Bulgaria is not a name that conjures up the idea of European gastronomy. One leaves that to France, Spain, Greece, Turkey. The Balkans alway brought to mind a people between Slavic and gypsy and Mediterranean. An area of wars and power struggles; from the Ottomans to the struggles in Kosovo. An area where there used to be a place called Yugoslavia. The last thing on anyone’s mind was ‘oh, but the food!’.
But this is Europe; a continent packed with so many cultures and cuisines and languages as to appear absurd. There was definitely something to be had there; and judging from my stressed shirt buttons and painful liver by the end of it, it was surely something good.
A city whose name sounds like your tongue is numb and self-flagellating, Plovdiv is a city where cobble-stoned roots dig back to the 6th millennia BC. But it was the heroically named Thracians that made a town out the seven syenite hills. We would spend four days eating and drinking around the ‘between-two-mountain-ranges’ plateau of the Thracian Lowlands. Joy, an influential food blogger called Nathan, and myself.
In the car from the airport I negotiated donkeys and carts and weaving new money hatchbacks while stuffing my face with a grocery shop-bought banitsa (a baked filo pastry stuffed with cheese) and some crisps flavoured, taking me back to my days living in Russia, with wild mushrooms and sour cream.
Plovdiv - European Capital of Culture 2019 - was charm incarnate. It felt old and, not abandoned, but left alone. The cobbles were flung together and split like the cement had gone; care had to be taken not to twist an ankle. The historic centre was a steep jumble of those suspension-shaking alleyways, and bent up and down the slopes with a grace that reminded me of Toledo.
The Renaissance buildings; wooden-gabled multicoloured houses that looked like some Tudor edifices fallen into paint-cans, loomed gracefully over the pedestrians.
Wooden shutters, frilly stencil work over the window frames, orange tiles, plant pots and shrubs; the houses alone would have made the city worthy of a look. Then add in the miniature turrets and towers of old churches, Roman ruins, and a hilltop park giving a sun-drenched view to the prickly cityscape backed by the Rhodope hills, and you had the ideal start to Bulgaria.
Rahat Tepe - Dr Chomakov, 18
On the top of a hill covered in Thracian ruins sits Rahat Tepe; a popular and attractive bar peopled with locals and a smattering of tourists. This was meant to be an aperitif stop. The sunset view was smudging into spongy purples and mauves as friendly stray cats patrolled and purred around our legs. We ordered two pints of local Kamenitsa beer, a mostly terrible and very gassy lager but enough to quench the thirst. After that, another beer was ordered for Joy, and I opted for a couple of small glasses of aged rakia. I have since decided I do not like rakia. But I did like the nibble we chose: breaded and fried chunks of the local cheese sirene; a brined cheese very similar to feta.
XIX Vek - Tsar Kaloyan, 1
We strolled out of the old town down to new, past the artsy cluster of streets of the Kapana neighbourhood: dark alleys with a ceiling of bunting. Our next eatery was XIX Vek (19th Century); a lovely place decorated in Bulgarian kitsch to give it a whiff of the historic. Wood beams crisscrossing the roof and walls. Pots and pans, old paintings, iron sewing machines, black and white photos of past generations stuck in window frames, wooden pews and tables covered in red and green tartan-esque table cloths. On the tables, as in all places, salt and pepper, a ceramic bottle of vinegar and another, oddly, of ‘cooking oil’; as the local palate doesn’t go in for dressing salad with olive oil.
For our consumption, a wide platter of shashlik (grilled skewered lumps of pork, chicken, red onion and peppers) two kyufte (flattened meatballs), chushki (a roasted red pepper salad) and a bottle of local Mavrud red wine; Mavrud being the choice grape grown in the Plovdiv area.
Meat, roasted veg, red wine. All the colours of the flag.
Vino Culture - Ulica Otets Paisiy, 5
We, in that grand Russian tradition, bought a bottle of 80-cent local beer from a big fridge outside a grocery store and meandered back into town. Past the looming shadow of the massive blocky Dzhumaya Mosque standing, quite poetically, over the rounded end of the old Roman circus ruins, we arrived at dinky Vino Culture - a recommendation from a chap called Marin from the Vila Melnik winery. It was here my head decided it would hurt the following morning. Tamianka, Sandanski Misket, Gamza - names of grapes I had never heard of with flavours my mouth had never experienced. Joyous dry wines were enthusiastically followed by late harvest sweet Tamiankas and Mavruds; compliments of the house.
Out past the industrial slug of Asenovgrad, the road rose into a steep-sided and very green range of mountains dappled autumnally: the Rhodope Mountains.
First we perused the quiet painted walls and ecclesiastical dreaminess of the Bachkovo Monastery. Walking up a long lane lined with stalls selling locals honeys, wild nuts in syrup, herbs, tat and grilled meats, one arrived at the monastery proper; sitting in a flat fold halfway up a hill. A place of quiet reverence and one bleating sheep.
Secondly we stopped off at the medieval ruined fortress of Asen, noteworthy for its proud and prim 12th century preserved church standing out on the tip of everything and looking about to fall into the gorge.
Gradinskiya Grill - 4230 Asenovgrad
We ate at a roadside grill-house. I was sick of finding parking spaces in European towns and liked being out in the sticks. Gradinskiya Grill would serve us well.
A plate of kebapche (skewered sausage-shaped meat) with chips, a dish of more of that breaded and fried cheese with a fruit compote dip, the famous shopska salad (cucumber, tomato, peppers, sirene cheese and red onion), pleskavitsa (a spiced mixed meat hamburger style patty) and ‘village style’ chicken livers stewed with parsley, onion, red peppers and tomatoes. Quiet the feast.
Starosel Winery and Spa
Our base for two nights was the gently luxurious but unfathomably affordable Starosel winery and natural spring spa complex, on the rise of slopes an hour north of Plovdiv. An attractive complex of whitewashed walls with red roofs surrounded by lines of vines and dozens of peacocks.
One of two places on site, at Terroir we shared some six dishes and five bottles of wine and the bill only came to about €30 a head. A range of dips, an under-filled limp lettuce-heavy salad, a plate of duck breast with orange and apples, some grilled pork neck with a rosemary and thyme mousse and a large sausage called karnache; a sort of fresh kielbasa, grilled, and all served with freshly baked flatbread called purlenka. Gluttony at its finest; we ate until the place closed out and we waddled back to our dorms with the remains of the wine.
Night two at the spa, and after languidly bobbing about in the mineral pools and dripping in the sauna we headed to the raucous main restaurant. The rosé, then the Sauvignon Blanc flowed and the warped Cyrillic melted in my brain. I had forgotten my notebook and the first two dishes were something like ‘glukenitsa’ followed by ‘klopenitsa’. The former was a spinach, sirene cheese, roasted pepper and carrot mix, the second a baked pan of aubergine, kashkaval cheese and pepper. The third dish was a sach; a heavy clay dish lugged into the oven and served sizzling, in our case covered with tomato, chicken, peppers, mushrooms and more cheese. The buttons were close to popping.
Over the dappled and layered misty blue ridges, covered in a hodgepodge splattering of reds, oranges and burned yellows, of the Sredna Gore mountains, we arrived at the cute and cobbled valley village of Koprivshtitsa. A heaped mess of odd lanes with low two-level homes, often protected by huge wooden gates, and star-bursting with bold new-paint colours; blue, orange, yellow. The vibe was of a Wild West set crossed with a traditional Japanese samurai district.
Little old locals swept leaves that constantly fell from the yellowing trees, groups of rough-looking men sat around on little plastic chairs and debated God knows what in tracksuits, some Romani women sat by the road selling trinkets or herbs, little chimneys of the grill-houses puffed out perfumed smoke. It was serene and quiet. Colourful and remote.
Chuchura - Hadji Nencho Palaveev, 66
On the porch of a big salmon-pink family-run hotel restaurant, with wooden tables becoated with those green tartan cloths, we once again dove headfirst into the local cuisine. Joy sampled, and was unfortunately underwhelmed by, a cold soup called tarator (yoghurt, dill, cucumber, garlic, water); ‘it tastes like liquidy tzatziki’. Nathan and I opted for a different, and well-received soup with the jaunty name of bob chorba (a delicate broth of dried white beans, onion, tomatoes, red pepper and a dash of spearmint). To accompany some fresh bread we ordered our favourite lutenitsa (a roasted red pepper and tomato spread). And to finish us off for the afternoon a pot of sirene po shopski (baked cheese, tomato and egg). The belts had loosened.
The centre of the Bulgarian capital would elude us. We had neither time nor energy to attempt to drive into its beating heart. Instead we roamed the southern edge of the city and the slopes of the Vitosha Mountain. The ancient UNESCO painted walls of the 10th Boyana Church were followed by the quiet grace of the Dragalevtsi Monastery, hiding in its private woodland at the end of a very long and winding uphill road of cobbles that threatened to shake the car to bits.
Voivodski Meeting - Ulitsa Nartsis, 34
A final meal was had at a traditional and beautiful wooden beast of a place; wood beams, red cloths, the classic combination. First up, served along with some fried courgettes and a jar of lutenitsa, we had katak; a relish of yoghurt, sheep’s cheese, butter and garlic and I think some pickles and peppers. The lady brought us a steaming fresh loaf of crusty bread to go with it and some local overly-fizzed lagers. I then sampled another soup of the country: shkembe chorba (tripe soup). The tripe was nice and meaty and the broth had a milky consistency and a flavour not unlike Cheetos. Bizarre. Ending the lunch was a plate of kavarma, a sort of goulash casserole. Chicken meat, onions, garlic, tomatoes, peppers, topped with an egg and some parsley. Surprisingly no cheese.
The flight that last afternoon was stressful. I was full, my shirts were tight and my liver had crawled away into a corner of my insides and died. I loved it. I loved Bulgaria.