We need to talk. About AJVAR. The Balkan caviar. The most delicious plant-based spread/condiment/preserve made of roasted then confit red bell peppers (always) and eggplants (in certain parts of the Balkans like Macedonia). An accompaniment to everything from bread, cheese, roast/grilled vegetables and meat to autumnal and winter stews, it is eaten across the ex-Yugoslav regions, Albania and Bulgaria. As is usual when politics and nationalism get involved with food, there is a debate about who invented it (hummus, ring a bell?). But really, the only important thing here is that it is wonderful.

It is always made in huge quantities as part of the Balkan autumnal ritual of preparing “zimnica” (winter preserves/pickles) to last the winter. It is truly a ritual of love and patience – families and neighbours come together to roast kilos of red peppers and aubergines on open fires. The roasted vegetables are rested under cover to finish “steaming” and cool down, then peeled, de-seeded, and minced. The mixture is then stewed over gentle heat for hours (to confit the vegetables and reduce the moisture), with as much sunflower (or olive) oil as the vegetables will absorb until the mixture and flavour are concentrated. The ajvar is then seasoned with salt to taste; some add parsley, some add garlic, some add pepper. When ready, it is stored in sterilised jars, ready for the onset of winter.

The word “ajvar” likely comes from the Turkish word “havyar” and the Persian “xaviyar” – for caviar. Historically there was significant caviar production along the river Danube from sturgeon from the Black Sea, and because this production eventually petered out towards the end of the 19th century for various reasons, “red ajvar” – made from much more easily accessible red peppers and eggplants – replaced the “real” ajvar, and eventually became the one and only ajvar.

The good news is – you can make it at home in an oven. The bad news is – it will not last you the winter because you will want to eat it with everything. Pictured here is one way of eating it – with fried sweet long green peppers, olives, white cheese, and lots and lots of bread.

Glad we had this talk.

Ingredients

  • 3 kg sweet red peppers (or red bell peppers)

  • 2-4 large aubergines

  • 200-350 ml sunflower or olive oil

  • 10 g sea salt

Directions

  • Roast the red peppers and aubergines on the highest setting your oven will go to. If you have a BBQ or outdoor wood-fired oven you can also use those. You are looking for them to have a little bit of char, but still be juicy,
  • Place all the peppers and aubergines in a large heat proof bag or container with a li and let cool to finish steaming. This will help you peel them much more easily. Reserve all the roasting juices.
  • When cooled, peel, de-seed the red peppers, and roughly chop or mince.
  • Add the chopped peppers and aubergines and roasting juices to a large saucepan with half the oil and half the salt to start with. Start cooking it on a very low and gentle heat. It needs to bubble but musn’t ever catch/burn at the bottom of the pan so needs constant attention and stirring. You are essentially making a confit with the mixture. If it starts to look dry, drizzle a little more oil in. You can keep adding oil if the mixture is absorbing it.
  • After a couple of hours, taste it and adjust the seasoning. Test the mixture as you would for jam (clean plate and tea spoon run through the middle). If the mixture stays separate with no oil “leaking” it is ready.
  • Place in sterilised jars. This recipe yields around 1kg of ajvar.