Living off the Bulgarian Land

Food here in Bulgaria is something else. Everyday a new experience is to be had in Bulgarian cuisine. I must say that it helps tremendously that my partner is Bulgarian and cooks like an angel, but that aside, the Bulgarian friends and neighbours would still tickle my taste buds at every opportunity with their own cooking.

Since coming here, there hasn't really been any moment where a pang for supermarket branded food has called out. No Twiglets, Mars Bars, Baked Beans or even Sherbet Fountains with the liquorice sticking out felt needed or wanted. In fact nowadays the only thing I can remember about these foods is the horrible aftertaste!

Those who have been here eating natural Bulgarian food for long enough will know exactly what is meant by this!

Every few weeks someone asks, “I'm coming over, what would you like me to bring over for you?” It is very difficult to think of anything, even after really thinking hard. So these kind people usually bring over some English teabags, Cadbury's cream eggs or a bottle of whisky, many thanks guys and I mean this most sincerely, but these are then actually used for English guests that come round, so very useful anyway. This is not being ungracious but just speaking truthfully about how things are now.

Here in Bulgaria, most produce comes straight out of the village homes, most of which are not just homes but smallholdings. Food comes from a variety of sources mainly grown from rich, dark, fertile land. This produce also feeds chickens, cows and calves, goats and sheep, ducks and geese, rabbits and peafowl to name a few.

Back in the village of Skalitsa where I live, there is no need for supermarket shopping. Occasionally food is bought from the supermarket, more out of habit if I happen to be in town but usually from my local village shop that provides everything I need. These needs are for bread and flour, (both made and milled in my village), sunflower oil, (locally produced), salt and sugar. Local honey is used more often for sweetening than sugar.

Filo pastry is also sometimes bought for the homemade banitsas, the recipe given for the unique Skalitsa banitsa is further on in the book but there are other pastry variations of the banitsa throughout Bulgaria.

Last but not least beer is bought here. Making your own beer here is not entertained purely on that basis and it would never touch the quality that the Belgian owners of breweries achieve here. You just can’t improve on perfect beer.

I can't say there is much else needed. As much wine, Rakia and liqueur as I could ever wish for is all locally produced in the village or on my own farm.

Sunflower seeds are gathered from the field adjoining my land and as long as it is for personal consumption there is no problem with this, in fact the mice in the field eat more than any villager. They are dried, (some salted) and stored in airtight, recycled plastic food boxes.

Chickpeas are grown and stored in the same way, sweetcorn is grown or again taken in from fields and dried but not used for animal feed, (that wouldn't be right if taken from the co-operative fields), dried and fried in oil to make popcorn: another treat from the garden flavoured either with honey or salt before popping. So there's your little variety of snacks with drinks sorted.

All the cheeses and yoghurts are homemade. All from natural ingredients. Walnuts are gathered and keep for up to a year for use in cooking and stored. Walnuts baked in honey is another Bulgarian legend in good tasting food or for use as another accompaniment to drinks. Almonds are gathered with shells you can remove without nutcrackers, ever tried that from a supermarket almond?

Fresh figs are preserved in syrup, there are melons galore both the honeydew and water type, the latter makes a marvellous jam to be eaten all year round. Strawberry jam used for cakes and for milkshakes is a summer taste second to none all year round. Apples, pears, sliva, can all be stored in boxes or bottled in syrup and kept for up to six months. My last apple was eaten in April this year was almost as good as it would have been picked in October the year before. And it was sweet and tasted like an apple!

On occasion non-Bulgarian guests visit and sometimes, 'turn their nose up' at some of the food offered because it is not like food bought in the shops. You may well be surprised at how many say that! This is the only other reason that supermarkets are frequented, to cater for the need of these occasions. No offence taken at this point, it's not their fault it's the system they have grown to rely on.

Therefore produce that is not in season has been either frozen or bottled and supplies take us through the winter and spring. This is not a chore as the garlic and onions are plaited and the tomatoes, peppers pot and pumpkins boiled for bottling on the outside wood-burning contraption. Everything is done slowly and very systematically. When it comes to doing anything like this in village life there is never any panic or rush with the long day ahead. Why do we on the other hand, still try and hurry things to get it done as quickly as possible all the time?

With all this food to hand, including most meats, a range of poultry and dairy products you can make anything you want from the ingredients. Even beef can be grown, bought or bartered for in the village.

Everything and more is grown here than in the UK so what's the problem there? Nothing, it would seem, the problem in the UK for many is the culture of buying convenient food rather than growing your own. How many have a garden where produce can be grown? most people. The climate here helps a lot, but what makes it work here and not there is the way of life and the homegrown food culture, that left the UK some 40-50 years ago. You come to Bulgaria and take a big step back in time. It hit me last night yet again how the simplest ingredients can turn out to be another memorable meal. Just a sliced young marrow fresh from the garden dipped in flour and fried until brown then served hot topped with homemade yoghurt. It was that simple
but the result was something very special. Everyday another taste or recipe is laid out and enjoyed; it really is like going back to base ingredients and enjoying them for what they are.

How often is this forgotten, bowing to commercially processed foods made for you from a point of ease and laziness? For convenience, the process squeezes out the taste of natural foods with chemically enhanced products as the replacement, and this becomes the 'taste of the norm' for the weekly consumers.

Food regulations don't help and in fairness the argument will always be health first - which I have to agree with. But I must add a summing up of the situation at this point by saying that this is may be an overkill in regulations. Perhaps this is an unfortunate phrase, considering that the artificial preservatives and enhancers being consumed ironically mandatorily in processed food for health reasons, defeat the object.

It is quite strange that most village folk don't have a choice of shopping for food over growing their own food; they simply can't afford it. If they could afford to and had a choice the convenience foods are there, waiting in the wings ready to pounce for profits, which is the name of the game. The new generation of Bulgarians is making its way to become part of the American and Euro fast food brigade. Horticultural activities carried out as in villages throughout Bulgaria may be just restricted to commercial dimensions as they were in the UK so many years ago. I am grateful and privileged to have the opportunity to experience Bulgaria as it is now.

Just one point I should mention as I continually hear stories about this, it's an old wives' tale: eggs! The chickens I keep are totally free range, with access to all natural food in the big yard and greenery from the wasted organic vegetation, with a supplement of natural wheat to call them home in the evening. Nothing could be more free range than these chickens. So, when someone says, 'Oh, I tried some free range eggs and the colour of the yolk was so deep in colour, it was orange!'

What are you thinking right now? Do you have this picture of this apparently fresh free-range egg now revealing its sensuous lush orange yolk just waiting to melt in the mouth after being lightly fried in a little oil and laid on a bed of the softest white buttered bread you could imagine? Looks good? Tastes good? Doubt it! This is not true; the colour of free-range eggs is usually just plain yellow at best!

On the contrary My Dear Watson battery and commercial egg producers (other than the chickens themselves of course), put colour additives in the feed to produce a more deeply coloured yolk, which is what the consumer wants and gets - supply and demand. So the chicken may be described as free-range but what are they given to eat? Market research has found that the yellow yolk doesn't sell as well as the darker orange tinted colour, so they artificially change the colour by using chemicals in the feed. Next time you go to a town supermarket and buy eggs, even so called free-range, see how orange the yolk is; you know why now.

Finally, and this doesn't apply to many people coming over here but it does to some, it is so petty when I hear complaints about Bulgarian food from non-Bulgarians. The comments include, 'It has no taste!' or 'It's bland!' or It's boring!' Well these sentiments just get passed back into thinking it's not the food but the people who complain who have no taste, are bland and boring. In many cases they just haven't even tried Bulgarian food! I just remember a quote from someone talking about Bulgarian food saying, 'I hate Bulgarian sausages, I have never tasted one and never will!'

No names mentioned here of course but this comment just speaks for itself.

Back to Bulgarian earth chaps - I am still a lifetime away from getting my produce up to the standard of my Bulgarian neighbours: the learning goes on all the time. With a previous life in the UK weaned on convenience foods combined with no time to eat due to work constraints, it is like being born again here in Bulgaria. In Bulgaria I have found one thing that rings true, the food grows faster than the pace of life.