Sunday, 27 October 2013

Plowing time in Chernichevo

It is a warm, multicolored and homelike autumn, and the people in the mountain village of Chernichevo start to plow.

In this sunny late October morning Mr. Ibryam Tokov plows with a horse and a plow, as people in the village have being doing for centuries. He prepares the land for the next year main culture - tobacco. Mr. Tokov makes beds, and next year he will plant there the tobacco seedlings. It usually happens in the end of February - beginning of March. The name of the horse is Gosho.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

A market day in 19th century Plovdiv

Plovdiv is one of the most beautiful Bulgarian cities. It is the biggest city of Thrace - a very ancient place, which proudly brings the heritage of several historical and cultural epochs, and preserves them up today. It was the Thracian Eumolpius, the Greek/Byzantine Philippopolis, the Roman Trimontium, the Slavic Puldun, the Turkish Filibe, and now Plovdiv...

The Czech-Bulgarian artist Ivan Mrkvicka left to us a nice painting of the old market in the late 19th century Plovdiv. His 1883 work "Plovdiv market" reveals a lot about the life of the population in and around the city.

Thanks to Mrkvicka we have an intriguing source of information about the social, demographic and cultural trends in the Bulgarian urban society in the end of the 19th century. Let's take a look at it!


Most of the people at the market follow the traditional Bulgarian peasant fashion. In the left side of the picture are depicted Bulgarian women selling birds and eggs. We recognize that they are Bulgarians by their clothing. They wear red or white cloths on their heads. Also they wear aprons, as in the foreground in the picture there is a lady with red apron and red cloth on her head. The clothes were not the only thing that brought the rural spirit. The whole economy was based on agriculture. Well, from today's point of view it is good that the people followed the principle "Buy local."

The man with a horse wears poturi (pants), poyas (wide red textile belt), elek (vest), and kalpak (hat). The broad leather disagi (saddlebags) on the horse serve to transport the purchases.

An adult Turk with a long beard, dark suit and red fez is squatting and probably asking about the price of the bird that he has chosen. Two Turkish boys with turbans carry birds, and one of them is showing something to the Bulgarian orthodox priest (the man in right with black cassock, kamelavkion and beard). This detail clearly represents the tolerance between the ethnic and religious communities in Plovdiv. The Turkish women are missing in the painting, which is quite interesting, because even the lack of something can be a subject of discussion. In this time among the Turkish community there was a custom that men and women can not be mixed in the public spaces. 

The young elegant lady with European clothes and hat in the right side of the painting represents the wind of change in the Bulgarian town. Just behind the man with a horse, we see the head of another lady with European-style hat. These two ladies are the only persons to belong to the more educated and prosperous class of the new Plovdiv's bourgeoisie


There are two minarets in the distance - they mark the presence of mosques built by the Ottomans. It was practical to build the religious temples in the centers near by the administrative and social buildings, like palaces, markets and public baths. The round building with a domed roof probably was a han (inn), where travelers and traders from far could rest. Behind the women, selling birds, there is a dyukyan (shop). 

The paved square shows that the market was in the center - the most affluent and wealthy part of the city. As for the public welfare, there were no street lighting, water supply and sanitation.  

The heights at the rear of the picture depict some of the famous 7 hills around which the city spreads. That is why Plovdiv was called The City of the Seven Hills. Cool, isn't it?

+ + + 
This was a short look at the life and the social structure of the people in Plovdiv in the 1880s. It's not enough to draw general conclusions, of course, but it's a good start for us to learn from the artifacts around us. 

Sunday, 20 October 2013

The life in medieval Bulgaria, seen through the frescoes in three old orthodox churches

We don't know much about the life of the medieval Bulgarians, about their daily fashion, food, rituals, customs, folk songs and beliefs. Unfortunately, most of the written heritage was destroyed through the centuries, and the oral traditions gives us only fragmental and not systematized knowledge. 

But still there are ways to reconstruct parts of the lost heritage of the Bulgarian people in the Middle ages. I selected for you a short collection of frescoes that present some interesting features of the medieval life in our lands. The frescoes are taken from three different places in Western Bulgaria, and they are all drawn in 13th-14th centuries. 

Lets start with the wonderful 14th century paintings from the chapel in The Tower of Hrelyo in Rila monastery. The stone tower is 23 meter high. It was built by the powerful local feudal Hrelyo in 1334-35 to protect the monks. The last, fifth floor is a chapel with unique frescoes. The paintings present commoners' festivities: horo dancers, musicians, and a group of elders... 

Musicians from the chapel in the Tower of Hrelyo, 14th century.
The first fresco presents some of the instruments, used by the commoners for their holidays. A horn, an 8-string instrument similar to tambura, and another instrument (in the middle) which I can't recognize. Two of the musicians sit on small decorated stools. The weird thing is that the seats of the chairs are not horizontal, but inclined.  

A drummer, painted right
from the other players. 
Musician, painted left
from the other players.

Bulgarian horo dancers. 
There is something very interesting in this folk dance. The way people hold their hands over one another is unique and still in use today. And just like nowadays, the leader of the dance waves a piece of cloth.

The elders.
The frescoes from the Tower of Hrelyo show the clothing, the music instruments, and the dances of the common people in the middle of the 14th century, in the eve of the Ottoman conquest. The strange shoes are called navoi and were rolled around the feet like foot wrappings. The medieval Bulgarians wore trousers, that followed the shape of the feet. The main garment was the tunic, cinched perhaps with a belt or rope. Usually the tunics were decorated at their edges. 

The Tower of Hrelyo. In 1844
was built an additional bell tower. 

Photo: Wikipedia.  
Lets continue with the murals in the church of Zemen monastery. It has spectacular images from mid-14th century, representing Biblical scenes. But there is one particular painting that depicts the moment of forging the nails for the crucifixion of Christ. 

Medieval Bulgarian smithy.
This fresco from Zemen monastery's church represents a real medieval smithy. The characters in the scene with the sharing of the garments of Christ (below), are dressed in medieval style, too:

And finally, there are two great 13th century paintings from the glorious Boyana church near Sofia. The church was painted on the order of sebastocrator Kaloyan and his wife Desislava (below left) in 1259. One fresco depicts the donors, and another fresco depicts tzar Konstantin Tikh and tzaritza Irina (below right). Here they are - the spectacular clothes of the Bulgarian aristocrats from the Second Bulgarian Kingdom.

In my opinion Desislava was more cute than Irina, and better dressed. What do you think?

Saturday, 12 October 2013

The Cabbage epic, part 1: The story of the salad from cabbage and carrots

Autumn comes slowly, bringing new colors, moods, and wishes. It brings new flavors and tastes in our kitchens, too. One of the foods of the autumn is cabbage, and today I am inspired to tell you more about its usage in the Bulgarian cuisine.

Cabbage is among the eternal Bulgarian foods. It had an important place in Bulgarians' lives in the Middle Ages. And this is a real story from the late-13th century. An epic story, representing the unbreakable relationship of the Bulgarian man and the cabbage!

John Koukouzel (photo: Wikipedia)
In his youth, the great Medieval composer John Koukouzel (Bulgarian by origin) studied in Constantinople. Once his classmates asked him what was his today's dish, and he answered that he ate broad beans with cabbage. 

The young John spoke poorly Greek, so he combined two words: κουκιά (Greek "koukia" for broad beans) and зеле (Bulgarian "zele" for cabbage). This is how he received his nickname, which gradually became a surname

I will share with you a recipe that is perfect for this season: a salad from cabbage and carrots. My father taught me years ago, and now I often make it. This is one of these things - from father to son - which we transfer through generations in our family. Believe me, if Koukouzel could taste it, he would write a ballad about this salad!

Ingredients for 2 big servings: 

The basic ingredients
  • a half from a small cabbage 
  • two big carrots 
  • salt to taste 
  • lemon / vinegar (by preference) 
  • olive oil, sunflower oil, canola oil (by preference) 
  • several olives 
  • very small slice of leek - 2-3cm. (optional) 
  • a slice of celery (optional)
The recipe may vary, depending of the location and the available products, but the basic things are cabbage, carrots, salt, oil, and vinegar. Everything else can be added to make the taste and richer. 

The process: 
Cutting the cabbage
First step: cut the cabbage. Grate the carrots and the celery. Cut finely the leeks. 
Crushing the cabbage. So it will languisheth a bit,
but that's okay -  it easier will absorb the spices!
Second step: crush the cabbage! This procedure has a crucial meaning for the creation of a great salad! After that the cabbage will absorb easily the spices and will become more testy. Add the carrots, then put salt to taste and juice from one lemon (or two spoons from our homemade wine vinegar). Then stir and add the (sunflower/olive) oil. Stir again.

I am an adventurer and sometimes I'm tempted to experiment with additional tastes. From the ready material I'll make two different salads: for my father and for me. The difference is in the details.

My father's portion
My father prefers the classic salad with cabbage and carrots. No celery, no leeks, no lemon juice! Only cabbage, carrots, salt, wine vinegar, and sunflower oil. Well, I decided to decorate his salad with olives, which he accepted with pleasure.

My portion
Unlike my father, I was not limited to cabbage and carrots. I used a lemon juice, instead of vinegar, and an Extra-virgin olive oil, instead of sunflower oil. I added the grated celery and the finely chopped leeks. (Note: acrid taste of the salad can be achieved not only with leeks, but also by sprinkling with a little black pepper powder.) Additionally I put a piece of cheese. This salad was more experimental, and I have to say - it is good! John Kukouzel would be glad to taste it!

VeRy   ImPoRtAnT   nOtE: In the local tradition of Haskovo region, this salad perfectly matches a cup of rakiya and a long conversation! Nazdrave!

The Armenian cuisine and I

Do you know any Armenian? Or a person with Armenian origin? I do. Bulgarian Armenians are a very interesting community. What distinguishes the Armenians?

First, you can recognize an Armenian by its surname - it always ends with -yan. Like Karekinyan, Ovanesyan, Papazyan, Zenopyan... And their first names sound strange for an unfamiliar ear: Hovanna, Vartuhi, Frengyul, Garabed, Vartan, Zadik, Kevork and so on. 

Second, they have a strong sense of community. For example, the Armenians in my town Haskovo have a church, called "Surp Stepanos", and a Community center "Ararat". And this is for reason - they came here in a hard times, so identity and solidarity were their tools to survive..

The Armenian church in Haskovo

Third, there are no Armenians - peasants in Bulgaria. As refugees, they settled in the towns and they all became citizens - intellectuals, craftsmen, and workers. Up to this day, I do not know any Armenian in this country who lives in a village. 

Fourth, when you get to know them, you'll find that they have a great music, great dances... and a great cuisine! Via my friends +Mary Panduleva+Petya Panduleva and +Simon Zenopian, last year I entered the magical world of the Armenian food during the culinary exhibition "The Armenian cuisine and I" in Haskovo.

And fifth, the Armenians easily adopt new influences and to add them to their own culture. The exhibition proved that they enrich their cuisine with new elements, but keep the essential fundamentals of their original, many centuries old food culture!

Images say more than words:

Armenian salad with manna croup
Salad by hadzhi Snezhana Garabed
Salad with sea gifts and clams

 Salad with carrots and  beet


Armenian meatballs

Armenian dolma (sarma)

Armenian byorek (banitsa)

Beans (Fasul pacha)
Havgite dolma
Potato balls

Armenian pasta with walnuts, garlic, and yellow cheese 
Stuffed eggplant Armenian style ( Karnı Yarık

Pirog with meat

Stuffed clams with rice


Armenian sweet bread

Armenian sweet bread

Armenian sweet bread




Armenian "dry" baklava

Armenian cake

Armenian ribbons

Armenian ribbons

White sweets

By the end of the exhibition everything was eaten.


Armenian food is tasty and diverse after millennia of cultural encounters in the Middle East, and I strongly recommend it! This food connects people. It feeds the sense of community among these several hundreds Armenians in Haskovo today. So if you pass around, don't forget to ask for the Armenian church and Community center, and maybe you'll get into some exciting Armenian celebration with food, songs, and dances :)

More about Armenian cuisine: here

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

How to make omach

Lets start our journey through the local food practices of Bulgaria with one simple and delicious breakfast. It's called omach and it is typical for Chernichevo - the native village of my father.

Chernichevo is a mountain village - it is located in the south part of Eastern Rhodopes. It is a remote place, with old oak and beech forests, sumptuous meadows with herbs and junipers, and invigorating springs and streams. As being distant from the modern civilization, Chernichevo preserved many of its ancient traditions, like omach - a unique food that I haven't seen anywhere else.

Appetizing color of the dish comes from the red pepper.
Recipe: omach for 4 people. 

Ingredients: one onion, four spoons of flour, fat (sunflower oil or olive oil - optional), a teaspoon of paprika, one teaspoon salt.

Step 1: 
Peel and chop one large onion. Sauté the onion with a little fat (enough to cover the bottom). Allow the onions on fire until it begins to turn yellow. If you prefer a stronger taste, lift the lid, so that the onions become golden-brown in color.

Step 2: 
Add a teaspoon of paprika and stir. Immediately after the red pepper, pour a liter of water and season with salt to taste.

Step 3: 
Until the onion is sautéing  (almost frying), put 4 large tablespoons of flour in a broad and shallow bowl. In the pile of flour make a hole and add one spoonful of water in it. Squish the flour (in Bulgarian this squishing is called " to omachkam" which probably gave name to the meal "omach"). The goal is to make small semi-doughy pieces - like large crumbs.

Here's a closer look:

Also, flour can be rubbed with hands.

Finally, after being squished, flour should look like this:

Step 4:
So while you had prepared the meal, the water with onion and red pepper is boiling on the fire. Add the flour, stir and let it boil for 10-15 minutes. Then remove omach from the heat, pour it in bowls and eat while warm. Perhaps with a slice of bread.

Basically omach is a lean and a light dish, but if you like, you could add animal products. For example, while suffocating onion, you can use butter instead of vegetable oil. Also, this meal perfectly fits together with crumbled cheese on top. It's all about your personal taste.

Enjoy your meal!