Lutenica is a staple winter food in Bulgaria. Spread on a slice of bread, used as a dip on the side for meatballs and sausages, it is one of the defining flavours of winters. Lutenica making is the unofficial end-of-summer ritual.
Lutenica making is water, energy, labour and space intensive. And it involves the usage of many tomatoes, peppers, and could also include carrots and aubergines. It usually requires two or more people to make over a whole day. Many would say that lutenica making is a dirty business, it involves a lot of grilling, boiling, frying, draining, chopping, peeling, and stirring.
There is no set way to make it and everyone in Bulgaria has a different recipe for making it. In its simplest form it starts with a trip to the garden and then to the market. Not the one with the clean, straight and polished red peppers. The other one, where you have to stick your hand in a dirty sack and pick out 20-30 kilos of peppers based on thickness, firmness and shape, under the watchful eye of a seasoned farmer who keeps complaining about you mishandling the merchandise “because it is all the best quality you will find anywhere”. My earliest memories of lutenica making revolve around picking out peppers. Everybody grew their own tomatoes, and many still do. In large gardens in neighbouring villages, in front or behind blocks of flats, on balconies, by the windows in the staircases, on the rooftops of buildings. Anywhere in the city really. Red, pink or green, round, smooth or bumpy, they are the pride of any garden, irrelevant of its size. Many make lutenica just to use up all the tomatoes in their gardens. Peppers on the other hand are harder to grow in the city.
So it all usually starts with the peppers. They are washed, gutted and cleaned, using a small handheld knife or a special gutting device (see photos). The peppers are then grilled on open fire, with a gas burner or in a special pepper griller, that you can’t possibly find anywhere outside the Soviet Block. While grilling peppers on open fire is preferred because of the smoky taste, and the ease of grilling dozens of peppers at once on a metal sheet propped on a stack of bricks, because of the difficulties of starting open fires in urban spaces many have resorted to using hand-held gas burners in various urban spaces. You are most likely to run into urban lutenica makers in late August or September, grilling peppers in alleyways, balconies and doorways. Pepper grilling can often leave you with burnt fingers, as you need to turn them over quite often. The peppers are then transferred into a large pan with a top and left to cool down for a couple of hours. The steam makes them easier to peel. That often used to be my job in lutenica making and I would pull blackened pepper skins from under my fingernails for days afterwards.
The peeled peppers are then sliced by hand and strained to allow the excess water to drain away. The carrots are washed, boiled and cut into medium pieces, then blended, placing a handful of peppers first, then adding the hot carrots (so they are easier to mix) and the chopped tomatoes (or tomatoes sauce). The tomatoes are usually peeled, chopped and strained for a few hours until the excess water drains away. When blended altogether for 2 to 3 minutes one gets chunky lutenica.
The finishing touches tend to depend heavily on the senses. Salt and sugar are added to taste. Heated oil (“so it doesn’t leave a raw oil smell”) is added to the mix until you can see it disappear. Then is all blended again until smooth all over. “The smoother the lutenica the better all ingredients are mixed together and less likely to separate into liquid and thick puree”. Once spooned into glass jars, the jars are closed and placed in a big pan to boil on the hob (using gas, electricity or wood) for 30 min. The trick of the trade is to turn the jars upside down and wait to hear the metal tops sink in and pop. That is how I learned to count. Bent over the jars, holding my breath and counting out loudly the number of pops: “1, 2, 3 and another one, and another one…”. If the top fails to sink in and pop the jar of lutenica wouldn’t keep and must be eaten quickly. There used to be two large loafs of white bread bought specially for that. So, we would round up those jars and eat slice after slice of bread with a thick layer of hot lutenica, until it was all gone. We had to, because once stored away in basements and pantries, jars of lutenica wouldn’t be opened until November or December, when the winter is in full swing.
“This a fairly modern and easy way to make lutenica. Modern technology has come a long way in making the whole process easier and cleaner, and nowadays it is hard to imagine making lutenica without a blender, gas burner etc). “Watching the whole process over and over again during fieldwork I am struck as to how complex and messy it is. In most cases it involves three different types of energy resources (electricity, gas and wood). “You can only do this in a house. Can’t be done in an apartment”, she tells me. She is right of course that the multiple transformations involved in the making of lutenica or any other food specially prepared for the winter (zimnina) do not comfortably spread over urban spaces, however the tradition of making lutenica is well and alive in Sofia. Why I wonder. There are at least 20 different types of lutenica brands in any given corner store in Sofia.
Isn’t it more expensive to make it yourself? I ask aunt Mimi.
“I don’t do it to save money. My grandchildren like it very much and I want them to eat something that I know what has gone into. The ones that you buy from the shops. You not only don’t know what’s inside them but sometimes they can be dangerous too”. And just like that lutenica making exposes three of the key water-food-energy vulnerabilities in Sofia: the lack of transparency; high costs and unevenness of quality in provisioning of water, food and energy.