Autumn in the Slavic countries is one of the busiest times of the year. With an abundance of fruit and vegetables ripening and harvests being done, it’s time to preserve nature’s bounty for the cold hard winter to come. And if there is something I don’t miss since I moved from the country to the city, it’s the process of preparation of winter stores, or zimnica.
This is a lengthy process, mostly referred to as women’s work, which spans several months and fills up about half of all available basement space The other half, of course, will be filled with home-made wine, and spirits – rakija.
In simplest terms, pickling is a process where one uses salt or vinegar in order to preserve the vegetables. This, however doesn’t come even close to describing the entire process. Here is what it really looks like in a typical slavic household.
First you start off with a veritable mountain of vegetables. And I mean a mountain. We are talking of upwards of 10 kg for anything that will be stored in a mason jar, and at least five times as much for cabbage. Then you will need to prepare the vegetables. Beets need to be cooked, pickles need to be scrubbed clean, cabbage needs to be sliced thinly and root vegetables need to be grated. This, of course, is less than half of the work that needs doing.
Truckloads of mason jars need to be taken down from attics or brought up from cellars and scrubbed clean and then sterilized in ovens, large barrels for cabbage, alongside that really great rock that serves to press the cabbage down and that takes two grown men to lift. Only after that can you start preparing the pickling brine for which each family has their own twist on the recipe. So you find yoruself standing in a hot kitchen, inhaling what is essentially acid, stuffing pickles into jars, adding spices, or being elbow deep in red beets, wielding a large knife, making you look to all the world like a crazed murderer. Fun times.
Cooking – savoury
Just in case the idea of inhaling acid or jumping up and down on a bunch of sliced cabbage isn’t your cup of tea, and you want to take it up a notch, you can always do relishes or side dishes. Be it something bean based, or the most popular relish in the Slavic world – ajvar. Never has one suffered more for a great reward than those who make ajvar.
Not only do the ingredients (mostly bell peppers, eggplants and chillis) have to be pre-roasted, the ingredients also need to be peeled, have all the seeds removed, because the seeds can cause the whole thing to go off in a month or two. Then they all have to be minced in a usually hand-cranked mincing machine. You’d think that is the end of it, but no. After that the mixture is additionally seasoned with vinegar and other ingredients and slow cooked either in the oven or on the stove top. If the mixture burns even a little on the bottom, say, if you pop to the bathroom for a minute and stop mixing if it’s on the stove top, or think you might have a little coffee break if it is in the oven, you can throw the whole thing out and start over again.
Cooking tomato sauce is by comparison very easy. Lots of tomatoes, lots of cooking, and the most difficult part is pureeing so no seeds or tomato skin end up in the finished product. This was probably the only part of winter stores I thoroughly enjoyed, even though it left my hands a shade lighter up to my elbows due to the acids bleaching the skin during the tomato prep.
Cooking – sweet
Ah, the sweet smell of plum jam, of apple compotes and any other fruit my grandmother decided to drown in sugar and cook within an inch of its life. The dreaded mason jars made their return again, and once again had to be scrubbed and prepped and sterilized, but this time they were to be filled mostly with plum jam. And the plum jam itself was an evil wicked thing.
The smell was mouthwatering, permeating the entire neighborhood as it cooked in a large shallow pot on the stove, but that smell was a deadly trap. If you came close enough to the stove one one of few things could happen: you could become drafted into jam stirring duty, which coud never cease because if the jam burns, it is ruined, or if the top part dries until a skin forms, it is ruined; you could be tempted to try and taste it, in which case you would be promptly chased off because the only thing hotter than that innocent looking jam was either lava or possibly the surface of the sun, or the stirrer could have slowed down too much for a second and a bubble would form, spitting a drop of jam in your direction. Once again, lava, burning, possible death, at least according to my grandmother.
All in all, the process of making winter stores and preserves was a tedious, labor-intensive chore filled with dangers mostly of the burning and acid kind, but I do admit to maybe miss grandmother’s jam you needed a knife and chisel to get out of the jar.