Even though it is considered a staple of national cuisine, bread in Bulgaria is very bad and Bulgarians have, to say the least, an odd attitude to it
After just a few weeks in Bulgaria, or a few hours of watching Bulgarian TV, you will have noticed that something quite strange is going on with Bulgarian bread. On the one hand, Bulgarians left, right and centre will swear by the quality of their bread, and President Parvanov will be seen partaking of bread dipped in salt from a plate proffered to him by a girl clad in a 19th Century "folk" costume – yes, you've guessed right: he is opening a new cultural centre or meeting dignitaries in the provinces. On the other hand, however, you will have been in the country long enough to discover that not only is the quality of Bulgarian bread dismal and its seeming diversity a myth, but also that bread is not readily available in public eateries. If there is anything that makes Bulgaria really different in terms of bread from any other country in Europe, it is the inescapable How-Many-Slices-of-Bread-Do- You-Want question, even in flashy restaurants where you cough up Western prices.
Understanding the Big Bread Issue in its historic, economic, social, cultural, political and culinary aspects will consequently save you quite a lot of frustration while you are enjoying the other beauties of this small but proud nation.
Nothing illustrates the discrepancy between what Bulgarians think of themselves and their country, and the actual reality, than the quality of their bread. To start off with, the only feature that makes Bulgarian bread different from bread in Turkey, Greece, the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia and parts of Romania is its, well, inferior quality. White grain of the fluffy variety bread is, in fact, an Ottoman thing that was adopted throughout the Ottoman Empire. I have pondered at length what adopted or hereditary property makes the Turk, Greek, Serb and Bosniak better breadmakers than their Bulgarian brethren, but I have been unable to reach a definitive conclusion.
More often than not, Bulgarian bread will be underbaked (which could be explained by this nation's proverbial frugality and desire to economise on energy on the way to becoming a power engineering hub in the Balkans). Unless the fresh supplies are just in, it will also be stale, which partly explains why most Bulgarian restaurateurs will toast your bread, even though you are having dinner. But again, no strict rules apply in this either. Some will toast your bread even if it's fresh from the shop. The worst will be those who use the pre-sliced variety of the type you would only consider touching at a package holiday breakfast in Sunny Beach. To them, this is "The West" – and you will be charged accordingly.
A major peculiarity of Bulgarian bread is the timing of its arrival at a restaurant table. Do not expect anyone to give you a basket of fragrant, mouthwatering fresh bread the moment you sit down, as they would in Greece, Turkey, Italy and so on. Bread in Bulgaria is not eaten with salads either. It is a part of the main course and unless you ask for it specifically, it will not arrive until after you have finished the starters. Make sure you give detailed and explicit instructions. Step One: Order bread. Step Two: Demand it with the starters/salads. Step Three: Remind the waiter in case they forget. No offence implied, but asking for your bread at the beginning of a meal in Bulgaria is like asking for soup at the end of a meal in London. You have to work hard to convince the serving staff that that's when you want it.
You will create even further confusion if you want butter with your bread. Historically, bread with butter has been considered a children's pretea time "small breakfast" and very few "adult" restaurants will stock butter at all. If you persist, you might be given some cooking margarine.
And now for the How-Many-Slices-of-Bread thing. Unless the restaurant has baps, or pitka (in which case you will have to say how many you want), you pay for your bread by the slice, or filiyka. This means the waiter will have to invoice you for each slice you order, which in turn explains their insistence on you disclosing how many slices of bread you intend to eat. I, for one, find this a rather philosophical challenge and have rarely succeeded in providing a satisfactory answer. How many slices of bread should I want? Is bread bad or good for me? What if I order three but later want four? What if I order three, but eat only two? I've tried out various strategies. An example of a typical conversation I have in Bulgarian restaurants:
AG: "And some bread, please."
Waiter: "How many slices?"
AG: "Ah, well, um, let's see – bring us a few."
AG: "Is the bread fresh?"
Waiter: "I don't know. You can have it toasted."
With all my love for shopska, rakiya, kebapcheta and other things Bulgarian, I have only one piece of advice for bread-lovers here: go to a Turkish restaurant. I was recently in one with a friend, one of the most original and internationally known Bulgarian writers. We ordered the salads and along came the bread, a huge loaf served on three plates, steaming hot from the oven, sprinkled with sesame seeds and dashed with some home-made butter. We couldn't even bring ourselves to taste the delicious kebabs that followed because we were already full with the starters and the bread. Towards the end of our dinner, my friend said between two mouthfuls: "And how can one be a nationalist in Bulgaria?!"