Bulgaria Aug-Oct 2011

Posted on October 18, 2011 in Bulgaria, Travels

October 18, 2011 A busy month ending in a small village in northwestern BulgariaI have been traveling a lot lately — to Transylvania for a week, exploring the Saxon and Rroma villages, to the wine regions of southwestern Bulgaria with my wine guru, Debbie Marlowe, who was visiting for a week (stories and recipes on those trips to come), and now I’m staying with a retired couple who are my age and who live in the village of Moravitsa (accent on the second syllable — it means small meadow) about an hour north of Sofia on the northern slope of the Stara Planina mountain chain.

Bulgaria has been having a blast of winter storms — snow and torrential rains and hurricane-force winds, from one end of the country to the other. It snowed on Sunday and then I left Sofia on Monday morning, driving across the mountains through snowy clouds. I arrived at the home of my host family, Sveti and Dancho, who  may have more joie de vivre than anyone I know. They are my age (62) and they hike and ski and paraglide and parachute and garden and cook and hunt and dance, all while keeping up with the news and listening to music. This morning I caught them dancing cheek-to-cheek in their kitchen.

Yesterday they killed a chicken and we had not only chicken and vegetable soup (everything from their garden), but also peppers stuffed with chicken and rice, roast peppers, and some of the last of the vine-ripened tomatoes. I asked if they eat green tomatoes and they said only in pickles, so when I told them that they are delicious grilled or fried, Sveti went out in the garden, picked some, and Dancho added them to the sausages he grilled outdoors in the “summer house,” where walnuts and hazelnuts, peppers, gourds, and herbs are hanging to dry.

After breakfast, Sveti began making gyuvech, a meat and vegetable stew, for lunch. Dancho said that is must be cooked in a clay pot in a wood-fired oven, that neither gas nor electric will do. The stew is begun on top of the stove, the meat is added, and it is placed in the oven for 2 or 3 hours.

While the stew was cooking, we began preparing rustova troshiya, a sort of giardiniera of mixed vegetables put away for winter. Unlike pickles, however, the vegetables are preserved the Bulgarian way. All of the vegetables — celery root, carrots, broccoli, green tomatoes, onions, cabbage, peppers– are from their garden.

The method:
To a 1-1/2 liter sterilized jar, add two 325mg aspirin and a little water. Slosh around to partially dissolve the aspirin. Add 2 tablespoons sugar, 1 tablespoon salt, and a little vinegar — about 160 ml or 2/3 cup — and slosh around again.
Pack the jars full, then add boiling water to about a half inch from the top of the jars. Add lids, then turn the jars upside down and back several times, then place them upside-down in a cool place. Turn the jars back right-up once each day, and back upside-down once each day for a week.

After a month, they’re ready to serve as the “garnitura,” as they say in Bulgaria, with meat dishes.

I get to take a jar home with me when I leave in two weeks.

After gyuvech, we had preserved plums in a very light syrup, and banitsa, which is the national pastry of Bulgarian, made with filo dough most often filled with cheese. Sveti’s was filled with pumpkin from the garden and walnuts from the mountains. She admitted that she bought the filo dough this time, but that she would show me how to make it from scratch if I wanted to know how!

I think I’m going to love it here. I just hope I can still fit in my tuxedo when I get back to Sofia. We have a formal affair to attend in a month!

No sooner had I worried about gaining weight, though, than they asked me to go for a walk with them up the mountain. It was a perfect fall day without a cloud in the sky, about 60 degrees. We found fossils and when we got home, Sveti took me on a tour of the basement, three rooms of which they use for food storage for the winter. They grow almost everything they eat.

Below, left, the gyuvech we had for lunch; right, the rustova.

The following photos were taken in the basement.

Rows and rows and rows of canned goods, all either grown by them or foraged in the mountains. In the casks, homemade rakia (brandy), white wine, and red wine (from their own grapes). On the right, above, Sveti shows me lyutenitsa (a roasted pepper spread) made with cheese, which I had never heard of. She pulled a jar to have tonight with omelets made from — you guessed it — their own hens’ eggs.

The rooms downstairs are filled with peppers, tomatoes, pumpkins, potatoes, cabbages, onions, leeks, and garlic. It smells like wine. If Mikel were here, I swear I’d think I’d died and gone to heaven!

The three kilometer walk up the hill was just what I needed. Here’s what we saw when we got to the summit.

Stay tuned! More to come, I promise!

September 25, 2011 пълнени калмари


Pulneni kalmari is how one would say “stuffed squid” in Bulgarian if one knew how to speak the language. While I usually call this dish by the Italian, calamari ripieni, this time I should refer to it as calmars farcis, simply because I used a little Cahors, the rich wine made from Malbec grapes in the Lot Department of Southwest France. Like barbecue and fish soups, I have found recipes for stuffed squid that are both alike and different as I have traveled from Galicia in northwestern Spain to Sri Lanka. Rice, pork, breadcrumbs, shrimp, spinach, and potatoes find their way into the bellies of these cephalopods, or inkfish, as they are called in some languages. (I posted a different stuffed squid recipe on January 7, 2009.)


Last night, I played it by ear, but this is a very basic recipe, such as it is, which is found all over Italy, France, and Spain. Cahors lies squarely in the southwestern corner of France, midway between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Richard Olney noted that “À la Tomate, à la Provençale, à la Sétoise, à l’Americaine, à la Niçoise, the assertive Mediterranean … tomato sauce[s]…[are] better suited to squid, cuttlefish, and octopus than to other seafood.” He recommends a highly seasoned tomato and white wine sauce as a braising liquid, though he gives a recipe with red wine, which is common on the Riviera, and is what I used.


To clean squid, pull the head away from the body. Most of the entrails will come out with the head. Squeeze the head to force out the chick-pea-sized mouth and hard beak. Cut the tentacles from the head just in front of the eyes. Remove the plastic-like “quill” from the body and discard, then squeeze out any remaining viscera from the body and rinse well. Many books tell you to remove the outer purplish skin and fins, but I seldom do. Also, take care to remove the ink sacs. Alan Davidson recommends frying the ink in hot olive oil and serving it on brown bread, but I usually toss the sac. 80% of the squid is edible; that’s an unusually high ratio compared to finfish and crustaceans. And they’re usually very inexpensive. 


To stuff the squid, I made a stuffing by sautéing a peeled and chopped tomato in olive oil with a minced garlic clove, a little hot pepper, chopped parsley, a spoonful of rinsed capers, a half-dozen black olives — pitted and sliced in half, and the chopped tentacles and cleaned head of the squid. When the mixture was almost dry, I grated a tablespoon or so of crumbs from a piece of dried bread and stirred that into the mixture.


Using a spoon, I loosely stuffed the bodies of the squid with the mixture, securing them with toothpicks. I added another dollop of olive oil, another tomato, and a splash of Cahors to the pot, tucked the squid down in the liquid, covered the pot, and let it simmer for about a half hour while I made a pot of rice and, at the last moment, stir-fried some spinach with garlic and lemon juice.

This is actually a very easy recipe, and it’s delicious. We had crunchy French bread and the award-winning 2005 Château d’Ourbenac Cahors with the dish, which I served with the remaining sauce topping the rice.

If you can find beautiful, fresh squid, the way I can (from my friend Costas Giouroudis at Oceanis Fish Market, not far from our apartment), you may want to try your own stuffing. Just remember not to stuff it too tight because the stuffing expands and the squid shrinks. Squid is one of those foods that must be cooked very quickly or slowly stewed, as above. Here’s a recipe for a quick-cooking method which I published in The New Southern Cook:

Grilled Squid

This recipe can be served either warm or cold, as appetizer or main course. Cilantro and lemon grass flavor a similar salad of poached squid in Thailand. In Provence, there’s garlic, basil and mint. Neapolitans add bell peppers and olives. Greeks use nothing but olive oil and lemon juice, then toss it with potatoes or pasta. My version, with grilled squid, calls for seasoning from my (then) courtyard in downtown Charleston, typical of the new flavors of the South: lemon grass, basil, and hot peppers. You can make this hearty summer salad early in the day, then serve it for supper, or you can grill the squid at the last minute, warm the vinaigrette, and serve it over pasta. If you are serving the squid as an appetizer before another grilled item, this is a perfect way to appease hungry dinner guests while you wait for the coals to die down a bit.


Clean the squid as outlined, above. This recipe will serve about 6 as a main course or twice as many as appetizers. I used to go down to the shrimp docks in Charleston as the boats were pulling in to get 3- or 4-inch freshly caught squid.


You will need to use metal skewers — or to soak bamboo ones in water for about a half-hour before grilling. Three pounds of small squid will fill about twenty foot-long skewers.


                        3 pounds fresh squid (or 2 pounds cleaned), cleaned(see above)

                        1 cup olive oil

                        salt and freshly ground black pepper

                        1/3 cup fresh lime juice

                        2 large fresh garlic cloves, finely minced

                        1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

                        1 tablespoon finely minced fresh lemon grass stalk

                        1 finely slivered, seeded fresh hot chili pepper (or a hot pepper sauce of your choice), to taste

                        fresh basil leaves (or cilantro or mint or a combination) to taste


Build a charcoal fire or preheat your grill or broiler to high heat. Cut the cleaned squid bodies into half-inch rings and skewer them, opening out the rings and leaving a little space between them, and filling each skewer with as many rings as will  fit (sizes of squid and skewers vary). As you fill the skewers, place them over a casserole dish or mixing bowl large enough to hold all of the squid. Continue until all of the squid bodies are skewered. Skewer the tentacles as well, with a little space between each set.


Pour half the oil over the skewered squid, coating them all evenly, then salt and pepper them. Turn the skewers over and repeat with the remaining half of the oil. Salt and pepper the second side as well. If you are going to serve the squid hot over pasta, begin cooking the pasta at this point. Mix the remaining ingredients together.


Grill the squid quickly over high heat, about 1 minute per side depending on the size of the squid. While the squid is cooking, add the rest of the mixed ingredients to the oil and mix well. To serve the dish warm, simply transfer the mixture to a pan and heat, then pour over the grilled squid. For a salad, remove the squid from the skewers to the oil mixture and toss together, chilling it for awhile — but not too much — before


Debbie Recommends: Whether you serve the squid warm or cold, wash it down, as would the Italians, with Pinot Grigio.




September 21, 2011 Putting Food By

To those of you who know my table and pantry from either personal experience or through my work, you know what a canning fool I am. I’ve long maintained that one of the reasons that the South maintains an identity separate and apart from the rest of the nation is its agricultural roots, which manifest themselves in the cooking and preserving. We are all about condiments — the pickles and relishes and preserves and sauces that distinguish our food. As I wrote 25 years ago, “The hallmark of Lowcountry cuisine is the vast array of condiments that add harmonies of color, flavor, and texture to our meals — scuppernong jam, dilled green beans, homemade mayonnaise, spiced peaches, pickled watermelon rind, fig conserve, pear chutney, and various mixed pickles and relishes such as achar and chow chow.”

You find a pork chop and butterbeans and rice all over the South, but when the beans are the tiniest of “Sieva” beans and they are on top of the rice, garnished with a big dollop of piccalilli (green tomato relish), you know you’re in the Lowcountry. Just one of many southern regions.

Or you might just find yourself thinking of the Balkans.

Long before Mikel and I set out on our journey to Bulgaria, I read everything I could get my hands on, from the ancient poets (Homer mentioned the great Thracian — i.e., Bulgarian — wines in the Iliad) to contemporary novelists. Everything I read pointed to a place that seemed to me very much like the South of my youth, a fairly conservative place where everyone still had ties to the land. We hunted and fished and pickled and canned, slow roasted meats over smoldering coals, and reveled in homemade sausages, jams, and brandied fruit. We prided ourselves on the best field peas, the tenderest squash, the sweetest melons. I didn’t even realize until I went away to college that people actually paid for fish, tomatoes, or melons. And it’s the same for many, many Bulgarians.

The photo above includes the house gifts of homemade items that I received at a dinner party this past Sunday. And this doesn’t include the many other items I have received in our two months here — Stoiko’s in-laws’ homemade goat cheese mozzarella, Emilia’s plum jam, or the jar of duck fat from Yambol that Nat and Vanessa brought me, for example. Bulgarian Hospitality ranks right up there with Southern!

In the photo above, left to right, there are fresh plums, two types of roasted peppers, kyopoolu (a roasted eggplant dish), quince jam (yes, there’s a label on the jar, but the jar has simply been reused), wild alpine strawberry preserves, three jars of homemade lyutenitsa (a roasted eggplant spread), plum jam (made with a tiny bit of sugar and roasted in the oven.Thank goodness for this because we already finished Emilia’s!), wild alpine strawberry sauce, homemade rakia (brandy), and — lo! and behold! — blackeyed peas!

I’ve witnessed the gifts of food that villagers give to Peace Corps Volunteers every day — though they say now that the weather is cooling, the fresh tomatoes and peppers are being put by for the long winter ahead. I’ve seen peppers, herbs, and tomatoes drying in the sun. I’ve seen canning done in huge pots outside, on the street, over wood fires, and I’ve sampled dozens of delicious homemade cheeses, yogurt, jams, and, perhaps best of all, the incredible honeys from the mountains and forests. The tiniest corner grocers stock at least a dozen varieties of local sausages — sometimes two or three dozen.

Mikel’s coworkers often go to their families’ country homes to help with the canning, pickling, and preserving. They come back with jars for each other in the office.

I’m so glad I brought several dozen jars of my own condiments — chutneys and preserves and jams and pickles — with me. Not to have them, but to return the hospitality.

I’ve already published many of my own condiment recipes on the blog, most of them back in 2007 and 2008. The index lists everything from blood pudding (January 2007) to Bourbon Sauce (December 2007) to Pear Relish (September 2008).

Here are some general instructions for making some Bulgarian treats:

Kyopoolu (Eggplant Spread)

This spread is similar to the Eggplant or “Poor Man’s” Caviar served throughout the South and the Middle East, with the addition of tomatoes. Sunflower oil is traditional in Bulgaria, but you can Extra Virgin Olive Oil, the way I do.

2 to 3 average eggplants, with firm flesh and bright green tops
4 to 5 ripe red peppers (preferably the European paprika variety)
2 to 3 average tomatoes, perfectly ripe, peeled and chopped
3 to 4 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced with salt to taste
sunflower or extra virgin olive oil, about 1/4 cup
vinegar, 1 to 2 tablespoons

Prick the eggplants in several places and roast them and the peppers on a lined baking sheet in a hot oven, turning them occasionally, until the skin on the peppers is puckered and beginning to brown and the eggplant begins to collapse (when its flesh is soft). Put the peppers in a paper or plastic bag to steam the skins off, and place the egpplants down in cold water for about a half hour to remove the bitter black liquid. When the eggplant and peppers are cool enough to handle, peel and stem them (discarding the seeds of the peppers), and cut them into small pieces. Add the tomatoes and the garlic. Stir well with a wooden spoon or mash in a mortar with a wooden pestle (every recipe I’ve read or heard calls for these classic wooden tools) and dribble the oil in, whisking it in with the spoon or pestle. Add vinegar and salt to taste. Chill and garnish with parsley.

Lyutenitsa (a pepper and tomato spread)

Recipes for this national dish are as varied as the topography of Bulgaria. I’ve had huge plates of the dish that was mostly peppers, tiny cups of mostly tomato paste meant for grilled meats, and prissy, though spicy, servings of an appetizer portion in an upscale restaurant. I hesitate to give a recipe or to name a favorite, since several friends have brought me their own (each of which was different).

Bulgarian cookbooks invariably call for tomato paste, but the Kibea Health Food Restaurant and Health Center publication notes, “The lyutenitsa wil be even more delicious if you use fresh vegetables.” Duh.

The original calls for 2 leeks, but Bulgarian leeks are very small. I’d just use one in the States.

Here’s my adaptation of their fresh version:

1 pound red ripe peppers (preferably the European paprika variety)
1 pound red ripe tomatoes, peeled and diced
1 leek or a bunch of scallions, the white and some of the green, finely minced
4 to 5 garlic cloves, peeled and minced with salt to taste
1 tablespoon sugar, optional
1/2 tsp chili powder, optional
1/4 cup sunflower or extra virgin olive oil
garnish of parsley, olives, or chopped scallions

Roast the peppers as in the Kyopoolu recipe, above, and peel, stem, and seed them. Puree them in a food processor. Sauté the tomatoes in a little oil for about 20 minutes, until they are thoroughly melted. Mix the two purees together and add the remaining ingredients, whisking all together and seasoning to taste. Chill, then garnish and serve. I like it on bruschetta.

September 14, 2011 Sirene

is one of the most misunderstood words, I think, in the Bulgarian language. It does not mean “siren” as in the bird-women of Greek mythology who lured sailors to their death. It means, quite simply, cheese. It’s pronounced with the accent on the first syllable: SEE reh neh, with that “r” rolled, as in Spanish. (In Spanish and the other Romance languages, the word means mermaid, but Greek sirens were never aquatic, contrary to contemporary versions of the myths.)

When translated to English, Bulgarian menus simply call sirene “white cheese,” as opposed to kashkaval, or yellow cheese. Dictionaries and encyclopedias tend to generally describe sirene as the white brined cheeses of Southeastern Europe, especially the Balkans. It is often confused with Greek feta. Bulgarian sirene was originally made from goat’s milk (the Koze Sirene in the far left of the photo above is goat. It’s the most expensive.) Today, most is made from cow’s milk, but it is also made from the milk of sheep and water buffalo. In the tiny village of Leshten, I had fresh sheep’s milk sirene that had not been brined (photo, below left). It was delicious. Yesterday, Stoiko Tsvetkov, who works with Mikel, brought me some fresh goat’s milk sirene that his in-laws had made in their village. It, too, was not brined, and is what I would call goat’s milk mozzarella (photo, below right). Scrumptious.

The top photo of the shop window was taken in a small village when I first arrived here two months ago. Since then, I have found that even the tiniest grocers will have a dozen or more varieties of sirene, with wildly varying prices. Goat is nearly always the most expensive, then sheep, then cow (I’ve only seen buffalo sirene once and didn’t check the price). Most are known by the village they come from. They tend to run to near 50% fat, though goat cheese has considerably less fat than cow’s. Much of the sirene is fine-textured and slightly crumbly, with a hint of brine; others are as salty as feta. The less salty, fresher sheep and goat sirene I like to slice and serve with tomatoes and basil, as for a Caprese salad. But the riper, saltier ones I tend to use in the national dishes of Bulgaria — Shopska Salad, Stuffed Peppers, Kachamak (a cornmeal dish), and Fried Potatoes. Sirene is so closely associated with Bulgaria that the word for the cheese in Hebrew is Bulgarit; in Lebanese, it’s Bulghari.

One the best — and most common — uses of cured sirene (most sit in brine for 3 months) is atop the indescribably delicious Bulgarian fries. I’ve never had potatoes quite like these here. The best, from what I can gather, are from the far northwest, particularly from the village of Dulgodeltsi in the Montana District. These potatoes have thin brown skins and yellow flesh and are neither waxy nor starchy. In fact, they have so little starch that when I cut them, my knife stays clean. An odd choice, I’d think, for fried potatoes because starch turns to sugar and is then caramelized in the cooking, giving a crisp, brown exterior to perfect fries. These never crisp like that, but their flavor is unlike any other; further, with a grating of sirene atop, they are irresistible. And you know how much I love homemade mayonnaise!

As I have written before, many Bulgarian meals begin with salad — and that salad is often Shopska Salad (left). Deceptively simple to prepare, its success relies on the quality of ingredients: perfectly ripe tomatoes and cucumbers, onions, peppers (often roasted), and parsley. Proportions are crucial and the salad is topped with a grating of the best sirene. Oil and vinegar is provided for each diner to use at his discretion. If we are eating lunch in a restaurant, we nearly always have a Shopska, whether or not we follow it with other dishes.

Kashkaval, on the other hand, encompasses all the so-called “yellow” cheeses, including hard imported cheeses such as those from Switzerland, Holland, and England. Originally, kashkaval referred to a specific type of yellow sheep’s cheese, but the term, like sirene, has become a catch-all. The bigger supermarkets, as in America, have both specialty cheese counters as well as a refrigerated section with dozens and dozens of packaged cheeses. Many of them are excellent, but making selections is very difficult. I really hit the jackpot with this one, below.

The label didn’t tell me much — perhaps I was attracted to the woman in traditional garb. Sirene Rhodopi it says in the big letters — cheese from the Rhodopi Mountains. The green writing says “From the mountains in the old tradition.” The ingredients are Cow’s milk, clean culture (whatever that is), yeast, and salts. In both taste and texture, it’s somewhere between a sharp English cheddar and Parmesan. Lovely. 190 grams (about 7 ounces) for $2.50. I have been cutting off hunks and eating it with the perfect, poolish-made baguettes from the new French bakery around the corner!

I would have thought that the label would have identified this as a kashkaval — a hard yellow cheese — rather than “sirene.” But, as I wrote when I began this blog,  the word is one of the most misunderstood in the Bulgarian language.

September 8, 2011 Missing Greens

The fruits and vegetables here in Bulgaria are stunningly delicious. They are perfectly ripe. I’ve not had a single onion with a rotten ring, a single garlic clove with a green shoot, or a melon that wasn’t just right. But, Lord, I miss field peas and (cooking) greens. I’ve seen chard once, when we first arrived, and I’ve seen beets with the greens attached once. I’ve not seen the first collard or turnip green, and I’ve yet to find an Asian grocer where I might find all their wonderful choys and spinach cousins. Cabbage, yes, all sorts and shapes. But mustard greens? I’d give my eye teeth for some! I make do with spinach, though I have to buy an entire case of it if I want a mess o’ greens.

We’d had lots of dinner guests lately and tomorrow night I’ve got about 20 Peace Corps Volunteers coming over. I’m not saying what I’m cooking here on the blog, because some of them read it. They’ll find out soon enough. Today, while shopping for tomorrow’s meal, I found some pretty shrimp — again, from three hours away — wild Aegean shrimp from Thessaloniki. Heads on. I made a stock with the heads and shells. I almost have enough in my freezer now to make a big gumbo to serve 12.

I also found local mozzarella. One of Mikel’s coworkers brought him some huge, gorgeous tomatoes, so I made a Caprese salad and followed it with this utterly simple and perfectly delicious dish,спанак и скариди (spanak i skaridi) or spinach and shrimp. I simply tossed the peeled shrimp with lemon juice and cayenne and tucked them in the fridge. I washed the spinach assiduously then put it in a bowl rather than letting it drain because I wanted the little bit of water that would cling to the leaves. After we had our Caprese, I put a thin film of oil in a big stockpot, turned it up medium high, and tossed the spinach and some slivers of garlic in the pan, stir frying it for just a moment or two, then adding the shrimp with the juice that had collected under them. I covered the pan, turned off the heat, and let it all steam for just a moment or two. Served with crusty bread, it was so good! Mikel couldn’t believe that I had added no salt. I also had ratatouille on the stove, but we couldn’t eat it.

Big day tomorrow.

September 1, 2011 Traveling through the mountains of Bulgaria

For much of the past three weeks, Mikel and I have been on the road visiting the ever-amazing Peace Corps volunteers — we’ve been throughout the beautiful Rhodope, Pirin, and Central Balkan mountain ranges. Though no larger than the state of Tennessee, Bulgaria is widely varied in its geography and micro-climates. You may descend one gentle slope of the Rhodopi (above) down near Greece only to emerge in a rocky canyon filled with bold upright cliffs. Another bend of the road finds you in high chaparral not unlike southern California, complete with the Mediterranean climate. The Pirins are more like the Rockies, and many parts of the Central Balkans remind me of the Smokies. Throughout the mountains, people are picking wild raspberries, blueberries, and mushrooms. All sorts of fruit trees abound, and roadside stands (often just a folding table with beach umbrella) offer homemade jams, cheeses, fruits, honey, yogurt, vegetables, and dried beans and peppers.

I have seen lots of birds, including a huge aerie of white-tailed eagles beginning their migration south. I have seen deer crossing signs, and, on the road between Shumen and Varna, a pine marten darted across the road. In the plains near Yablanitsa, sugar cane grew; near Pazardjik, rice. Butterfly bushes (Buddleia), rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus, also commonly called “Althea”), and hollyhocks (Alcea) grow wildly everywhere, but I don’t even bother to research their origins. Even if they are native to China, they could have been imported here thousands of years ago, since gardening has been a favored pastime here for 8000 years. Somewhere recently I read that in ancient Thracian times, there was a popular saying that there were no weeds: let each plant thrive so see if it bears fruit or some useful grain.

In many of the the most remote villages, many of which are Bulgarian Muslim or Pomatsi, seed-saving is a way of life. Some of the villages have 100% unemployment, though they may earn a few leva by selling their potatoes, tobacco, or corn to the cooperatives. Some spend their mornings in the deeply forested hills, picking mushrooms and berries to sell. And some, as I noted, might sell their products at roadside stands. Generally speaking, however, they live in self-sustaining communities, where everything they eat is grown in their backyard plots.

Since it has been several weeks since I’ve written, I’ve posted a bunch of photos with explanatory captions. Here’s the link.

August 9, 2011 Some Fish Tales

Though Sofia is landlocked, at 1700 feet, in a valley between two mountains chains, we’ve managed to eat a lot of very good fish and seafood while here.

In a mehana in Shumen, where I had lamb sweetbreads, Mikel ordered a Greek salad that had delicious oiled anchovies in it. All along the highways driving through the rolling hillsides of the Stara Planina mountains, I saw roadside stands advertising riba and ratsi – fish and crawfish! Ambassador Warlick tells me that there are restaurants throughout the mountains where the trout is line-caught from mountain streams; the crawdads are certainly from the wild. The next time we’re in the car headed home from the hills and I see the signs, you better believe I’ll be stopping and getting some!


Here in Sofia, I’ve found my fishmonger, Costas Giouroudis, whose minuscule shop in my neighborhood has a truck deliver fresh, wild, sustainable fish from Thessaloniki, his home town, three times a week. I love that port city where I have enjoyed its excellent cuisine and its college-town atmosphere. Costas tells me it’s only a three hour drive from here!

This morning I bought gorgeous sardines from him. A pound of them for $1.20. I’ll throw them on the grill with some peppers and onions this evening.

He also had safrid from the Black Sea (or black mackerel, as Costas called it), which I had eaten two weeks ago at the Greek restaurant, Mantos, in Stara Zagora, another charming college town the guidebooks often disdain for some unknown reason.

Stara Zagora lies south of the Stara Planina, about halfway to the Black Sea. It has well-maintained parks and sidewalks throughout its bustling city center, where many of the streets have been made pedestrian only. In the middle of the day there are thousands of folks out for lunch, for a walk, or  shopping, even in summer when most European cities are dead. There are Roman ruins, an excellent museum, and a wonderful city center market where I bought some of the renowned local wildflower honey.

Safrid are known as scad or horse mackerel in English; the great British seafood authority, Alan Davidson, has written that scad aren’t as good as mackerel, but artfully fried in olive oil as they were, I found them delicious.

I’ve seen trout in rivers in the middle of towns (this one in Tryavna, famed for its historical architecture and now the site of Belgian brewery that makes use, exceptionally, of the local cherries in its lambic). No wonder there are so many storks around (these atop City Hall)!

Costas also had beautiful anchovies this morning, but his sign said GAVROS, which is the Greek word.

Before my kitchenware arrived, we were eating out every meal; now, hardly at all, except when we travel (we’ll be gone most of next week to the Rhodope mountains, which I hear are beautiful). We’ve had several other very good fish dishes.  Mikel had excellent — and classic — octopus with potatoes in the upscale Spanish restaurant Te Quiero near his office. We ate outside in white upholstered chairs under a white tent with billowing white muslin curtains. We also had paella.

Most memorable for me was the unctuous house-made tarama haiver I had at Shtastlivetsa restaurant in beautiful Veliko Turnovo (also both a college and tourist town). Similar to Greek taramosalata, but without any pink food coloring or overtly fishy taste, it was the creamiest, tastiest, freshest I’ve ever had. I told the waiter that I’m a food writer and asked if I could have the recipe, but was soundly rebuffed with an emphatic “NO!”

Though often made in Greece with dried mullet or cod roe, I’m all but positive that the fluffy white version I was served with grilled bread (photo, left) was made with fresh carp roe. In Greece, olive oil and bread crumbs (or potatoes in some regions) are pureed with the roe to make the “salad” — closer to a dip or spread. You can buy industrially packaged taramosalata (with weird ingredients but no oil!) all over the Balkans, but this homemade version that I had in Veliko Turnovo was unlike any I have ever had. Sunflower oil is the traditional kitchen oil here and the potatoes have little starch, but I haven’t a clue how this one was made. I’m determined to find out. I think it’s probably made with the light, fluffy, local white bread, sunflower oil, the local sweet young onions, and fresh, poached roe, whisked in a blender. Stay tuned! Of course, I don’t blame the waiter for not giving me the recipe; Veliko Turnovo is so insanely charming that it needs no more tourists!

The photo of sunflower fields was taken from our moving car; the photo of Veliko Turnovo was taken from our hotel room balcony (Le Corbusier was stunned by its “organic architecture.”)

I couldn’t write about fish in Bulgaria without mentioning The Black Sea (above). Though I’ve only spent one night in Varna, we did make it down to one of the bustling waterfront restaurants where I had a delicious fish head soup. The soup was perfectly made, with chunks of white flesh, potatoes, and parsley floating in a clear broth. The recipe for the broth does not vary much anywhere in the world. Surely you don’t need a recipe, do you?

August 8, 2011

Bulgarian Yogurt and some other joys of the cuisine

I almost immediately became aware of the omnipresence of yogurt, which in Bulgaria is called кисело мляко (kiselo mlyako, or sour milk). Bulgarians are rightfully proud of theirs, which is not only superior, but which is also of the place. While yogurt has been a major component of the Asia Minor diet for thousands of years, it wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th Century that a medical student first described the bacterium responsible for its culture — Lactobacillus bulgaricus, which grows only in the immediate region. Now renamed, the bacterium and others are used for yogurt production around the world, but experts are careful to point out that Bulgarian yogurt can only be made in Bulgaria.

Our language teacher this morning told us to look for BDC on the label – it’s a sign of natural purity, meaning that only fresh milk and naturally-occurring bacteria are involved in the production. Most yogurt for daily consumption is made here from cow’s milk, but milk from water buffalo, goats, and sheep are also used and are often better.

Bulgarians eat yogurt all day – for breakfast with muesli; as the refreshing summer drink, Ayryan (basically, equal parts of thick yogurt and cold water, blended well with a dash of salt); in the delightful summer soup, Tarator (recipe follows); and in all manner of main dishes, side dishes, and desserts (most often plain, with fruit and/or honey). Bulgarian fruits and honey, I must add, are perhaps the best I’ve ever had.

When I lived in Liguria, on the Italian Riviera, in the early 80s, my cooking was transformed by the use of fresh herbs in nearly every dish I now prepare. Here, I think, I’ll learn to use choubritza – summer savory – the way I learned to use marjoram there. It shows up in many dishes, including the salt mixture known as sharena sol (colorful salt), which you dip your bread in. Considered a traditional welcome, some old-style mehanas (taverns) even have waiters that offer you a piece of bread and sharena sol as you enter. Though sharena sol is usually paprika, salt, and savory, it might include any number of ingredients such fenugreek, cornmeal, cumin, basil, or ground pumpkin seeds.

At Pod Lipite, a traditional restaurant that opened in 1926, we had bread made from wild garlic, which we dipped in sharena sol. In Tryavna, in the Central Bulgarian Balkans, sharena sol that was artfully layered was being sold in the tourist shops. (See photos, above.)

Tarator (Bulgarian Yogurt Soup)

The photo of tarator here looks oddly magenta because we were sitting under a bright red Coca-Cola umbrella at a roadside mehana near Yablanitsa in the western Lovech province. The soup is actually snow white.This recipe came to me from Jacki, a Peace Corps Volunteer in South-Central Bulgaria, who wrote: “I learned it from the mother of one of the families that ‘adopted’ me. She doesn’t have a recipe written down nor does she use any sort of measuring tool.  The amounts of ingredients listed below are all based on my best estimates from watching her cook.  You may need to tweak the amounts a bit to get the soup exactly to your liking.  Enjoy!” Mikel got to taste Jacki’s tarator, and tells me it was “super,” as they say here.

– 2 large containers of plain yogurt
– 2 large cucumbers (leave skin on)
– minced garlic, maybe about ½ tablespoon
– several sprigs of fresh dill, chopped into tiny tiny pieces
– a dash of salt, maybe about a teaspoon
– a generous drizzle of olive oil, maybe about a tablespoon
– crushed walnuts, maybe about half a cup

To save time, you can make the tarator in the container you will plan to store it in.

1. Pour yogurt into bowl and beat until smooth
2. Dice cucumbers, including skin and seeds, into tiny pieces and add to yogurt
3. Add minced garlic
4. Chop fresh dill into tiny tiny pieces and add to mixture
5. Add salt to taste
6. Add olive oil to taste
7. Add chopped walnuts to taste
8. Mix well
9. Chill mixture in refrigerator
10.  Water down to taste before serving

Don’t add water until right before serving.  Without water, the mixture will stay good for at least a week, usually two.

Milk Salad

Mlechna salata – milk salad, also known as Snejanka salata (Салата Снежанка — Snow White Salad), is another yogurt dish you will find amongst the enormous variety of salads offered on Bulgarian menus. Similar to the Greek tzatziki, it is composed of yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, salt, dill, and sometimes roasted peppers, walnuts, and/or parsley. The yogurt is drained in a fine sieve or through cheese cloth for several hours, then peeled cucumbers and finely chopped dill or parsley are added, along with peeled fresh garlic cloves chopped with salt. A bit of oil is stirred in (sunflower is traditional in most of Bulgaria, but I use EVOO the way they do near the Greek, Turkish, and Macedonian borders). Ground walnuts can be added to the salad or used as a garnish. Dill, parsley, seasonal vegetables and roasted peppers might accompany the milk salad.

Walnuts  also appear in many dishes, such as this delightful, savory dish of oven-roasted “Western” cheese served with wild blueberries, which we had at Pod Lipite. I’m sure the cheese was made from sheep’s milk in the Western Balkans, but I’ll have to find out. It was sublime.





August 7, 2011 Corn meal mush with greens —

My Appalachian Granny would be proud!

Tonight we went to Pod Lipite (Under the Linden Tree), probably the most famous, traditional restaurant in Sofia (opened in 1926). I had a remarkable dish — actually it’s the national dish of Romania, but it’s very popular here as well): КАЧАМАК СЪС СПАНАК И КОЗЕ СИРЕНЕ. Basically, polenta cakes with spinach and goat’s milk sirene. (In Romania the cornmeal mush is made into balls that are variously stuffed and called mămăliga, but these were elegant cornmeal cakes filled with spinach and served hot between slices of hot, fresh goat cheese; see photo.) Kachamak, it’s called.

We also went to a plant nursery today and the first rose I stooped down to smell was a Mr. Lincoln, one of our favorites (we only grow fragrant roses)  back home! Needless to say, we bought it to put on our balcony.

We will be going to a conference in Sibiu, Romania, the last week of September, in the heart of Transylvania. I can’t wait to try the foods that I’ve reading about in Paul Kovi’s marvelous Transylvanian Cuisine for 25 years now!

August, 2011 A new life in Bulgaria

It’s been nine months since Mikel was told that he had been hired as the Peace Corps Country Director of Bulgaria, but it has taken us most of this time for us to finally to begin to settle into the capital city of Sofia (pronounced SOF ee ah, not so FEE ah as in Loren).

It’s a lovely country and I can tell you from our six weeks here that you can just forget most of what you’ve read about the place – if, indeed, you have read anything at all. Yes, there are potholes in the roads, and, yes, there is corruption (as if we didn’t have either in the US), and, yes, the language is frustratingly hard for those of us who have never studied a Slavic language before, BUT the people are friendly, the corruption is mostly at the top (many of whom are men to came to power in the Soviet era), and the country is small (the size of Tennesse), so you can go anywhere in the country from Sofia in five hours. I know, because I’ve been with Mikel on site visits to see Peace Corps Volunteers in villages all over Bulgaria. It’s a stunningly beautiful country of verdant mountains and rich alluvial plains, planted with acres and acres of wheat, corn, sunflowers, and grape vines.

In our travels, and in my perambulations around this fascinating city, I have been astounded by the layers and layers of culture, and how the Bulgarians, who have been oppressed by one regime after another for most of their history, have never lost a national identity. They have clung to their language, though it is only spoken by about 10 million people (the country’s population, falling for years, is about 7-1/2 million). They even have a national holiday celebrating the Cyrillic alphabet, which was invented here (and which the Russians took and made even more complicated). The alphabet and language are so revered that Bulgarians do not separate it from who they are: the holiday is called The Day of the Cyrillic Alphabet, Bulgarian Enlightenment, and Culture. Having lived under the yoke of the Ottoman Empire, Stalin, Hitler, and the Soviets, it’s no wonder the language has survived – that was the one thing that all the many despots could not take away from them.

It’s an uphill battle for me, at 61, to learn a new language in which I must wrap my addled brain around a new word for nearly everything (unlike learning the Romance or Germanic languages, which share so many words – and grammatical structures – with English). You’d think I’d learn the food words rather quickly, since, now that my kitchenware has arrived, I’m out shopping for produce and cooking at home. But I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t find it challenging. Yes, I can always point to a vegetable and indicate how many I’d like on my fingers, but my learning curve is still nearly flat-lining as I also adapt to metric weights, measures, and temperatures. Not that my “Easy Bake Oven” bakes at anywhere near my calculations. Don’t get me wrong: we live in the sleekest, most modern place we’ve ever lived in, with all the modern conveniences.I just happen to be used to a bigger oven. I’m not surprised, though, that electric ovens aren’t revered: they grill nearly everything (or stew them for hours in wood-fired ovens).You can buy just about anything you could possibly want here, and I’ve never had better fruits and vegetables.

It helps, of course, that most of them are picked when they’re ripe and are never refrigerated. Tomatoes (some of the dozens of heirloom varieties offered at the ubiquitous roadside stands are pictured, right) are easy:  домати(domati), but that’s one of the few words – pizza, telephone, and apartment are the other three that come to mind – that translate rather forthrightly. And they are absolutely delicious, as are the краставици (krastavitsi –cucumbers), моркови(morkovi – carrots), картофи(kartofi – potatoes, which I was hoping would at least be artichokes, since the Italian – carciofi – is a similar word!), Тиквичкa (tikvichka — squash), ябълки(yabulki – apples), and праскови(praskovi – peaches). Of course, like the word Sofia, don’t think that you know which syllable is accented! And – this is true in French and Italian as well – don’t ever use the short “i” as in the word “it,” because it just doesn’t exist. And, yes, that is okra pictured above with the pole beans and melons, the word for which I knew because it’s the same in Hebrew and throughout the Middle East: бамя (bamya). (Perhaps you read my okra story here before.)

Meals often begin with a Shopska salad – a huge mound of cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and grated sirene (accent on the first syllable), a fresh white cheese that is related to feta (but which was invented in Bulgaria, you will quickly learn, as was yogurt). It’s called Shopska after the Shopite — the people who live in the area around Sofia.

There are dozens and dozens of varieties of sirene, with each village boasting its own version. Some are soft and creamy, others as crumbly and salty as Greek feta. You might recognize this dish as what we have come to call a Greek salad in America, but it’s Bulgarian, too. You may linger over this dish for hours, sipping shot glasses of rakia, which is alternately described as either brandy or grappa. It’s distilled wine. Everyone makes it at home, mostly from grapes, though it’s also made from slivi, or Damson plums. (You may have had slivovitz or slivovitsa if you’ve traveled elsewhere in the Balkans; it’s hugely popular throughout the region.) In the photo below, the sirene is displayed with signs designating not only the village, but whether it’s from cow (krabe), goat (koze), or ewe (ovste).

We arrived during the height of the cherry season, and never have I seen so many varieties, from pale golden to yellow blushed with red like a peach, to all shades of bright crimson and deep purplish black. I also saw a wild cherry (left) not unlike the American ones growing near Tryavna, in the Central Balkans, and, if I had had anything with me in which to put them, I would have gathered them and brought them home and made cherry bounce (the recipe appeared in an early blog of mine in July 2007).

Tryavna was the first place we visited outside Sofia, and it was charming. Nestled up against the river of the same name in a valley surrounded by lush green mountains, the town is a living museum of National Revival Architecture and traditional craftsmanship. It was there that I learned first-hand that everyone in Bulgaria, it seems, if only on the balcony of their Soviet bloc apartment, has grape arbors.




In the image at left, arbors provide shade as well as grapes above garages built under the houses on the residential slopes rising above the old village.


Bulgaria has been continuously settled by humans longer than any other place in Europe. I’ve been in several local museums and seen evidence of sophisticated Neolithic settlements in Bulgaria that predate the better known Copper and Bronze Age periods. The ancient Greeks may have looked down on the Thracians as barbarians, but there are elegant Thracian ruins that have revealed jewelry and glassware as refined as the Romans’. There’s so much to learn here, and I look forward to sharing it with you all.