Tag Archives: сирене

Back in the Summer of 1960

Kitchen Traveler—yes, you read it here first. I am officially coining the term (unless of course someone else has beaten me to it) for those that travel through cooking recipes from other countries. If reading books about foreign locales makes you an armchair traveler, then preparing foods from foreign locales makes you a Kitchen Traveler. Even if you have never been to Bulgaria, therefore, you may now find your way there through paths salty and sweet.

I found some old recipes that my mother-in-law might very well have followed as she started out her married life and thought I’d pass them along. Bulgarian recipes of a certain era combine precise metric measurements with, shall we say, slightly less precise direction in keeping with what the cook of the time had available. Forget tablespoon and teaspoon, the recipes below call for a spoonful or the diminutive “little spoonful.” My mother-in-law’s oven did have temperature settings, but I have friends who grew up with ovens that simply had the numbers one through four on the dial to indicate heat gradations. Thus the first recipe calls for baking in a “hot oven.” The tone of the recipes is quite different from those written some years later. These partner with the reader cook—we cut one kilogram onions, we add 1-2 carrots—whereas later recipes use the third person.

The original recipes also are written in paragraph form so that you have to carefully read through them to figure out the ingredients and prep work. My translations show those first, as indeed most Bulgarian recipes published today do, and offer both metric and American standard measurements where applicable. If the measurement references cups, then so does the original and you just have to presume a teacup rather than an espresso coffee cup is what is being referenced. If there is no measurement, that’s because the original offers none, and so you are—as Bulgarian women were then—left to your devices. And if you are offended that I write only of housewives and women, well, that’s how it was in 1960.

Baked Fish

1 kg (2.2 pounds) onion, cut into thin slices
½ cup fat
1-2 carrots, cut into pieces
garlic, chopped
2 even spoonfuls flour
1 little spoonful paprika
several peppercorns
2-3 bay leaves
1 cup water
tomatoes, sliced
whole cleaned fish rubbed with a little oil and sprinkled flour and paprika

Saute onion in fat along with carrots and garlic. When the onion is a golden color, add flour and lightly saute briefly. Add paprika, peppercorns, and bay leaves. Add water and salt, and then pour it all into a large baking pan. Cover the sauteed vegetables with thinly sliced tomatoes. Place prepared fish on top. Bake in a hot oven.

String Beans in the Oven

1-½ kg (3.3 pounds) fresh string beans
onion, chopped finely
thin paste of 1 spoon flour, paprika, and water
2-3 tomatoes, chopped fine
bunch parsley, chopped fine
1-2 eggs
1 cup milk

Clean string beans and cut in two length-wise. Steam them in a pot together with onion and salt. When the beans and onion have softened, put them in a baking dish and pour over them the paste of flour, paprika, and water. Add tomatoes, parsley, and enough water to cover the vegetables. Bake in the oven. When the vegetables have browned, pour over them the eggs beaten together with the milk. Bake in the oven again until eggs have cooked. Beans prepared this way are very tasty.

Potatoes Baked with Feta Cheese

1 kg (2.2 pounds) potatoes, peeled and cut into slices
¼ kg (½ pound) feta cheese, mashed (or kashkaval, a cheddar-type cheese, finely grated)
parsley, finely chopped
1 cup milk
2-3 beaten eggs
garlic (optional)

Stew potatoes in fat. Add feta cheese (or kashkaval) and parsley. Beat eggs and milk together and pour over. Bake until browned. If desired, serve with garlic.


eggplant, peeled and cut into slices lengthwise
stuffing made from mashed feta cheese, eggs, and bread crumbs
flour for rolling
beaten eggs for dipping
yogurt mixed with chopped garlic

Salt eggplant slices and let rest until they release water. Fry them in fat and remove from pan. Take eggplant slices two by two, filling each pair with stuffing. Roll first in flour, then in beaten egg, and sauté in very hot fat. Serve hot with yogurt flavored with garlic.

Baked Plum Confiture

5 kg (11 pounds) blue plums, pitted
2-½ kg (5-½ pounds) sugar
several cloves
several cinnamon sticks
1-2 cups toasted walnuts (optional)

Pour sugar over plums and add cloves and cinnamon sticks. Bake in the oven in a not very high temperature. From time to time, stir so that the top layer does not burn. When the plums become wrinkled and the juice thickens, remove them from the pan, pour into jars, and cover them well with parchment paper. If desired, add walnuts. My Note: Aside from the fact that not once in decades of eating homemade preserves in many Bulgarian homes did I ever see parchment paper used, one should always—and Bulgarians do—cap jars securely and boil for ten minutes before storing.

Next time, I will post recipes for Drunk Peaches, Cornel Cherry Syrup, Syrup Pastries, Vanilla Sandwich Cookies with Marmalade, and Quince Jam—all to make the summer sweeter as it winds down.

Bulgaria Is Famous

On October 10, 2011, Bulgaria’s daily newspaper 24 Chasa published an article entitled “They Found Proof That We Thought Up Rakiya,” in which is detailed the Old Bulgarian inscription “I drank rakiya during the feast” on a small 14th-century bowl fragment found at Veliko Turnovo. Naturally this was thought to go some way in forwarding the country’s efforts to register rakiya as a Bulgarian national brand with the European Commission. Reflecting both the excitement of the discovery and the urgency of establishing once and for all rakiya’s Bulgarian provenance, one professor was quoted as saying “Photos, together with the expert opinion of the National History Museum, will be sent with lightening speed…in order to nail the rakiya, otherwise the Albanians will go and take it from us.”

feta sirene

Like many small countries, Bulgarians are eager to show both to themselves and the world at large that they have made significant contributions to the world. With borders shifting over the centuries, who can claim what can be a difficult proposition. Feta cheese is made throughout the Balkans, but in 2005 the European Union’s high court handed down a decision meant to resolve nearly two decades of fighting, decreeing feta cheese a traditional Greek product whose name deserves legal protection. Bulgarians continue to produce their own sirene, which others then blithely translate as feta without concern for court decisions.

Stamen GrigorovYogurt is so broadly produced that no country dares to call yogurt its own invention. But Bulgarians can be proud that one of its own, Stamen Grigorov, was the first to examine and identify lactobacillus bulgaricus, the natural bacteria that allows the milk to ferment. Grigorov managed to be born just months after Bulgarians gained their autonomy from the Ottoman Empire and to die a year before they essentially gave it all up to the Soviet Empire. The contribution of Dr. Grigorov is deemed considerable enough that in 2007 a two-story house near his Studen Izvor (Cold Spring) village birthplace was turned into the Museum of Yogurt.

Grigorov is not the only Bulgarian chemist to achieve fame. Carl Djerassi, who died in January, was a chemist, playwright, novelist, poet, and founder of the Djerassi Resident Artists Program near Woodside, California.

carl djerassi playwright chemist But he is most famous as the leader of the team that synthesized the first oral contraceptive pill, for which he received the National Medal of Science. Djerassi’s mother was Austrian, his father Bulgarian; both were doctors, with his father specializing in venereal disease. Carl emigrated to the United States with his mother at the age of 16. Three years ago, In a January 2012 interview with 24 Chasa, he lamented the low birth rates in Bulgaria and other European countries, noting that Bulgaria’s population has declined faster than any other in the world.

On a more positive front, in that same interview Djerassi proudly proclaimed that he loves yogurt with lactobacillus bulgaricus and regularly makes his own using an old Bulgarian recipe.

But lest you think Bulgarian creativity is all about what you can put in your mouth, Bulgarians most often point to one of the most important inventions of the 20th century—the computer. “Did you know that a Bulgarian invented the computer?” countless Bulgarians have asked me. Indeed, John Vincent Atanasoff is the inventor of the first automatic electronic digital computer and, despite being born in New York and dying in Maryland, had Bulgarian antecedents in which he took pride.

John Vincent Atanasoff

It seems churlish to mention the dark side; that for many years Bulgaria was considered a leader in computer virus production. On December 21, 1990—just one year after the fall of the Berlin Wall—The New York Times published an article entitled “Bulgarians Linked to Computer Virus” which included the dubious compliment: “Not only do the Bulgarians produce the most computer viruses, they produce the best.’” Still alive at the time, one can only hope that Mr. Atanasoff did not read the article. By November 1997, a Wired magazine journalist traveled to Bulgaria and reported that while “no longer a significant source of new viruses…Bulgaria exists as a kind of cybernetic bogeyman, the birthplace of viruses.”

Often Bulgaria seems to be used as an example of the extreme, strange or exotic, popping up when you least expect it. Perhaps this is because most people know little or nothing about Bulgaria and so they’re not in a position to challenge misinformation or misrepresentation. In the classic 1942 film Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart’s character Rick helps a young Bulgarian couple obtain the money for a desperately needed American visa. The couple’s names, Annina and Jan Brandel, are in no way Bulgarian; in fact, given the wartime situation in which the film’s characters find themselves, the irony is that the Bulgarian couple’s names are rather Germanic. What’s more, Annina and Jan do not speak with anything like a Bulgarian accent—in fact they have no accent at all.

George Bernard Shaw in Arms and the Man employed a similar tactic of tacking on Bulgarian identity without any real Bulgarian connection. As Stoyan Tchaprazov quotes him, Shaw explained that “[Arms and the Man] was nearly finished before I had settled on its locality. I wanted a war as a background. Now I am absolutely ignorant of history and geography; so I went about among my friends and asked if they knew of any wars…At last Sidney Webb told me of the Servo-Bulgarian [sic] war, which was the thing…So I looked up Bulgaria and Servia [sic] in an atlas, made all of the characters end in ‘off’, and the play was complete.”

On the other hand, the popular Harry Potter book series more successfully presented Bulgaria with its star Bulgarian Quidditch player Victor Krum. “Krum” is not a real Bulgarian family name, but on the other hand is the name of a medieval Bulgarian monarch whose name appears in every Bulgarian elementary school child’s history book and as well is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Madara Rider. And though author J. K. Rowling inaccurately represents a Bulgarian accent in the books, the films based on the series actually used Bulgarian actor Stanislav Ianevski to play the role and the character was one to be admired.

Speaking of movies… On September 11, 2011, the Los Angeles Times published an article headlined “Big-budget movies find low-cost haven in Bulgaria.” Israeli-born, Hollywood-based action film producer Avi Lerner bought the old film studios located in Boyana, a Sofia neighborhood formally known for housing high Communist officials and nomenklatura. Says the Los Angeles Times, “The studio now employs about 1,000 workers and has 13 sound stages, with the largest more than 6,500 square feet, as well as a replica of several downtown Manhattan streets and a faux ancient Rome, complete with a coliseum.”

The Expendables 3

When it came time for Arnold Schwartzenegger to bid “Hasta la vista baby” after filming The Expendables 2 at Nu Boyana Film Studios, the Sofia News Agency quoted him as saying that “the Bulgarian team had been one of the most professional and talented ones he had worked with through his entire movie career, stressing he felt great in Bulgaria.” In 2013, he, Sylvester Stallone and all the others returned for The Expendables 3.

Perhaps the most famous Bulgarian outside of Bulgaria is Christo Vladimirov Javacheff, known simply as Christo. Christo was born in Gabrovo and went to the Art Academy in Sofia, before leaving Bulgaria at the age of 21. It was the year of the brief Hungarian Revolution and he was able to get to Prague, then to Vienna, to Geneva, and finally to Paris. He lived off his portraits until he began to earn fame for what he has done ever since, first wrapping small objects and then completing large outdoor wrapped environmental art works. Until 1989, the internationally famous Bulgarian artist defector was persona non grata in his home country.


Although Christo ascribes to his Bulgarian academic art training his ability to do the architectural drawings that fund his projects, he demonstrably has no interest in Bulgaria itself. He has never returned to his native country. On the other hand, he declared in a 1973 interview, “First, I am born Bulgarian. I have no complex about anything.” Except, it seems, Bulgaria itself—and that with good reason. The family factory in Gabrovo was nationalized by the Communists and not long after the property was restituted the municipality ceased paying rent for its use. In 2013, after a suit regarding the Gabrovo family property, the European Court awarded Christo and his two brothers 20,000 euros compensation for material and moral damages and 1,677 euros for costs and expenses incurred in the case.

Back in the United States, while waiting for the case to be resolved, Christo gave an interview to a San Diego radio station. Asked what he had for breakfast that morning, Christo responded “I had a double espresso, plain yogurt and one head of garlic. Raw garlic…an entire head of garlic.” Famous or no, it seems you can take the Bulgarian out of Bulgaria, but you can’t take Bulgaria out of the Bulgarian.

In 1994, the Bulgarian national team played in the World Cup, having only qualified five times before and never winning a single match. The New York Times did not mince words in labeling the Bulgarians an “unglamorous, little-noticed team.” England got more attention for shockingly not qualifying for the tournament. The Bulgarian team’s underdog status and unexpected match wins gave the media a great Cinderella story. But the star of the Bulgarian team was volatile striker Hristo Stoichkov. Stoichkov was already famous throughout Europe as a top player with Spain’s legendary team FC Barcelona.

Hristo Stoichkov

As the Bulgarian team advanced, Stoichkov and his teammates received more and more attention, but they did not seem overly stressed. For most of the two days preceding the upset game with Germany, the Bulgarian team relaxed in their New Jersey hotel swimming pool. It turned out that leisure time was good preparation. Many of Bulgaria’s national team had been honing their skills for years in Europe’s top leagues. The team approached the World Cup with a “no guts, no glory” attitude, but Hristo Stoichkov knew of perhaps an even more important spirit behind their success. “Now I am sure that God is a Bulgarian,” he proclaimed.