Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Sarmi

These are little packages containing rice, various spices and minced meat (unless they’re the ones eaten for the Christmas meal when the meat is left out) and wrapped in vine leaves, skins of red peppers or, more usually, pickled cabbage leaves. In the winter, most families will have a huge jar of pickling cabbages on their balcony which will be used for making sarmi. The pickling liquid is an unnaturally bright pink with a distinctive pungent smell and the cabbages are carefully selected – the ones with five or more veins on the leaves are said to give the best flavour.


Monday, January 16, 2023

Road Rage

There was a recent item on the news about the residents of a tower block who woke up one day to find that all the tyres of their cars had been punctured with a screwdriver. The culprit was said to be an Englishman who had been in Sofia visiting his wife’s family and had left that morning. I don’t know if he was a convenient scapegoat to enable the police to avoid doing any actual policing, but if it was the Englishman, I can understand it. The Bulgarian standards of driving and parking don’t mix well with repressed English rage.

Christmas Meal

This happens on Christmas Eve evening – there’s no particular food-related tradition for Christmas Day, other than to eat lots of it. The Christmas meal is vegan (as is the whole of Christmas Eve) and will include dishes like roasted peppers, a big pot of beans, winter salad, different kinds of dips, sarmi, a bread made without milk or yeast and a special compot made from figs and other dried fruit. It’s very important that there’s an odd number of these dishes and, after the meal, they should be left on the table overnight so that departed relatives can eat too.

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

St. Nikola’s Day

Nikola is a boy’s name – the stress is on the ‘o’ – so this is St. Nicholas’s Day. It takes place on 6th December and is one of the big name days where gifts are given to the namee, families gather together for a meal, and there’s a specific type of food. Because St. Nikola is the patron saint of fishermen, the food in this instance is fish; usually carp. Walk through any residential district in the early evening of St. Nikola’s Day and the stench of cooking carp seeps from windows and hangs over the street like a toxic mist.

Monday, November 28, 2022

Parking Enforcement

The truck arriving has the same impact on the neighbourhood as the first tank of an invading army. They call it a pyek (паяк) which translates as ‘spider’ because of the appearance of the crane on the back that lifts cars onto a trailer and takes them away. Despite the standard of parking in the city, vehicles are seemingly targeted at random - generally from patches of ground with bays outlined on the tarmac that don’t have any ‘no parking’ signs. Coincidentally, the cars that get removed often happen to be near food stalls where city workers congregate to eat. 

Monday, October 31, 2022

Winter Salad

It might also be called ‘Royal Salad’. This is a mixture of raw vegetables, generally cauliflower, peppers, garlic and carrot (although this will vary) floating in pickling vinegar mixed with a little salt and sugar. Like lutenitsa, this is usually made in the autumn and stored in jars for use in the winter months when fresh produce isn’t so readily available. It’s nice with a little paprika sprinkled on the top and goes very well with rakia. In fact, I suspect that eating winter salad is an excuse to drink rakia the whole year round – it is for me, anyway.

Spokoino (спокойно)

An instruction: ‘calm down’ or ‘relax’ or ‘take it easy’. I’m a teacher so I tend to use this a lot – it can also be shortened into slang: spoko, which is generally good for an easy laugh in the classroom, much like k’vo? I’m sure that the amusement here, however, comes from my pronunciation which I know isn’t quite right. This is due to my system of learning vocabulary which is almost entirely based on word association. As an example, for this word, I imagine a cockney Captain Kirk on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise shouting: ‘Spock! Oi! No!’

Lutenitsa

A sauce made primarily from roasted peppers. It goes with almost everything, especially red meat, but you can also eat it on its own on toast or as a dip. Every supermarket will have several long shelves devoted to different brands but the best, of course, is homemade and you generally make it at the start of autumn. To do this, you’ll need an afternoon sweating over your chushkopek roasting several kilograms of peppers one by one, as well as a few aubergines, some carrots, garlic, cumin, salt and tomato puree. Then you peel everything and blend it all together.

Chushkopek

With characteristic self-depreciating humour, the chushkopek is touted as being Bulgaria’s proudest invention. It’s a device for roasting peppers. If you cut a howitzer shell in half, the bottom half would look like a chushkopek and it weighs about the same, thick metal with a well in the centre that’s wide enough for a single pepper. You might get a handful of chilis in there or a narrow aubergine, but peppers are its primary concern. When you start using it, you realise why it’s so industrial looking – if was built from anything less than military grade armour, it would melt.

Monday, September 19, 2022

Highways

They’re the equivalent of dual carriageways but the speed limit is 140kmph. Of the two lanes, the inside is often crumbling and peppered with the kind of potholes that people get rescued from - probably due to the extremes of weather and the high volume of lorries. The outside is treated as a racetrack, particularly if you have an Audi or Mercedes or any brand of SUV. If you can’t overtake in the inside lane, the preferred technique is to blast up to the driver in front and get as close to their bumper as possible while flashing your lights.