by Bozhidara Georgieva

"Aim for authenticity," are some of the words describing our times.

Regardless of whether we are tourists visiting a new place or we are living our ordinary lives, we are after authentic experiences and tastes. Food is probably the most significant manifestation of this trend. Indeed, in Bulgaria are being introduced new culinary ideas from all over the world, but authentic food remains one of the pillars of Bulgarian national culture. We cannot imagine Easter without sweetbread and coloured eggs, St George's Day without roasted lamb, Christmas Eve without odd number of meat-free dishes, or New Year without Banitsa pastry with good luck charms.

Born throughout the centuries by the combination of climatic, geographical and cultural factors, Bulgarian cuisine steps on several principles.

Meat and dairy products have significant presence, as for centuries Bulgarians have been engaged in animal husbandry. Today pork and chicken have the upper limb over traditional lamb, but no matter what the meat is, you will find it in a variety of combinations. It is a part of dishes like Musaka and Sarmi, or stuffed cabbage or vine leaves, in earthenware stews and, particularly in restaurants, in the omnipresent grills in the shape of meatballs, skewers, steaks.

Yoghurt is among the most recognisable symbols of Bulgarian cuisine. Whether by its own or as the main ingredient for Tarator cold soup, as a compliment to the Sarmi or eaten as a dessert with some forest berries jam, yoghurt is everywhere. White brine cheese is another source of national pride. It is a part of a number of beloved recipes, like the famed Banitsa, while Kashkaval, the hard yellow cheese, is an excellent appetiser, together with the variety of meat delicacies like Elenski Ham, Elena fillet, Sudzhuk, Lukanka, Pastarma.

Bulgarian cuisine is impossible without tomatoes and cucumbers, peppers and courgettes, cabbage and potatoes, beans and lentils. The variety of vegetables is the result of the favourable local climate and the age-old tradition in gardening, so they appear in almost all Bulgarian dishes. They are in the salads, with which Bulgarians begin their meals, and in stews with or without meat. Thanks to them, even a vegan or a vegetarian can find their favourite Bulgarian dish.

Lets not forget bread. Having a cult status for Bulgarians in the olden times, it is a symbol of the home and the family, and its best incarnation are the rich Pogacha breads.

The Bulgarian traditional cuisine is a universe, and specialised restaurants are your best reference points in it - even if you are a Bulgarian. The places for national cuisine carefully follow the established recipes, but also take care to dig out and preserve little known dishes and products. They give you the opportunity to try regional classics such as Banska Kapama, or meat stewed with cabbage in earthenware pot, or Rhodopski Klin, or pastry with rice, even if you don't have the chance to visit Bansko or the Rhodope.

Getting to know the cuisine of a particular country is the fastest way to fall in love with it. In the case with Bulgarian national cuisine, the process is easy and pleasant. Just sit in a traditional restaurant.

Hadjidraganovite Kashti: The home of tradition
Hadjidraganovite Kashti (Sofia, 75 Kozlodyi St, phones: + 359 2 931 31 48, + 359 899 917 837, appeared in 1866, when the merchant Hadzhi Dragan invited master builders from Koprivshtitsa, Zheravna, Melnik and Bansko and commissioned each of them to built a house in the respective architecture tradition. The result is still impressive. After a renovation that took 3 years and ended in 2004, the restaurant is the best way to fall in love with the classic and regional cuisine of Bulgaria. Regardless of whether you sit in one of the houses or in the wonderful summer garden, Hadjidraganovite Kashti are a culinary trip back in time and in the tastes of Bulgaria. The menu includes a wide range of traditional meat and vegetarian dishes, the revived old recipes in the Meat/Lean initiative, and of unique specialities like whole chicken in clay egg, porcini soup in a bread bowl or giant Voevodska sofra for 10 people. All of this is accompanies by an excellent selection of Bulgarian beverages and life folklore music.

Bistro Krag: Tasty and fresh take on Bulgarian cuisine
The international trend of looking with fresh eyes on traditional dishes is warmly welcomed in Bistro Krag (Sofia, 4A Sheynovo St, phone: 02 992 5543; FB: bisitrokrag). This relatively new, but already much loved and lively place is dedicated to quality, local products from the Balkans. In its aim to find in the old something new, Krag bravely leaves the beaten tracks of tradition. The result is impressive. The menu is concise and deliberately terse, seasonal and built exclusively on farmer's products. The result is an intriguing combination of known tastes, technique and little creativity that leave behind lasting and pleasant memories.

Elena ham from Coupage Bulgarian Gourmet shop: Touching tradition
Elena Ham is a pork delicacy made only in the Elena region. Its specific taste is the result of the region's climate particularities, and of the strict application of family traditions. The ham is buried in salt for about 40-45 days and then dries in the open air for at least 3 months. In Sofia you will find Elena Ham at Coupage Bulgarian Gourmet Shop (42 Solunska St, FB: Купаж), together with the wines that go best with it: Queen Elena Cuvee and Ivan Alexander Grande Cuvee. The wines by Maryan Winery are a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, aged in oak casks for 9 and 12 months respectively.

Vodenitzata: The spirit of Bulgaria
The feel that you are about to experience something memorable and authentic will begin long before you approach Vodenitzata (Sofia, Dragalevtsi, Vitosha Park, first station of Dragalevtsi chair-lift, phones: +359 2 967 1058, +359 888 70 31 03,, while are gradually climbing the feet of the Vitosha, with its beautiful landscapes and crystal air. The feel will become stronger when you enter the restaurant's blossoming garden, and when you open the menu the pleasant surprises will continue. On the pages are listed fresh traditional salads, a wonderful selection of Bulgarian cheeses and salami, a variety of meat and vegetarian hot starters, and classical meatballs and skewers, plus more exotic suggestions like knuckle in Haydut style and specifically created gourmet steak menu. But Vodenitzata is not only a pleasure for the palate. It is also a pleasure for the soul – every evening from 9pm the restaurant becomes a stage for life traditional Bulgarian music and dance performances, the best companion to everyone who has decided to discover the spirit of Bulgaria.


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