Winter is coming and coming soon; it is evident in many things happening around us daily.
The Grape harvest is one of the earliest things to signal the end of summer and the beginning of autumn.
Harvesting grapes is backbreaking stoop labor. This is the first sign of autumn and the beginning of the preparations for winter (wine making, as well as Ajvar and Rakija making.
Loading crates of hand-picked grapes for transport to a winery.
Grapes being brought into town.
More freshly picked grapes. Most go to wineries, but a lot also go to the homes of the vineyard owners and also sold to people without vineyards who want to make their own wine and/or rakija.
After the grapes have been harvested and most of them have been sold to the wineries in this region, the remainders of the grapes are taken to private homes of the vineyard owners for personal use, or sale to individuals. Many Macedonians make their own wine and with some well-deserved pride for the products, both white and red varieties of wine are pretty good. In fact, if prices charged by individual winemakers is taken into consideration, the wines are excellent; how else would good wine at less than 150 Denari (>$3 USD) per liter be described?
In terms of the calendar, the next occurrence to presage s winter is the stockpiling of firewood for heating and cooking. Many Macedonians cook with wood-burning stoves, but usually only in the winter when they can also use the stove as a primary heat source. In the hot weather, they cook outside, or with electric / propane stoves which give off less waste heat in their homes. IN villages, most people gather their own firewood. However, in towns and cities, most people buy their firewood from woodsmen.
Some woodsmen still cut and deliver firewood the same way it has been done for generations. Most are now using trucks.
After buying the firewood, which comes in long lengths. It must be cut to small lengths and then split so it will fit into the small fireboxes of the cook stoves.
By late August and early September people are getting prepared for winter – - – yep, they even use wood for cooking and heat in the high rise apartments. Imagine carrying that up there (no elevators).
Then it must be stored and this becomes a challenge in towns and cities with apartment buildings.
Some people in my apartment building cook in their apartments and also use their wood-burning stoves as their heat source during the winter months. They buy their wood and then usually hire someone to cut it to proper lengths, and then usually also hire someone to split it and finally hire someone to put it in the basement of the apartment building. During the winter months, they then have to carry the wood to their apartment on a daily basis (some people live on the 5th floor – - – in Eastern Europe, that is 6 stories above ground level, which makes it 7 stories from the basement and we do not have elevators).
Wood piled outside my apartment building. It will all be cut to short lengths and split, then stored in the apartment building basement.
Yet another delivery. This pile is being cut to stove-burning lengths.
The sawyer comes with an electric powered saw on a trailer, plugs into a building and cuts away. Notice the huge circular saw without any safety guards.
The changes in the leaves of trees give visible reminders that the climate is changing.
The trees outside my apartment building are beginning to lose their summer green.
Notice how the leaves turn brown from the edges inward, revealing beautiful patterns with the disappearing green.
After the grapes have been harvested and the firewood laid in, many Macedonians turn their efforts toward further preparations for winter and this means making their traditional “winter food” known as Ајвар (Ajvar, or Ivar), which is a sweet pepper jam used as a dietary supplement at practically every meal.
The mother and daughter of my language tutor making ajvar (a sweet pepper jam).
It takes about 4 hours of continuous stirring of the boiling peppers, eggplant and oil to make the ajvar, often referred to by old-timers as “winter food.”
I took a turn at stirring. It is imperative to stir constantly using a broad, spatula-like wooden paddle so as to prevent the mixture from burning on the bottom of the pot.
After the mixture is all boiled down, it is put into jars, the same as home canning of preserves is often done in America.
Here is the wife. daughter and mother (L – R) of my language tutor doing the canning process.
It is a long, hot day when making Ivar.
Simultaneously, they make wine and, a type of brandy known almost only in the Balkans and called Ракија (Rakia). It is usually about 80 to 120 proof (40% – 60% alcohol) and consumed at almost every meal and believed to be an aid to digestion.
Smoke hanging in a valley on the outskirts of town is indicative that at least one still is in operation out there.
The neighbor behind my NGO had his still going all day recently (10/18/2012). Rakija is made in the autumn, immediately following the grape harvests.
As I walk through the back streets on my way to work, I encounter stills in operation in many different places.
A pretty new and sophisticated still set up temporarily in a garage.
The still at the home of the father of my tutor (10/19/2012). Boiler on left with primary condenser on top feeding to the Main condenser on right (55 gal oil drum), which is a coil of pipe immersed in cold water and the condensed high alcohol rakia drips ot of the end of the pipe at the bottom of the drum. 100 liters of fermented crushed grapes in the boiler will yield approximately 20 liters of rakija. The rakia is okay to drink right then, but becomes much better as it is aged in oak barrels. Year old rakia is noticeably better tasting and smoother than freshly made rakia. Alcohol content is between 45% and 60%. Sometimes people double distill a batch of rakia. I have not tasted that, and fear to do so.
My tutor on left with his daughters and his father at their still behind their houses. His father owns 2 vineyards and makes very good Merlot and Riesling wines and exceptionally good rakia. Interesting retirement activities for the retired chief of police.
In addition, many Macedonians also grow tobacco for sale on the open market as well as for home use. It is harvested and dried in the autumn for use later.
Tobacco hung to dry. The leaves are less than a foot long; MUCH smaller than the tobacco grown in the States.
And so the social gatherings go on and everyone celebrates their ‘connectedness‘ with each other while enjoying the fruits of all of their labor.
I visited the family that had hosted and cared for me during my Pre-Service Training last fall and they are doing the same for another PC Trainee gain this fall. Here I am with Harry (PCT) and Mone, our host dad (center) holding his homemade rakija and toasting Lile, our host mother, who is taking the photo.
With Lile, our host mother, while Mone takes a turn at photographing us. Always a good time when we get together.
All of this portends the coming of another winter and we head into it with assurances that our connectedness will get us through.