Of Bond, butchers and Bulgarians
To better explain my relationship with food and gastronomy, I should briefly describe my life. For the first 24 years of it I lived in the country then called Czechoslovakia. For a young man the terror of Communism was unbearable. The regime definitely did not support anything so unproductive and "bourgeois" as fine dining. At the time everyone was happy to find anything at all in the shops, so it was impossible to plan meals. When I asked my mother what we would have for Sunday lunch, she retorted that she had no idea what our butcher had been bribed to hide under the counter this time.
As for restaurants, there were plenty of them around. Most were taverns, though. In other words, places where food was only a necessary complement to beer. Everything tasted the same wherever you went, the bar aromas ubiquitous and indistinguishable from one another. The number of exceptions was tragically small, and even these could keep up their higher standards for no more than a few months.
My mother, who taught me to cook, was an extraordinary chef. She could, even in those hard times, cook creative and delicious meals. I should mention that she had lived in a Mediterranean country and never lost her curiosity about original approaches to cooking, which she considered – quite correctly! – an art. She used to buy every cookbook she could. A large number of them actually found their way to our shops, but most of the recipes included ingredients you would be extremely lucky to find, even under a shopkeeper's counter.
Very soon I became frustrated with life in that gastronomically–stunted Communist country. I decided to leave. I entered a marriage of convenience with a citizen of the free world, but it was one which became the real thing, since I have now been living with my wife for 28 years! Marrying was one of only two ways to cross the border, and the more comfortable option if you didn't feel like shooting your way through like a James Bond. This "legal" way was also more advantageous mainly because I could return to my home country whenever I wanted to. Well, it wasn't quite that simple, but still... Even my parents could visit us from time to time. So, why am I telling you this? The point is that I was able to pack the car to the gunwales with delicacies so that our Prague table became a rare haven for Czech epicures. A place where, notwithstanding the totalitarian regime, you could even eat oysters.
The country of the free world I am referring to was France. There can be no debate about it having one of the most sophisticated cuisines in the world. I've always claimed myself to be a "gastronomical emigrant," having arrived from a land of Czech pubs. I've been saying this for 28 years, though nowadays I'm not sure if the joke wasn't actually true. I started uncovering the secrets of gastronomy's "promised land" to such an extent that, having worked on French TV, I became the writer and director of a series exploring regional food specialities.
Slowly, I also began to discover and try to understand French wines. The cellar of our Paris house began to fill up with wine bottles. I stopped the collection at a thousand, to allow time for the wine to mature. Twice a year I would buy a large number of bottles and carefully place them into our cellar at the proper temperature and humidity, though I was careful to add a few just for daily consumption.
Marie-Paule, my French wife, is an excellent cook, and teaches me a great deal. She has been in Bulgaria with me now for more than a year. Together, we are fighting the gastronomical challenges here stemming from the huge differences between French and Bulgarian cuisine. From the first moments we spent in this country, whose deep roots connect me, we have been observing, open-mouthed, the relationship Bulgarians have with their food.
I'll give you a few examples. We invited some Bulgarian friends over for a meal that Marie–Paule cooked. She tries her best to find the best ingredients. Like my mother long ago, she had to substitute everything with something else. The result wasn't always the sort of dish achievable in France but still, it was still nevertheless, mmm… Among the many things she tries to do is always to serve food at the correct temperature, to bring out the best in a meal. For this reason she warmed up the plates in the oven first. Once the table was set, gorgeous aromas wafted from the serving plates. Our guests hesitantly ate a single forkful, offered praise… and then lit a cigarette, or two or three. The food was cooling and, only when it was completely cold and the butts laid aside, did our our guests start to eat! Marie–Paule was bewildered, but I understand it a little better, having been raised in Communist Czechoslovakia.
Or… different company, different dinner. In the great effort to broaden the gastronomic horizons of our Bulgarian guests, we bought a variety of French and Italian cheeses from the excellent Elemag shop in Kozyak St in the Lozenets district and the good delicatessen on Tsar Osvoboditel, directly opposite the Italian embassy, to round off the meal. The richly–laden cheese platter was laid on the table. One of the diners, asked if he liked it, retorted, "I don't care. For me, there are two kinds of cheese – yellow and white. Kashkaval and sirene." What can you do? There is no way you can make everyone happy.
I have a feeling that Bulgarians rarely break out of their shell of conservative tastes and lack of curiosity about food. People say about the French they live to eat. About Bulgarians I would say the opposite. Whose fault is it? A couple of hundred years of Ottoman domination, which brought one of the finest culinary traditions in the world, or the decades of Communist drabness as epitomised by Steak Antoaneta and the like? The joy of eating has evaporated through the years. Yet I am still an optimist. The openness to the world, travel opportunities, and gradually increasing standards of living might help improve the situation. We are already seeing some steps in this direction, and not just in Sofia.
I can illustrate the point with an experience I had last autumn in Plovdiv. I stayed in a perfectly restored old house, which is now the Hotel Hebros (51 Konstatin Stoilov St, near the Balabanov House in Old Plovdiv, phone: 032 260 180, 032 625 929). Everything, down to the last detail of furnishing and décor, breathes history. This year's Indian summer allowed me to have lunch in the hotel garden and admire the architecture of this 19th Century bourgeois house and its façade decorated with beautiful frescoes. As for the food, I was pleasantly surprised by the pheasant roll–ups and delicious vegetable soup. The menu doesn't contain many items, which tends to be the mark of a good kitchen. It shows that the chef doesn't pull ready–made dishes out of the freezer. The food was prepared simply and with fresh ingredients. Sophistication lies in simplicity, the correct and subtle mix of basic flavours, and in quality ingredients. Hotel guests will delight in everything from the pleasant setting to the nice atmosphere to the epicurean delicacies.
I was also lucky to visit Varna's Paraklisa (8 Yoan Ekzarh St, phone: 539 735; 0899 131 155), where my friends and I enjoyed some excellent old Bulgarian cuisine. The congenial owner, Penka Mihova, has also written an interesting recipe book containing the secrets of preparing traditional Balkan specialities.
In Sofia, my favourite restaurant is Egur Egur (18 Sheynovo St, phone: 946 1765). Its Armenian specialities, a cuisine somewhere between Bulgarian and Lebanese, are delicious. It has a pleasant, retro style environment with clean and neat table settings with cloth napkins, and shining white tablecloths. The serving staff are very attentive. It is, in short, a calm oasis in the very centre of the city.
For a quick, quality lunch I usually go to a small restaurant, Checkpoint Charlie (12 Ivan Vazov St, phone: 988 0370). Its stylish interior design evokes the Berlin Wall and Communist era. Diners sit at tables covered with paper settings containing images from the Bulgarian Communist newspaper Rabotnichesko delo. The famous photograph of a German soldier desperately running from East to West Berlin dominates the inside pages.
Although all this raises bitter memories, it does not negatively affect the menu. On the contrary. The traditional Bulgarian dishes are tasty and simple, and if you find kyopoolu on the menu, you should order it immediately. Recently at a social event, I very much enjoyed the good quality catering and found out later that Checkpoint Charlie had prepared it. My only criticism is that the meat in gravy with mashed potatoes was cold (probably to please the Bulgarian palate). I would recommend they heat the food, a simple matter that would transform this fodder into a tasty meal… Well, maybe next time.
If you feel like having some good Bulgarian food without a high price tag, try the Divaka pub on 6th September St. It is a renovated in the Austro–Hungarian architectural style house with a garden and cellar. The waitresses are helpful, smiling and neat. The tripe and chicken soup served with bread are flawless. On a couple of occasions I was involved in heated debates with my friends when I suddenly noticed my watch said it was 3 am. Yes, Divaka is open 24/7! So if you need some good food in the early hours of the morning, you know where to go.
From there, if I leave early enough, I go directly to Hambara bar on the same street. It is has a discreet entrance without a sign. Walk through a tiny alley and you'll see a door made from rough wooden planks. If it's closed don't hesitate to knock or, better still, bang on it with your fist. The diners on the other side who are waiting to be seated will open it for you. The interior is lit only by candles and above the toilets you'll see a sign that says, Redaktsiya, or editing room. The toilets alone are worth seeing. Because the bar is so discreet, only regular customers come here, intellectuals mostly, or musicians, artists, and art lovers. Every Wednesday a great violinist, Itsko Fintsi, plays, accompanied by pianist Vasil Parmakov. Quality guaranteed!
My friend Georgi Lozanov, one of the regular Hambara visitors, once invited me to a little tavern called Kandahar (4 Evlogi Georgiev Blvd, phone: 865 2535), just past the canal. As he says, it's a kvartalna krachma za vsichki kvartali, which translates as something like "a quarter pub for all quarters." This is the place to taste real Bulgarian fare. The grill is outdoors all year round, and an elderly woman works at it adroitly. The owner of Kandahar, a former chef from the Czechoslovakian club on Krakra St, buys fresh produce daily and keeps a careful eye on his guests to ensure they are satisfied with their meal. In contrast to most of the Bulgarian mehani you find in every guidebook on Sofia, Kandahar has retained the quality of its dishes. I recommend svinsko sas zele, or pork with cabbage, yahniya, or stew and especially kebapcheta, or meatballs and lovely turshiya, or pickled vegetables.
If you just feel like having a good beer, you'll find the best, including Czech food, in the café of the Czech Cultural Centre, Café–Gallery Prague (100 Rakovski St, phone: 981 4033). It is the only place in Bulgaria where you can get a draught Bernard with no preservatives. The beer comes from a small private brewery in the Czech town of Humpolec. In my opinion, it is the best beer in the world after the famous Pilsner Urquell. It comes in both light and dark varieties. Or try something typically Czech – ask for these two mixed together and get a "cut beer."
Bon appetit and na zdraví!
*Michael Wellner-Pospisil is director of the Czech Cultural Centre in Sofia.