Happy Wednesday, Reader! As promised last Wednesday, I’ve got more to share on my recent trip to Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia. If you’re here for the first time, check out last week’s post to read about why I went to Sofia and some of the things I did there. If you’re already caught up, settle in for some more travel adventures: my experience on the BalkanBites Food Tour!
So, what is the BalkanBites Food Tour? It’s an English-language walking tour around the city of Sofia featuring stops at three (or if you’re lucky, four) restaurants to taste traditional Balkan and Bulgarian foods. And guess what else? It’s free! BalkanBites claims to be Europe’s only free food tour and I’ve never come across any other, so I’m inclined to believe them. Of course, as with most free tours, you can (and probably should) give a tip of about €5,00 or whatever feels comfortable at the end of the tour. As my tour guide explained, the tour is called BalkanBites and not BulgarianBites since so much of Bulgarian food is very similar and sometimes hard to separate entirely from that of its other Balkan neighbors. The tour meets in Crystal Park by the statue of Stefan Stambolov’s head at 2 pm every day, except for national holidays. Other off-days are posted on their Facebook page.
We started off by going to SupaStar, a soup cafe that opened in 2009, if I remember correctly. The tour guide (who was super enthusiastic and knowledgeable but whose name I unfortunately cannot remember) explained that it’s one of the few places that has opened up recently to try and combat the post-1989 influx of American fast food chains like McDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts. Seriously, I have not seen so many MickeyD’s and Dunkin Donuts since…I don’t even know when. Anyway, it’s a great concept: give people someplace to get lunch that’s healthier than all that fried fast food. At SupaStar we tried tarator, which is a traditional cold soup. The only cold soup that has a place in traditional Bulgarian cuisine, tarator is a yogurt-based soup with cucumbers, garlic, walnuts, and dill. I love cucumbers and yogurt and while I liked the flavors, I found the textures a little strange. I kept getting spoonfuls of cucumber and then spoonfuls of thin yogurt. What I really enjoyed was learning all about yogurt culture (haha, punny) in Bulgaria. Did you know a Bulgarian discovered the bacteria that turn milk into yogurt? And that Bulgarian yogurt is so well-loved that people would sneak it across the border during the Cold War to fuel their own yogurt factories?
Next up on our tour was a place not usually included, but my little group (me and two Spanish Erasmus students on an end-of-the-school year summer holiday) got the chance to try banitsa. You can get it at most savory bakeries, preferably in the morning when it’s fresh. Banitsa is sort of like börek–a cheese-stuffed phyllo pastry. While börek is simply layered, banitsa is often rolled into a spiral. The filling is a mixture of eggs and sirene cheese (similar to feta, more details below). And guess what it’s usually served with? Yogurt! Similar savory pastries can be found throughout the Balkans and southeastern Europe.
Our second official stop was at a restaurant called Hadjidraganovite Izbi (Hadjigradanov’s cellars) which was very cool looking, if you’re into folk cultures…which I am. You’ll know you’re at the right place if there is a painted wagon hanging above the entrance. The cellar, where we had our food samples, is exposed stone with and decorated with wooden casks and carved wooden panels. Seating is sort of “old-fashioned booth” style. At Hadjidraganovite Izbi we had a trio of bread and cheese appetizers. Sirene, the same cheese that’s used inside banitsa, is the number one cheese in Bulgaria. If you say “cheese” there and don’t specify what kind, you mean sirene. Like feta, it’s a crumbly brined sheep’s milk cheese. To make it spreadable, it’s usually boiled in cow’s milk and then beaten. If you’re in a hurry you mix it with (wait for it) yogurt instead. The cheese-milk/yogurt is spread on bread by itself, or combined with other ingredients. We had one plain, one with chopped roasted red pepper, and one with what I think was egg yolk and some more pepper. We also got to try pelin (not pictured below), a traditional Bulgarian wine made of an assortment of herbs, which I really enjoyed. It was sweet and a little herbal, but not in an (ick) Jägermeister way.
The final stop was an organic bakery and cafe that is, like SupaStar, committed to making sure there is good, healthy food available in Sofia. The folks at Sunmoon are involved in the entire production of the wheat they use for their breads. It’s not the type of place where all there is is bread, rather they also serve “real food” and have tables with full service. We were there to try something our tour-guide called the ultimate poor college student’s food…different vegetable-based spreads. That’s when you know you’re eating like the locals! Of course, what we had was top quality and not the kind from the supermarket. The first we had was made with roasted red peppers and tomatoes, which were then pureed until completely smooth. The second was I think my favorite of the tour besides the pelin–ljutenica, a spread made of finely chopped roasted eggplant, bell pepper, and garlic. Bulgarians are such fans of roasted peppers that they invented a special electric cooker to evenly roast peppers!
As we walked from restaurant to restaurant, our tour guide pointed out important landmarks and told us about some of the perhaps more unusual aspects of Bulgarian culture. The tour lasted just over two hours. While I was a bit disappointed we didn’t really get to try any full dishes (though I understand why it was all snack-y things), I am very glad that I got the chance to learn so much about Bulgarian cuisine! Be on the lookout soon for my own attempts at cooking up some Balkan food.