June 13, 2013 Cèpes in France and porcini in Italy hold near mythical status — and command exorbitant prices. Like snails, most of the edible boletes sold in France are in fact from Bulgaria, where they are called manatarki. Many mountain villages throughout the country have local mushroom brokers who pay peasants and shepherds for their daily finds. Because of this, few make it to the local markets. In the most isolated village I visited, there was a sole business that served as café and general store, but there was also a mushroom and bilki (wild herbs) buyer there. Unemployment was 100% in the village, but the villagers grew most of their own food and bartered with homemade jams and honeys and by selling foods from the wild. There are wild mountain berries — strawberries and blueberries and raspberries and blackerries — and myriad bilki and flowers such as linden, acacia, and elder — that are also gathered and sold. The local honeys are indescribably aromatic and delicious. In an mountain pass high above Dospat, I bought several herbs for therapeutic teas as well as some local “manov med,” also known as “black honey.” It’s actually not honey at all, but honeydew, the secretions of insects that eat pine sap in the spring.
One of the oddest preserves, byal sladko (“white sweet”), is indeed pure white and is often simply a sugar concoction, a spoonful of which is offered to guests with a glass of cold spring water. From this stand selling honeys, however, we were told that theirs is made with egg whites — basically, Seven Minute Icing in a jar.
This is the view from Bel Kamen, that isolated village. The villagers claim about 400 residents, but there were only a handful of buildings in the town center — including the school, town hall, and mosque. The families were scattered out in the mountains. In the larger villages of Lyubcha (population about 800) and Gorno Dryavno (population about 1000), the mushroom businesses are thriving.
Alas, there is one forager who, likes his produce, usually appears after rains at the Krasno Selo market near Mikel’s office. This week, he had big, beautiful manatarki (boletes), which are pictured at the top of the page. Needless to say, Mikel brought some home for me to cook. To be continued…Read More