Bulgarian Banitsa with Anna Vladeva

Ever thought about travelling somewhere new, but worried about how easy it would be to find good food as a vegetarian? Or, you’ve bought the guidebook and every recommended dish is something meaty? There must be something for you right? Well there always is and because I’m nice like that, I’ve taken it upon myself to interview people from across the globe and find out for you.

This is Anna, a writer10685286_1463346523930925_1763564291_n and translator from Varna, Bulgaria, and a fellow student on my MA Writing course. She also writes a wonderful blog about life in Varna that’s well worth checking out.

I asked Anna to look at her hometown from a vegetarian point of view and this is what she said.

What’s your hometown called and whereabouts is it?

My hometown is called Varna. It is Bulgaria’s third largest city and stands on the Black Sea coast.

Is there a particular dish that’s special to Varna?

A peculiar thing about Varna is that indigenous residents are very few. Everyone has come to settle in this place from somewhere else (Well, two or three generations ago, but still). These people brought the food of their home places with them and still cook it, so Varna does not have a dish which is unique to the area.

Varna

What would you say are the key flavours of Bulgarian food? 

Speaking of flavours in terms of herbs and spices; the most popular are parsley (it is good in almost every summer dish and is mandatory in all fresh salads), dried savory (this is the ubiquitous winter spice, especially good with white beans and lentils), and mint (to be used fresh in spring and summer, and dried in winter). Speaking of flavours in terms of foods; there are three domineering tastes. The first one is yogurt (typically made of cow’s or sheep’s milk). According to certain quizzes, yogurt is the flavour that the Bulgarians abroad most frequently miss. For us, yogurt is more than just food: it is also medicine (has calming effect on sunburnt skin and upset tummies) and a slimming diet. Plus, it can be a comfort food when mixed with fruit preserve or biscuits, or sweetened with crystal sugar. The second dominant taste is that of white brine cheese (typically made from cow’s or sheep’s milk). You can eat it in combination with almost every other food or dish (e.g. with scrambled eggs, tomato stew, water melon, cherries, grapes, roast pepper, fried aubergine, etc. etc.). The third very Bulgarian food is tomatoes. Sliced tomatoes and brine cheese is the favourite summer combination (for breakfast or afternoon snack,10685072_1463346567264254_1898440267_n or as lunch on very hot summer days). Tomatoes (fresh in summer and canned in winter) go as a basic ingredient in almost every dish.

Tell me about your favourite Bulgarian dish and is there a special time or place that you eat it?

I’ll choose banitsa (cheese pie). You can buy ready-made cheese pie from a bakery of course, but traditionally banitsa is suggestive of home and family. In the past, banitsa was a festive dish because making banitsa from scratch was very time consuming. Today, with ready-made pastry sheets, you can bake banitsa in about 50 minutes. In spite of fast and easy modern-day preparation, banitsa preserves its aura of a special-dish. Mothers bake banitsa to pamper their children. Banitsa is charged with the symbolism of maternal love and home integrity.

What do you normally drink with it?

Banitsa is perfect with ayran (this is a yogurt-and-water drink, mixing ratios depend on how thick or thin you like your ayran. You can add salt, if you like.) You may drink fruit syrup with your banitsa too.

Are there many vegetarians in Bulgaria or are they pretty rare?

Traditionally, eating of meat has been the symbol of prosperity in Bulgaria. When we talk of food, we understand meat meals. There aren’t many people who define themselves as vegetarians (meaning the knowledge and, perhaps, the ideology that goes with the definition). But, of course, there are people who prefer meatless dishes. I would add that vegetarianism is gaining popularity in the larger places and especially among the young people who embrace the values of healthy lifestyle.

In general, how hard do you think it would be for a vegetarian to travel through Bulgaria?

Well, they won’t die of hunger, although meat dishes dominate the menus of restaurants and eateries of all sorts, they all have a meatless section. Besides, every place in Bulgaria has its permanent market place/s with heaps of fresh fruits and vegetables on the stalls and small dairy shops and bakeries around. So, a kilo of tomatoes, a hunk of brine cheese, a loaf of homemade white or brown bread, and your meal is ready. This is what the average Bulgarian would eat if they happen to be away from home and won’t bother with a cooked meal.

Do you think that there are particular areas that would be harder/easier to find good vegetarian food in than others?

I think the situation is uniform thought the country: meat dishes dominate but there’s sufficient meatless food, too.

If I was going to visit, what do you think the number 1 food and drink I should try is?

That depends on the season but homemade banitsa and ayran is a must in all seasons. If its summer, then tomatoes and brine cheese. In winter; roasted pumpkin sprinkled with honey and walnut kernels and pumpkin pie. In spring, lettuce salad with radishes, green onions and boiled eggs and in autumn; vegetable hotchpotch.

Sounds delicious!

Here’s Anna’s recipe for Banitsa, it was great!

Ingredients:

  • A pack of ready-made filo pastry sheets
  • 300-400g of crushed brine cheese (the closest you can get to Bulgarian brine cheese in the average British supermarket is feta, but that worked fine for me)
  • 3-4 Tbsp Sunflower Oil
  • 3 Eggs
  • 400ml Milk

1. Grease and line a round baking tray. Cover the bottom with two or three pastry sheets. Trim them so that they fit the tray and ruffle them slightly.

2. Sprinkle with cheese and a few drops of oil and then add another layer of pastry, ruffle, sprinkle with cheese and oil.

3. Continue layering the cheese, oil and pastry until you finish the pack. The uppermost layer should be of pastry. Cut in triangles with the tip of a sharp knife.

4. Mix the eggs and milk and pour on the pastry. Let it sit for a couple of minutes so the the mix can soak into the cuts.

5. Bake in a preheated oven for 15-20 minutes or until the top is golden brown.

6. When the banitsa is done, take it out of the oven and sprinkle it lightly with cold water. Cover with a dry, clean cloth and let it rest for about 10 minutes (this is done to soften the crust). Cut in triangles and serve.

WP_20140909_010For this and other recipes, check out the Forking Off website.

 

New Eyes and Extra Colours

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Terry Pratchett (and many drunken travellers paraphrasing) once said; “Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” Truer words and all that. Another thing a fellow back-packer once told me is that it takes you the same amount of time as you spent in a failed relationship to fully process that same relationship and move on. The same is true of time after travel.

One of the worst things about returning after an extended period of wild adventure is responding to questions like ‘what was it like?’ ‘Did you have a good time?’ How do you summarise 18 months in a whole other world down to a few neatly palatable sentences? I know what things I miss the most from being on the road (although I don’t doubt that I’ll be back on it again one day), but I was curious about what got my fellow backpackers to yearning – so I thought I’d ask!

Of all of the, at least temporarily, retired backpackers that I surveyed, the most popular answer that they gave was people; the other 488031_163772840451369_98655734_n - Copytravellers they meet on the road and the locals that they got the opportunity to spend time with. And how do you spend time with people? Why eating and drinking of course! In fact food made up a whopping 10% of all the answers given to the question ‘what thing do you miss most about international travel?’ Other top answers were finding out about new cultures, having adventures and the total freedom to be spontaneous and go wherever the wind blows you.

Now that I’m back in suburban Hampshire studying and working, there are limited ways that I can recreate any of those wonderful things for myself. If there’s one thing I know I can do though, it’s cook; so that’s what I’m going to do, at least until I can begin a fresh adventure. I shall see my kitchen with new eyes and extra colours as I recreate every wonderful, nostalgic meal I’ve had on the road. Hopefully I’ll even bring in some other people’s stories and recipes too, so that I can share the trials and triumphs of being a vegetarian in, and all-over, a meat-eater’s world.