There are said to be three great cuisines in the world: French, Chinese and Turkish. Bulgarian cuisine is very similar to Turkish. Its strengths are the wonderfully tasty salads, vegetables, herbs and fruits. There are slow-cooked meat dishes, grilled meats and plenty of meat-free dishes based on eggs and cheese. Nowadays many vegetables are available all year round from imported sources, but if you stay with the local seasonal produce you’ll get the best flavours. For more information and illustrations, click here.
Often folk-style restaurants (mehanas) have a choice of dried herbs and spices on the table, to dip your bread in. Choubritsa (a Bulgarian dried herb), sharena sol(choubritsa and salt) and paprika are the usual ones. Herbs are frequently used in cooking; local ones include savory, parsley, dill, mint, paprika and basil. The dipping of bread in this way is part of a traditional welcome; indeed, some restaurants have a waiter outside greeting guests by offering bread and herbs.
Salads are arguably the best part of the meal. The most popular is Shopska salad, named after the Shops, the people from around Sofia. This is a mixture of chopped tomatoes, cucumber, onion and fresh or preserved peppers, sprinkled with grated or crumbled sirene cheese (made from sheep’s or cow’s milk, this is the Bulgarian version of feta, subtly different, and available now in the UK at Bulgarian grocery shops).
There are many types of salad, and also single-ingredient salads of just tomatoes or baked peppers, for example. Snezhanka is made from chopped cucumber in strained yoghurt with garlic and chopped walnuts added. In summer the popular tarator (a cold soup) is essentially the same ingredients in a more liquid form and it’s very refreshing. In winter try turshiya, made from pickled vegetables such as cauliflowers, carrots, peppers and green tomatoes. Kyopolou is made by roasting aubergines and peppers and mixing them, minus their skin, with garlic, parsley and oil.
Bulgarian yoghurt, or kiselo mlyako, meaning ‘sour milk’, is world famous. It has a long history: the Thracians were very good at stockbreeding and produced a number of dairy products, and the word yoghurt is believed to be from the Thracian language. In 1905 the secret of Bulgarian yoghurt, a special bacteria named Lactobacillus bulgaricus, was discovered. There are different varieties made from the milk of cows, sheep, goats and buffaloes, and blends of these. In Bulgaria, they are all used for the preparation of various healthy dishes such as tarator and ayran (the ultimate drink for thirsty people – a mixture of yoghurt, water and salt).
Bulgaria has a long historical connection with wine; there is evidence of viticulture and winemaking in Thracian times. Archaeologists have proved this theory with their numerous finds of stone troughs which were used for winemaking and ageing. The wines of Thrace are mentioned by Homer in both The Iliad and The Odyssey.
Under the post-war communist government, wine production was nationalised. Winemaking became an industry as massive wineries, supplied by huge new vineyards, dramatically increased production levels. During the 1960s a more scientific approach was adopted, as varieties of grape were more carefully matched to the areas that provided the best growing environment for them. At this time too the classic grapes (mainly French) were introduced with resounding success.
Bulgaria’s winemakers are still fascinated by experiments with new grape varieties, but often blend them with indigenous grapes. Some older, almost forgotten, varieties are being revived.