Half way through the tour, it started raining, so Bec and I are pretty cold and a little wet. So, once the tour wraps up, we scurry back to our airbnb to get changed and warm up for a bit before heading back out for the food tour.
As we are inside, getting changed, we look outside the window, and out of nowhere it has just started snowing, and I mean properly snowing too. None of this half assed little snowflakes. These are the real deal. Big dirty chunks of snow. Its seriously the best.
We whack on our clothes and make our way out. We stop in briefly to grab some coffee, before heading to jump on the food tour. We walk to the park, and it is just unrelenting. Its so heavy and might lighten up for a brief moment, but then it is just straight back on with thick, thick snow. We spot the crowd gathering right next to this giant statue of this dude’s head. We jot down our details, and it is go time.
We get asked whether anyone is vegetarian, or vegan, and then Stefan (our guide) does a little happy dance because everyone is going to really be able to try everything that they have to offer. This is what I am about. He duck off for a few minutes to make the phone calls to the restaurants we’re headed to. As far as the internet is concerned, this is also the only free food tour in the world. Its a bloody brilliant idea too. For the local businesses, you’re bringing them customers that might take them a good week or two to find. It’s actually a brilliant idea.
While the phone call is being made, I get talking with Danny, who is Bulgarian, but lived in Canada for ages, so I thought he was just taking the piss when he said he was from Bulgaria. He actually owns a rose farm in Bulgaria. A rose farm seems a little odd right? Well, they grow them for the oils that they produce. The flowers are grown in a way that they will start producing this incredible smell, and you actually have to harvest them within one day.
They are made, so that they put all their energy into this one day of the year. The oils are actually one of the ingredients to Chanel No. 5, and have been for years. How mental is that?
Our conversation with Danny ends, as Stefan makes his way back. He begins to tell us a little bit of the history of Sofia, and how it relates to the food that is eaten as daily practice in Bulgaria. He asks for two volunteers, so I nudge Bec to get up there. He then begins with this very theatrical and thug-like modern day interpretation of how two different people groups met and how yoghurt became a staple of the Bulgarian diet.
That, alone was worth going on the tour for.
Needless to say, Stefan is incredibly enthusiastic and is more than able to hold a crowd’s attention well. The guy should be an actor.
Bulgarians will literally eat Yoghurt in bulk, and I mean BULK. Fridges are filled with the stuff. But this is also because of the health reasons for Bulgarian yoghurt. A Bulgarian scientist was challenged by his peers to do his PHD on Bulgarian yoghurt. During his studies, he came across a bacteria only found in Bulgarian yoghurt. This specific bacteria is so good for you, that further studies concluded that it was the copious amounts of yoghurt that the Bulgarians eat, which gave them the highest amount of centenarians per capita for Europe.
We find out that the road that ran through Sofia led directly to Constantinople. Not only did they have the Silk road running through Sofia, but they also had the Spice road leading through Sofia. It was at this point that all the bland food of the west met the spices of the east, and Bulgaria’s food culture was altered permanently.
Food is what brings people together, so its great to understand how it came about for this specific culture.
With a little historical knowledge of Sofia’s food, we head to our first destination. We walk for a few minutes, and turn into this little opening between two buildings. Stefan gives us the low down on what to expect in the first spot. There are other guests in the restaurant, so naturally, we have to be courteous.
We head into our first spot, and there is this space set aside for us in the corner. Warm welcomes from the staff greet us, as we walk in and take our seats. Stefan begins to tell us about what we are going to eat. We all get this combination of Bulgarian yoghurt, hummus and pork served to us in a little bowl. He begins telling us about how this bloke ran away to pray for three days. If my memory serves me correctly, he was in a giant tree or something. After three days, he came out and was staving hungry, and saw all these chickpeas throughout the fields. He started munching on these, and hummus became a common dish throughout Bulgaria (probably missing a few key facts, but thats loosely what I remember).
The really cool thing about this place is that they source everything locally. There was this real move toward fast food when things like McDonald’s came to Bulgaria, but since then, people have got sick of fast food, and made the move back toward real food and actually caring about where their food comes from and how they go about making their meals. This is awesome to see, and this particular restaurant will only use ingredients that are in season at the time.
We all savour the dish and lap up the tiny amounts of residue with the portions of bread provided. The smooth texture of the Bulgarian yoghurt is met with a mild zing from the lemon in the hummus and the soft crunch of the pork strip on top is the perfect way to end the mouthful. With smiles on our faces and tastes on our tongue, we make our way to our next restaurant.
We enter a courtyard out the front, but the front door is not where we are headed. We head around the back of the building, and Stefan gathers us all together to let us know that we are about to enter one of the best restaurants in all of Sofia. Its this little hidden spot, on the top floor of this random building.
This is what I am talking about.
Take me to the places that take ages to find, and this is exactly what he was doing. Absolute legend. We walk up the stairs, and assume our seats as we hear more about Bulgarian food & culture. The food is placed down the middle of each table. We take our portion each, and each bite is met with closed eyes, but open imaginations. We are served a skinny bread-cracker biscuit thing, on top of that is a small square of what looks like it is almost a feta cheese, with a slither of marinated pepper placed on the top of the cheese. The rich flavour of the peppers are softened by the creamy cheese and the crunch that the biscuit offers ties them both together. The flavours are immaculate and the textures are perfect.
As I look around the room, everyone is taking their time, making sure that they get to really taste the food in front of them for what it really is, instead of just devouring it mindlessly. Its great that everyone we are with has an appreciation for food. I am assuming that most people who come on this tour would fit into that category, and not just cos they are uni students and in need of some food.
We wrap up at the restaurant and make our way to our third destination. We stop for a quick culture stop. The combination of food and cultural landmarks is the icing on the cake of the tour.
We are standing out the front, and this place really doesn’t look that impressive at all. We walk inside, head down stairs, and assume our seats again. Before we get to try the food, Stefan tells us about how to really appreciate the food. Its goes like this:
If you like the food, you give your host a “Mmmmmmmmmm”
You you really like the food, you give your host a “Mmmmm. Mmmmm. Mmmm”, descending in tone with each “Mmmmmm”
Lastly, if you are pleasantly surprised and utterly love the food you’ve just been given, you combine the two to show the utmost appreciation.
We go on to learn about the food are about to sample. I cant the remember the name of the dish, but it is a nationally known dish, very very common among grandmothers. We are told that if ever you are hungry in Bulgaria, salvation is only a phone call to Grandma away. Once you make that call, you will be inundated with this dish which is almost like a thick paste, which you can eat with anything. The Grandmothers of Bulgaria pride themselves in this dish. I can’t for the life of me remember what it was called, but man…
When the dish came out and we were able to try for ourselves, the taste, itself lived up to the expectation. The combination of garlic, tomatoes, spices and whatever the hell else goes into it, combine to make this utterly delicious dish that you have to try while you are in Bulgaria. This was then followed my an equally as delicious dish which to the untrained eye (like mine) would assume that it was a guacamole of some description.
It looks a little like a salsa, but again, the flavours all represented themselves brilliantly across your palette as they blend to create their own little flavour sensation. All you need is a little bread with either of them, and you are right to rock and roll. Utterly delicious.
Its has been snowing all afternoon, but as we walk out the door, we are greeted with clear skies.
I can’t get my head around it. We go inside to get changed and it starts snowing. We walk into a restaurant, and it stops snowing. This is utterly obscene. I thought Melbourne was bad, this is a whole new level of random weather.
One thing you learn really quick on this tour is that Bulgarians pride themselves on their food. Its this whole subculture that just lurks under the surface of Sofia which, unless you knew someone on the inside, you wouldn’t really know about. Fortunately for us, that is exactly what we had today. Its almost shunned in Bulgaria, to buy your fresh food from a supermarket. There are so many opportunities to be able to get your hands on produce directly from the farmer, or pretty bloody close that you can’t really justify a supermarket.
Get a load of this.
Bulgaria’s food is so fresh, that these two blokes from Sweden visited years ago Bulgaria while it was still under communist rule. They loved Bulgarian tomatoes so much that they actually wanted to export them to their own country. The communist party was against it, so then they offered a trade. The communist party was more interested in a trade than just plain old export.
What did they ask for in return for tomatoes?
The most logical thing in exchange for tomatoes, of course.
None other than ABBA records.
Go ahead and re-read that last sentence.
You can read it as many times as you like, and it will still be correct.
I thought that making up the conversation between the king and queen, gifting Sofia with yellow pavers would have been classic. That has nothing imagining how that conversation went when they were deciding what they wanted in return for the tomatoes.
Communist party leader: “Alright boys. We need to get something back in return for these tomatoes. Any suggestions?”
Communist party member: “Well… I have got an idea”
Leader: “Lets hear it”
Member: “How about we get some quality lettuce. You know, food for food?”
Leader: “Yeah, nah mate”
Member: “Well, how about we just get some music instead. You know, food for the soul?…”
Leader: “Bugger me, you are good. I was thinking the same thing”
Leader: “Nah mate. ABBA”
Member: “Jesus. Not ABBA”
Leader: “ABBA or nothing”
Member: “I just remembered how much I love ABBA”
There was probably that one ABBA fan lurking in the corners of the communist party detesting them in public, but secretly mumbling lyrics in the elevator ride on the way to his office in the morning. I have no idea how they hell that was decided, but because of that, literally everyone in Bulgaria will be able to sing no less than 3 ABBA songs from start to finish on request. Stefan even did us a little rendition of one of their songs.
We move on to our next location and huddle in a little tunnel or sorts, as Stefan runs next door into a little bakery kinda spot and comes back with a plate loaded with these little puffy pastries. They are so light and puffy and just lightly dusted with sugar. These sweets are called Makitza. Until these guys opened 2 years ago, there was no good place to get Makitza. During the communist rule, they had suppressed anything that was sweet and flavoursome, so Makitza because a simple and incredibly popular dish throughout Bulgaria.
The sweets are still warm, so they hardly crunch, even though they are that little bit crunchy.
We lick our fingers and exchange delight as we make our way to the last restaurant. We walk in the door, are led downstairs, and the whole atmosphere is brilliant. There are wine barrels that line the whole walls. There are these chains that hang from the ceiling above each table. This is so that you can just order copious amounts of food, and the plates can hang above the table, instead of occupying space on your table.
We seat, and the food is already waiting for us.
We get taught about Bulgarian wine and these cheeses on the platters in front of us. One of them is a goat’s cheese and the other two are a little more traditional, except that they are both made with a lot of yoghurt.
…but am I really surprised?
By now, not at all.
Stefan tells us how to say cheers in Bulgarian. The easiest way to remember is to say “Nice Driveway” really quickly. The actual spelling is “Nazdrave”, and you have to look the person in the eye when you say Nazdrave, or you’ll be opening pandora’s box.
We leave this last spot, and make our way to the last destination. Stefan wraps up the most epic of tours, and we snap a group photo with everyone.
This is by far the best free tour known to all humanity.
So far, we are loving Bulgaria. I literally know nothing of Bulgaria, but I feel as though we have hit the jackpot a little with our flight from Dublin. It’s definitely winning me over.
We leave the group and thank Stefan for the afternoon. Its been lovely. Even though we have been eating for the last two hours, we are even more hungry and we are keen for a feed. We really liked the feel of the first place that we visited on the tour, so we kinda just follow our memories and feelers until we find ourselves out the front of the restaurant.
We sit, order 4 big dishes, a bottle of wine to share and spend the rest of the afternoon and evening eating and enjoying brilliant Bulgarian food. We laugh and drink and chat about life and our plans. We try everything from pig fat shavings to a variety of dip-like substances, to salads. Each dish crafted immaculately. All of this came to a total of 70 lev. This is equals $49 AUD.
Bulgaria, I would come back to visit 100%. I know I have only scratched the surface, and there is so much more to explore. I feel like true Bulgarian culture is hidden just under the surface of city and you need to just scratch the surface to find what you are looking for.
Sofia has been a pleasant surprise, and one that I am glad I got to experience.
Come back for the next story,