Windfall Apples For More Rakia

Windfall Apples For More RakiaIt was quite a sad expatriate who looked out on the land over the last few weeks. Only being at the farmhouse at weekends meant that the land and produce only got tended to once a week. There had been a mass of fruit on the farmhouse apples trees this year. There wasn't anything last year due to the drought; so you would think that I would be pleased with the outcome this time around. Well actually this made it worse, as all the apples are in the process of rotting as a they lay on the ground due to on day of high winds early in the week and me not being there to gather them up. It was complete frustration not being able to eat them or make conserve from the seemingly 'dead' crop lying on the ground. To my mind a whole year's feast of apples will now continue to decay where they were. They had been grounded too long and now just fodder for insects and straying turkeys that who were all doing a grand job as it stood.

We had more Bulgarian family guests staying at the farmhouse this weekend and they knew all about Bulgarian ways and village life. As one guest surveyed the garden, he came back in the house all excited shouting ‘Yabalki rakia!’ (apple rakia). With this statement I had to disagree saying that most of the apples rotten and have no use for anything other than animal feed, but he was still very insistent that they could be used for rakia.

Before I had even agreed to give it a try, the whole family were already outside in the orchard picking all the wind fallen apples. The trees were shaken for a rainfall of other rotting apples that were also gathered up.

Windfall Apples For More RakiaI had just finished distilling 30 litres of rakia earlier that week from the grape crop and the idea that more rakia could be made from his fallen and decaying crop of apples began to eat my doubts away. These are Bulgarians, they know about rakia and the process, why do I doubt them? Well, it was is just my English tradition on being brought up on sterilisation and cleanliness in any winemaking process that leads me to believe this wouldn't succeed. The thought of all that bacteria, soil, insects, worms and even bird crap on the apples would not be good for the fermentation process. I began to think more and concluded that, rather than let these apples totally rot; it's certainly worth a try.

After 30 minutes all the apples had been gathered in a barrel and put into the summerhouse for a short period of storage. I kept insisting that this wouldn't work but the usual 'Ne problem!' kept coming back.

When the 'cider' is made, the idea was to add water and sugar on a 3:1 ratio and leave it to ferment further, then it will stand until next spring when the distilling can take place. There didn't seem to be any worry or doubts that this wouldn’t' work with the time this barrel will be spent sitting there with the rotting apples.

Windfall Apples For More RakiaNext weekend we have to bring 30 kilograms of sugar and 90 litres of water from the well to be added to the apples in the barrel. after the first fermentation has started Every day we will have to mash up the apples further to help the fermentation with a very strong apple wine or cider result after about a month. to six weeks. It will certainly be warm enough with the ever ready and warm sun shining through the mainly glass summerhouse where the barrel stands.

Lingering doubts in my head as to whether this would work were subsiding even further with more thoughts: What the hell do I know what works and what doesn't in Bulgarian rakia making from apples? I only been here a few years and have no qualification to argue that it wouldn't work. Besides, what Bulgarians would waste money on buying the increasingly expensive sugar? If there was any chance it could fail they would do it. From these points I think I was now convinced it should work?

So the wait is on.

Wild Bulgarian Spinach or Laput

It was another weekend in Skalitsa as we decided to go fishing in a neighbouring village for a few hours. We didn't last too long there as there was a cold wind coming off the reservoir. Even though we dressed for it were all too cold for comfort at this point. Besides that there wasn't any fish biting so we decided to pack up and made our way back to Skalitsa to load up and light the wood burner with a rakia or two to warm us all up again.

Wild Bulgarian Spinach or LaputAs we journey a couple of kilometres along the rough dirt track back to the main road there was a sudden cry of 'Stigger, ima laput!' Which means, stop, there is spinach.

Wild Bulgarian Spinach or LaputI braked hard with the command and we looked outside on by the track and saw quite clearly a couple of untouched bushes of laput ready for harvesting. It is a form of wild spinach, which we often pick throughout most of the year. It grows all over Bulgaria and is a favourite to many Bulgarian dinner tables. It was strange to see this untouched and un-harvested here in an area where many people dump their rubbish. We couldn't believe out luck as were started gathering the young broadleaves with the thought of enhanced food when we get back home.

After about ten minutes we have picked enough for a family meal as we stuffed them into a plastic bag that was originally reserved for the fish we didn't catch.

Wild Bulgarian Spinach or LaputThe laput once back home in the farmhouse was washed and the stems removed by Galia in preparation for the cooking. I wasn’t too sure what the recipe was, but it had home-grown goat from last year and rice in the dish, along with the addition of the laput. All put together to make a beautiful stew. This was perfect food for the evening that had now turned even colder outside. It seems every weekend in the village is a story about local food from the productive lands. Well there is so much to tell I find that I can't help but blog about it.

The lack of fish, the cold weather this particular weekend reminded us all that winter isn't far away. Winter here in Bulgaria is a time for families gathering around the wood burner, eating drinking produce that has been made during warmer times and of course the talking never ends.

And so, the laput dish or wild spinach based goat dish was eaten that very evening. You know what I am going to say now so I will leave you there!

Weekend Feast of Bulgarian Food

Weekend Feast of Bulgarian FoodWhenever I write about food some of the feedback I get says that there is better food in other parts of the world and that what I say is a distortion of the truth about food in Bulgaria. To me these critics can say what they want. Most that doubt my word haven’t even tried the food I have experienced here. Some may have, but they have only been to restaurant and bars that cater for a more western tourist taste. Until someone has tried home cooked and prepared Bulgarian food in a Bulgarian home with Bulgarian company these ‘mouthful self-righteous’ comments can just be ignored and the writers that compose them have pity taken upon them as they will never ever know.

Weekend Feast of Bulgarian FoodJust to rub noses into the Bulgarian food scene again, this weekend past turned out to be a feast of wonderful food as my farmhouse in Skalitsa. It was opened to family guests, all female Bulgarians bar me. Every woman knew how to cook and cook well. Bulgarian food was on the table from the very first moment we arrived and never stopped right through to Sunday evening when we went back to our Yambol home. Even when we arrived there, Bulgarian food was waiting for us on the table from Baba.

The weekend menu started that very Friday evening:

Local cabbage and carrot salad, (Yambol grown)
barbecued peppers. (Skalitsa Farmhouse produced)
Homemade Barbecued Kyufte (Skalitsa goat based mince)
Local chemical free bread, (Skalitsa made)
Aryan (buttermilk) from Skalitsa cow milk
Homemade Sliva (Plum) Rakia (from Skalitsa sliva )
Ariana Beer (Sofia)

Weekend Feast of Bulgarian FoodThe following morning’s menu:

Homemade pancakes dressed with Skalitsa honey
Banitsa made with sirene and Yambol leeks
Menthe Tea

Kyufte (Yesturday's Leftovers)
Cucumber and tomato salad (Yambol produced)
Lemonade (Made in Yambol)

Late afternoon:
Sunflower seeds (Skalitsa produced)

Weekend Feast of Bulgarian FoodThe evening menu:
Shopska Salad
Rakia (Skalitsa Farmhouse Grape based)

Ariana Beer

Oven baked
Baked Yambol Rabbit with fried liver, heart kidney and rice stuffing. Accompanied with onions, garlic, potato carrots and broccoli

Sunday morning:
More freshly cooked pancakes
Menthe Tea
Brazilian Coffee!

Sunday Lunchtime (Late):
Sarma made from Goat mince, Skalitsa Farmhouse vine leaves and Bulgarian rice

There were so many feasting highlights this weekend it was hard to choose the best. The Baked stuffed rabbit got the accolade of the best presented feast. We had to improvise a bit as I didn't have needle and thread in the house being an Englishman's house, so we used a metal skewer to sew up the rabbit stomach to keep the stuffing in.

Weekend Feast of Bulgarian FoodAlso I hadn't mentioned about the pickling that went on as well during the weekend. We now have lots of vegetable in store to last us through the winter. The cabbages will be stored in the massive 240 litres barrels, where the wine has was feremented and turned into Rakia a few days ago.

After a fabulous feasting weekend, it was back to Yambol for more food and drink in the evening. All I can say is Phew! What's more, because all the Bulgarian women about, I didn't have to lift a finger, even though I tried and got told off!

Rakia Making Day in Yambol

Today was the yearly trip to the Rakia house to make the spirit that runs through Bulgarian's veins. Normally it is done in my village of Skalista, but this year I was to attend a Yambol Rakia House.

The night before everything was prepared as I had to be there at 6:00 in the morning, this is the busiest tome of the year and the only time I could get. Five leva was paid as a deposit for the reservation and ten leva to be paid on the day of distilling. The price of fifteen lva is the same as it was in Skalitsa two years ago, quite suprising with inflation running so high in the country at the moment.

The routine was very much the same, the only difference was that there were ten distilling units in the house rather than the two or three in the villages. There were also, multiple parties of eating and drinking rather than one.

The interaction and communication between the individual Rakia makers was buzzing, normal in Bulgaria, every one helps everyone else. In fact what I noticed was that I was the only person distilling on my own. Every other distiller had a partner or two helping, either family, a friend, there were many wives there bring in the wood for the fires, well, that's what they do at home I suppose.

Rakia Making Day in YambolThe whole process took 5 hours from start to finish and many tips were picked up on methods used and additional components added to the wine and subsequently the Rakia. In fact do many tips it is impossible to take them all up. Everyone tells me that they make the best grape Rakia, so which is the best of the best?This time round I just stuck to basics taught to me originally in Skalitsa which of course is a secret!

Throughout my time in the Rakia house, there was no shortage of conversation, and help which made the experience in Yambol a new but most enjoyable one with new friends made.

At the end of the day there is now some 30 litres of Rakia graded at 50% proof, more than enough to see through to next autumn where the process will run again.

If you want to find out more about what happened during the process, read the account on The Rakia Site.

Speaking Bulgarian Is A Must Here

Speaking Bulgarian Is a Must HereSpeaking Bulgarian is a must if you intend to live in Bulgaria, not least just out of respect for the country you choose to live in. How would you feel if someone came to your home country and just didn’t bother try and speak your language? Without any knowledge of Bulgarian you will be spending a lot of money for many reasons, including getting conned by Bulgarian who take advantage of you. I’ve seen it happen.

Since coming here I am quite proud of the fact that I can quite easily get by with my Bulgarian, in fact it only took a couple of weeks to be able to manage simple greeting, a little small talk, shopping and getting around. I’m not that intelligent and have dyslexia so if I can do it so can others. I had to try really hard to set aside time to learn by various methods. Labelling all the items in the home, having the Cyrillic alphabet on the wall in my sitting room staring at me all the time. Also, and not successfully, reading language tutorial books, tapes and CDs, all of which I stopped after the first 10 pages because they just didn’t work for me.

The most effective way to learn was to visit neighbours and although in the beginning there was hour just sitting there like a lemon, there is a transition of just picking up a few odd words, then to a few sentences and right now, understanding most of what the conversations are about and contributing to a degree. This has taken three years but then I have had an advantage of working and living with other Bulgarians for a couple of years now. There has not been any formal tuition in all of that time.

Speaking Bulgarian Is a Must HereThe language is difficult, many other try really hard but just can’t get off the ground with it, but at leas they try and can gain respect from other Bulgarian for the effort they make.

It comes to pass that now I speak English on very rare occasions, it can be weeks that pass and no English is spoken, then when it is called for I forget simple English words like air conditioner or wood burner, that is very strange for me. Recently I had family over from England, they had to keep reminding me of English words and found it funny that every so often I would speak in Bulgarian to them without even realising it.

This coming weekend is very different however. We are off to our Skalitsa Farmhouse for the weekend as usually, but I am accompanied with four Bulgarian women. The include Galia of course my partner, Poliya her niece and her two daughter,s Chrissie and Slivia. Chrissie is 18 and Silvia is 9 years old and they both speak English which is a mandatory requirement in taught schools now for all children in schools here. The idea is that I speak English all weekend to them so their language skills can improve. That to me is going to be very difficult for me, as I haven’t done that for over three years. A relaxing weekend it won’t be; I will be mentally exhausted by Sunday evening trying to speak English all the time.

Speaking Bulgarian Is a Must HereThere is one thing for sure, if I hadn't made the effort to learn Bulgarian there would be total isolation from everything in Bulgaria other than other expatriates who don't try to learn. And to all who know me, that would be the last thing I want.

Poverty Trap in Bulgaria

Poverty Trap in BulgariaHaving been living in Bulgaria for quite a few years now it has become more and more apparent that lack of money and high inflation are big problems for most people in Bulgaria. My family here are no exception. Even with our increasing poverty, the bandwagon of western influence hits hard on the weakness of materialism and greed. Everyday Bulgaria is being bombarded with adverts for new cars, fast food and numerous credit options to take to pay for these. It is a vicious spiral of temptation and a constant fight for many Bulgarians to feel that they have to have many things that aren’t commensurate to their income. It is a sick feeling I get when watching and experiencing this as my family here are glued to all the influence of advertising with a wish list of most things that are thrown at them.

Poverty Trap in BulgariaJust to put this in perspective, our income as a family here is just enough to put our heads above water. Galia earns £140 a month and Baba’s pension comes to just over £60 a month. That’s £50 a week to live on,before I became part of the family and Galia didn’t have any work. They just lived on just that measly pension. Without my contribution from my small savings brought here (and that won’t last long as things are) the family would suffer intolerable poverty and stress. How many other families are in this poverty trap with inflation running as around 25% in real terms? Wages and pensions never keep up with inflation here so it just gets worse month after month.

A quick word about inflation here: We all know how much things have gone up in price here. We see the 30% increase in gas and electric over the last six months, we see the cost of homes rising at over 20% + per annum and we see the cost of food shoot up, even in the height of the growing season! No matter what Bulgarian politicians and manipulative economists conjure up as the rate of inflation, the people of Bulgaria living on a day-to-day basis here, know the what the real inflation rate is

Poverty Trap in BulgariaNow it’s not just being lured into paying for luxury goods by credit as it now becomes a ‘normal’ way of funding, but having to pay for essentials by credit is becoming more common. Credit is now here to stay in Bulgaria, this wasn’t the case a few years ago.

It really is so difficult to forecast where this will end. There is no sign of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow here but just a case of trying to avoid the hell of running up credit. I can see many in the future here, many mortgaging their homes to fund day-to-day living. Looking even further ahead, many more will lose their properties to the banks and the next generation will not inherit their rightful homes causing more credit and mortgage runs.

Poverty Trap in BulgariaThe only advantage Bulgarians have over this wave of western materialistic virus is their in-built system of surviving through poverty using effective practicalities to combat this. This time however Bulgarians are not just against simple poverty of basic needs, but a danger of succumbing American culture and ways. In case you didn’t know, this is where it all the advertising comes from. There just isn’t the infrastructure in Bulgaria to live this way and they are taking advantage of a country whose population are easily led through the media looking glass.

A 2000 Year Old Trick

With some family over here from England for a short holiday it was a time a bit of a get together one evening at the farm.

Everything was prepared and set as seven English folk and Galia was the only Bulgarian present looked forward to a long night of eating drinking and not least talking. But the most memorable part of the evening was a big joke set up and administered upon one of my family.

The person who was set up is probably the biggest practical joker there and we were about to see the tables turned as the evening begun.

A few days before another one of my family had a joke played on him. He went to the Elhovo, with a swarm of expatriates now resident there and visited an antique shop. There he was very excited when he found some roman coins for sale. He was under the impression they were real couldn't believe his luck then bought a handful on impulse.

At 10 leva each, they weren't expensive as far as he was concerned. Galia and I just knew that they were copies not only from the price, which we thought was overally expensive, but also by the composition of the coins. They were excellent copies and great as a curiosity and souvenir, unfortunately that was all they were worth.

Still convinced these coins were real, we thought we'd conjure a trick on the practical joker of our family. We weren't too sure how he would react having a trick bounced on him, but went ahead anyway.

The plan was to make out that the roman coins were found in his Bulgarian garden. All the food and drink and trick were prepared as we started the evening.

On a trip to the bathroom one of the family ran back to the party all excited, muddy hands and his fist clenched with muddy roman coins. He was shouting, "Look, look what I've dug up in your garden! All the party was in on the joke as we got the new "owner by rights" to look at the coins. He was now so full of when he personally took control washing the coins in the outside tap getting more and more excited as each coin revealed itself to be 2000 years old. Plans were already being made to sell them for astronomical money in the UK as the pound signs in his eyes started rolling round.

When all the coins were cleaned it was a rush back to the garden with a garden fork to look for more before it got dark. It was the gold rush set in as he started digging away at the site where they were 'apparently found.'

In the background was stifled laughter as we tried to hold back our amusement. The joke had to end there as the fork began to work the land. It was even more laughter held back when he said that he couldn't believe they had been found as he'd dug this land over a few months ago and never found anything.

So the joke was revealed and the reaction was total reservation and a big congratulations to everyone as he had fallen for it hook line and sinker and this was one of the best tricks of all time!

It was back to the party all-high and in full swing now. Later the original coin buyer, who still thinks they are real coins got a big toad put down the back of his collar to get a little revenge for the trick. 'That's not the last of it' he said as we wait for more trickery as payback.

And what did Galia think of all this as a Bulgarian? She was in fits lf laughter all the way through the evening, lovely to see this, as she now has to get used to English humour from my side of the family.

Barbecued Pig's Ears - A Bulgarian Treat

Having not had pig’s ears for nearly two years it was more than a pleasant surprise to end up with this delicacy on the dinner table this evening.

Having been in both the villages of Skalitsa and Hanovo grape picking for two days, I returned to Yambol with a Lada crammed full of the wine producing crops, which were dragged out and then turned into a big plastic barrel.

After treading them for a while as I looked up I could see the house windows were all steamed up. It was not very warm today and this was a mystery as usually this only happens in the winter. It was in the house that the reason for this was discovered; the bottled gas stove had a pot that was bubbling away with pig’s ears. Galia having not seen me for two days she thought it would be could to surprise me with one of my favourite dishes, barbecued pigs ears!

The last time I had these was during December 2006 at a pig slaughtering even in the village, but during that time the pig’s ears were not boiled beforehand, they were just cut of the pig and immediately grilled on the fire that was heating a big pot of cabbage stew. Barbecued pig’s ears are then normally served with warm Rakia to the butchers working on the owner of the ear’s carcass. The whole experience was unforgettable, but to get an opportunity to try this particular recipe would normally have to wait for winter again and another pig slaughter day.

The pig’s ears were boiling away as Galia asked me to get the barbecue ready, it was now raining but that had never stopped the opportunity for a barbecue before as it was set up under a big green fishing umbrella, under which we often find Baba sitting passing the day under away from the normal hot sun. It was mentioned that the option to boil the ears is not always taken up by Bulgarian but this is what they do in this household.

All was set up as the ears were drained off, sliced up into strips and laid on the barbecue to sizzle away. Salted, turned and browned on all sides the end result was a meal that would be the most popular part of the meze on the table. The plate which was most frequented with Bulgarian forks was the pig’s ears.

The talk was about how cheap the pig’s ears were compared to eating them in the restaurant, the cost was around 2.20 leva (under £1) per kilogram. In restaurants they would charge over three leva for a couple of pieces and wouldn’t be the same as the homemade version.

It was a very happy Bulgarian family that sat here enjoying this out of season meal, especially so knowing that they had also made the Englishman even more happy to return from his solo grape hunting weekend.

Singing and Dancing Bulgarian Peppers

Peppers in Bulgaria are barbecued in the main, this is a national pastime in late summer through to the autumn and an event I see every day in the Yambol area. The smell of freshly picked and cooked peppers is unmistakable and for me and many other walking by a home that is cooking peppers on a barbecue, conjures up mix of major jealously and a great deal of dribbling. The lucky recipients of the food are in for a regular treat that is beyond description in a blog. Such a simple food and such an effective treat and celebration of nature's food prepared in such a natural manner.

It is only in the last two years that the potential of peppers has been realised. Before Bulgaria eating peppers wasn't the choice of foods in the UK. They were a food that didn't appeal at all from the point of taste and uniform in shape. So when arriving in Bulgaria, from that background of pepper eating experience growing peppers wasn't really on the agenda. They were, as far as I was concerned, far more tasty food to grow. What's the point of growing food that had no character and didn't give a culinary event to look forward to?

Then one day, about a year on, Galia put a simple pepper dish in front of me. This was another major event in the food experiences in Bulgaria. There have been so many! The peppers were sweet and tasty with a melt in the mouth sensation; a party was in full swing on my mouth from that point of the peppers gate crashing in. This was a moment I shall never forget as all my prejudices that had built up against UK peppers sudden diminished, just like the peppers that also diminished in a short space of time.

After that event it was a pepper fanatic on the prowl and a pepper section for growing them set aside on the farm. For two years now peppers have been eaten like there is no tomorrow, you just can't get bored with food like this in a country that seems to have a magic element in all that grows here.

I have found that barbecuing the peppers, in the traditional Bulgarian way is the best way to appreciate the full pepper experience. I mentioned a party before; well I have also found that the peppers have their own party whilst being prepared. They sing and dance all the way to the dinner table.

The Barbecue is set up and the peppers are always the first to be cooked. As they lie there and the heat hits them they start dancing, then not long after they start singing. It is fun to watch and hear as they party on until done. They are taken off the heat to cool down then the women peel the skins that come off very easily. Finally they are laid on a dish and a drizzle of oil, a squirt of vinegar and a sprinkle of salt are added. The end result is heavenly!

The dancing peppers are caused by the heat making the skin blister, raising the pepper, the blister bursts and the peppers fall, many little blisters rising and falling make the peppers jive around the hot barbecue grill.

The singing peppers are cause by the heat boiling the moisture inside the peppers creating steam. This steam is built up and needs to escape so the pepper pops. Alongside the big pops of the whole pepper are the little pops of the skin blisters popping. This I suppose could be pepper pop music! Going on, some peppers already have an escape route for the steam and just like a woodwind instrument the steam is force through a small outlet and the vibrating flap produces vibration, hence a tone and music is created. The greater the heat the more pressure from the steam and a higher pitch note results a symphony of oscillating tones result. Watching an listening we do actually hear and see singing and dancing peppers respectfully; well what else would you expect from Bulgarian peppers!?