Easter or Velik Den (Great Day) is one of the most important holidays in Bulgaria. It is a celebration of life, of Christ’s victory over sin and death. As any important holiday it comes with its own set of ancient and modern traditions.
Recently I found an interesting old advertisement of Bulgarian chocolate. It is from the blog Stara Sofia, which is devoted to the history of the Bulgarian capital, specifically after the liberation and before the communist regime. Here is the history nugget for today:
Here is what the advertisement says:
The only factory in Bulgaria for cocoa, chocolate and all kinds of candies
Recommends its produce, by the Governmental Laboratory and found – pure – natural and unlike the falsified European ones. The latest medical science states: “The chocolate is required for recovery of the health which is upset by one reason or another, because it contains all needed elements for renewing of the blood, if up to 200 grams are used daily.”
Prices are most advantageous, available for everyone.
Selling in big and small quantities. If desired it can be sent to the countryside too.
Isn’t that an amusing advertisement? According to the science from 1904 you can eat up to 200 grams of chocolate a day and it will only benefit your health. But this, of course, is only for the good Bulgarian chocolates, not the false European ones.
This peculiar ad inspired me to learn more about the time period and the chocolate. And I decided to share it with you.
Chocolate making was Velizar Pehev’s chosen trade after being an officer in the Bulgarian army. After a confrontation with King Ferdinand he lost his job. Even though he thought the European chocolates “fake”, Velizar learned to be a chocolatier in France, where he worked for a year in a chocolate factory. He was careful to learn and had the habit of taking notes all the time, which made his coworkers suspicious. They thought he was a spy for another factory and reported him to the boss. Pehev explained that he wants to introduce chocolate in Bulgaria and his honesty put him in his mates’ good graces. When he returned, he took with him some of his coworkers, who helped him establish his business. But more about him later, let’s get back to chocolate.
At the beginning of the 20th century, chocolate was a novelty in Bulgaria. It was considered a luxury and a lot of spiritual leaders at the time were declaring it to be “disgusting” and “food of the Devil”. The people who were brave enough to try this temptation often had to ask the chocolate maker “How do I eat this, with the shiny paper or not?”.
In the book My home town Sofia, Rayna Kostentseva shares her childhood memories. One of them is the reaction of her family when her godmother gave her chocolate for the first time:
“What can this wonder be!” I was thinking and everyone around me kept guessing. I unfolded carefully one of the blocks, trying not to tear the picture on it.
“Ha! Black” I cried, extremely surprised.
“Little soaps” added my mother.
I decided to lick one to make sure they really were soaps. When my tongue touched the block, I felt bittersweet taste.
“This is for food, mama!” I called as if I have discovered America.
“It cannot be!” my mother protested. “Don’t eat, wait until I try it first so you don’t poison yourself.”
When she tried the “soap”, she immediately threw it and went to wash her mouth.
“This is cat’s poo, get it out of here!”
When my godmother first ate one of these black “soaps” and explained what they were, I started eating them devouringly. After this case, my mother never tried chocolate in her life again.
So, when Pehev was starting his business, it was a risky and difficult venture. Despite the mistrust of banks, lack of market, competition from imported products and problems with deliveries, Bulgarians liked the chocolate and Pehev’s business flourished. Velizar became the main producer of chocolate in Bulgaria, making 2/3 of all cocoa products in Bulgaria. In the 30s, the chocolate made by Pehev took the first place in the international fairs in Bern, Paris and Vienna.
Pehev expanded his production and opened a modern-day factory in Svoge in 1922. After Velizar’s death in 1927, his son took over the business. The communist regime forcefully took over all private businesses and the factory in Svoge was no exception. The government renamed the factory “Republica” and continued production of sugary foods. If you go to Bulgaria today, you can try the Republica (Република) bars which are still sold in every store.
After the communism, Kraft Foods bought the factory and started producing chocolate Svoge (Своге). Their famous advertisement with the catchphrase “Bulgarian (chocolate), from Svoge” implied quality Bulgarian chocolate. It is, however, made with a Swiss recipe, so the old tradition of over-patriotic company’s advertisements continues.
Despite the foreign recipe Svoge is considered a very Bulgarian chocolate and I advise you to try it on your next visit. If you have a sweet tooth try also Suha pasta Balkan (суха паста Балкан) which at a certain point was also produced in Pehev’s factory.
If you happen to visit Bulgaria and want to dive into the experience, you simply must try some of the country’s most iconic dishes. If you don’t know what those are, let me show you.
Bulgarian cuisine is generally quite similar to other Balkan cuisines. The close proximity of the people in the region and its history made the tradition in food preparation similar. However, each of the Balkan countries has their own specialties, and in that Bulgaria is not lacking.
A classic breakfast combination is banitsa and boza (баница и боза) or banitsa and ayran (баница и айраян). Banitsa is a traditionally made filo pastry pie. In the most popular version it is filled with white pickled cheese or a combination of cheese, eggs and yogurt. In other variations the banitsa can contain leeks, onions, cabbage, minced meat, pumpkin and sugar or apples with cinnamon. It can be easily be purchased from any street bakery, during the whole day.
The cheesy banitsa fits very well the sweet thick boza drink. Boza is made of rye or wheat and goes into slight fermentation process. If the boza has slight alcoholic taste, it is not fresh and you should not drink it. The alternative to boza – ayran, is basically a deluded with water Bulgarian yogurt. Salt and even pepper can be added to the drink.
Other breakfast options are tutmanik (тутманик) and milinka (милинка). Both are breakfast breads with cheese and eggs but each has a typical taste and different preparation method. Mekitsa (мекица) is a bulgarian sort of donut, usually consumed for breakfast too. It can be eaten both with sweet and savoury additions such as white cheese, confectioner’s sugar or jam.
Shopska salad (шопска салата) is probably one of Bulgaria’s most iconic dishes. It is also a favourite among foreigners. The salad is made of tomato, cucumber and onion. What makes it special, however, is the topping of Bulgarian white pickled cheese (сирене). The symphony of the ingredients and the simple oil and vinegar dressing makes this salad outstanding. You can order Shopska salad in any restaurant (it is that popular) and you best try it as a starter, with Rakiya.
Rakiya (ракия) is Bulgaria’s traditional alcohol beverage. It is usually made of grapes, but it can also be produced from plums, apricots, peaches, apples, pears or cherries. The alcohol content is 40-60%. A lot of Bulgarians produce their own homemade rakiya. But don’t limit your alcohol consumption to rakiya. Try some Bulgarian wine too. The country has a long tradition in wine making. If you are more of a beer person, get a Zagorka, Shumensko or Kamenitsa.
The humble bean soup (боб чорба) is a Bulgarian staple. It is an excellent vegetarian dish, but it can also be spiced up with some sausages. The shkembe chorba (шкамбе чорба) soup is a classic dish for those after-a-party days. It is considered to be a hangover remedy. Shkembe chorba is made of lamb, beef or pork tripe, with added milk, paprika and butter. It is served with minced garlic in vinegar. Not a good dish if you have a business meeting or a date later that day.
For a main dish, Bulgarian moussaka (мусака) is a must-try. It is a casserole with potatoes and minced meat and a pouring of egg and yogurt based sauce. It is served with a spoonful of Bulgarian plain yogurt (кисело мляко).
Stuffed peppers (пълнени чушки) are a good alternative. They can be both vegetarian, stuffed with rice and sometimes walnuts, or stuffed with minced meat and rice. There is a variant, in which peppers are stuffed with white cheese, covered with egg and flour and fried, called pepper biurek (чушки бюрек).
Wine kebab (винен кебап) is a popular dish you can easily find in Bulgarian restaurants. It is made of pork lamb or beef chunks, cooked in wine sauce and served with plain white rice.
For a dessert, try some baklava (баклава) or Garash cake (гараш торта). Baklava, originally Turkish dessert, is prepared in Bulgaria using walnuts and thin filo pastry, soaked in sugar sirup. The Garash cake is basically a thin layered chocolate cake, but it has a typical taste due to the crushed walnuts used in the cake’s layers.
Those are only some of the typical Bulgarian dishes but I hope you can get a general idea of the typical dishes. So, from what was said so far, do you think you would like the Bulgarian cuisine?
Here is a little something for a lazy winter afternoon. The following dessers is very easy to make and is delicious. I think it is very interesting, because it is made of pasta. It is, I believe, contemporary Bulgarian cuisine. I haven’t research its roots but I think they did not have it 100 years ago.
In Bulgaria, we used to call all kinds of pasta “macaroni” (макарони), but recently the word “pasta” (паста) is more and more used due to the western influence. However, note that if you speak to an older person in Bulgaria and use the word “pasta” (паста), they might think you mean a layered cake. So, here it is:
The best sort of pasta for this dessert is penne. However it works with any kind. It only gets awkward if the pasta is too big or too long. On the pictures, I’ve used tagliatelle.
The Christmas time in Bulgaria is the time most full of traditions and rituals. Some of the typical Bulgarian rituals are very ancient and are not practiced nowadays. Also in the last decades some western traditions came into the Bulgarian culture. But generally, the Bulgarian Christmas looks like that:
Christmas or Koleda started a lot earlier for the old Bulgarians. The Christmas fast was 40 days long and ended at 24th of December. Until the beginning of the 20th century this was a very strong tradition and every respectable Bulgarian was fasting the whole 40 days. There could be exception only for the children, pregnant women and old people (who could eat diary products).
On the picture above: how a Christmas celebration looked. Imagine it like that, just with some more dishes on the “table”. Source of the picture is the very interesting website http://www.lostbulgaria.com.
During the fast, it is not allowed to eat anything that comes from animals: meat, cheese, eggs, milk, butter, etc. An Exception is 6th of December, St. Nikola’s day when by tradition the whole family eats fish.
24th of December is called “Small Christmas” (Malka Koleda) or “Future Day” (Buhdni Vecher). At this day, the Christmas pig is killed, and the man of the family produces a big pear log (Buhdnik) which has to burn until Christmas day. It is believed that the pear log will protect the family from demoniacal creatures, which wander around at that time of the year. The ashes of the log are kept during the whole year.
The food at Small Christmas is meatless. Also, it is important that the number of dishes on the table are seven or nine. There are different symbolics connected with the number of dishes. Generally, seven is chosen because it is the perfect number of God, and nine symbolizes the months of pregnancy. In any case, the following dishes must be on the table:
Another thing that has to be prepared for Christmas is some small pretzels. They are needed for the Koledars.
The Koledars are young men who go from door to door and sing songs for health and prosperity for the house. They start at midnight, and go around all the houses in the village. When they visit a home, they sing for every of the inhabitants, then for fruitfulness. They take the pretzels, sing some more ritual songs and proceed to the next house. Here’s how they look like:
The day before Christmas in Bulgaria has more traditions and rituals than the actual Christmas day. On 25th of December, the feast pig is being cooked. All the foods that were not allowed during the fast days are now prepared. Banitsa with cheese, poultry, the feast pig, sweets, etc.
Nowadays, Bulgarians do not keep all the old traditions. However, the number and variety of dishes for Small Christmas is kept by most.
In older days the exchange of gifts was not a tradition, but it now is. All present are distributed at 25th December’s morning.
The western myth of Santa Claus (Diado Koleda) is widely spread among Bulgarian children. The advent calendars can be found in any shop, however, it is not a tradition to have one.
It is, perhaps, interesting how the Santa Claus myth started in Bulgaria. During communist time, when Bulgaria did not have much contact with non-socialistic countries, the belief of Diado Mraz or literally “Grandpha Frost” came from Russia. It was an equivalent of Santa Claus, just with a long red coat that reached his ankles instead a short red jacket. Later on, when Bulgaria stopped being a communistic country, the Santa’s name and coat changed a bit.
The Christmas tree tradition came in the Beginning of the 20th century. Nowadays all Bulgarians have a decorated tree at home during the Christmas times, which usually stays until New Year’s eve or beyond.
This is, in short, how the Christmas holidays are celebrated in Bulgaria. There is a lot written about the traditions, but we hope that people in Bulgaria and abroad do not forget the true meaning of the Christmas holiday. The celebration of God’s endless mercy:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16)
Happy New Year!
Честита Нова Година!
Chestita Nova Godina!
I wish you all the best for the new year!
Пожелавам ти всичко най-хубаво през новата година!
Pozhelavam ti vsichko naii-hoobavo prez novata godina!
Moussaka is the kind of dish which every Bulgarian housewife knows how to make and is also available in every respectable bulgarian restaurant. If you want to try yourself this popular Bulgarian dish, you can by following the recipe below:
What you need:
How to prepare:
Note: for a vegetarian variant substitute the meat with courgettes.