Sunday, 20 August 2017

Double, Double, Toil and Trouble, Fire Burn and Cauldron Bubble

Text by Marina Karakonova   
During the height of winter the Balkans destroy their treasures. But this is not some kind of season of vandalism; it is rather a period of sweet pleasures – the treasures are culinary and they get devoured. In order to make these happy weeks possible, millions of people perform a colourful ritual during the autumn: the closing of jars.

“The closing of jars” is one of the most colourful autumn rituals on the Balkans. Behind it boil passions and emotions unknown to those who buy pickled onions from the supermarket, ranging from the overwhelming glee at the sight of the neatly arranged jars of red peppers in the storage room to the nightmares associated with the bombage (a term referring to the swelling of the jar lids).

Conservation, an emblematic culinary technology, is relatively new but it is part of people’s ancient need to preserve their food for a longer time. And need, it is known, mothered many a gastronomic discovery. Smoking, salting, marinating, drying – these are all techniques for preserving supplies. What is even more – different tastes associated with particular geographical regions were influenced precisely by such techniques. Fans of Southeast Asia’s spicy ingredients should know that, in the beginning, they were used for the drying and preservation of food. The same applies to the mouth-watering taste of sauerkraut and pickled gherkins– both emblematic of Northern and Eastern European cuisines, made through the processes of marinating and fermentation. These methods were venerated to such an extent by Lithuanians that, during antiquity, they worshipped the god of pickles, known as Ruguczis.

Apart from that, the conservation of food appeared in a completely banal way – through a paid advert. It was taken out in Le Monde by the government during the Napoleonic Wars. The sum of 12,000 francs was offered to anyone who could come up with a cheap and effective way to conserve large quantities of food. Without this, the support of a large army was unthinkable. So, in 1809, a French pasty chef, Nicolas Appert, demonstrated his perfected method of closing food in glass jars.

This caused no great commotion, as it seemed that the jars were the most inappropriate way to transport food. But a discovery is a discovery and as it often happens, it was history that had the final say, and not Appert’s critics. The jars appeared everywhere out of necessity, but the interesting thing is the way they changed their meaning and context in the different regions.

In the developed world, preparing food for the future has turned into a special attitude towards home-made food. In a way, it is a statement against the store-bought variety. The boiling of jam or the marinating of vegetables is an effort exerted in the autumn, in order to secure delicacies for the winter. It is a duty to pleasure, not an obligation for survival. Conservation means luxury, because there is no other luxury as that of free time. In some cases, only a small quantity is made, enough to be taken out and shown off, satisfying the middle-class necessity of lining up a few beautiful jars, carefully tied with a little rope, in a place where they can be seen. To put it briefly – in the developed world, marinating is a culture of affluence.

On the Balkans, and especially in Bulgaria, the situation is different. The closing of jars here has developed as a culture of scarcity and necessity. Here, it is not about pleasure and indulgence, but rather about feeding and building up reserves. It is the culture of the village brought to the city. In the region, jars have become loaded with such negative meaning that even the word turshia (‘pickled vegetables’) has – undeservedly – ended up somewhere on the bottom of the domestic hierarchy. Another characteristic trait of jar-manufacturing is its quantity. In the era before supermarkets, when the various communist regimes had limited the merchandise choice in stores throughout the Balkans to cigarettes, sugar and carrots, people preserved everything in jars, including meat – pork, beef and chicken, even animal fat.

In the minds of a few generations, the mention of the word ‘jar’ unleashes unforgettable images: On the weekend, people would feverishly leave their apartments in the high-rise, panel housing estates, and gather up in groups in the unsightly spaces between the buildings, quickly starting up blazing, stake-like, fires. Suddenly, they would be topped with pots of inhuman dimensions, as if they came directly from Hell. The people would shuffle about, look on, smoke cigarettes around the boiling cauldron, add water to it, put something in, take something else out. Their conversations would be about caring for the production and the success of the ‘sterilisation’ procedure: how much aspirin to add, where jar lids are sold, how to avoid the biggest catastrophe of all, the so-called bombage.

In the end, they would disappear as quickly as they appeared – hiding into their basements, where they would carefully arrange the results of their day-long labour. The entire exercise would be carried out under the mark of ‘winter supplies’ and ‘building up reserves’. The quantity of the preserves testifies for the obsession of the populace with gathering up food to last through the winter.

It must be said that things have started to change over the past few years. The stores, increasingly shiny and overflowing with supplies, are starting to alter many people’s perceptions, bringing their attention to the flavour advantages of home-filled jars. The crunchy gherkins and other pickles, even just the smell of a grilled pepper – these are winter’s culinary embellishments. Let us remember what the Earl of Sandwich was driven to, when late one night he fancied such an embellishment, screaming to his servant: “For God’s sake, give me a pickle! I would give up a whole earldom for a pickle!”

This article is courtesy of the Bulgarian daily Dnevnik.



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