The Jew And The Carrot

Letter from Serbia: Matzo and Kackavalj Cheese

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

  • Print
  • Share Share
Ruth Ellen Gruber

Dragan Jankovic, a slim bespectacled man with a quick smile and thinning hair, is the living local repository of Jewish heritage in Pirot, an ancient market town in southeastern Serbia whose Jewish community was wiped out in the Holocaust. A photo-journalist who long worked for a local newspaper, Jankovic is a devout Christian, but became fascinated with Jewish history and culture as a student in Belgrade more than two decades ago. He made friends there at the Jewish Historical Museum, and since returning to Pirot he has spent years collecting material and memories about Jewish history in his hometown.

Dragan was our guide when I spent a day in Pirot during Passover as part of a fact-finding team examining the state of Jewish heritage sites in southern Serbia. “Ah, Passover,” he said. “Matzo! I tasted it once, 20 years ago, in Belgrade — someone from the Jewish Museum gave it to me, and I’ve never forgotten!” He smiled — wistfully, I thought — at the memory.

Later, at lunch, a lavish Serbian spread in a courtyard restaurant, I told him I would pass on the fluffy round Serbian loaves that came with the meal. But, “I’m traveling with matzo and there’s a big box of it in car,” I said. He rushed out and returned with a stack of crispy sheets, which he carefully laid on a plate and placed on the crowded table. It made a delicious accompaniment to the local cheese — fresh young white cheese, a spicy liptauer-like cheese mixture called urnebes, and the hard yellow Kackavalj sheep cheese that is one of Pirot’s signature local products.

Pirot is located on one of the main trade routes between central Europe and Turkey, and Jews, active as traders and merchants, had lived there since Ottoman times. By the eve of World War II, the community numbered fewer than 200. Pirot was annexed by Bulgaria, and all 178 Jews in town were deported to death camps in March 1943. The few remaining traces of Jewish heritage in the town include a crumbling old mikveh and a new Holocaust memorial.

During the meal, I asked Jankovic if Jews had left any impact on local cuisine. To my surprise, he said Jews had played a major role in the manufacture and merchandizing of the famous kackavalj cheese.

Kackavalj “is much more than a semi-hard, spun, paste cheese,” Radoslav Pejčić, coordinator of Pirot’s Slow Food chapter, explained in an interviewer last year. “It has been this region’s treasure and symbol for centuries, travelling from Thessalonica’s port to Alexandria and then into markets all over the world.”

Dragan told us that according to legend, Jewish cheese merchants had at one time taught local peasants how to make kackavalj. Dragan’s source turned out to be the 1990 book “Jews in Pirot” by Jewish historian Jennie Lebl, which included a section on the cheese. Around the turn of the last century, every year the wealthy Jewish brothers Jakov and Nisim Papo would come to Pirot from Istanbul and buy up the much of the yearly milk production for cheese and butter from the region, which they would then export to Turkey and Egypt. Peasants would receive advance payment for their annual yield.

“The production of Kackavalj began in the spring and the cheese would be ready for transport and export once it ‘settled’ and became ripe at the end of summer,” Lebl wrote.

In addition to purchasing dairy products, she wrote, the Papo brothers also ran actual cheese-making workshops, where local producers “would come to watch and learn how the work was done, from the moment when, in the huge cauldron, milk would start boiling and then coagulate, through the use of a fermentation agent.

“Then this mixture was pressed to get rid of water, cut into pieces, put into woven baskets and immersed in boiling water to obtain color and elasticity….then kneaded and put into molds, to make pitas (cakes) weighing 5 and 10 kilograms. The cheese would remain in the molds for several days, one cake placed above the other, with sea salt between them. The more salt the cake ‘drinks,’ the better it ‘ripens.’ The whole procedure had to be carried out very accurately, for if anything went wrong, the cake would crack during drying and get moldy…..”

Jakov and Nisim Papo maintained close relations with Pirot for years. From time to time, the brothers would stay in the town for longer periods of time, wrote Lebl. Jakov Papo even married off his daughter to a man from Pirot. Whenever Jakov come to town, she wrote, it was an “event” for the city: “Papo was very generous and kind, but very short and weirdly dressed: he would wear a long “džube” (Turkish-style robe) and, since he was hard of hearing, he carried a long tube to hear better.”

Walking around Pirot, Dragan pointed out to us the photographer’s shop that had once been owned by Jews, and the sturdy stone fountain with water pipes on four sides that the Papo brothers had built in 1905 and that still stands in the center of the town. When we said our goodbyes, I made sure he accepted the half-kilo of matzo that remained in the box I had brought with me.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Serbian Jewish Food, Serbia, Passover, Matzo, Cheese

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • How did Tariq Abu Khdeir go from fun-loving Palestinian-American teen to international icon in just a few short weeks? http://jd.fo/d4kkV
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.