Fiona Williams shares memories and a good English Christmas dish
A graduate in archaeology and ancient history, a teacher of English as a foreign language and a Montessori nursery school teacher, Fiona Williams has been in Sofia for just over a year with her husband, Steve, the British Ambassador to Bulgaria. While expecting their two daughters and son to join them for the holiday season, Fiona will be hanging up the Christmas stockings that she bought here 24 years ago.
Why Bulgarian stockings?
Sofia was actually our first overseas posting in 1984-1987. We arrived just one month after we were married. So for Steve and me, Christmas here holds special memories going back many years.
What do you miss most from home during the holiday season?
On Christmas Eve I miss being able to watch the very special and traditional service of "Nine Lessons and Carols" from King's College in Cambridge. For me this marks the real start of Christmas.
The best thing about Christmas in Bulgaria?
Last year it was quite magical. It was a true "white" Christmas, which nowadays we rarely experience in the southeast of England where our home is. Even our cocker spaniel, Millie, loved leaping through the cold snow. Walking on Vitosha was just as if we had fallen into a Christmas card scene.
Out on the streets, I love the smell from the roasted chestnut and roasted pumpkin stalls. I have my favourite stall, a small one on Graf Ignatiev St.
Last year we experienced our first hot rakiya party, hosted by the Bulgarian staff at the Embassy. They explained the tradition of having an odd number of different vegetarian dishes to me. My favourite has to be the banitsa with baked pumpkin, although the lyutenitsa with leek, the bean salad and sarmi were all really tasty, too.
One Williams Christmas tradition – girls only! – which I'm delighted we are continuing this year is seeing The Nutcracker ballet at the National Opera in Sofia. The three of us have seen it in several different cities.
What will you cook for Christmas?
Roast turkey – bought locally from a farm just outside Sofia – with as many traditional trimmings as possible. I always cook it with streaky bacon, chipolatas and a special stuffing (see recipe below). Roast potatoes, Brussels sprouts, parsnips and a red cabbage dish complete our celebratory meal. All of these are now available here if you know where to look – last year we were lucky to find the last three parsnips – sold from an upturned bucket by a little old lady at one of the nearby street markets. And I mustn't forget the bread sauce which is a favourite with all our family. There is nothing tastier on Boxing Day than dipping cold pieces of turkey into a rich creamy bread sauce. Our meal of course ends with Christmas pudding set alight with brandy before enjoying it with hot rum sauce or cold brandy cream.
175 g white bread cut into 1 cm cubes
225 g onions, chopped fairly small
4 stalks of celery, cut into 1 cm chunks
450 g good pork sausage meat
225 g cooking apples, cored and chopped a sprinkling of mace
110 g chopped walnuts
50 g butter grated zest of one small lemon salt and pepper
Melt the butter in a large frying pan and lightly fry the chopped onions, celery and chunks of sausage meat until they become golden at the edges. Tip these into a large mixing bowl and add all the remaining ingredients. Mix thoroughly and season well. The stuffing can go in both the body cavity and the neck end.
AN IRISH CHRISTMAS: PERFECT HOLIDAY IN SOFIA
Parsnips, cranberries and a few mischievous felines make for a perfect holiday in Sofia
Long after Christmas is over I come across little golden balls lurking under sofas and cupboards. In fact, there is one sitting on the hall table at the moment. In only a few weeks' time I will be able to place it where it should be – on our Christmas tree. Cats and Christmas trees do not go together – if the tree isn't being used for climbing practice or for sharpening claws, then the temptation to detach a few of those enticingly shiny golden balls proves overwhelming. The first household task each morning in December is to crawl around looking under the furniture to round up the night's strays.
It has to be a real Christmas tree, chosen from the temporary forest that springs up beside the canal a block from our house, and dragged home through the dusk. Decorating the tree is a ritual for us. Distributing the strings of lights evenly along the branches is Geoff's task, while I unwrap the ornaments, gathered over nearly 30 years and ranging from the aforementioned golden balls to children's popsicle-stick decorations made in primary school.
Then there are the Christmas garlands to be draped over the fireplace and pinned over the doors, and the Nativity set to be arranged out of cat-reach. The set comes from Nigeria and is a part of Geoff's childhood. Somehow it got merged with the remains of an African chess set, but the little pot-bellied pawns make good manger attendants, and while Joseph and Mary's heads need some Blu-Tack to remain attached to their shoulders, this doesn't seem to matter.
This will be our fourth Bulgarian Christmas and the novelty of snow has yet to wear off. I am hoping for a white Christmas and have laid in a stock of good Bulgarian logs for our fireplace. Christmas Eve will involve a wood fire, lots of candles and a glass of sparkling wine while listening to the carols from St Patrick's Cathedral on Internet radio.
Christmas stockings are another tradition in our house. This is my job and I collect little gifts throughout the year. The stockings of our sons, John and Paddy, were made for them when we lived in Italy twenty years ago, and it's an exercise in nostalgia for me, filling them on Christmas Eve and remembering sneaking into their bedroom pretending to be Father Christmas when they had finally gone to sleep. The fact that we are inclined to go to bed long before they do now does nothing to diminish the importance of the ritual.
Breakfast on Christmas morning has to be substantial. I remember the treat of having sausages and bacon for breakfast when I was a child. Now, thanks to Andy Sowray, the expat importer of UK comfort foods, that is what I intend to have this year.
The Borisova Garden is next on the list. Whatever the weather, no one is allowed to skip the Christmas walk. After all, how else can we get up an appetite for the main indulgence of the day?
Christmas dinner has to be completely traditional for me. We once experimented with lasagne – it was difficult to find a turkey in China – but I'm happiest with the traditional fare. Luckily, there is no trouble finding all the ingredients here. There are even fresh cranberries at Metro this year. So, turkey and ham it is, accompanied by roast potatoes and parsnips, Brussels sprouts, gravy, cranberry sauce and, of course, bread sauce, which does not seem to be widely known here, for some strange reason… Bulgarian parsnips are the best I've tasted, but you do have to go to a market to find a baba selling a few precious, muddy, misshapen roots. We start the meal with Paddy's leek and potato soup, accompanied by a glass of rakiya – a new tradition we've adopted with alacrity. We finish with Christmas pudding – of course – and rum butter.
HOW TO MAKE BREAD SAUCE
1. To make enough for eight people, halve a large onion and stick a few cloves into each half. Place the onion halves in a saucepan with a bay leaf, eight black peppercorns, 570 ml of creamy milk and some salt. Bring everything up to the simmering point, remove from the heat, put the lid on and leave everything to infuse for at least two hours.
2. When you are ready to make the bread sauce, remove the onion, bay leaf and peppercorns.
3. Stir 110 g freshly made white breadcrumbs into the milk and add 25 g butter. Stir over a low heat to melt the butter and thicken the sauce slightly – this will take about 15 minutes.
4. Leave the sauce in the pan in a warm place until you are ready to serve it. Just before serving, re-heat the sauce gently, and then beat in another 25 g of butter. Taste to check the seasoning.
A FEAST, MOSCOW STYLE
Welcome 2009 with champagne, caviar and pirozhki
Larisa Dimitrova was born and raised in the city of Kazan, the capital of the Republic of Tartarstan, then in the Soviet Union, now a part of the Russian Federation. After studying in Moscow, Larisa moved to Sofia exactly 20 years ago. Those, she says, have been the best 20 years of her life, because in Bulgaria she had the opportunity to witness the fall of Communism. She was the long-time editor of the only Russian newspaper in Bulgaria, Russkaya gazyeta. Her work introduced her to some of the most prominent Bulgarians, such as the first democratically elected president, Zhelyu Zhelev, and the first Bulgarian cosmonaut, Georgi Ivanov. She is married to a Bulgarian, loves driving a motorcycle and is currently one of the most sought-after Russian translators.
How do you celebrate Christmas in Kazan?
We are Muslims, so we don't have Christmas; however, New Year's is one of our favourite holidays. For us, family is the most important thing. We are brought up to have enormous respect for our parents and their parents. For New Year's the whole extended family get together. It's crucial that everyone participates in the preparations. Because the weather in Kazan is very cold, it is heavy food that we eat. We also drink large quantities of vodka; otherwise, you are sure to freeze to death. There are some obligatory dishes – what Bulgarians call "Russian salad" we call "French Olivier salad" – and we serve up whole pans of it. On that day even the poorest families must have caviar and champagne on the table. Precisely at midnight we write our wisheson little pieces of paper and put them in the champagne bottle. The strangest part is that everything comes true, sooner or later.
Do you celebrate Christmas here in Bulgaria?
Naturally, and I enjoy it very much. I first decorate the table with tablecloths hand-embroidered by my mother-in-law – they are true works of art. I prepare 13 vegetarian dishes, some cooked in clay pots that are more than 200 years old. I try to follow old Bulgarian traditions that not all Bulgarians observe. A week later, we celebrate New Year's Moscow-style – with a starched white tablecloth, bronze candlesticks, crystal, caviar, salmon and Olivier (Russian salad). The most important thing for a holiday is the mood.
PIROHZKI, OR DUMPLINGS, WITH MEAT
250 g flour salt
1 egg water
400 g ground beef
100 g yoghurt black pepper
1 packet of butter
Season the ground beef with salt and black pepper, add the butter and minced, sautéed onion. Mix well and add the yogurt. Combine the flour, eggs and salt to make the dough – add water as needed. Roll out the dough and cut it into large circles. Place meat filling in the centre of each circle and fold them into small dumplings. Glaze the outside with a beaten egg and bake in a preheated oven for approximately 15 minutes. Serve with salt, pepper and mashed garlic mixed with oil. Pirozhki can also be boiled, smothered in butter and served with cream or yoghurt.
A FINNISH-AMERICAN CHRISTMAS
A US doctor spreads good cheer in Bulgaria with her work and family recipes
Lisa Vredevoogd is a medical doctor from Michigan who alternates between her hospital job at home and volunteer work across the globe. Following missions in Congo, Ecuador and Honduras, she has lived in Bulgaria since September 2007, doing volunteer work as a paediatric ophthalmologist predominantly in orphanage settings. While in Sofia, she also established PEPI, or Paediatric Eye Projects International, and has indulged her hobby of studying languages by learning Bulgarian.
This will be your second Christmas in Bulgaria. What do you miss from home?
The joy that I see in many of my friends and family. I know many people who believe that Christmas is a time of grace shown to us many years ago by the birth of an incredible saviour, which comes again in the things and people that we enjoy but don't really deserve. This sense of grace fills them with joy, in spite of life's pressures. The sense of grace also fills them with generosity. I know a great many people who are concerned about other people who are less fortunate than they are. They tend to bubble with joy when they are helping – by giving and expecting nothing in return.
Which for you is the most remarkable Christmas custom in Bulgaria?
The Christmas Eve meal, full of symbolism and meaning. I think that in the West we miss a lot of the richness of tradition by focusing more on innovation. Also, I appreciate the Christmas fast. Fasting before the big celebration makes the awesomeness of the Christmas event seem even more special. These things bind people as a culture and are very rich. They are quite extraordinary.
What's your favourite Christmas dish?
Originally it's from Finland. Like most Americans, my ancestors were immigrants – my grandparents came from Finland. Although my mother was not Finnish, at Christmas she would always make pulla, or Finnish cardamom bread for Dad and the rest of the family. It is best with glogg, or some warmed and spiced red wine. The ingredients for the bread are easy to find in Bulgaria; in fact, I quite prefer the flavour using whole crushed cardamom, easy to get in small packets at Hit Supermarket, rather than powdered cardamom.
1¾ cups milk
½ cup butter
1 cup sugar
½ tsp salt
1 tsp cardamom
2 envelopes dry yeast
¼ cup warm water
1 large egg
6-6.5 cups flourGlaze
1 egg yolk
2 tbsp milk sugar for sprinkling
Heat the milk in a saucepan until small bubbles form on the side of the pan. Pour the milk into a mixing bowl, add the butter, sugar, salt and cardamom, and let it cool to lukewarm. In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast in warm water and add to the lukewarm milk. Lightly beat the egg and add to the milk. Add three cups of flour and beat with a mixer until smooth, about three minutes. Add three more cups of flour and mix with a wooden spoon until the dough forms a ball. Knead until the dough is smooth, return it to a bowl, cover loosely with a towel and let rise for 1.5 to two hours.
Divide the dough onto a floured board, into two equal parts. Braid each of the strands loosely and place on a greased cookie sheet. Let rise for 45 minutes. Preheat the oven to 190°C. Brush the top of the loaves with glaze. Sprinkle with sugar and bake for 25 minutes or until nicely browned. Cool on a rack, covered by a kitchen towel.
COSMOPOLITAN CHRISTMAS CHEER
Juliana Geier and her family have travelled the globe, enjoying holiday traditions from Brasil to Bulgaria
Juliana Geier is a true cosmopolitan. Born in Brazil, she grew up speaking three languages at home – Spanish with her Argentine mother, Italian with her father and grandmother, and Portuguese at school. At the age of 24 she came to Europe, where she quickly perfected her English, French and, of course, German – she is married to Germany's Ambassador to Bulgaria. She, her husband and their three children have also lived in South America, Africa and Asia. A citizen of the world, Juliana Geier feels at home in international surroundings and is always able to put together a holiday meal that reflects her family's globetrotting history.
What was it like to arrive in Europe after 24 years in Brazil?
It was very difficult for me to get used to the four seasons you have here. In Brazil it's always summer, but in Europe I have to think about warm cloths, umbrellas and heaters. It took me a long time to learn to like it. Now, however, I can say I feel better here in Europe than in Brazil.
What do you miss most about Christmas from home?
Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere is quite strange. We decorate our Christmas trees with plastic snow, because we don't have the real thing. If you use candles, you have to keep them in the freezer as long as possible – they melt very quickly at 40°C. Also, we don't worry about dressing up. All we have to do for Christmas in Brazil is look tanned, sexy and ready to join the party – we usually wear bikinis or open shirts. American culture has greatly influenced us, so on Christmas Eve there is ham or turkey on the table. You can also hear Christmas carols in their most kitschy versions. Santa Claus brings gift in a reindeer sleigh, even though this animal does not exist in Brazil.
In Germany I like very much the tradition of the Adventskranz. From 6 December until Christmas every Sunday we light a candle, and during the fourth week all the candles are lit.
What do you like most about Christmas time in Bulgaria?
We have spent the two Christmas Eves since our arrival in Bulgaria with our children in Berlin. I really like the winter season in Bulgaria. The snow covers the landscape in a beautiful white cloak and usually makes the ugly buildings less noticeable. I have heard a lot about the traditional Bulgarian vegetarian Christmas Eve dinner and I am looking forward to trying it some day.
STARTER - SMOKED GOOSE BREAST WITH APPLE COMPOTE
200 ml apple juice
2 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp mustard, medium spicy
1.5 tbsp honey
250 g apples, diced
1 tbsp thyme leaves
50 g walnuts
10 g butter
10 g sugar
1 head of frisée lettuce
1 head of radicchio
2 chicory roots
4 tbsp raspberry vinegar
8 tbsp walnut oil
6 tbsp water
1 bunch parsley, smooth
300 g smoked goose (or duck) breast, sliced
salt and pepper
For the apple compote, stir the apple juice, lemon, honey and mustard in a pot and boil. Reduce the liquid to one-eighth of a litre. Add apple cubes and let simmer for three minutes. Add salt, pepper and half of the thyme. Let the mixture cool down. Divide the walnuts into quarters. Melt sugar in a pan and add butter. Let it foam, add nuts and the remaining thyme leaves. Salt slightly and let it cool down. Wash the lettuce and tear into pieces. Combine the vinegar, oil and water into vinaigrette, and finally add the parsley. Pile up little turrets of goose breast and apple compote on each plate, add walnuts decoratively alongside with mixed salad tossed in vinaigrette.
MAIN DISH - VENISON HAUNCH
1 kg venison (boneless haunch), prepared
1 tsp juniper berries
1 tsp pepper, not ground
1 tsp allspice, not ground
2 tbsp clarified butter
2 tbsp tomato puree
150 ml red wine
400 ml venison broth
6 cl port wine
100 g crème fraiche
100 g of prunes
salt and pepper
Wash the venison haunch, blot dry, salt and pepper. Crush the juniper berries, pepper and allspice in a mortar and rub into the venison haunch.
Fry the haunch in hot clarified butter on all sides. Peel the onion and carrots, and then dice into little cubes. Fry briefly with the meat. Stir in tomato puree and roast briefly. Dice and add the prunes. Add red wine and mix thoroughly with venison broth. Cover and braise in preheated oven at 200° C for approximately 1.5 hours. Take out the venison and keep it hot. Pass the liquid through a strainer, stir in port wine, boil up sauce again, and then stir in corn flour diluted in water as thickener. Add salt and pepper, and then stir in the crème fraîche. Cut the venison into slices and serve with the gravy on preheated plates.
Serve with buttered vegetables or red cabbage, Spätzle, or noodles, and pear halves stuffed with canned cranberries.
DESSERT - BAKED APPLES
6 medium apples
100 g of ground almonds
30 g sugar
30 g butter
125 ml white wine
125 ml water
1 tbsp honey
3 cinnamon sticks
8 star anise
peel of one organic orange
2 tbsp chopped pistachios
Wash the apples and cut out the cores. Peel only the upper half of the apples, and then rub with lemon peel. Mix almonds with sugar and butter, and then stuff them into the apples.
Place the apples close together in an oven-safe pan, and then pour the wine and water over them. Drip a little honey on each apple and scatter broken pieces of cinnamon, star anise and grated orange peel on the apples. Cook in preheated oven at 180–200° C for about 50 minutes, frequently pouring the liquid over the apples.
Sprinkle the apples with chopped pistachios and serve.