We talk a lot about how immigrant food has shaped British food for the better. We talk less about what happens – food-wise – when Brits move abroad. Which food traditions do we leave behind? Which remain rituals for life?
I used to mock people who lived in expat enclaves and doggedly stuck to their Brit food habits. Or people who holidayed on beautiful Greek islands only to seek out the nearest full English breakfast. Then I moved to rural Bulgaria, to a country where they routinely smother their chips with grated cirene (a feta-style cheese), and a typical ‘welcome to the village’ gift is a slab of cured pork fat.
I became one of those people. The kind of person who bulk-buys Yorkshire Tea on trips back home because the tea in Europe doesn’t taste right. My suitcase resembled a game of Tetris, with teabags and veggie suet and Bourbon biscuits jostling for space with Marks & Spencer knickers (another essential buy on trips home). Friends and family making the journey to Bulgaria would be given a Tesco shopping list. A jar of Marmite became the standard fee to stay in our spare room. I went from food snob to Hobnob hoarder in the space of 2,500 kilometres.
Turns out, however much you want to be someone who wholeheartedly embraces their adopted homeland’s culture, food from home has a powerful hold. We threw ourselves into eating – and cooking – Bulgarian favourites. We breakfasted on mish mash (scrambled eggs with peppers, onions and cheese), and learned to make banitsa (filo pastry filled with cheese and eggs). We spent months perfecting homemade mekitsi (fried dough, kind of like flat doughnuts) after eating them on a walking holiday in the Rodopi mountains.
But sometimes you just want a crumpet with Marmite. You feel me?
And when you can’t get your hands on those from-home treats, you begin to get, let’s say, creative. You uncover new depths of culinary adaptability. You learn to substitute this ingredient for that ingredient, and to make your own versions of absent goods, from marmalade to vegetarian sausages. Even cider. Yes, you’d rather learn the mystical arts of homebrewing and sausage-making than give up those little tastes of home. Your kitchen becomes like the A-Team van. Shut yourself away in there with a few basic ingredients and enough YouTube videos and anything is possible. You emerge, a montage later, with a dozen homemade crumpets and a very sweaty brow. Just think what the A-Team could have done if they’d had access to YouTube tutorials.
We learned to garden, too, growing our own parsnips, swede, asparagus and Brussels sprouts to varying degrees of success. One year, my in-laws snuck a rhubarb plant in their luggage, and it’s still going strong a decade later, much to the fascination of our Bulgarian neighbour (he’d never seen rhubarb before). My English partner became so obsessed with growing tomatoes on a scale to rival any Bulgarian villager, he fashioned a homemade wonky polytunnel – and, later, a whopping seven-metre-long greenhouse – to service his habit. Our neighbour admired the polytunnel so much he built two of his own. Last summer, the neighbour on the other side followed suit. (If anyone’s wondering who started the polytunnel trend in Bulgaria, it was us.)
Slowly, very slowly, we became more Bulgarian than we realised. Long-loved dishes shuffled aside to make way for new, adopted favourites. I can’t remember the last time I cooked roast potatoes, or mashed potatoes for that matter. Podlucheni kartofi – sauteed potatoes with garlic and dill – have been our go-to for years. (Dill, it turns out, is essential on pretty much everything. It runs wild in our garden and I still never have enough.) Mekitsi are far superior to British jam doughnuts because you can spread the jam on top (pure genius). Give me kyopolou, the Bulgarian dip of roasted aubergine, red peppers and herbs, over baba ghanoush any day. Cabbage? I’ll have mine stuffed with rice and herbs, please and thank you. Say the word ‘pickle’ and my brain no longer pings to a jar with the word ‘Branston’ on it, but a bowl of mixed pickled vegetables, shared among everyone at the table.
To the outsider, Bulgarian food is just pork, pork and more pork. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of pork here. But like much of Eastern Europe, Bulgaria is a nation of meat-lovers who know how to treat vegetables with respect. The quality of produce here is incredible. The tomatoes alone will make you weep. (Bulgarian pink tomatoes are the best tomatoes in the world, and I’ll wrestle anyone who says otherwise.) At the markets in September, you can buy enormous net bags of red peppers, and people do, taking them home to roast, skin and jar for the winter. Meals routinely start with a salad. Kiselo zele – homemade sauerkraut to you and me – is a staple. Pickling and preserving is, in the villages, just a way of life. This is a rich and vivid food culture that loves its vegetables. So much so that, when taking a photograph, Bulgarians say ‘zele’ – cabbage – not ‘cheese’.
And against this backdrop, we’ve made some profound food memories. The first time I tasted a medlar was here, from the tree outside our front door. It tasted like Medieval England. My first experience of making quince jelly was in our Bulgarian kitchen, before we even had a proper kitchen. Back then, our ‘worktop’ consisted of a plank of wood balanced on two chairs. We learned to identify porcini and chanterelles in the woodland close to our house. My first taste of wild garlic was not in the English countryside, but in our Bulgarian back garden, from the patch of leaves that our neighbour grows alongside our shared fence. We’ve been encouraging that patch to migrate into our garden ever since. The first time we viewed our house, the neighbour hung over the fence with a bunch of grapes from his vine and ordered us to ‘yazh’, to eat. We knew we’d fit right in. For years, the same neighbour would slaughter, skin and butcher his pigs in the street every December – more than once on Christmas Day, which made for some, er, memorable Christmases. One viciously cold spring we walked into his house and found baby lambs keeping warm in the lounge, bleating away in a box by the woodburning stove. To experience rural Bulgaria is to experience a different world.
It’s changing, though. I can chart the increasing Westernisation of Bulgaria by the availability of avocados. I still remember the first time I saw an avocado for sale in a local shop. It was, maybe, 2015 and it cost the outrageous price of 3,99 leva (around £1.50 in those days). I bought it anyway, and worshipped it like the treasure it was. Now, avocados are readily available all year round. (Albeit still, quite rightly, an expensive luxury.) When we first moved here, there was only one shop in the nearby town that sold proper dairy (not UHT) milk. These days, you’ll find not only dairy milk, but a decent selection of plant milks in most supermarkets. Limes used to be a rare treat, but not anymore. Just as we begin to feel assimilated into a new food culture, that culture ups and changes on us. Then, a few years ago, when we decided to go vegan, everything changed again. That culinary adaptability has proven itself useful in new ways.
And of course, some precious food traditions from home have stuck with us. I make hot cross buns at Easter. (I don’t even observe Easter. Just the buns.) There’s a trifle on our table every Christmas. And I still maintain – I will always maintain – that sausage rolls are a basic human right. What can I say? I am a migrant mish mash of my own making, part avocado-loving Millennial cliché, part pickle-queen Bulgarian baba. But if you do happen to swing by our quiet Bulgarian village, I’ll have two packets of Bourbons and a packet of Hobnobs, please.