Wednesday, 22 July 2015

What's On The Menu

This week we had a very nice parcel turn up in the post, sent to us by a wonderful Bulgarian lady. In it there was the mix for 'proper' doughnuts, and a jar of Marmite. The doughnut mix I knew about, but the Marmite was a very pleasant surprise, and it was sent because it isn't the easiest thing to find here in Bulgaria. To say that I had a big daft grin would have been an understatement. So once again thank you very much, you know who you are. It did start me thinking though, every so often we still get asked about things we miss, even after nearly 7 years. Most times it also involves food, but the good news is that your palate adapts, or you change things to suit your own tastes. When I have tried to explain this, invariably it leads to the question , "What do you eat then?" Apparently the answer, "The same as Bulgarians eat", is insufficient, as the next question is, "What do Bulgarians eat?".

For those who have never visited Bulgaria before, the cuisine on offer is wide and varied. I guess this is only to be expected, as there have been many different influences over the years, and dishes do have regional variations. For the unwary things can either be a treat or a torture. I am still wary about a roast sheep's head, complete with eyes and teeth, staring at me. It might be considered a delicacy, but for some reason my stomach rebels. I am a firm believer in trying things to see if I actually like them, and sometimes I am pleasantly surprised, but there are times when even I have to admit defeat. Yes, me, the person who has been referred to as a two legged dustbin at times. So where to start? At lot depends on, if you are eating on the go, at a restaurant, or maybe you have been lucky enough to be invited to a share a meal with Bulgarians in their home. My aim is to let you know about some of the things you might experience.

Everyone seems to know about beer and wines, and there are plenty to choose from. So let's look at some of the other things you might be tempted by. Bulgarian children seem to have been raised drinking something called Boza, even though it has a slight alcohol content. Quite often this will be drunk as an accompaniment to a Banitsa. These are a Bulgarian pastry, often filled with the famous Bulgarian white cheese (Sirene). To my mind the Banitsa is great on its own, and are available from bakeries all over the country, even better if they are homemade. The Boza is another matter, it smells and tastes slightly sour, and made me think of something that had been strained through a Tramp's old sock. It is made from wheat and heaven only knows what else. A safer bet is Ayran, which is a mixture of proper Bulgarian yoghurt and water. Don't dismiss Boza out of hand though, you might find that you enjoy it.

As a light snack you might try the meze. This is normally a selection of cold dried meats (Sudyuk, Lyukanka and Pasturma), and sometimes cheeses too. Chances are if you are with a Bulgarian, you might be offered the chance to try the National drink, Rakia. If you are in the villages it is probably homemade, and everyone is proud of their own particular brew. The homemade Rakia, can either be better than the shop bought versions, or a cross between Domestos and rocket fuel. Do not try matching your Bulgarian friend drink for drink, or you will lose a couple of days and eventually regret what seemed like a good idea at the time. Take your time with it, and enjoy the meze.

No trip to Bulgaria would be complete without trying at least one Shopska salad. I freely admit that I am not the world's greatest salad lover, but this is different. The salad vegetables are normally locally grown and packed full of taste. Not like the mass produced watery stuff, that I was familiar with in the UK. Take a look at your Shopska salad, and then look at the Bulgarian flag, Food doesn't come much more patriotic. Don't just limit yourself to just the one type of salad, try a Shepherd's salad, or a Potato Salad or even the Snezhanka salad. There are so many to choose from, and I haven't been disappointed by any of them, and if there is such a thing I used to be a saladophobe.

If you are out and about and just fancy a quick bite to eat, then just follow your nose. It will lead you to either a skara stand or a kebab stall, quite often both. From the skara stall you can get kebapche and kyufte (sausages and meatballs are the easiest way to describe them). Quite often they seem to have been a bit heavy handed with the Cumin as it can be a bit overpowering). I am quite partial to a donner kebab, and it is nothing like the Friday night specials in the UK. These are basically a meal on their own, meat, chips, salad, garlic dressing, and chilli sauce in a flatbread wrap. Or there is always the ever popular pizza, but they are always much better in a pizzeria.

In a restaurant you might fancy starting your meal with a soup. At the moment it is quite hot during the day, and many claim that a Tarator soup is quite refreshing. It is a yoghurt based soup, made with cucumbers, garlic and dill, and is served cold. To my way of thinking soups should be served hot, and a bean soup (Bop Chorba) is good in the autumn. A couple of soups I do avoid. One is a much vaunted hangover cure, this is called Skembe Chorba. It is tripe soup, and you flavour it yourself with lots of vinegar, salt, pepper and oil. Possibly not for the faint hearted, and as a hangover cure it possibly falls into the realms of kill or cure. Another I tend to avoid is Lamb soup (Agnesko Chorba), which might sound odd, but it normally has unidentified bits lurking within.

Once the weather starts to cool down the heavier meals begin to appear. One of my favourites is something called a Kavarma, each region seems to have its own special recipe, but often it is a hearty meat and vegetable stew, which has been marinaded and slowly cooked before being served in an earthenware pot, sometimes with an egg on top. Something similar is a Gyuvech, often a vegetable stew, but can sometimes also contain meat, so it might be a good idea for any vegetarians to check first before ordering.

Something that I used to dislike is Moussaka, but I hadn't had the Bulgarian version before. This seems so much better than the Greek version, where I seem to be forever fishing out bits of Aubergine. Our neighbour often seems to cook this, and brings some over for us, which is really very nice of her. We have also been treated to fresh home made banitsas, and something called Mekitsi. These are doughnut type balls dusted with sugar, then served with jam, honey or chocolate spread. When they are ready stuffed peppers are also popular, as are something called Sarmi, stuffed cabbage leaves. When you get cabbages as big as basketballs, the leaves hold a surprising amount.

Desserts don't seem to be a big thing here, and in a restaurant your choices might often be ice cream, or palachinki. Go for the palachinki at least once. They are mid way between a pancake and a crepe, and wonderful with jam. Having said that I often don't have any room for a dessert after having eaten my fill beforehand. I think that I can safely say that I enjoy the food here, with maybe just a couple of exceptions. Hopefully you will too, if you venture to this part of the world. Try things, there are many more things to tempt you than I have mentioned, and you might be as pleasantly surprised as I have been.

Some cooking styles which you might see on a menu, decoded for you,

Baked - Изпечен
Boiled - Сварен
Braised - Задушен  or   Запечен
Fried - Пържен     or    Зьпържен на Тиган
Grilled - на Скара   or   на Грил
Roasted - Пекан      or   Запечен
Simmered - сварен  or   на слаб огън
Smoked - пушен
Sour - кисел
Spicy - лют
Steamed - Задушен  or   на пара
Stuffed - Пълнен
Sweet - Сладък
Toasted - Препечен

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Why Do I Love Bulgaria?

Hopefully, for anyone reading these blogs, it should be apparent that I am very pro-Bulgaria. We have lived here quite happily for almost seven years now, and I am quite happy to admit that I feel more at home here than I ever did in the UK. Of course there are things that I miss, such as friends and family, but for the most part somewhere or other things from back home can be found.  Some people might wonder what makes Bulgaria so special, which is slightly more difficult to explain, but I shall try. Each morning it is a pleasure waking up, and wondering what new delights and memories the day will bring.

Up until we came over here, neither my wife nor I had ever been to Bulgaria before. I could find it in an atlas, and I could recognise the word България written on stamps but that was about it. So just what has made Bulgaria so special for me? It is a combination of so many things, and there seems to be a bit of everything for people from all walks of life to enjoy. I guess that it is safe to say that this is a diverse country, and rich in so many ways (although maybe not financially). It is an old country, steeped in history, blessed by beauty, and where traditions and crafts are still observed.

Yet there are fewer than 7 million people living here. The majority live in the cities, which means that there are vast areas left to the natural countryside. There are rivers, both small and large, lakes, natural springs and pools, forested areas, and fields of crops. There are towns and villages nestled in between them all, where the air is clean, and the tranquillity is undisturbed by the sounds of modern living. It seems that slowly the flow is reversing, and people are repopulating the villages, rather than leaving them for the towns and cities. Despite the potholes in the roads, more people are finding that village life suits them, and they can actually commute into the towns for work.

Somebody, somewhere, said that a country's biggest asset is its own people. If that is true then Bulgaria is very fortunate. The Bulgarians we have been fortunate enough to meet have been so friendly, welcoming and helpful. Perhaps because the pace of life is slower here, people have the time to stop and talk. There is still a sense of community, and everyone seems to help each other, no matter what their age. Family life is still valued, but strangers (even us foreigners) are still made welcome. Just last night one of our neighbours brought over two slices of cake for us. The cake itself was lovely, but even better was the big smile on her face as she handed it over.

I will admit that at times I do struggle with the language, but it no longer sounds like Martian when I listen to it. Because we make the effort, it seems to be appreciated. Sometimes though, they might feel that our comprehension is much better than it actually is, so we have to get them to slow things down for us. The occasions where we have to resort to pantomimes, charades and gestures seem to be getting fewer and fewer. Although sometimes I'm sure they make me do them just to brighten up the day. I did try learning from books and CDs, but much of that was met by looks of bafflement, as like everywhere, each region seems to have its own accent and idioms. The best way to learn is by listening to your neighbours, and if they see that you are willing to learn they are only too willing to help. Soon your neighbours become friends, and you are then involved with their daily lives, and by extension their families too.

The food here is so much healthier for us too. Much of it is home grown, and actually tastes like food, unlike the mass produced stuff in the UK supermarkets. Those who actually know me, will remember that I do enjoy my food. It has previously been said that I can actually eat my own body weight in pizza, and yes I do have a sweet tooth. In the UK I wasn't what could be described as a salad eater, I could never really see the point of limp lettuce and watery tomatoes, but here I have been known to eat a salad on my own without pushing it round a plate hoping that it would magically disappear. There is something satisfying about eating something which you, or one of your neighbours, has grown, not to mention the added bonus of it actually tasting how it is meant to be. I still don't eat fish, but I will have a go at tucking in to most things, and in the 7 years I think that I have only had to admit defeat with 2 things.

The national drink of Bulgaria is something called Rakia, and many villagers make their own, but it is not for the faint hearted. It is often said that it can be used as a general cure all, disinfectant or even as a cleaning fluid. Bulgarian wines are also attracting more International recognition. A thirsty traveller shouldn't ignore the choice of Bulgarian beers. It is not uncommon to see people drinking beer mid morning during the Summer, but their day had probably started so much earlier than mine as they will have been working in the fields. One drink which I have never found the taste for is something called Boza, but children seem to like it. I think that I will stick to coffees at one of the numerous cafes. These are ideal places to relax, catch up on the news or just watch the world go by.

As I previously mentioned, there seems to be something for everyone here. To the West, and running through the width of the country there are mountains, and foothills. To the East there is the coast and the Black Sea. The Northern border is made by the River Danube, and to the South more mountains separating Bulgaria from Greece and Turkey. Everywhere you look you can see an ever changing scenery, native wildlife, insects, birds and plants abound. The seasons are all distinct from each other, the lush greens of Spring after the chill of the Winter months. The heat of the Summer giving way to the welcome russet tones of Autumn. Small wonder that my wife likes painting this wonderful country.

For such an old country, there is always plenty of history to immerse yourself in. With the new road systems which are being constructed, hardly a week goes by where they haven't unearthed a previously unknown necropolis, or some other wonder. Just consider that every step you take an ancient Thracian, Roman or Ottoman could have once walked before. Unfortunately this does mean that grave robbers might have been about, and that various treasures may have been smuggled out of the country. New discoveries are being made all of the time, and the earliest known cache of Thracian gold artifacts was found here in Bulgaria. The Bulgarians have every right to feel proud of their country's history. It might not always have been an easy life for those living in what is now Bulgaria, but the history has helped to make them into the people who they are today.

As a foreigner living in Bulgaria, I have to admit that my pension does go a lot further. At the moment the problems in Greece are also to my advantage. The cost of living is so much cheaper than in the UK, and perhaps this enables me to do things which an average Bulgarian can't. I try to employ locals for any work which we might need doing, and I do use the village shop and Pensioner's Club. It might not sound a lot, but every little helps the village economy. Some have tried to take advantage, but you soon get to realise who these people are. Having said that you do find such people wherever you go in the world, and your friendly neighbours will be only to happy to advise you on who to avoid.

There are also various oddities to be found in Bulgaria, such as various 'Vampire' graves which have recently been unearthed. Or there is the monument to the Bulgarian Communist Party at Buzludzha. Near to Ardino, you can find the Devil's Bridge (Дяволски мост) as it spans the River Arda. Folklore and tales can be found in all regions throughout Bulgaria, some being easier to find than others, but all well worth searching for. Sometimes it does make me wonder just how so many wonders are crammed into just one country. From the natural to the man made, there is always something to see or do here in this wonderful country. Whether it be skiing in the Winter, hiking in the Summer sunshine or just enjoying time spent with friends you can only have a quiet day in Bulgaria if you actually want one.

Hopefully this has given you a small insight why I consider myself privileged to live here. There are some things which irritate, but the pros far outweigh the cons. So if you have never been to Bulgaria before, why not give it a try? Avoid the out and out tourist destinations, meet the real Bulgarians, discover the history, enjoy the beauty, sample the local food and drink, and you will not be disappointed.