Foreigners in Bulgaria love Shopska salad and banitsa, and many are filled with strong emotions at the smell of tripe soup with lots of garlic and chilli peppers. But if there is an item of the local cuisine which arouses unanimous suspicious among Westerners, it is boza.
This light-brown beverage made of baked and brewed millet is a popular drink best served alongside greasy banitsa or mekitsi. Unlike other traditional beverages such as ayryan and rakiya, no sensible Bulgarian would try to make boza at home. The process is too difficult and unreliable, and fresh boza lasts for only a couple of days before turning sour, so for centuries everyone has bought it ready-made.
Once, boza was sold by street vendors and in small shops, and today it is found in low-end banicharnitsi, pastry shops, and supermarkets. The bravest pastry shops make their own draught boza, but most opt for the produce of dozens of small local breweries. The short shelf life of boza makes it unsuitable for mass production, which is a good thing.
Probably the only monument of a street boza vendor in the Balkans, in Radomir, western Bulgaria
Every Bulgarian has fond childhood memories of eating banitsa with boza and nostalgists for Communism cite the price (6 stotinki for a 250-ml bottle in the 1980s) as an illustration of how cheap life used to be.
To the Western taste, however, boza is a culinary abomination. Its appearance and consistency are horrible, and the smell and taste even worse, as the British, Germans and Americans equally attest. Bulgarians are likewise shocked at such an attitude towards their beloved boza and explain it as the fastidiousness of spoilt Westerners. Funnily enough, few Bulgarians enjoy Marmite, so probably the whole love-hate boza relationship has something to do with the formation of tastes at an early age.
Bulgarians are not the only ones who love boza. On the first working day of 2007, when Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU, hundreds of Romanians crossed the border and stormed Bulgarian supermarkets to stock up with cheaper Bulgarian food. They bought boza in such quantities that local media warned: "Romanians are buying out our boza!"
The so-called boza belt spreads over the Balkans, including Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia, and Turkey. Almost everywhere the beverage is called boza; only in Romania is the name bragă.
The predecessors of modern boza were probably the beverages made of fermented grains in Anatolia and the Fertile Crescent in the 9-6th millennia BC. The first true boza appeared in the 10th Century AD. When the Ottomans began their invasion of Europe, they brought boza with them to the Balkans.
In those early days, boza was not such an innocent drink. Today its alcoholic content is between 0.5-1 percent, but in Ottoman times it was much stronger. In times of stricter mores, sultans such as Selim II (1566–1574) and Mehmed IV (1648–1687) banned boza, along with stronger spirits. The ban was never implemented effectively, and in the 17th Century there were 300 boza shops and 1000 boza makers in Constantinople alone.
Bulgarian boza advertisements get creative...
The love of boza did not wane even when the Ottoman Empire disintegrated. The boza street vendors remained a fixture of urban life until modernisation forced the most entrepreneurial to open shops.
Spread over a vast territory, boza has adopted different forms. In Albania, it is made of maize and is lighter in taste. Romanian bragă is heavier and darker, and in Turkey, boza is served sprinkled with cinnamon.
Bulgarian boza is neither too strong, nor too light. The original recipe called for cane sugar and this was how boza was made until the 1990s. Then, however, encouraged by the lack of regulations and the desire to extend the notoriously short shelf life of the beverage, producers began to use artificial sweeteners and preservatives. This inevitably affected the taste of boza.
Boza is not only a beverage – it is also a cultural phenomenon. Albanian boza makers were praised as the best and, until the mid-20th Century, worked all over the Balkans. There is a strong belief that enough boza makes ladies' breasts bigger, and there are numerous boza themed jokes. Here is one: a drunkard enters a pastry shop in the early morning and asks the seller: "Is it true that there is 1 percent alcohol in boza?". The shop assistant replies: "Yes, that's true." The drunkard grins: "Give me 40 glasses of boza then."
If you have not tried boza yet but are brave enough to give it a go, remember that it should be cool and, in the best-case scenario, on draught. In Sofia, the best draught boza can be found in the Pchela, or Bee, pastry shops. If you drink it in the company of Bulgarians, do not complain if the boza tastes too fermented and sour. Connoisseurs like it that way, rezliva, or sharp.
In the event that you actually like boza, do bear in mind that the drink is high in calories and having too much of it will ruin your diet. And your stomach.
The strangest thing is that, in spite of their passionate love for this beverage, Bulgarians call anything bland, dull and lifeless boza, especially when talking about a movie or a book.