We are in the Rodopi Mountains in southern Bulgaria, pondering why it is people here are said to live longer than anywhere else. The fresh air and clean spring water? The famous yoghurt (or “sour milk”, as it is classified here)? Or perhaps what must be Bulgaria’s national dish – fresh salad piled high with excellent tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers – consumed in vast quantities.
Having driven to Sofia for Matt to attend a conference, we decided to hang around afterwards to explore the mountains south and east of the capital. Our previous experience of this country was limited, to say the least, and this needed rectifying. Surely not everyone subsisted on green salad, rakia and cigarettes?
Now that we’ve spent some time in Turkey, some in Romania and Bulgaria before that, and now some in Greece, it’s been interesting to try to spot various culinary connections between them. It’s not all pleasant, but they have a lot of shared history via the long presence of the Ottoman empire in Eastern Europe. Greece was under Ottoman control for hundreds of years; and while Romania (and especially Transylvania) was nominally independent for much of that time, the word “nominally” should be stressed.
Ottoman chefs: could they tell their aubergines from their tomatoes?
In some cases, of course, there are clear similarities in techniques and ingredients, but there’s really no way to know whether Romanians influenced Turks, or Turks influenced Romanians, or whether they both just thought that spicy meatballs tasted nice. But in others, you can get some help from the language: if a stuffed vine leaf in Greece has an originally Turkish name, the odds are that it has at least some Turkish origins.
But sometimes we have to do a bit more detective work. In Romania, the word for tomato is “red” (roşie), and the word for aubergine is “purple” (vinete): so you might ask your greengrocer for a kilo of reds and a kilo of purples. This does sort of make sense – tomatoes are red, after all, and aubergines are purple – but why just these two? They don’t call cucumbers “greens”. And tomatoes certainly aren’t the only red things in a Romanian kitchen, what with all those peppers around. Well, a conversation with Anca in the Carpathians, a conversation with Özge in Istanbul, some dictionary work, and all became clear …
We definitely haven’t done Bulgaria justice – we only ended up staying here for two days. But we’ve had a fantastic time. We’ve seen the sun and the sea for what feels like the first time in months; eaten lots of fish and lots of yoghurt; and discovered the cultural importance of salad and its vital supporting role in the consumption of cigarettes and alcohol.
Our first stop was Nesebar, yet another UNESCO-protected site (they seem to be buying up prime sites everywhere in Eastern Europe – surely it is no coincidence that their name rhymes with Tesco? We suspect some sort of conspiracy). It’s a beautiful little peninsula full of old Byzantine stone churches, blue (Black) sea, fish and – most importantly – salad. This last factor might not sound very exciting to you, but after a month or so living off preserved pork fat, it seemed pretty revelatory to us. So at first, we were happy just to eat it, assuming in our innocence that it was simply a foodstuff like any other. Only when we moved on to the village of Kosti did we find out what it’s really for …