Travelling in the Bulgarian countryside in the summer is particularly fascinating, for it is then that sunflowers are in full bloom, creating a colourful cacophony with their yellow, orange and brown hues.
Growing in fields that often look endless, they raise their large heads in rows, inspiring the traveller to stop and to release for a minute their inner Van Gogh: photos are taken, bouquets are made and brought home.
Sunflowers have covered Bulgaria for such a long time, and are so ubiquitous, that without them the countryside in early summer would look strange and bereft.
Their beauty, however, is not the main reason for the popularity of sunflowers. This North America native was brought to Bulgaria from Russia, in the years after 1878, initially as a decorative plant. Industrial cultivation went mainstream after the First World War, and sunflowers have remained a staple crop ever since. The country has created several local hybrids, used together with imported ones, and with between 1.2 and 1.4 million acres sown annually, the sunflower is the nation's second most important agricultural crop after wheat. The fact that it does not need special soil or care, and can survive for long periods without water, make sunflowers popular across the country.
According to data as recent as 2014 from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, Bulgaria was the sixth largest producer of sunflower seeds in the world.
Sunflower oil is the primary product of all of the beautiful flowers around Bulgarian country roads. Although it cannot compare in taste, aroma and health benefits with olive oil, it is still tasty and healthy, with a high content of Omega - 9 and Omega - 6 acids, and Vitamin E. It is also cheaper, which accounts for its popularity as the nation's most preferred oil for cooking, baking, frying and dressing salads. The average annual consumption per capita in Bulgaria is 15kg.
The pressed cake, a by - product of the refining process, is also used as a high - calorie and nutritious fodder for farm animals.
As anyone who has spent enough time with real Bulgarians knows, sunflowers provide something more than oil and fodder. Eating their seeds is a favourite past - time of Bulgarians. Their beloved Semki are sold in all shapes and manners: raw, raw and peeled, roasted in a newspaper cone by street vendors, and in colourful packages from dozens of national and regional manufacturers vying for their share of a very competitive market.
Bulgarians really love snacking on sunflower seeds. You can hear the delicate sound of kernels being cracked between teeth and smell the distinctive aroma of sunflower oil near any group of Bulgarians gossiping in front of their homes, watching soaps or football (both at the stadium and on TV), or walking in the park. Sunbathing on the beach, playing cards, reading, or simply comfort eating are all opportunities to consume sunflower seeds – even walking on the street. Visit any normal family, and chances are that at a certain point a bag of sunflower seeds will appear for sharing.
Of course, Bulgarians are not alone in this habit, which they share with most of their neighbouring countries.
Being eaten might sound like a sad end for the seeds of such beautiful flowers, but it isn't. Sunflowers manage to be both aesthetically pleasing, and play an important part in the local economy and social life.
High Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.