SMOKES AND DRINK KEEP YOU IN THE PINK

by Richard Cherry

Whether you're a beer, beaujolais, or brandy buff, there's always a tipple to tickle your fancy

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Ask acquaintances about their hobbies or leisure activities. They'll go blank for a moment as they think about what they do in their free time. After a few seconds, most people will offer a vague answer: “listening to music”, “reading”, “watching movies”. A few folks do have real hobbies, like paragliding, or collecting pre-World War II shoelaces, whatever.

But almost never will you hear someone tell you that in their free time they like drinking and/or smoking. Funny, given that these are two of the most popular leisure time activities around the world (or at least in those parts where people don't belong to party-pooping religions, and so on)...

Let's talk about booze. Maybe you're one of those people who enjoy the odd glass of red, swirling and sniffing away, commenting intelligently on the wine's complexity and expressiveness. Maybe you're the kind of person who wakes up in a doorway every Sunday morning, pale, trembling and lying in a puddle of vodka (in which case, you should think about laying off).

No matter what kind of imbiber you are, a rich drinking adventure awaits you in Bulgaria. Come with us now as we investigate the possibilities for swirling, swigging, and waking up in puddles in the EU's favourite new member country...

Though a long way behind world viticultural behemoths like France, Italy and Spain, Bulgaria still definitely swings above its weight in terms of volume of wine produced (though interestingly lagging behind its smaller northern neighbour, Moldova).

Bulgarians are fiercely proud of their wines, at least of the reds. White wine is barely considered wine at all. There's even a traditional song which, translated from the Bulgarian, goes a bit like this: “Oh white wine, oh white wine, why are you not red?”

Several varietals are unique to Bulgaria, including Pamid, Gamza, and Mavrud. A wine expert told me that a good Mavrud should be “meaty”, and “so thick you could cut it with a knife”. Despite the unfortunate metaphors more appropriate to a description of dog food, there's actually nothing wrong with the wine. Those “in the know” report that Bulgarian wines have made encouraging gains in consistency in recent years, and are starting to take market share from their illustrious French and Spanish rivals. At the very least, wines here are pleasantly priced.

If you prefer something a little more “folksy”, though, why not take a Sunday drive out to wine-growing areas for a taste of homemade? It's a fun day out. Villagers set up market stalls and sell their unassuming local wines in Coke bottles. What they lack in sophistication, they make up for in good ol' village-style rustic authenticity. And there's not a single proven case of blindness as a result of drinking them. That I know of.

On the subject of homemade liquor, one tipple that has its roots in the “DIY” tradition is the redoubtable rakiya.

If you've been in the country for more than about an hour, then someone has thrust a glass of this Balkan rocket fuel into your hand. Many Bulgarian “newbies” find it unpalatable. The most popular variety is made from white grapes (aha, that's where all the white wine went), though it can theoretically be made from any fermentable fruit (and probably has been in times of economic hardship).

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