8 Bulgarian spices that define the local cuisine

8 Bulgarian spices that define the local cuisine

The specific assortment of spices and the way they are used plays a huge part in shaping the general flavour of a national style of cooking. In Bulgarian cuisine, which is a trademark representative of Balkan cooking, spices serve the important task of bringing out flavours and hold the key to making a dish taste quintessentially Bulgarian.

Needless to say, preparing authentic Bulgarian food would be unthinkable without the local variety of seasonings. After all, Bulgarian cuisine is not just what we eat or drink, it’s also how we flavour it!

From the nation’s all-time favourite spice mix to the most appropriate spices to use for Bulgarian-style beans, meat or fish, kashkaval tourist will introduce you to the world of 8 Bulgarian spices that define the local cuisine.

1. Colourful cornerstone of Bulgarian cooking: sharena sol

Colourful cornerstone of Bulgarian cooking: sharena sol

Colourful cornerstone of Bulgarian cooking: sharena sol

Sharena sol (шарена сол), meaning “colourful salt”, is without a doubt the most popular spice mix in Bulgaria and a feature in practically every Bulgarian spice rack. Ingredients and proportions tend to vary a bit, depending on the preferences of whoever prepared it. Sharena sol just can’t go without the holy trinity of salt, dried summer savoury (chubritsa) and sweet paprika, but fenugreek is a popular fourth ingredient, and thyme or roasted maize are common additions too.

Sharena sol tastes great on freshly baked bread or any other kind of savoury pastry, but it can also be applied to eggs, soups and almost every other dish, as long as you want an unmistakably Bulgarian flavour.

2. Perfect companion to beans: spearmint (dzhodzhen)

Perfect companion to beans: spearmint (dzhodzhen)

Perfect companion to beans: spearmint (dzhodzhen)

Legumes like beans and lentils are the basis of many Bulgarian soups and main courses, particularly in the mountainous regions where they are most often grown. And the seasoning Bulgarians most often use in bean recipes has to be the aromatic spearmint (Mentha spicata), locally called dzhodzhen (джоджен) or less often gyozum (гьозум).

The leaves of this Mediterranean perennial plant can be used fresh or dried. In any case spearmint brings a strong fresh aroma to the table that is a perfect match for those delicious Smilyan beans from the Rhodopes. In Bulgarian cuisine, spearmint is also used in lamb and rice dishes. It tends to be a very dominant taste, so it should be carefully paired with other spices, which it can easily overpower.

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6 things you must do around the Drina Valley in Bosnia and Serbia

6 things you must do around the Drina Valley in Bosnia and Serbia

The Drina, nested between the most rugged regions of Bosnia and Serbia, is one of the Balkans’ most legendary border rivers. In the Upper Drina Valley (Podrinje), steep forested slopes meet winding karst canyons, Serbian Orthodox churches coexist with Bosniak mosques and whitewater rapids interchange with calm turquoise river stretches.

The Drina’s main headwater, the Tara, is lauded as one of the world’s top rafting destinations, and the Ottoman-era bridge at Višegrad has been central to the opus of a Nobel Prize-winner. To introduce you to this stunning region of the Balkans, kashkaval tourist presents 6 things you must do around the Drina Valley in Bosnia and Serbia.

1. Take on the rapids in Europe’s deepest canyon: Rafting on the Tara

Take on the rapids in Europe’s deepest canyon: Rafting on the Tara River

Take on the rapids in Europe’s deepest canyon: Rafting on the Tara River. Photo credit: Elena Ivanova, Drumivdumi.com

The Tara, which merges with the Piva to form the Drina, is without a doubt one of the best places to try rafting worldwide. Its sections of whitewater range from absolutely wild to suitable for beginners. And all this under the dramatic ridges of Europe’s deepest river gorge, with Montenegro to the left, Bosnia to the right and you battling the rapids in the middle.

For a top-notch rafting experience, book a rafting holiday with Rafting Tara at the Rafting Centar Drina-Tara near Foča. The instructors are well-trained to take you through the treacherous rapids of the Tara while cracking jokes in between the stretches of whitewater. And there’s nothing like a well-deserved evening by the fire at the cozy rafting camp after a satisfying afternoon of hardcore rafting!

2. Step into the Balkans’ last primeval temperate rainforests: Sutjeska National Park

Step into the Balkans’ last primeval temperate rainforests: Sutjeska National Park

Step into the Balkans’ last primeval temperate rainforests: Sutjeska National Park

Because of their downwind location along the coast of the Adriatic Sea, the vast Dinaric Alps are one of Europe’s most humid and rainiest regions. As a result, old-growth temperate rainforests can still be found in isolated pockets of the Dinarides. The Perućica forest in Bosnia’s Sutjeska National Park is a perfect example of this rare biome, where lichens grow on centenarian black pine trees within sight of a majestic waterfall. Hopping on a jeep safari tour from Foča is probably the easiest way to reach these otherwise secluded woods.

If it’s a clear day and you’re longing for a more Alpine vista, head up the trail to the Prijevor lookout (1,668 m) at the very foot of Maglić (2,386 m), Bosnia and Herzegovina’s highest summit. The panorama towards the neighbouring peaks is truly breathtaking, and in summer the shepherds’ huts in the area serve homemade cheese to tourists. Be aware that the patches of snow on the trail and the frequent rainfall can make the trek unpleasant and unrewarding in other seasons though.

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8 exciting outdoor activities on the northern Bulgarian Black Sea coast

Dramatic sea cliffs, secluded beaches and a subtropical steppe landscape home to ancient fortresses, cave dwellings and wind turbines: the region of Kavarna on Bulgaria’s northern Black Sea coast is a dream for outdoor enthusiasts!

Still relatively unexplored compared to Bulgaria’s bustling southern coastline, the North remains a hidden gem on the Black Sea coast. And in particular, the region around Kavarna offers so much to do for those looking for something more active than lying on the beach all day.

From breathtaking kayaking tours to refreshing early morning bike rides to catch the sunrise over the sea, kashkaval tourist presents 8 exciting outdoor activities on the northern Bulgarian Black Sea coast.

1. Rounding the cape: embark on a sea kayaking tour

Rounding the cape: embark on a sea kayaking tour

Rounding the cape: embark on a sea kayaking tour

How does having the sea to yourself, battling the waves and enjoying the epic cliffs north of Kavarna from a different perspective sound to you? If that’s your idea of a day well spent, then Trip Kavarna’s amazing kayaking tours are sure to be the highlight of your holiday.

Whether it’s a half-day tour from the mesmerizing crescent-shaped Bolata cove around the legendary Cape Kaliakra or a full-day adventure along the scenic coastline, this kayaking experience is guaranteed enjoyment for paddling novices and experienced sea wolves alike!

2. Chasing the sunrise: rent a bike and cycle along the cliffs

Chasing the sunrise: rent a bike and cycle along the cliffs

Chasing the sunrise: rent a bike and cycle along the cliffs

With a variety of enjoyable routes to choose from and little traffic on the roads, the Kavarna region is perfect for cycling fans! Hire a bike from Levana Guest House, who also offer accommodation in authentic Dobrudzha village houses in beautiful Balgarevo, and tour the coastline at your own pace.

Distances in the area are no greater than 30 kilometres, the roads are fit for cycling and the diverse landscapes where the Black Sea meets the Dobrudzha steppe are made to be explored on a bike. So take the camera with you and off you go!

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6 weird Bulgarian holiday season traditions

Like elsewhere in Europe, the holiday season starts in early December, with the preparations for Christmas and New Year’s Eve, two of the biggest holidays of the year. Unlike other places, though, Bulgaria tends to do the holiday season in quite a weird way.

There’s no Advent for most of us and Saint Nicholas won’t bring you gifts (unless you count seafood), but we’ve gone all out with our own set of quirky ways to mark the holiday season at the end of the year. From the students’ crazy party holiday on 8 December to the customary Bulgarian beating with sticks for good luck on New Year’s, kashkaval tourist presents X unusual Bulgarian holiday season traditions!

1. A good beating for a good year: Survakane

A group of survakari from the region of Sofia on their way to delivering a traditional beating.

A group of survakari from the region of Sofia on their way to delivering a traditional beating.

A tradition rooted in antiquity, survakane is basically children (lightly) beating adults on the back with elaborately decorated sticks! Along with the beating, the children recite cryptic incantations supposed to bring good luck to the adult, and at the end, the kids receive some money for their “service”. The custom takes place on New Year’s Day (1 January) each year, a holiday the Bulgarians once called Survaki (Сурваки).

Though the ritual varies from region to region, survakane is popular throughout Bulgaria. The stick, named survachka (сурвачка), is always made of a cornel branch adorned with yarn, wool, dried fruit, beads and other small items.

2. Saint Nicholas as a fishermen’s holiday: Nikulden

Fish is the staple of a Bulgarian Saint Nicholas' Day dinner

Fish is the staple of a Bulgarian Saint Nicholas’ Day dinner

You may be aware of Saint Nick as the precursor to the modern Santa Claus, and in Western and Central Europe he is still hailed as a bringer of gifts. In Bulgaria, just like in neighbouring Greece, Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors and fishermen. The maritime association is carried over to the traditional meal of the evening: fish or any seafood is an absolute must and the most popular dish is ribnik (рибник), carp wrapped in dough and filled with walnuts, onions and raisins.

Known locally as Nikulden (Никулден), in Bulgaria Saint Nicholas’ Day falls on 6 December. Because many Bulgarians are named Nikolay or Nikola, this is a very popular name day and a great occasion for a gathering with family and friends… as long as there’s fish on the table!

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Happy Orthodox Easter!

Thought Easter was last week? Think again! Bulgaria’s Eastern Orthodox majority celebrates the resurrection of Christ this weekend, on the night of 11 to 12 April. Due to the complex way the date of Easter is calculated each year, Orthodox Easter may be quite far in time from Western Easter… but it may be on the same date too.

So if you’re celebrating Easter the Bulgarian Orthodox way, enjoy a few days of egg fighting with elaborately painted eggs, feasting on delicious kozunak sweetbread and following many other curious Bulgarian Easter traditions.

Hristos voskrese (Christ is Risen)!

7 unique Bulgarian wine varieties you must taste

7 unique Bulgarian wine varieties you must taste

Did you know that Bulgaria was the second largest producer of wine in the world in the 1980s? Today, the country may not be producing wine on such a massive scale, but its thousand-year-old winemaking traditions continue to deliver high-quality and affordable Bulgarian wine.

Indeed, vine growing and winemaking have been part of Bulgarian culture since time immemorial. Thousands of years ago in what is today Bulgaria, the ancient Thracians were consuming wine from elaborate gold vessels in the shape of animals and mythical creatures. And who wouldn’t grow wine in Bulgaria – its sunlit hills, fertile soils and geographic latitude (equivalent to central Italy or southern France to the west) provide the perfect vine growing conditions practically all over the country.

Wine is among the most popular drinks in Bulgaria, along with rakia and beer. The country is divided into five separate winemaking regions, each of those offering specific local wines. From the spicy Mavrud of the central south to the fresh Gamza of the northwest, I present you 7 unique Bulgarian wine varieties you totally must taste!

1. The dark horse: Mavrud

Mavrud’s name comes from the Greek word for black and you can definitely see why in this wine’s deep colour. Used to make a dark ruby-coloured and soft-tasting wine, Mavrud (Мавруд) grapes are almost exclusively grown in a small area just north of the charming Rhodope Mountains. More specifically, this sturdy variety is associated with the town of Asenovgrad and to a lesser extent with Perushtitsa.

Mavrud grapes are typically small in size, low on yield and ripen late – the harvest is in late October. All these factors result in a spicy and fruity varietal with high tannins, appreciated for its high quality, remarkable maturing potential and local character.

2. Flavour of the Mediterranean: Broad-Leaved Melnik

The scenic region of Melnik produces well-aging reds

The scenic region of Melnik produces well-aging reds. Photo credit: Dupnitsa.net, Wikipedia.

Planted in the southwestern-most and warmest corner of Bulgaria, in the distinct Mediterranean valley of the Struma River, the Broad-Leaved Melnik Vine (Широка мелнишка лоза, Shiroka melnishka loza) bears all the signs of an age-worthy southern red grape variety. Varietals are often named just Melnik, referring to the picturesque smallest town in Bulgaria famous for its winemaking tradition.

According to a very popular story, Melnik wine was Winston Churchill’s favourite – it is even claimed that Churchill had 500 litres of this wine delivered to him annually! Whether this is true or not, it is certain that wine from the late-ripening Broad-Leaved Melnik grapes has a captivating taste much like that of Châteauneuf-du-Pape of southeastern France, often with tobacco and leather hints.

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10 Bulgarian drinks you must try

10 Bulgarian drinks you must try

Bulgaria has a refreshing tradition of natural beverages, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic. Many Bulgarian drinks are mixed together to create curious cocktails while others, like the classic rakia, are sipped pure. With summer slowly approaching and the weather getting sunnier and warmer by the day, here’s a list of 10 typically Bulgarian drinks to quench the thirst when you visit the country… and enrich your cultural experience of the Balkans!

1. The fruity queen of spirits: rakia (ракия)

The fruity queen of spirits: rakia

The fruity queen of spirits: rakia

A personal favourite and the most popular spirit among the South Slavic peoples, rakia is a fruit brandy that can be made out of practically any kind of fermented fruit. This legendary beverage is customarily made in home distilleries (called казан kazan). In Bulgaria, the most popular variety is grape rakia, though plum, apple, apricot, peach, cherry, quince are all appreciated and traditional for some regions like Troyan and the western parts of the country. The rose rakia of Kazanlak is another local variety that stands out.

Order a rakia with a shopska salad for the quintessential Bulgarian appetizer. And pay attention to the measures – a small drink in Bulgaria is 50ml while a big drink amounts to a whooping 100ml! Commercially-made rakia has an alcohol content of about 40% and the home-made spirit is even stronger, so a big drink is already a serious undertaking…

2. A healthy chilled yoghurt specialty: ayran (айран)

Bulgarian yoghurt is celebrated worldwide, and within the country it is enjoyed both in its thick and in its liquid form. Mix an equal amount of water with some quality Bulgarian whole-milk yoghurt, stir it and add salt to taste and you get ayran (or ayryan) – served chilled, the ultimate refreshing milk drink for the hot Balkan summers.

Ayran, though in a thicker variety and often with added herbs, is also popular throughout Turkey and the Middle East.

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7 Bulgarian food classics you cannot afford to miss

Bulgarian food is tasty, fresh and hearty. Bulgaria is famous for its quality vegetables and dairy products and its variety of mild spices. Pork and chicken are the most common forms of meat, though fish and veal dishes are also popular and lamb has a special traditional place in Bulgarian cooking.

While many of the staples of Bulgarian cuisine you would also find in Turkey, Greece or Serbia, in Bulgaria each of those has its own local flavour to set it apart from the Balkan neighbours’ version. From hearty salads through delicious pastries to grilled meat classics, here’s 7 Bulgarian dishes you absolutely must try during your stay in the country!

1. Baked extravaganza: banitsa (баница)

Baked extravaganza: banitsa.

Baked extravaganza: banitsa. Photo credit: Milena Mihaylova, Flickr

This piece of greasy pastry deliciousness can be purchased in bakeries all over the country. Its standard variety includes a filling of feta-like white cheese (сирене, sirene), though varieties filled with onions, cabbage, spinach, mushrooms or pumpkin can also be found. For your sweet tooth, you can also try banitsa with apples and walnuts. Banitsa in any of its forms is an inseparable part of a traditional Bulgarian breakfast. Combine it with the thick fermented wheat drink boza for a quintessential Bulgarian experience.

Holiday tip: careful when chewing your piece of banitsa at Christmas or New Year’s Eve! On those dates, banitsa is filled with lucky paper charms which are sometimes easy to chew through. The luckiest piece will contain the coin which means you’ll enjoy a very successful year ahead of you.

  • Standard price: 1-1.50 BGN (0.50-0.75 €)

2. King of the grill: kebapche (кебапче)

King of the grill: kebapche

King of the grill: kebapche. Photo credit: Biser Todorov, Wikipedia

The Bulgarian cousin of former Yugoslavia’s famous ćevapčići and Romanian mititei, a kebapche is the perfect side dish to a glass of cold Bulgarian beer on a summer day. Though Bulgarians may argue about that, whether the beer is a Kamenitza or a Zagorka makes no big difference. The important part is that the kebapcheta ar at least three and include some kind of sides, usually French fries with grated sirene cheese on top, to make the classic “three kebapcheta with sides” (тройка кебапчета с гарнитура, troyka kebapcheta s garnitura).

The dish itself is an elongated piece of grilled minced meat, comparable in shape and size, though not in contents, to a hot dog. As with the smaller ćevapčići that you can taste in Serbia, the meat is usually a mix of pork and beef, though it can be solely pork just as well. A beef version exists, but is uncommon and will normally be labeled as such. Typically, spices like black pepper and cumin will be added to the meat, for a mildly spicy taste.

  • Standard price: 1-2 BGN (0.50-1 €)

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