Donja Lokošnica is an unassuming agricultural village in the south of Serbia. At least until there is a harvest season for red peppers. Then, the whole village lives and breathes with paprika related activities, from harvesting to stringing, from drying the peppers to making ajvar and selling their produce on local markets around Serbia. This is a trip report from the red pepper capital of the world! Read on for the story and photos.
With less than a thousand inhabitants, Donja Lokošnica is a small yet lively village. It is located in South Serbia, somewhere between Niš and Leskovac. The Južna Morava river allows irrigation and south continental climate is ideal to grow red peppers in this region. Most locals in the village rely their income on various red pepper products. Ajvar, the red pepper relish is one of them. However here, ground paprika is the most common. It comes in mild (slatka) or hot (ljuta) version. September and early October is the best time to visit the village if you want to experience the harvest season and photograph houses decorated with hanging red peppers.
Two Types of Red Peppers
Most of locals grow one of the two types of red peppers, ajvarka (red bell peppers) which is meatier and suitable for roasting and making ajvar. The second variety is more common in this village and locals call it either nizača (stringing pepper) or koziji rog (goat’s horn). This one is thinner and more suitable for drying and grounding. Red peppers (all peppers for this sake) originate from Americas. This means that this tradition is not ancient and it has developed in the last few centuries. Locals say this is their way of life for many generations.
Red Peppers Harvest
Starting in late August and well into September, locals will ride their tractors to the fields on the other side of Južna Morava river. Every morning they harvest as many peppers as they can load on the carriage and transport it home. Everyone helps on the field.
The work is strenuous. Each pepper is hand picked and thrown into the basket. When full, the man puts it on the shoulder and carries it to the tractor. Then peppers are thrown into the carriage and the whole process continues until the carriage is full.
First time I visited Donja Lokošnica I met Slobodan Nedeljković when he was in the field with his wife. He was keen on explaining about his business and he was posing for me and my photo tour group with great enthusiasm. We exchanged contacts and he promised to be my guide next time I visit.
Three years later I called Slobodan if he is available to guide us around the village. We spoke a little bit about the recent years. A lot of things changed. His son Saša passed away and Slobodan was still grieving, wearing black. His wife was just receiving a cancer treatment. Despite his personal tragedy he was still working in the field. This year, without his family helping him. When I asked him about guiding us, he was apologetic that he cannot invite us for a lunch. He was more than happy to take us around the village, introducing his friends along the way. We also visited his home where he demonstrated his production and we were able to buy paprika from him.
Slobodan is a proud but gentle man, I am grateful to know him and I am looking forward to visit him again. Next time I visit the village, I am bringing all the photos of the people I photographed.
Walking around the Village
My photo group was small, there was six of us and first we walked around the village with Slobodan. He introduced us to locals and we were able to get into their homes, barns and workshops. Everyone was super friendly and happy to show us around. We were mindful of their time and did not want to distract them for too long from their hard work. Slobodan surprised us and arranged with his friends a lunch for us! What a treat – six or seven different homemade dishes, each prepared with red peppers. One of the most delicious and surprising meals I’ve had on my travels.
Later we gathered at Slobodan’s home where we tried his homemade wine and purchased his paprika. We said farewell to our generous host and thanked him for a wonderful experience. For the rest of the day we explored the village on our own. I revisited a few people who we met earlier to spend more time with them.
End of Harvest in Donja Lokošnica
When all the peppers are harvested from the fields, life gets a little easier. Most of peppers are already hanging from the house walls, drying on the sun and wind. Some villagers modernised their process and have built drying chambers. There, they keep the temperature high and use ventilation to speed up the drying process. When peppers are dry, it’s time to make final products. Some of the peppers are ground into a fine powder or chopped into small pieces and bagged. Some peppers are packed hole in small plastic bags. Most of villagers also sell their products in various markets all around Serbia. There are also some companies who buy large quantities. Most of the peppers are sold within Serbia or across the border to Bulgaria. Ajvar is also produced in the village but in much smaller quantities.
The end of harvest season is celebrated with the “Days of Peppers” or Dani paprike in Serbian. Among other activities, locals vote for the Kraljica paprike (The Queen of Peppers) and there is a competition who is the fastest in stringing red peppers.
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