While enquiring about the famous “Kurtovska kapija”, our favourite pepper for ajvar, we´ve met Verica Zivkovic, whose family has been nourishing and cultivating “Kurtovska kapija” for generations. The seeds for this old, traditional, domestic variety, Verica has inherited from her grandmother, and she can`t even remember whether they have ever actually been without the pepper, for her family´s been cultivating it for so long.
We have talked to Verica at Kalenic market in Belgrade, where for the past twenty two years she has a stand, and there one of the most beautiful peppers, “Kurtovska kapija”, a delight for her long-standing, satisfied customers, all lovers of good pepper and home-made ajvar.
“I have to do what I love, I couldn`t do anything else”, said Verica, and although she is a trade school graduate, she has nevertheless chosen to continue her family tradition of cultivating and selling peppers on the market. And that passion is obvious at first sight. Although the moments without a crowd over her stand are very rare, everybody`s in good mood and is waiting patiently for Verica to choose the best pieces of pepper. And for Verica, nothing is difficult. “What keeps me the most is that interaction with the people who always come back once they have tried my pepper or ajvar.” tells us Verica while looking for her phone to show us the numerous massages from those delighted people, and continues with a smile: “So, once a woman came to buy pepper from me, and said like: “You know, if I haven`t tried this pepper at my mother-in-law`s, I would have never ever thrown a glance on it”.”
Indeed, “Kurtovska kapija”, which seeds Verica keeps for her next year planting, looks modest in comparison to other species of pepper. Along with “Kurtovska kapija”, Verica has domestic “silja”, tiny “moravka”, dark red, hot pepper called “vezenka” or “puckava”, and many other varieties, and yet, as she emphasizes, “Kurtovska kapija” is far the best. In Verica’s interview, we are given a secret why this pepper is so popular, and also why it is the most favourite one for ajvar.
P. What is so special about “Kurtovska kapija”?
Verica: “It`s not about the size, but the composition of the pepper.”Kurtovska kapija” has small amount of water, thin skin and is easy to peel off. It is irreplaceable for making ajvar, but is also great to be eaten raw or to be used in cooked dishes.”
P. How can we recognize the real “Kurtovska kapija”?
Verica: “It is recognizable for thin pedicel, and her colour is somehow darker, might be even dark purple.”Kurtovska kapija” is mostly heart-shaped, and not bigger than a female palm. Of course, not all of them are the same, there are many curved ones, or those three-sided, but most of them are flat and heart-shaped.”
P. What is the best season for “Kurtovska kapija”?
Verica: “It needs a little longer to ripen. It is harvested when completely red, it begins to ripen at the end of August, and the best pepper is harvested three to four times per season. It could be found even later, but the best one for ajvar is the one which ripens between September 10 and 15.”
P. How to cultivate “Kurtovska kapija”, is it hard to cultivate it?
Verica: “It is not hard if you live your life with it. It needs regular watering, every third day. And sun. It is a gentle variety which can´t stand too much rain.”
P. Has anything changed nowadays in the way we treat this pepper, comparing to past?
Verica: “Not that much, the process is the same. It used to be criss-crossed planted into the beds, due to watering from the well, and now it’s planted in rows, and watered by “drop by drop” system. Even though we are still using machines, we continue walking through it, digging the soil, thus helping the peppers to grow. ”
. . . .
Verica makes ajvar every year, and of course, that ajvar is the one made only with pepper, oil, salt and vinegar. Ajvar is made according to family recipe, the one traditionally passed down from mother to daughters. Today, Verica has a help of her daughters for making ajvar, and the whole process takes two days.
Verica: “I make ajvar only with pepper. I wash each pepper by hand, dry it, and then roast on a wood cooker. The same afternoon the pepper is being peeled off, and that peeling can last up to late at night. Then, the peppers must rest overnight to let the water from them leak. The next day, peppers are chopped into tiny pieces, so the pepper is visible through ajvar, and that is, of course, done by hand, with a knife. Ajvar is then to be stewed for at least five hours at law heat, so it can gain the proper density and colour. At the middle of stewing, we taste our ajvar, to see if we have to add some ingredients or not. It is always better to begin with less oil, salt and vinegar, and add them later if needed.”
P. Do You have some special advise for making ajvar?
Verica: “I roast peppers after I clean them from seeds and pedicels. That way it is easier to peel them off, and I am also sure that not even one seed will be found in ajvar. Also, after roasting, peppers shouldn´t be washed with water, because while sitting overnight, much of their deliciousness would be gone along with the water.”
P. What is the most important thing for making a good ajvar?
Verica: “Pepper comes first. You have to have a good material. No matter what the proportion of the ingredients is, or how long you stew it, ajvar will come out that good as the pepper you have chosen. That`s why I believe my customers when they say that “Granny`s secret” ajvar is the best kind of ajvar that can be bought at stores. It is all about ingredients, not only for ajvar, but for every recipe. And when you have good pepper, it is important to stew it at low heat for a very long time.
P. How do you like to eat ajvar? Do You have any special recipe with ajvar?
Verica: “I use it in salt cakes, rolls, pizza, dishes with potato, but mostly, right out of the jar with homemade hot bread and some cheese. Is there anything better than that?”
P. We completely agree that there is nothing better then homemade bread and ajvar. What would You say, what is so special about ajvar?
Verica. You know, it is said that ajvar is a great gentleman. It´s because of the huge amount of time and energy you use while preparing this special dish. That`s why ajvar is so delicious.”