Two packets of Bourbons and a packet of Hobnobs: The food journey of a Brit in Bulgaria

by | Feb 3, 2023 | Food & recipes | 15 comments

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.

 

Sausage rolls and biscuits for Boxing Day breakfast? Naturally.

15 Comments

  1. Ian Gardiner

    I now have polytunnel envy!

    Reply
    • Auntie Bulgaria

      Oh my, that homemade polytunnel was SO wonky by the end. But it served a purpose for years and was cheap as chips!

      Reply
  2. Minty

    Love this!
    We’ve had a very similar experience (although still big fans of roast potatoes, but often served in a meze with trushiya and sirine of course).
    We do still request Marmite from UK guests and we also make our own HP sauce and malt vinegar.
    Your shops must be a bit ahead of the times than our local ones – probably because you’re nearer to Sofia. But we do see the odd avocado (usually brown mush already) and we even saw a dragon fruit once!!
    When we first arrived, 8 years ago, the bananas and occasional pineapple at the market seemed exotic. I kind of miss those crazy days.

    Reply
    • Auntie Bulgaria

      Yeah, we have to improvise with the malt vinegar too, but we can (sometimes) find HP sauce at Kaufland! We are lucky being so close to Sofia, in terms of accesss to diverse foods, but on the flip side, things are changing so fast here thanks to the Sofian influence. Not necessarily a bad thing (it’s great to see city folk buying homes in our village rather than those homes lying abandoned), but I also miss those crazy early days when life in the village felt like going back in time…

      Reply
  3. New Yorker

    As a Bulgarian, I can say I’ve always longed to try real English trifle. (A devotee of GBBO, naturally.) This article is heart warming.

    Reply
    • Auntie Bulgaria

      Thank you for reading! Trifle is the best dessert in the world — comforting and sweet, but also quite light. Perfect way to end a celebratory meal. If you like cooking, you should have a go at making it. Most of the ingredients are available in Bulgarian shops (with the exception of double cream, but you can use mascarpone, coconut cream or whipping cream instead).

      Reply
  4. Kath Thomas

    I always bring tea bags when I travel back to Bulgaria. I’m still looking for a joint of pork that still has its skin on it so it can be roasted with proper crackling. I’ve never , well up to this year been in the village at the right time to plant tomato s but am able to buy plenty from people who park their cars in the village square to sell off their surplus. I’ve watched people buy full carrier bags of garlic and the look on the sellers face when I buy just two bulbs.
    We did buy what we thought was chocolate milk in city supermarket only to find that Broxa is ground wheat with water and sugar yuk.
    I do envy you your rhubarb plant, I’ve never seen one in Bulgaria but do want one, rhubarb is versatile, a good source of vitamin C and I was brought up with it.

    Reply
    • Auntie Bulgaria

      Was it boza, the drink? Bulgarians love it but I think it’s disgusting. Yeasty and fizzy and gross, but very good for you I’m sure. And as for rhubarb, I think a lovely commenter on here said that Morgan’s Plants in Hotnitsa might sell rhubarb plants. Could be worth a trip there when you’re establishing your garden. It’s a fab nursery…

      Reply
  5. Katt

    I’ve tried to comment twice Aunty with no luck

    Reply
    • Auntie Bulgaria

      Hi Katt, don’t worry, your comments are coming through fine (your first comment appeared Monday morning). Same goes for both comments on the previous post, as well…

      Reply
  6. Katt

    now it’s appeared

    Reply
  7. Alexia (the tabbouleh diaries)

    Loved this! Someone has polytunnel envy. I have major dill envy. Dill is so measly and tasteless almost everywhere these days. I’ll swap you two packs of bourbons, 1 pack of hobnobs & a jar of marmite for all your dill. Now what do you say?

    Reply
    • Auntie Bulgaria

      Hah. Sounds like a good deal to me. Actually, maybe not ALL of my dill. I can’t do without dill!

      Reply
  8. Jayne

    Hello Auntie B, it’s aviewfrommykitchen here from IG. Loved this post – how have I not looked at your website before, I was just recommending you to someone BTL in the Guardian and spotted it in your link. It is so interesting (though not really surprising since it’s next door of course) that we missed so many of the same things when we moved to Turkey. We failed with rhubarb, because: 50 degrees in summer, so it literally cooked in the ground (we even tried growing it in the winter and then pulling it up before the summer, then replanting, but that became tiresome). We did successfully grow a fantastic asparagus bed with some ‘sleeping’ asparagus crowns that my friend brought from Cheshire, and to which she swore she had given CPR because she thought they were dead (she still claims her share of the loot each spring). We packed an entire large suitcase with two lime trees in pots, from the Citrus Centre in Pulborough, wrapped in many layers of fleece and bubble wrap, and lovingly transported in the hold of a Thomas Cook Airbus – remember those?). Those lime trees are now up above the second storey of our house and produce hundreds of limes every winter. (Of course we can now buy limes galore in the greengrocer, but it’s still nice having our own). Coriander is a perennial issue – our greengrocer stocks it occasionally (and has to display it in a part of the shop away from the rest of the herbs because the Turkish ladies get very cross if they get home and find they’s bought ‘that disgusting stuff’ by mistake). We grow it but it seems to bolt the second you turn your back – I have found that the cheap seeds we get from the spice guy in the market sprout just as well as the expensive type you buy in a garden centre here, and that the sprouts are nice sprinkled on salad too. We have a prolific avocado tree in the garden (exact same story as you when it comes to avos) and have a big bergamot tree, which has never managed to bear a fully-fledged adult bergamot, which is disappointing, but the leaves smell nice and I sometimes add them to marmalade for the flavour.

    My best root veg tale was going on holiday one Christmas to Prague (having had an urge to spend Christmas in a country where it’s actually celebrated – not that our Turkish friends and neighbours don’t give it a good go) and buying what I thought was a fabulous swede from the greengrocer across the road from our hotel in Vienna on the way home (don’t ask, flights to Turkey are a bit here and there, so we go some funny routes). When I got it home and lovingly washed it and cut it open, i found that I had carefully imported a giant beetroot – beetroot being one of the largest crops around our part of Turkey. To say I was disappointed was a bit like saying Liz Truss was a crap Prime Minister. Him Indoors grew parsnips for several years, but we had to have them in pots because one of our cats, The General, used to dig them up (we had to plant an intricate display of bamboo stakes in the pots or The General would have thought we’d planted him a parsnip playground). Usually the parsnips were few and far between and only thumb-sized, so we used to serve them before the main course, like you did with Yorkshire puds in the old days, just with some gravy, to make sure nobody missed that they were eating root vegetable gold.

    Now that we are back in the UK a lot of the time, the cravings when we are in Turkey for a few months have largely diminished, and only Marmite, liquorice, ground almonds and ground nutmeg go into the suitcase (plus the entire contents of the Cadbury’s department in duty free at Gatwick for our neighbour, and tripe sticks for her dog – god knows what Turkish customs would make of those). I am now starting to get cravings for things we take for granted in Turkey, so that’s a whole new world ahead of me.

    I am supposed to be working but I am having a much nicer time reading your blog instead. I’ll work tomorrow. Tee hee.

    Reply
    • Auntie Bulgaria

      Jayne, hello! Thanks for stopping by and for mentioning me BLT. So kind of you. Sounds like we share a lot of the same cravings and experienes, although I’m jealous of your avocado and lime trees. (We have one lime tree in a pot but it’ll never be able to go in the ground because of our colder winters. Oh to have endless limes for my Moscow Mules!) I’m shocked they don’t like coriander in Turkey, though. I really didn’t know that. It’s hard to find here, too, so we have to grow our own. Haven’t had any luck growing parsnips for years. They never bloody germinate for me. And yet I grew them effortlessly as a newby gardener. Go figure! Anyway, happy reading and thanks again x

      Reply

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