Tag Archives: rakiya

Back in the Summer of 1960, Part 2

Summer is winding down, but as a Kitchen Traveler you can always be on vacation. Here are a few more Bulgarian recipes from a long-passed summer. As in the last post, Bulgarian recipes of a certain era combine precise metric measurements with a trust that the cook somehow just knows what to do in the way of quantity or oven temperature. Is the “spoonful” a teaspoon or a tablespoon? Only the cook knows. How hot should the oven be? Only the cook knows. How long should the cookies be baked? Until they are done, of course.

And recommending the use of a lemon was pure fantasy since the home cook had no way in 1960 to find a lemon in the market and only once yearly—on the New Year’s holiday—were oranges to be found. The vanilla was and continues to be sold dry in packets, each one being roughly the equivalent of one teaspoonful liquid vanilla extract. By the way, the last line in the Drunken Peaches recipe is not my editorial, but is on the original recipe. Clearly, the recipe was well tested by the publisher.

But my favorite in all these recipes is the measurement provided for baking soda, “the edge of a knife soda for bread.”

Remember that no matter what the recipe includes or excludes, all jars of preserves should be boiled for ten minutes with the water level one inch above the lid before allowing them to cool and be stored.

Drunken Peaches

2 kg (4½ pounds) sugar
2-3 cups water
3 kg (6½ pounds) peaches, not too ripe, skins removed
½ liter (2 cups) grape rakiya

Simmer the sugar and water to form a thick syrup. Place the whole peeled peaches in the syrup. When the syrup returns to the boil, use a slotted spoon to remove the peaches and let them cool. Layer in jars peaches, a little of the syrup, and a little of the grape rakiya (or other fruit brandy), repeating until the jars are full. Cover with parchment paper and cap the jars tightly. Let mature 5-6 weeks. It has a good taste.

Дренки (pronounced “dren-key”) is the fruit of the cornel cherry, a relative of the dogwood. The fruit is small, red, and quite sour. The cornel cherry is native to Eastern Europe. When living in Bulgaria, I used it as a substitute for cranberries at Thanksgiving so you can probably do so the other way around if you wish to try out the recipe below and don’t happen to have a few cornel cherry trees handy.

сироп от дренкиCornel Cherry Syrup

2 kg (4½ pounds) cornel cherries
1 kg (4 cups) water
1½ kg (3¼ pounds) sugar
½ teaspoon citric acid (or 1 tablespoon lemon juice)

Mash the cornel cherries and leave them to ferment together with the pits for 24 hours. The next day, strain through a sieve, and then again through a cloth into a pot. Pour in water, add sugar, and boil until the mixture reaches the desired thickness. Add citric acid (or lemon juice).

татлииSyrup Pastries

¼ kg lard or butter
1 egg yolk
4 tablespoons yogurt
2½ flour
½ kg (1 pound) sugar
2 cups water
vanilla or lemon rind

Cream lard or butter together with the egg yolk. Add the yogurt and flour. Mix until you have a soft dough from which you make walnut-sized balls. Lightly press them with a grater with which lemons are grated; arrange them on a greased baking sheet and bake. While still hot, pour over a syrup made by boiling sugar and water flavored with vanilla or lemon rind.

I translated “ванилички с мармалад” as vanilla sandwich cookies as they literally are called “little vanilla ones with marmalade.” Such an endearment provided the same translation challenge from Bulgarian as translating my brownie recipe from English for my Bulgarian friends.

ваниличкиVanilla Sandwich Cookies
with Marmalade

200 grams (7 ounces) butter
4 tablespoons powdered sugar
3 cups flour
1 egg
1 egg yolk
rind of 1 lemon
juice of ½ lemon
the edge of a knife baking soda
additional powdered sugar for rolling
2 packets vanilla powder

Cream the butter and sugar. When the butter is foamy, add the egg, egg yolk, lemond rind, lemon juice, and baking soda. Mix everything well until there is a smooth dough. Roll the dough to a thickness of ½ cm (just under ¼ inch) and use a rakiya glass to cut out circles, arranging them on a greased baking sheet. Bake in a hot oven until lightly browned. While still hot, stick them together two by two with marmalade or jelly. Roll them in powdered sugar, flavored with two packets of vanilla. It’s good if the sandwich cookies are left overnight in order to soften.

Quince can be very difficult to find even when seasonal, and upscale markets who do sell them do so at a price that this oft ignored sister of the apple family shouldn’t have to bear. Last fall, I had an outdoor market vendor stab the air and venomously accuse the quince of a blight that would kill her apple harvest. Putting even one or two peeled and cut up quince to a pot of applesauce adds flavor. If you can find a few pounds, quince jam is easy to make and store.

сладко от дюлиQuince Jam

1 kg (2¼ pounds) sugar
300 grams (1¼ cups) water
1 kg (2¼ pounds) quince, peeled and grated on the large size of a box grater
water to which 1 packet citric acid (or 1 tablespoon lemon juice) has been added
citric acid (or 2 teaspoons lemon juice)

Boil a syrup from the sugar and water. Into the hot syrup the prepared quince. In order that the peeled quince do not brown as you grate them, let them sit in the water and citric acid (or lemon juice). Boil the jam at high heat until the desired thickness. Before pouring into jars, add additional citric acid or lemon juice.



Food’s the Cure


Naturally what you put in your body is a big part of staying healthy and Bulgarians have much advice to give, even when unsolicited. Believers in herbal teas for all sorts of ailments, many Bulgarians keep on hand various herbs they have gathered and dried in order to make tisanes for various ailments. Enter a store with a sneeze or a sniffle or a cough, and the proprietor or another customer will almost certainly recommend the surest cure. I have been instructed to eat a raw onion each morning, to stuff garlic cloves in my nostrils, to drink heated rakiya, to drink rakiya heated with apples, and so on. I suppose Grandma Lil’s preparation of chicken soup to help a cold wasn’t much different, an elixir even the Mayo Clinic maintains relieves one’s symptoms.
NeliWhen my son regrettably had a stubborn case of scalp ringworm, food recommendations were again offered. My mother-in-law suggested an infusion of stinging nettles, both to rub on the spot and to drink. Nellie, the fruit and vegetable lady who used to be a x-ray technician before the hospital downsized and before that a furniture maker, told me that the sure cure was to rub garlic on it many times a day. The dermatologist around the corner gave us two nutrient immunity boosters—one with lactoferrin, echinacea and zinc and which supposedly tastes like candy, but which my son just spat out and my husband giving it a try almost did the same—and one with concentrated lactobacillus bulgaricus, and two medications to rub on, one of which was contained in lard. It all gives the phrase “oh, I could just eat you up” a whole new meaning. In any event, it was the wonderfully kind and attentive world-class dermatologist Dr. Razvigor Darlenski at Tokuda Hospital who solved the problem with modern pharmaceuticals.

aptekaThere are many pharmacies in Sofia, most quite small. Most often we walked just a couple of blocks to the small pharmacy at 64 Vassil Levski Boulevard, officially the Iliana Kalushkova pharmacy, but that can only be derived from a very small sign on the door and no one ever refers to a small pharmacy by name. A new chain pharmacy in Sofia with its name prominently displayed has the most perfunctory and unsmiling staff. But at 64 Vassil Levski, that was not at all the case. There I could order a prescription or over-the-counter product for the next morning, walk in, and see one of the pharmacists reach immediately for the order before I had yet to say a word—even if she was not the one who had waited on me the day before. I could go in with concerns over my daughter’s car-sickness torments and the pharmacist would be genuinely sympathetic and make knowledgeable recommendations with concern and care.

Once I had a sore throat and the pharmacist at 64 Levski recommended a particular lozenge saying she found it helpful herself. I hope she did, because she always spoke with a voice that makes actress Kathleen Turner’s seem a smooth soprano. Then she opened a package and sold me one of the two blister packs inside; many small pharmacies offer such services. “Try these and if they help you, you can come back to buy another blister pack.”

All sorts of things can be bought piecemeal in this way. While you can buy adhesive bandages by the box, you can also buy by the bandage, requesting six or ten or whatever is necessary for your children’s various playground scrapes and cuts. Coming to 64 Levski one day to restock on a calcium with vitamin D supplement, another pharmacist and I started chatting about calcium in one’s diet. She suggested that izvara (curd cheese somewhere between cottage and ricotta) and feta cheese have more calcium than milk and yogurt, though too much feta wasn’t recommended given the salt. That led to discussion of where to find izvara nowadays. “Oh,” she said, “the Russian stores have the best. Try it with fruit. The Russians have one with 15% [fat] and it’s wonderful,” she added, patting her stomach.

ruski magazin beriozkaBulgarians tremendously value dairy products with a high fat content and cannot understand my preference for skim milk and 2% or even, heaven forbid, non-fat yogurt. “It’s like water,” they frown with distaste. I had no idea where any Russian store might be so the pharmacist consulted with her colleagues. After some back and forth, it was decided that one of the staff would go to the Russian store and buy some izvara for me to try. I would then pay when I picked it up. And so the next day, I returned and two containers of 15% izvara were waiting for me despite a different pharmacist on shift from the one I had spoken to. Some time later when I had the occasion to go again to the pharmacy, I was asked how I had liked the izvara. I was happy to report that my daughter had consumed it all spread on toast—it was that thick. Later when we explored for ourselves Beryozka Russian Store, just over a mile away, we found all sorts of Russian foods, in addition to four kinds of “village” izvara ranging from 2% to 50% (!) fat.

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.