A tatse of Bulgaria
A tatse of Bulgaria
At the crossroads of East and West, Bulgarian cooking has an earthy style, bringing together Slavic, Greek and Eastern specialities and local culinary traditions. Although not refined, its main appeal is the freshness of the ingredients used and the rustic nature of the recipes, often based on vegetables that have been simmered for hours in terracotta cassolettes.
- Salad days
- A variety of starters
- Carnivore specials
- Just like Grandma used to make
- Fish and shellfish
Bulgarian meals that don’t start with a salad are a rarity, and restaurant menus always list an impressive choice. Honour where honour is due: the ubiquitous šopskasalad (шопска, pronounced: shopska, from the word šops refers to the peasants from the Sofia region) is a veritable national institution (perhaps because the colours of its ingredients – white, green and red – call to mind the Bulgarian flag). It is made with cucumber and tomatoes, covered with grated sirene and topped with a black olive; onions, peppers, garlic and chives can also be added. With the addition of hard-boiled eggs, ham and mushrooms, it becomes ovčarska (овчарска, shepherd’s salad berger): a meal in itself!
Sometimes called «Snow White Salad», snežanka (снежанка, snejanka), also known as trakijska (тракийска, or Thracian salad), is a mixture of creamy yoghurt and grated cucumbers, sometimes with garlic; others call it koprivnica salata (Копривница салата) after assuring you that the yoghurt is made from buffalo milk… Without getting involved in this infighting, try the kjopoolu (къопоолу, pronounced: keuopolou), aubergine and pepper dip, which can be quite bland or rather spicy depending on how generous the chef is with the garlic. Smiljan salad with haricot beans (смилянски фасул, smiljanski fasul) is highly prized in the Rhodopes. This region is also very proud of its haricot beans prepared with onions and aromatic herbs. Finally, you will sometimes come across tabouleh (табуле), as well as all sorts of salads, all of them simple (with cabbage: зеле; tomato: домат), combining both, or mixed with mayonnaise: egg salad (яйчна, jajčna or yaytchna), or potatoes, and of course ruska salata (руска салата), Russian salad. It is up to you to season all of these salads according to your tastes, and oil – rarely olive oil except in certains regions bordering Greece – and vinegar are placed on the tables.
A variety of starters
Bulgarians love soups and there is quite a variety on offer, often served in decorated terracotta dishes. In summer, the tarator (таратор) is particularly enjoyable as it is a cold soup with yoghurt, grated cucumber, dill, garlic and a dash of oil, served with crushed ice.
In winter, you can choose between škembe čorba (шкембе чорба), a famous tripe soup cooked with milk and chilli, and bean soup, or bob čorba (боб чорба), made with carrots, celery, tomatoes, pepper and chilli. Pileška supa (пилешка супа, or chicken soup) is also widespread, as is meatball soup, made from minced meat cooked in a vegetable soup.
Among the other starters, you will also be able to sample sarmi (сарми), stuffed cabbage (зелеви, zelevi) or vine leaves (лозови, lozovi), which are often on the menu, or fried peppers stuffed with cheese (бюрек, bjurek), părženi čuški săs sirene (пържени чушки със сирене), unless you prefer a simple katăk (катък), made with fromage blanc and garlic, or an omelette – the advantage of which is that it is called омлет, which makes a nice change!
Bulgarian charcuterie consists principally of sausages, often flavoured with herbs such as in Bansko. The most common are pastărma and lukanka, made with spices, then dried and served with olives, or, more rarely, with dried meat. With a plate of cheese, and a glass of mavrud, you have a meal fit for a king!
There are two main types of cheese, whether they be made with goats’, cows’ or sheep’s milk. Sirene (сирене) is the Bulgarian equivalent of feta: sometimes very salty, this dry white cheese is usually grated onto salads. You will also find it in cassolette, prepared with tomato and spicy pepper, or in miš-maš (миш-маш, mish-mash): cooked in a terracotta pot with eggs, tomatoes and peppers. Kaškaval (кашкавал, pronounced: kashkaval), or “yellow cheese” is eaten with a few olives, unless it is served grilled and coated in breadcrumbs: as in the delicious breaded кашкавал пане.
Meat dishes are organised on restaurant menus by type of meat: beef (телешко, teleško), lamb (агнешко, agneško), pork (свинско, svinsko) and chicken (пиле, pile). As every dish can be made with any of the meats, restaurant menus tend to be impressively comprehensive. Nonetheless, beef is found more rarely (even if it appears on the menu) and lamb is often not available. In addition to grilled meats (на скара/na skara), dishes you can sample include steak filet (филе вретено, file vreteno), served with cheese, mushrooms and various herbs and braised. Depending on the cook, amounts used and cooking time, it can be delicious or utterly indigestible! The grilled meats, which tend to err on the side of well cooked, feature on the menus of every restaurant that has a barbecue – these are either in the middle of the restaurant floor or in front of the door. You can try čeverme (чеверме, lamb skewers), very popular in the Rhodopes, where it is a fixture at all festivities. These grilled meats are served on skewers, kebapče (Кебапче) or šašlik (шашлик), a style in which the meat is marinated in a mixture of mustard, vodka and honey before being grilled, or in meatballs, kjufte (кюфтета), which are sometimes also available Tartar style (татарско, tatarsko): barely seared and flavoured with fines herbes.
Just like Grandma used to make
Simmered for hours and beautifully presented in terracotta pots, these dishes, which lend Bulgarian cooking ladles of charm, are presented on menus under the heading “specialities” (специалитет).
Among them features the famous kavarma (каварма), made with steamed meat (pork or chicken) with mushrooms, onions, hot peppers and wine and there are infinite other regional varieties. Each town takes great pride in having its own recipe, some adding calves’ liver, or eggs etc. This type of dish is very common in mountainous areas during winter and is a permanent fixture on the menu of every tavern worth its salt. Again, the end result depends on the quality of the ingredients used, but also the cooking time: a good kavarma has to simmer for hours.
In a similar vein, gjuveč (гювеч), flavoured with paprika, can be considered to be the Bulgarian version of goulash. Moussaka (мусака) no longer needs an introduction, pălneni čuški (пълнени чушки), red pepper stuffed with meat and rice, and a few cabbage dishes. Finally, the enigmatic name of falšiv zaek (фалшив заек), or «false rabbit», comes from the fact that our long-eared friends are nowhere to be found in the recipe. The dish consists of a «loaf» of minced meat stuffed with hard-boiled eggs, cucumber, bacon and carrots, and is not to be missed.
Fish and shellfish
At eateries along the coast, there is ample opportunity to sample grilled fish, freshly caught the day before or the same morning. Sardines and mackerel (often boned) abound, while tuna is more rare. Some white fish (sea bream) and shellfish are also available.
In montainous regions (Rila, Pirin, Rhodopes), you will frequently be offered grilled trout (пъстърва, păstărva). Carp (sometimes stuffed), perch, pikeperch and silurid are readily available in the regions around the Danube.
Nonetheless, fish dishes are often rather disappointing because they tend to be overcooked.
The desserts served in restaurants are not particularly varied. The most common are crème caramel, pancakes (палачинки, palačinki) served with honey and almonds or chocolate, and ice cream (сладолед, sladoled).
Those with a sweet tooth to be satisfied should head instead to the bakeries (сладкарница, sladkarnica): they offer an array of cakes, such as honey-drenched baklava (баклава), halva (халва) made with semolina and pistachios, cream tart or chocolate, tikvenik (тиквеник) made with squash.
You can also try the famous kiselo mljako (кисело мляко, milk curds, delicious Bulgarian yoghurt). It has an inimitable, refreshing taste, derived from its starter culture, Lactobacillius bulgaricus, which is only found in Bulgaria. It is prescribed as a health food for treating infections of the digestive or cardio-vascular system… and for many years enjoyed a reputation for producing robust hundred-year-olds!
Bulgarian wines are little known in the West but are well worth tasting, especially as local wine growers often place the onus on quality, in terms both of vines and wine-making processes.
Mavrud (apparently already grown by the Thracians, who were renowned wine lovers) is the most popular type of local grape. It comes from the regions of Pazardžik, Brestovica and, in particular, Asenovgrad, and produces a full-bodied red wine. The Melnik region also produces fruity red wines with a rich palette (Merlot and Cabernet grapes), the best of which has to be Unikato. You will also appreciate the ubiquitous Gămza, a fresh and fruity wine from the north of Bulgaria (Vidin, Novo Selo and Pleven). Lastly, the No Man’s Land from Damianica is one of the best-known red wines, and is cultivated in the former no man’s land that lay between Bulgaria and Greece, south of the Mesta Valley.
Some of Bulgaria’s dry white wines are excellent. Renowned grapes include misket (мискет), grown in Karlovo, Vraca and Euxinograd; and dimjat, from Varna, Pomorie and Preslav. The Ruse region boasts levent, which has a growing number of converts. Finally, Tărgovište traminer is a fruitier wine, and keracuda, from Melnik, is a very fine wine. The Magura (Магура) region is home to a champagnised white wine, aged in a part of the galleries of the famous grotto.
Wine enthusiasts can visit Bulgarian cellars during the grape harvest, which is a time of celebration. In Melnik, for example, you can watch locals parade in traditional costumes. The processions are a prelude to the consumption of copious amounts of wine.
Bulgaria also produces beer. The most popular brands of lager are Kamenica, brewed at Plovdiv; Zagorka, produced in the Stara Zagora region; and Šumensko, from Šumen, as its name suggests.
Finally, there is a multitude of mineral waters (минерална вода, mineralna voda), either sparkling (сода, soda) or still, with the most reputed coming from Hisarja, Devin and Velingrad.
Brandy made with grapes, plums, apples or cherries, or rakija (ракия), is generally served with ice, and a glass of cola on the side. If Bulgarians invite you to their home, your hosts will definitely appreciate a bottle of raki, especially if you raise your glass and wish them «Na zdrave!” (Cheers!).