Sun, 04/01/2007 - 15:16

Having a wonderful time is easy, provided you follow some simple advice

Katharine Hill
Katharine Hill

Take one Bulgarian domakinya, or housewife, a wooden table adorned with traditional red tablecloth, a plentiful green salad, rakiya on hand, (cigarettes close by, for most) and plenty of free time. Allow to mix for several hours, and enjoy.

It is as simple as that for Bulgarians to have a wonderful time together. No additional amenities or adornments are required. On average, a salad will last most dinner guests for the length of the evening. Although the Bulgarian host typically gives considerable attention to preparing suitably delicious food, once it is served, it becomes entirely incidental to the hospitality. Conversation, recollections, musing, pontificating, singing, laughing and often dancing become the focus. Evenings together are only limited by the rising of the dawn, and the energy of the participants to continue their merry laughter.

Culturally, a short working lunch in a restaurant is something of an anathema to Bulgarians. The two ideas do not sit together easily – an agenda squeezed into time-limited eating. This can engender the same feeling as when you see your favourite novel badly adapted into a film. The key elements are missing or wrongly portrayed; the soul of the book is lost.

In contrast to the Bulgarian approach, the traditional English home entertainment tends to be limited in time and frequency. (I cannot speak for Scottish, Welsh or Irish entertainment habits which, I have a hunch, will be considerably more established in this aspect of culture). The physical effort required, the need for advanced preparation of dates and guest lists, the perceived expectations of culinary magnitude, the concerns of cost, space, mix of company, and behaviour whilst under the influence of drink, all act as a barrier to making this a regular way of spending time with friends. Sad, in my view. We could do with returning to the heart of the event – why do we want to gather at all? Is it to show that we know how to cook a good, imaginative meal, or that we want to spend time enjoying the company of others? Of course, effort involved is appreciated. But it can become overwhelming, especially when mixed with the traditional English shortfall in culinary self-confidence which means that guests need to reassure their hosts on the quality of the food at regular intervals. I have yet to hear a Bulgarian host showing these signs of self-deprecation. They know they do this well. It is a skill passed down through the generations. As a guest, this is considerably easier to deal with.

And this leads to another interesting cultural distinction – the areas of self-confidence across nations. I am forming the theory that the skills or traditions which are passed down from baba, or grandmother, anddyado, or grandfather, to child, are those which instil greatest confidence in the recipient. Nor is this surprising. These skills are well tried and tested. This gives the Bulgarian the “upper hand” in areas such as farming, crop growing, weaving, craft making, tapestry work, tailoring, embroidery, singing, dancing, studying, mending things, banitsa making, and many other things. The tried and tested way is reliable and dependable.

In recent decades, the English older generation have had less input in the family pool of knowledge and tradition, and thus the pattern of inherited skills has diminished. I imagine in previous decades we too had similar areas of expertise. But these are fading, leaving a gap for self-doubt and lack of confidence to fill. For example, the traditional “Granny's apple pie” recipe, which my father regularly requested, has almost disappeared from common consciousness.

Recently I have been taught by Bulgarian friends how to make kavarma. I purchased all the right ingredients, according to my Bulgarian recipe, and added the requisite amount of water. But it did turn out to be rather soggier than I had hoped for. A recent discussion with Bulgarians in the Rhodopes about my recipe revealed that I had oversoaked the guvech pot, and should only use one cup full of water, not more. “My grandmother knows, she taught me.” I will try again using this altered Rhodope baba recipe.

The sensitivity to use of herbs, exact quantities of liquid, the ingredients in the sausage mix, the combination of meats with the balance of rice in the sarmi, all lead the amateur to a feeling of panic at being exposed as a fraud if attempting to cook this dish, but getting it wrong. On the whole, the Bulgarian ritual dishes are firmly prescribed in content, and do not leave much room for the amateur to experiment. In contrast, the British rarely stick to a recipe, and have very many options to choose from when producing a popular dinner dish. “Stew” is about as vague as it gets – roughly described as “whatever you have in the fridge, oven baked for a long period”. I cannot imagine the meticulous taste buds of the Bulgarians accepting such a loose notion of a recipe. Even the most popular chef in the UK at present, Jamie Oliver, is loose in the extreme with his ingredients and quantities. His recipe books are an approximation of a way to achieve a desired taste, and are a long way from a prescriptive approach to cooking. But he has managed to achieve something which other, more formal, chefs before him have failed to do – namely, to produce an atmosphere of warmth, pleasure, spontaneity and even “coolness” about being hospitable, entertaining. This is much more akin to the Bulgarian approach than the English have seen in formal cuisine recently. It has put the emphasis back on the company, the atmosphere and the enjoyment of time together, and moved away from an over heavy focus on the specifics of the meal itself. And from this flows the confidence that a good time is on offer to all – something which Bulgarians will know is an essential ingredient for any good entertainment.

Whereas the concept of Ready Steady Cook – informal freedom – is not likely to be accepted in Bulgaria.

Issue 7 My own choice Bulgarian food

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