Transformation of the Macedonian pepper


Once upon a time, at a remarkable moment in human history, a bright new vegetable arrived in Europe.

Woman farmer Vesna Janevska prepares a pepper spread. Photo: ©FAO/Robert Atanasovski

The continental debut of capsicum – better known as the pepper – was an instant success. Since the late 15th century, the pepper has gradually become an irreplaceable building block of European cuisines. Countries of the Balkan Peninsula, for example, turn it into ayvar – their signature savory spread. 

Peppers come in many different colours and shapes, but for ayvar you need a sweet, red pepper with shiny skin. According to FAO estimates, about 13 percent of total pepper production in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is grown by smallholder farmers.

While smallholders dominate Macedonian agricultural production, they do face limitations. Photo: ©FAO/Robert Atanasovski

Red pepper is the most important type of produce for the Macedonian food industry, with some 70 000 tonnes processed every year. Ajvar is usually prepared in late summer and early autumn. It is a regular element of the winter menu because the ingredients are available in abundance, and it is easy to conserve for a whole year or even longer.

Whether made at home in small batches or on a more industrial scale, the steps for turning the vitamin-rich pepper into a creamy-spicy delight are the same.

Adding value to agricultural produce can generate better rural incomes. Photo: ©FAO/Robert Atanasovski

The process starts with washing the peppers and removing the seeds. Next, the peppers are roasted to produce a rich, smoky flavour. For the home-made version, roasting is typically done over an open fire. After being exposed to the heat, the pepper’s skin is more easily removed.

Once the peppers have been grilled, peeled and cut, Macedonians mix them with salt and a little oil – and sometimes with a bit of mashed tomato, carrot, or more commonly roasted eggplant – and cook them for a while longer. Every family has its own unique tradition of what and how much to add. 


"Each jar has its own history," says Vesna Janevska, a Macedonian farmer who cherishes the traditional production of ajvar and other foods - such as a sweet pumpkin-and-grapes delight, and chopped, dried peppers.

For centuries, the labour-intense processing and preserving of agricultural produce was a ritual that brought together families and communities. Nowadays, this product of Macedonian gastronomy offers a way for many families in rural areas to diversify and increase their incomes.

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