A frugal Norwegian finds Bulgarians very Mediterranean in terms of food, drink and habits
One of the nice surprises after moving to Sofia was discovering it as a vibrant city, where finding a nice, affordable place to eat or drink was never a problem. I was expecting to find the cuisine was heavy and high in fat, like the food in most Central European countries, yet Bulgarian food is quite different. It is always made from the freshest seasonal ingredients. Like most great gastronomy, Bulgarian food is influenced by the neighbours. There is white cheese, similar to Greece, grilled meat as in Serbia, roasted and stuffed vegetables like in Turkey, and stew-like dishes from Hungary. My Bulgarian friends tell me that most of the words for food in Bulgarian are Turkish, and true to that, Turkish seems to be the most dominant influence. However, none of these other countries boast yoghurt as delicious, fresh and creamy as in Bulgaria.
In many ways, Bulgarians remind me of Mediterranean folk, where food and drink in the company of friends and family is a source of supreme joy and pleasure. People from the North are usually more frugal. We eat to live and not vice versa. Moving to Sofia is an efficient cure for that.
I love that every menu begins with a list of various salads, including the shopska as the consistently common addition. Main courses usually offer meat, but as a Norwegian, I generally go for fish.
At first glance the choice of fish can be disappointing. The Scandinavians appreciate big fish from the cold waters of the Atlantic, prepared in a simple and natural way. The best sorts, of course, are the ones we catch ourselves whilst at our summerhouses by the sea. I have, however, come to enjoy the seasonal offerings from the Black Sea or Greece. Trout is also very tasty, especially the variety served at the mountain lodges when you go hiking.
I have learnt that a salad starter is a must. I skip the rakiya, which is too strong for me. I often joke with Bulgarian friends that drinking rakiya is such a necessity as it helps to kill the germs in the salads, but they usually don't find it too funny!
Another pleasant discovery was the excellent quality of Bulgarian wines. I'm ashamed to say that the choice of Bulgarian quality wine in Norway is not good, meaning there could be a huge potential to boost business there! As I don't represent a wine-producing country, I have all the opportunities in the world to serve good Bulgarian wine at lunches and dinners in the embassy. Like Bill Clinton, I favour the Mavruds.
My working days are quite busy. If I go out with guests for lunch, I often choose Balgari, or Bulgarians, (71 Knyaz Dondukov Blvd, phone: 843 5419), which is very close to the embassy. It was previously a private townhouse, and in the summertime the garden retains the wonderful aura of the Roman baths. Inside, the walls are covered with old photos of pre-Second World War and family portraits. I must admit that I prefer to look at the photo of King Boris than the one of “Herman Göring”! My best choices there are the crêpes with spinach, followed by the grilled octopus, which is always fresh and tasty.
If I go out on my own, or just want a quick and tasty bite on Saturdays, I go to Akademiya, or The Academy, (1 Shipka St, phone: 988 5505), just across from the Gallery of Foreign Art. The customers are mostly intellectuals and artists. Few foreigners go there. The terrace is shady and cool in the summer and best of all; dogs are allowed. I usually go for the potato salad with garlic and parsley, and a glass of local beer. If it is a very hot day, I take the tarator, which is a cold soup of yogurt and cucumber. Very healthy and refreshing!
At the weekends I walk my dog in one of Sofia's many parks. The Borisova Garden is the one closest to my home. When I want to rest, I sit in one of the many cafés, where I always find another dog lover to talk to. Dog owners can easily communicate without talking the same language! Even the humblest cafés or kiosks in the parks have something to offer. When in Sofia, do as the Sofianites do: order a good coffee or a glass of local beer accompanied with one or two kyufteta.
Sometimes, I use a day off to catch up on what is going on in the numerous galleries and museums. It is tempting to take a break at the café behind the National Gallery, Toba&Co, (6 Moskovska St, phone: 989 4696) and feel surrounded by the young intelligentsia, but only outside in summertime. Inside, the music is far too loud and the waiters are not very keen to turn the volume down. The Margaritas are nicely done, but you have to insist to get your change back. As a principle, it is up to me, not them, to decide the tip.
As I'm a bit lazy, I have a tendency to go to places closer to home. I also prefer to walk, as it's quite risky to cycle here. On Saturday evenings, I might also drop in to Chay vav fabrikata, or Tea House, (11 Georgi Benkovski St, phone: 0888 431 007). I go there for the good music and the cosy atmosphere.
Another place close to my house is Grozd, or Bunch of Grapes, (21 Tsar Osvoboditel Blvd, phone: 944 3915), which is the Bulgarian answer to the local French brasserie. The food is excellent, the prices reasonable and the clientele is mainly Bulgarian, which is always a good sign. My guests from Norway love this place. The yoghurt is just heaven. Add a couple of walnuts and a spoonful of honey and you have a fabulous dessert. Also, the service is impeccable.
If I'm invited out for dinner and the host leaves the choice of venue to me, I often opt for Otvad aleyata, zad shkafa, or Beyond the Alley Behind the Cupboard (31 Budapest St, phone: 980 9067). I went there for the first time when one of my staff got married. I like the authentic atmosphere and the garden looks fantastic when lit up with lanterns in summertime. The building, from 1923, is located in the old part of Sofia - my favourite area - although it does need serious rehabilitation. I rely on the EU structure funds for that job. I love the smell of mekitsi there, which is served with either cheese or powered sugar.
Bulgaria is a truly multiethnic society although not in the Western sense. Many Armenians found a safe haven here after the persecutions at the beginning of the 20th Century. They were allowed entry to Bulgaria thanks to the Nansen passport, which is now replaced by the UNHCR laissez-passer for refugees. Fridtjof Nansen was a Norwegian scientist and statesman. He was the first High Commissioner for Refugees and he dedicated the last 20 years of his life to the cause of the Armenian people, without succeeding in getting them a homeland.
Finally, if you have never tried Armenian food, don't miss the opportunity in Sofia. Go to the restaurant Egur, Egur (18 Sheynovo St, phone: 946 1765, 0896 668 302 or 10 Dobrudzha St, phone: 989 3383, 0896 668 301), owned by the jazz singer Hilda Kazasyan. Here, the traditional Armenian dishes are superbly prepared. If you want to go for the safe choice, you can also get excellent French food. The place offers loads of vegetarian options in addition to the Caucasian kebabs and a good selection of vintage wines. It is well worth trying an Armenian wine. The desserts are divine, but very rich in calories so try to restrain yourself! Be prepared, however, to spend your money, as this is among the more expensive places in town.