Many Slavic cultures share a common saying- you display hospitality by welcoming someone “with bread and salt”. The saying has a practical history; bread and salt have alway been the precious and daily necessities. These valuable items were presented in abundance to newlyweds, or special guests, to show welcome.
Though there were no literal bread and salt waiting for me in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, I felt as if I was being welcomed with all the warmth the city had to offer. The weather was perfect, the days were full yet relaxed, and even in my short stay I managed to meet the most wonderful people. Plovdiv is the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe, with grand public spaces and walking streets. The old ruins of a Roman amphitheater have been integrated into the city, functioning as a public park and concert space. The “old town” section of the city, with uneven and beautiful cobblestone streets, is still full of old-style houses. Plovdiv has also been designated the European Capital of Culture for 2019, which has provided investment for its cultural and architectural heritage.
While I am in Plovdiv, delightful fate intervenes, and a couchsurfing friend recognizes me in a bar. Her and her friends kindly welcome me to the city, and once again, I am struggling to leave. It seems that every place I go, I meet people who convince me to stay longer than I originally planned!
On one tour in Plovdiv, I speak to a Bulgarian woman who currently lives in Germany, back to visit her parents for Easter. When I ask her what she misses about Bulgaria, she is quick to reply. “I miss the food, the fruits, the yogurt. I feel like I can taste the sunshine in the food here, and I can’t find that anywhere else.”
I heard expat Bulgarians echo this sentiment all over Europe- there is something special in the food here. While there are plenty of cheap, basic eateries, local grocery stores still stock amazing local Bulgarian fruits, breads, and dairy products. It’s a chicken or the egg situation: Bulgarians are used to high quality ingredients, and so they demand high quality ingredients.
Young Bulgarians, who are growing more and more urban, are still tied to their families in the countryside. Young people may leave their village to study or work in the city, but they know that the best food is still back in the village. I travel to Sofia, the capital, after Plovdiv. My couchsurfing host, who has lived in Sofia for almost a decade, tells me that every time he travels home to visit his grandmother, he comes back home with jars of homemade yogurt. And if too much time passes between visits, his grandmother tells him to go to the bus station, because she has sent jars of yogurt on the bus.
These connections to the countryside are keeping people healthy, and reminding them what good food tastes like. I saw similar threads, connecting rural families and urban working professionals, in Romania. Even though young people may move from the village, they want to eat the same quality food. This changes their palates, their taste buds. They know what good food tastes like.
Though I was in Sofia for only a few days before my departing flight, I manage to find time to take a “food tour”, Balkan Bites. We visit many local restaurants, sampling small dishes and soups. Though I love Bulgarian food, it can be difficult to categorize. In the Balkans, an area of constant conquests, trade, and influences among shifting borders, it is difficult to describe a clear history for any one dish. We try foods that can also be found in Turkey, or Italy, but with a Bulgarian twist. Again, I am reminded that food, ever-evolving, cannot be parceled into neat historical lineages or national borders.
But in Bulgarian cuisine, more important than the food’s origin, or the name, I find that I appreciate the love in the preparation. I could taste the sunshine, and the pride, in the best food that I ate in Bulgaria. As the food tour guide related, her grandmother always told her, “If the food isn’t cooked with love, it will become stuck in the throat. So you must cook with love.”