processors have replaced hand grinders but there’s no getting around the tedious task of removing the charred skins from the peppers, and discarding the seeds, which are determined to stick to your fingers.
Keep at it. It doesn’t take a village.