I recently traveled to Bulgaria’s northern Black Sea coast to attend a film festival, which provided me not only with a great excuse for a short vacation but also with the opportunity to engage in my favorite activity when I am in Bulgaria’s northeast – eating plenty of seasonal seafood and amazing locally baked bread. (The northeast’s level terrain and temperate climate makes it ideal for growing a variety of grains, while summer visitors to the northern coast can sample platters of crispy sprat, herb-rubbed, grilled Black Sea scad, and steaming, juicy mussels.) The trip also offered a revelation about Bulgarian food, which had slipped me by until then.
On the bus from Balchik to Bulgaria’s “sea capital,” Varna, I sat by a Finnish woman who told me she grew up eating Bulgarian yogurt and had always wanted to visit the country in order to have that delicious treat at the source. She also assured me that Bulgarian yogurt is by far superior to any other kind of yogurt. Her assessment may sound exaggerated, but the good reception our yogurt has enjoyed worldwide speaks otherwise. Moreover, it is thanks to the creamy goodness and great adaptability of this nutritious chow that it is at the heart of our national cuisine.
“You put yogurt in everything,” my Colombian husband exclaimed after he had been offered a bowl of yogurt to go with his green bean stew at a mehana (traditional Bulgarian restaurant).
His observation is correct. We Bulgarians make yogurt salads (try katak – strained yogurt beaten with soft cheese and garnished with roasted red peppers); we thicken soups with yogurt; we put the creamy stuff in desserts (sheep’s yogurt topped with homemade blueberry or strawberry jam will positively leave you raving); we use it instead of sour cream in stews, and we even drink it (airan is a salt yogurt drink we all enjoy). Yogurt’s great with or as breakfast, and it makes a wonderful accompaniment to a light lunch or dinner.
But we don’t just eat any kind of yogurt. We like our yogurt fresh and often make it ourselves, usually from cow’s milk but also from sheep’s milk (for those who like the creamier, richer stuff).
Bulgarians are also picky about the ingredients they combine yogurt with. Despite the availability of fresh fruit and vegetables year-round nowadays, Bulgarians still prefer eating seasonal produce and seek out green markets, or pazars, in their hometowns where local farmers sell the products of their labor. (The pazar is the first place outside their immediate neighborhoods that Bulgarian children learn to get to and from.)
Visit Bulgaria in early summer and your nostrils will be teased everywhere you go by the smell of roasting zucchini (which – surprise, surprise! – Bulgarians top with a yogurt-based, dill-and-garlic dressing) and succulent off-the-vine tomatoes. In late July and August, you can feast on fragrant melons and watermelons. Late summer is also the time when I head to the Rhodope region to do some trekking surrounded by beautiful scenery and also to purchase succulent, immune-system-boosting blueberries. The ones we don’t eat right away I make jam with to use for my all-time favorite dessert – yeah, you guessed right: rich, thick yogurt oozing with natural flavors.
Tarator is a cold, yogurt-based soup which Bulgarians enjoy throughout summer. You can have it by itself with a piece of fresh whole-grain bread, or as a starter before a bigger meal. Some Bulgarians have it as an accompaniment to an anise-flavored alcoholic drink called mastika.
1 medium-sized cucumber, peeled, chopped in small pieces or coarsely grated
2 tablespoons dill, finely chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
150 gr. walnuts, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 glass of water
Salt and pepper to taste
Beat yogurt in a large bowl until you obtain a homogeneous mass. Add water and stir to mix. In a separate bowl combine grated cucumber, dill, garlic, walnuts and oil, seasoning lightly with salt and pepper. Pour diluted yogurt over the mixture and stir. Leave the tarator in the fridge for 1-2 hours in order for the flavors to blend and ladle out in bowls. Serve with fresh bread. Enjoy!
Note: If you take away the water from this recipe and use strained yogurt instead of regular yogurt, you can obtain a flavorful dip to serve at parties with crackers, carrot and celery sticks. Your friends are sure to enjoy it!
This guest post is written by Sylvia Zareva, an editor specializing in education and young adult literature. She currently works as web and publications production editor at the American University in Bulgaria.