If you try, you can have mince pies and pudding in the heart of the Balkans, but you can also go to Australia
On our first holiday season since moving here we were hoping to experience a Bing Crosby style "White Christmas" - something that was very rare where we lived in England. Hopefully, it would snow for us and we could also create an English Christmas for our Bulgarian friends who had invited us to their celebrations.
On 6 December, St Nicolas Day, we had a sumptuous Bulgarian spread, the highlight of which was baked carp stuffed with a mixture of walnuts, onions, mushrooms, breadcrumbs and seasonings. It was all delicious and included lots of new tastes for us. Then on Christmas Eve we were treated to a traditional Bulgarian vegetarian feast and house blessing. There were again mountains of food and rakiya. I didn't know that you could combine, cook and stuff vegetables in so many different ways with so much subtlety of flavour. And how do they make that bread? Another wonderful experience.
It was our turn on Christmas Day. We had always enjoyed Christmas even with all its commercialism and had brought Christmas crackers, all our baubles, tinsel and fairy lights to Bulgaria with us. We decorated two trees and put holly and candles around the house. It was very festive, just the right atmosphere.
Now for the food. Our friends wanted to experience as typical an English Christmas Day as we could manage. That meant a Christmas cake, mince pies and a pudding as well as the turkey and accompaniments. Thinking ahead before we left England we had brought mincemeat, a ready-made Christmas pudding and other bits with us. I always cheated and cooked the pudding in the microwave as it saved a good hour or so. Before serving it we would hide some coins in each piece of pudding as is traditional. The women would get a lev and the men a stotinka or two. The cake wasn't a problem as they had glace cherries and dried fruit in the supermarket and we'd eventually found icing sugar (pudra zahar) so we could make one easily enough. I made two dozen mince pies in advance using the English mincemeat.
They turned out fine although I found the consistency of Bulgarian flour different to what I'm used to. We decided to start the meal with prawn cocktail, which is very popular in England but not seen much here. So we needed prawns, lettuce, lemon, tomato and the seafood sauce, not much problem there. I'll admit that in the UK I bought ready-made sauce but here I had to improvise. We found iceberg lettuce in a supermarket.
Wonderful. Just the thing. I added tomato sauce to mayonnaise to create the taste of seafood sauce and it was a complete success. We just had to put it all together: a base of chopped lettuce covered with prawns, a wedge of lemon, a wedge of tomato, the sauce spooned over the prawns and voila - prawn cocktail.
Next the main course. There were going to be eight of us so we wanted quite a big turkey. This was impossible for us to find so in the end we bought two medium size ones. "Pigs in blankets" and stuffing were must haves with our turkey so they were next. The "pigs" are small sausages wrapped in bacon (the blankets) and baked in the oven. We tried to find sausages that weren't too spicy and then we used smoked bacon, as that was all we could get. Normally the bacon used wouldn't be smoked but our Bulgarian version was successful and tasty. In England I would have bought a box of stuffing mix but we made our own using onions, breadcrumbs, sage leaves and a few crushed walnuts - another first.
Early on Christmas morning I prepared and stuffed the turkeys and put them in the oven. We have an electric oven and a gas hob, very luckily as it turned out. They needed about three and a half hours to cook and I was going to replace the turkeys when they were ready with the potatoes and vegetables for roasting and the pigs for baking.
About five minutes before they were due out there was a power cut. Momentary panic! The turkeys were fine, that was great, but what about the rest without the oven or the microwave!?
Traditionally Christmas pudding is always steamed for one to two hours. Looked like that was what I needed to do. I put it, covered, in a pan of boiling water, fingers crossed for good luck. The vegetables would have to be boiled and perhaps some of them mashed in butter and the pigs... what about the pigs? In the end I fried them slowly until they were crisp. I wished my daughter in Australia a merry Christmas and told her what had happened. She suggested parboiling the potatoes that should have been roasted and then deep frying them. "What a good idea!" we all thought - and then realised that the deep fryer was electric also. Funny how you take things for granted. We made gravy from the turkey stock and brandy custard for the Christmas pudding, put out cranberry sauce and then we were ready.
The guests were due half an hour before we were to eat. The table was set specially for Christmas with our best cutlery, glassware and napkins, a holly centrepiece, Christmas crackers and candles. We have found that if we look hard enough and decipher the Cyrillic labels you can find almost everything here in Bulgaria. We found sherry and port in the supermarket so we had the aperitif for when they arrived and the drink to finish with, plus wines to suit the courses.
And so it began. Everything was tasted and tested with great curiosity and judgments passed accordingly. Sherry was a new experience and well appreciated; good job we had more than one bottle! The prawn cocktail was enjoyed and remarked on by everyone but they were most curious about the lettuce as the iceberg variety is very different to the usual lettuce you buy on the market. The vegetables mashed with butter were another unexpected curiosity together with the different sauces and stuffing. There was lots of discussion about each new thing that was tried and recipes and ideas were shared for future reference. There wasn't much room left for the cake and mince pies after the pudding but they were tried later in the day.
All in all it was a great success. We'd had a light snowfall and we felt we had shown our friends the hospitality they have always shown us and given them a little taste of England despite having no electricity for four hours.
So what are we doing this Christmas? Well actually - we're having a barbie on Bondai beach in Australia!