by Anthony Georgieff

After the initially pleasant shock at Bulgaria's kebapcheta you are now discovering the food here is inedible in addition to being... inedible

bulgarian food.jpg

Many Bulgarians are ready to kill anyone who criticises what they perceive as their "national" cuisine, but – sadly – the fact is that Bulgarian food is like President Parvanov: trying to conceal its very obvious deficiencies as well as the ineptitude of those who prepare it by drawing on some distant and often nebulous historical past. Like Parvanov, it is inedible in addition to being... inedible.

Take for example Bulgaria's famed peppers and tomatoes. Many expats report that one of their first and lasting memories of Bulgaria is the smell of roasted peppers enveloping Socialist-era housing estates of the Druzhba or Mladost fashion. Nowhere else in Europe, they claim, can you feel that wonderful, enchanting smell that may make you swoon even before your first rakiya for the day. Correct, but do look beneath the surface and you are likely to discover that the peppers being roasted on makeshift grills in Druzhba and Mladost are likely to have been imported from Turkey (unless of course those who roast them have grandmothers and grandfathers in the villages, the surest yet suppliers of fresh produce).

Or the tomatoes. Bulgarian tomatoes are wonderful, but not if you buy them in Billa or at the Zhenski pazar, or Women's Market, in Sofia. Befriend a Bulgarian, go to their native village, meet their aunts and uncles. They will make the best tomato salad in the world for you. If you go to the Zhenski pazar what you will get is low-quality imported cheapies. So far for vegetables and fruit, including "traditional" Bulgarian fare such as aubergines, onions, leeks, apples and grapes. The best grapes I ate last year came from Greece.

One might argue, to an extent with justification, that respect for your stomach comes second if you have to count the pennies. Being what it is – the country with the lowest per capita income anywhere in the EU – Bulgaria is bracing itself for its share of the global economic crisis, and ordinary Bulgarians are increasingly starting to economise where it is easier to cut corners: food. Bulgarian food producers, however, are a different lot. They have always done it in order to step up their profits. Famously, one Bulgarian producer of sausages has been advertising his krenvirshi as containing actual "meat." If it were true, it would be unique in a country where sausages typically taste of toilet paper with some E XXXX added for colour.

But I am not being entirely fair. Bulgaria is the birthplace of the current EU commissioner for consumer protection, and it is starting to show. During the past two months, there has been some media exposure of Bulgaria's famed Feta-type cheese which is now made with Indonesian palm oil. Of course it doesn't taste like cheese, it probably doesn't taste like Indonesian palm oil either. But people do buy it because it is three leva cheaper than the cheese made of milk. Fortunately, they will now start printing labels telling customers which cheese has milk in it and which doesn't.

Fish, meat (especially beef), most herbs (with the exception of Balkan chubritsa), chicken, eggs, bread? Go to Turkey or Greece! Even Bulgaria's famed banitsa has become a thing of the past, just like Bulgaria's "traditional" friendship with Russia, President Parvanov's favourite topic. It may have been tasty in 1878, but it is not in 2009. Genuine Bulgarian banitsa will be best eaten in Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, Greece, Turkey and Romania. There it will typically be made with real filo pastry, real Feta, and real butter. You can get it in Kosovo as well – and you will be provided with free napkins.

Incidentally, the way out of Bulgaria's humdrum food scene is not very difficult. Get in your car and drive into Greece. The first village taverna a few miles across the border will offer you a culinary experience that even the more expensive restaurants in Sofia will have a hard time conjuring up. Hint: the kebapcheta there will be called soudzoukakia.


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