The Rhodope Mountains

Posted on September 1, 2011 in Bulgaria, Travels

Traveling through the Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria

For several weeks in the summer of 2011, I traveled with Mikel throughout Bulgaria visiting Peace Corps Volunteers. Here are some of my photos, with captions. I have not yet proofread this, so let me know if you find something before I do!

In many of the Peace Corps sites, the volunteers work with Bulgarian Muslims, or Pomatsi. Their villages tend to be in the higher, more remote locations. Sometimes there are two mosques in one village. Some villagers are extremely devout, stopping work when time for prayer is called by the imam from the mosque (jamiya). We were visiting during Ramadan (Ramazan in some dialects) and many of the families, the women often dressed in traditional attire, were fasting. Even so, they offered us food while they abstained. They are a gentle, farming people, loving and kind, as far removed from radical Islam as my Sunday school teacher was from the so-called religious right.They keep bees (the honey centrifuge at left was in the home of the landlord of one of the volunteers in these hills in Southwestern Bulgaria). They grow corn and tobacco as cash crops, and, where the altitude is too high for those plants, they grow potatoes. Though vast fields of corn and sunflowers are grown in the valleys, the sweet corn in the mountains is favored for its depth of flavor. Like the heirloom corn that I have ground me in the mountains of Georgia, this corn is sweet but not cloyingly so, and it tastes like the corn of my childhood.
In the photo at left, below, tobacco hangs to dry with corn in the background.

Villagers supplement their nonexistent incomes selling mushrooms, jams, fruits, onions, potatoes, yogurt, fresh and dried vegetables, and honey. Mushrooms are gathered from the wild, such as these porcini and chanterelles, and are grown at home, such as in these dirt-filled plastic bags inoculated with spores. What doesn’t sell as fresh will be sold as dried or preserved.

In any town — even in Sofia, the capital, with its million-and-a-half people — horse-drawn carts are a common sight, and you are liable to come upon a shepherd and his flock of sheep, goats, turkeys, ducks, or cows. Cows are rarely fenced, except near major highways. Everywhere you look, there is food production.
Grapevines, peppers, and tomatoes grow in the tiniest of dooryards and on balconies. In Sofia, you can barely walk a block without finding a street vendor of melons.

I took this photo of the inner-city melon stand near Mikel’s office a couple of weeks ago. Yesterday when I passed it, there was a HUGE mound of small round watermelons — with both red and yellow flesh — that filled the larger tent. I’m sure he will sell out again. The melons, like the peaches, are indescribably delicious. If you go to buy peaches, the vendors will ask you if you want to eat them tonight or in the morning. If you want peaches that will be ready TOMORROW night, then you’ll have to come back tomorrow. Little is refrigerated, so everything is picked and sold at the height of ripeness. I don’t remember having better produce even when I grew it myself in South Carolina and Georgia.
What I can’t figure out is why one melon or peach is any more expensive than another. They all taste divine to me!

The prices at left are per kilo (more than 2.2 pounds), and that’s in lev, the local currency, which exchanges at $.75. So a pound of the most expensive peaches costs 75 cents, and a pound of their best melons costs about 67 cents! Welcome to Paradise!

I haven’t missed the meats I would normally eat back home (not that I ate that much in the States, anyway), but I have found beautiful milk-fed lamb, rabbit, and duck breasts. I’m not making much progress with the language, mostly because I’ve been on the road with Mikel and never study, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that I find it difficult. I had a conversation with one of Mikel’s Bulgarian coworkers about buying duck, and he said it wasn’t time to kill them yet, that his father raises them in the country, and when they’re of age, he’ll bring me one. And then he began telling me the differences between the words for duck and duck meat…. and here are my notes from that conversation:

патица гърдата (patitsa gurdata) is duck breast; четири патешко магре (chetiri pateshko magre) is four duck breasts (“magrets” in French! I know that one!); дива патица (diva patitsa) is wild duck; патка (patka) is female duck (accent on first syllable); паток (patok) is male duck (accent on second). The
definite article (the) is a suffix added to noun (or to the adjective
is the noun is modified). And then there is the “counting form,” which he said I didn’t need to know about yet!

In many ways, I’m settling in to a lifestyle not much different from mine back home. I’ve always spent most of my adult life alone (except when I had the shop). And I’m cooking things pretty much the way I would anyway. To wit, here’s a duck breast seared in a frying pan (lots of recipes on the blog under Readers’ Comments on January 23, 2009), served alongside what I would call Tuscan style beans (recipe follows), but which is a common dish here as well. That’s Moravian cole slaw on the side (recipe appeared on August 12, 2007). And when we came back from being on the road, I had purposely pulled a homemade Bolognese sauce from the freezer and tucked it into the fridge to thaw, just so that we could have some comfort food when we got home.

But I’ve also been learning new ways with food, new ingredients, and new words. Fortunately the word for bean is easy: it’s “bob,”
though the plural is bobove. When I saw scarlet runner beans growing high in the mountains overlooking the Rocky-like Pirin peaks, I knew that I would be buying dried beans from the women on the side of the road on the way back down the mountain. But, as I have written many times before, the nomenclature of beans is maddeningly confusing, even for botanists. Common names make it worse, especially since the words change as you move from village to village. For many, bobs are white beans that for all the world look like cannellini. Some botanists classify the white bobs of the Rhodopi as a “runner variety of cannellini,” but others say that it’s Phaseolus coccineus (because of the red flowers), not Phaseolus vulgaris, which includes nearly all the bush and runner green beans. These are the famous “fagioli” of southern Italy, not the cannellini of Tuscany; Italians call them fagioli di Spagna. In Russia they’re known as Turkish bobs. And anywhere you say fazul, they’ll probably know what you mean.There are two giant varieties grown in nearby Greece. I refer you to this website to sort them out for yourselves.

Here they are growing in the most remote village we visited, high up in the Rhodopi above Yakoruda. Down in town, a woman is stringing them to dry, with part of the green pod. At a potluck dinner in Bansko, I cooked these rather young ones with a bullion cube and a bit of onion.

I’ve even blanched green ones, sliced them, and used them as I would haricot verts in pasta with pesto.

Here’s a recipe I published in 1995 in The New Southern Cook. It’s really no different from how I cooked the dried beans in the photo of the duck breast, above, or how they cook them here in Bulgaria.

Tuscan-Style Beans (from The New Southern Cook)

beans have been a staple in the South since time immemorial, but they have
traditionally been cooked with pieces of cured pork. The minuscule amount of
fat that a smoked ham hock adds to a pot of beans probably wouldn’t hurt
anyone, but many people shy away from cooking the old way regardless. This is a
perfectly delicious way to serve beans, even if you are a traditionalist like
me — and it’s something you can serve your vegetarian and Jewish friends.

of varieties of beans have always been grown in the South, some of them hard to
find outside the region. Other parts of the country have their own special
varieties as well. Phipps Ranch in Pescadero,
California grows dozens of varieties organically. All their harvesting and sorting
is done by hand, and the beans are always the most recent “vintage.”
Use  whatever bean you prefer, but be
mindful that freshness and variety determine cooking times.

          1 cup dried beans

          3 cloves garlic, unpeeled

          1  sprig fresh thyme

          1 teaspoon salt

          3 tablespoons olive oil

          1-1/2 cups (about 3 medium) peeled, seeded, and chopped            tomatoes

          2 tablespoons fresh chopped basil, divided

          1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

     Soak the
beans overnight in water. Drain and rinse the beans, then place them in a
stockpot with 6 cups of water, the garlic, the thyme, and salt. Simmer for 1 to
1-1/2 hours or until tender. Drain the beans.

the olive oil over medium heat. Slip the garlic out of its skins and add it,
the tomatoes, and 1 tablespoon of the basil to the oil, stirring well. Cook
until most of the liquid has evaporated and the flavors have mingled.

     Add the
beans and heat just through, carefully mixing with the tomates, being careful
not to break the beans. Finish the dish with the lemon juice and remaining
basil. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Yields 6 servings.


Here are those potato fields where the growing season isn’t long enough for tobacco. The potatoes of Bulgaria have a silky smooth yellow flesh, not unlike Yukon Golds, but they are much more flavorful and they seem to be almost starchless. I love their fried potatoes (which they do NOT call “French”), which seldom get as crisp as most folks would probably like (the low starch content the likely reason), but which are regularly served with fresh sirene (the feta-like national cheese of Bulgaria) grated on top. I even prefer this to homemade mayonnaise, and if you are a regular reader, you know that I love homemade mayo.

Bulgaria is the home of this type of cheese, as well as yogurt, and some of the best are made from sheep’s, goat’s, and water buffalo’s milk. I buy my yogurt from the trunk of a guy’s car in a market near Mikel’s office. My preferred sirene is fresh, not salted. I like it all, but the sheep’s and goat’s are special. Here’s a fresh (made that morning) goat sirene that we ate at Kruchma, a tavern in the tiny, picturesque mountain village of Leshten. When we sat down on the porch overlooking the mountains, I told the owner that I only wanted food “from the area.” He shrugged his shoulders and looked exasperated and said (as best as I and the Peace Corps volunteer with us could figure), “Look around you. Everything is from here. Where else do you think I’m going to get it?” He had his point. We ordered almost everything on the menu. It was one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten. In addition to the sirene (the fist photo, below), these were among the dishes we had:

To the right, above, surmi (stuffed grape leaves) with homemade sheep’s milk yogurt. Below, to the left, Lyutinitsa, a roasted pepper spread, and, to the right, roasted peppers and tomatoes.

Oh, my! I’m getting hungry just looking at these photos! We also had kyufte, which they love to translate as   “meatballs” but which invariably are burger-sized; and fried zucchini with yogurt/dill sauce (below, left), but the coup de grace for me was the fresh pressed wild mountain raspberry juice (right).

Though I’ve yet to discover an elegance in the cuisine, the cooking here is rooted in the finest of produce, and much  of it is either grilled over a wood fire or slowly cooked in a wood-fired oven. I’ve had some excellent pizzas here, for example (though they love to fill them with such things as corn, of all things!), and the slowly stewed dishes, I imagine, will be just the thing for the snowy winters. I’m sure there are some fancy restaurants where the food is elevated from its lovely peasant traditions, but I’m not really interested in prissy anyway. I do wish that there were fewer smokers and that the restaurants would abide by the no-smoking laws. I guess someone has to smoke all that tobacco they’re growing!

More seriously, though, I am so impressed with the gardening soul of the country. In many places, people live completely off their small plots of land in a sustainable manner, rotating plants, saving seeds, feeding animals whole-grains and scraps, and making fine dairy products and fruit preserves. There’s the elegance!

Here’s a typical backyard garden, with cabbages, potatoes, beans, tomatoes, peppers, squash, corn, grapes, berries, okra, herbs, and fruit trees. I can’t express how plentiful the fruit trees are. They are planted everywhere you look, in dooryards and city parks, on balconies and in driveways. It’s almost apple season and many of the table grapes are already being harvested.

I’m beginning to explore Sofia as well, which is a very sophisticated city (it has 27 theaters for live productions) with a complicated, fascinating history. There’s a wonderful Italian food shop downtown near the National Theater called Grand Foods where I’ve bought delicate Ligurian olive oil, prosciutto di Parma aged for two years, taggiasca olives, and handmade pasta from Genoa. Though I may not be learning Bulgarian, at least I can speak Italian there with Rossen, the Sales Manager (pictured below), or French with one of the sales clerks.
I’ve also hired a French-speaking housekeeper, so I hope to brush up on my very rusty French.

I’ve already written about Costas,  my wonderful Greek fishmonger, and I’ve also found several wine merchants I like, especially the folks at Casavino, who deliver! I’m slowly discovering the joys of the Bulgarian wines, and plan to explore the vineyards when Debbie Marlowe, my wine guru, visits next month.

Among my recent finds (left) are the bobs (beans) mentioned above and pictured, cooked, in the photo with the duck breast, which I bought from a Muslim woman on the side of the road in the Rhodopi. I also bought wild alpine strawberry jam, honey, and wild blueberry jam from her.The wine is a 2001 Mavrud Reserve. I bought the last 7 bottles in town.The raspberry juice on the right was the gift of a Peace Corps volunteer, who had made it with her host family. They are Muslim, live in a tiny village, and grow all of their own food. Though they were observing Ramadan and fasting themselves, they offered us ayryan, a refreshing drink made by shaking fresh yogurt with water and salt. (Photo, below right.)

The Bulgarian Muslims live a peaceful existence in their villages. Though poor, their lives seem richly rewarding and joyful. They can their preserves on the streets, they dry juniper berries and marigold petals for export, and they dry all manner of bilki (wild herbs) for teas and holistic treatments. (Marigolds drying, left. Bilki drying, below. Juniper berries, below right.)

Everywhere I go, I seem to learn something new. About aronia (chokecherries, pictured with okra, below) and drenki (the sour red fruit of a type of dogwood tree), much esteemed throughout the Balkans and the Middle East (also pictured, below); about just how delicious mountain berries can be; about uses of fresh herbs I hadn’t thought of before; or about how good corn can be when it doesn’t taste like Frosted Flakes ®. And, daily, I’m reminded of things I knew all along: that people the world over are generally kind to strangers and they’ll share the bounty of their table even if you can’t speak their language and don’t share their religious beliefs. It’s humbling.

I have found several butchers who have been accommodating to this non-Bulgarian speaker. My favorite find? Milk-fed lamb! Notice how its flesh is pink, not red!

At left, peppers and young beans being canned on the street.Gotta go to dinner with some Volunteers! Stay tuned!