MY OWN CHOICE: FINE DINING

by Lucy Cooper and Ben Plummer

From the capital to Kozloduy

Lucy Cooper and Ben Plummer

Whether it be suckling pig in Kovachevitsa, caviar by the Black Sea, calf's head in Sofia, or chicken's bottoms in Kozloduy, Bulgaria has it all and more, as we discovered after more than two years of careful research in this country of far-flung culinary delights.

If you're looking for something different, away from the big city, get yourself down to Dvamata Bratya, or The Two Brothers, in Kovachevitsa (phone: 07527 416 or 048 930 947) for a weekend of clean mountain air, great food and fantastic hospitality in beautiful surroundings. You can sample the finest homemade juices, sausages, dried meats and yoghurt that we've come across in Bulgaria. Try the crackling dish for breakfast - not for the faint hearted. The roaring fire is perfect on a winter's night, and in summer you can relax outside under the vines and drink, talk and dance into the early hours. For special occasions, you can pre-order a suckling pig or a lamb to be shared between family and friends. Don't leave without trying a plate of their handpicked mushrooms in butter. You're sure to be looked after by the wonderful owners who also rent out rooms in traditional houses in the village.

Just down the road, stop off at the Kruchma Tavern in Leshten for more great home cooking, homemade rakiya, and possibly the best kyufte in the country. Like The Two Brothers, all the food is fresh and meat comes from the owners' farm. Finish off with a walk around the picturesque village. Enquire at the tavern if you're looking for rooms.

If you're after traditional Bulgarian fare in the capital, look no further than Pod Lipite, or Under the Linden Trees, (1 Elin Pelin St, phone: 866 5053). This is the place to take visitors, friends and family to give them an authentic taste of Bulgaria. As you enter, you take a step back in time to Revival Period Bulgaria; traditional costumes and artefacts adorn the stone walls, solid wooden tables and beams abound and the open grill sizzles as you sip your wine and soak up the atmosphere. Those wanting an all out Bulgarian dining experience can try the chicken hearts, livers, pan-fried calf's head or other strange pieces of animals. But if this doesn't appeal, stick with the pork knuckle, cold meats, sache, or wild boar. There are some vegetable options too and they do a great kyopoolu. Folk musicians and singers fl it in and out of the rooms, adding to the noisy, vibrant atmosphere as people work their way through rakiya and wine at a healthy pace. This is a great place with a well-deserved reputation, book early if you want to dine here.

If you've got a craving for curry, head to the Taj Mahal (11, 11th August Street, phone: 987 3632) or the Tandoori Club (181B Rakovski St, phone: 981 16 61). The Tandoori Club rates best on food - they have a resident Nepalese chef, while the Taj Mahal wins on overall ambience and atmosphere. With three floors of sumptuously decorated rooms, it's a far cry from your average UK curry house. The best spot is in the attic, where coloured material hangs from the ceilings and ornaments of Shiva twinkle in the candlelight. There's a wide variety of meat and vegetarian curry dishes along with all the necessary side orders to satisfy your cravings.

Leaving the city behind again, the Xantana in Sozopol is a great place to enjoy seafood and great views in the fresh air (7 Morska Street, Sozopol, phone: 05502 2454). Now is a perfect time to visit, as it's out of season and the madness of summer tourism hasn't descended yet. Ksantana's charm is in its location as much as the food. It is in an old wooden town house overlooking the bay. Sit outside on the deck on one of the driftwood chairs, or on the balcony to enjoy stunning views of the glittering sea with your Black Sea fish, caviar and salad. Seagulls wheeling overhead add to the authentic seaside experience. A small shingle beach can be reached down some steps from the balcony, so you can snooze off your lunch on the beach.

Finally, we have to mention Kozloduy. It may not be top of everyone's places to go list in Bulgaria, but this Danube town holds lots of fond memories for us of our first months living here. It's also where Bulgarian friends first introduced us to the delights of Bulgarian cuisine, in the form of tripe soup and chickens' bottoms (the ultimate hangover cure, apparently). The Communist Club has all the Bulgarian basics, served with a smile at good prices. There are a couple of other good places too. Try The White House, or Byalata Kushta, for dinner next to a fireplace (which you might need given the speed of the service), or go to La Banya - the old public bath house, full of traditional charm, hearty meals and a good selection of drinks to wash them down with. Try the sword, which comprises big hunks of meat served skewered on a giant sword. This place is hidden away in a housing estate, but ask any of the locals and they'll take you right up to the door.

So, from the capital to Kozloduy, the mountains to the seaside, go forth and experience all Bulgaria has to offer.

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