November 11, 2012 § 1 Comment
The latest in our Breakfasts of the World Project series.
Much like Lesley Chamberlain (author of “The Food and Cooking of Eastern Europe), my first experience of Bulgarian cuisine was sausage and bread purchased from a station buffet at Plovdiv (the next major city after the capital Sofia) part-way through my five day train journey from Blackpool North to Istanbul Central aged 19. My memories of then-Communist Bulgaria witnessed solely from the train was of bad food, grey cities – the capital Sofia as well as Plovdiv – and corrupt border guards who extorted payment for what turned out to be a non-existent entry visa.
Beyond the railway line there were obviously better things to be seen. Lesley Chamberlain goes on to write “Not much is known about Bulgarian food beyond the reputation of its yoghurt, but actually, when one is not dependent on the station buffet, it is one of the world’s simplest, healthiest and most naturally elegant styles of cooking, akin to the cuisines of Turkey and Lebanon. The seasoning is light and the accent on preserving national flavours. It is the very opposite of the ‘concentrated’ food of Poland. The mountainous country of 8 million, bordered by Greece, Romania, Yugoslavia (ed now Serbia and Macedonia), Turkey and the Black Sea, is hot, with fertile valleys, and broad plains. The land, which the ancients called Thrace, yields abundant green vegetables and fruit…Many of the dishes have a middle Eastern flavour, including white beans and preserved vegetables in olive oil, peppers, olives, tomatoes, spicy sausage (pasterma)…The sausage, salami, cheese, yoghurt, vegetables and fruit that characterize this very natural table first appear at breakfast.”
My mood lightened after reading this – I’d feared a Slavic spread of sausage and cabbage with dry black bread or some such but Ms Chamberlain’s description of Bulgarian breakfast sounded fresh and inviting. I decided to serve up some spicy sausage, a sharp salty ewe’s milk cheese, home-made sourdough bread, the much-loved Bulgarian cold vegetable dish lutenitsa and of course I had to track some genuine Bulgarian yoghurt.
What makes Bulgarian yoghurt special is its combination of two bacteria, Lactobacillus Bulgaricus together with Streptococcus Thermophilus. In fact, a little delving suggests that all live yoghurts contain these two bacteria so maybe we’re all eating Bulgarian yoghurt without our realising it…
Ready-made genuine Bulgarian yoghurt was nowhere to be found, but the Bulgarian yoghurt website http://www.bacillusbulgaricus.com/ saved the day and within a few days a little sachet of yoghurt culture sent to me in a handwritten envelope amusingly with a Plovdiv postmark (that brought back memories) dropped onto my doormat:
There were no instructions on the packet which initially caused some consternation until I remembered that they could be found on the website (and I’ve summarised them below). Rather gingerly I mixed up my culture powder of indeterminate provenance with a 2 litres of milk (semi skimmed as I didn’t have whole milk in the fridge):
The milk sat quietly overnight on the top of the warm Aga. Miraculously, it fermented and thickened and turned into something that really did look like yoghurt – it was a little thinner than I might have liked but I put that down to using semi-skimmed rather than proper whole milk.
On to the lutenitsa. I came across it when I scanned through various Bulgarian food websites. This sweetened vegetable preserve, part jam, part relish, part middle-Eastern cooked vegetable salad is available in jars sold under a number of brands but I decided to make my own, devising a recipe combining the best bits of a number of different versions found on the web (“The Food and Cooking of Eastern Europe” being silent on the subject).
I began by roasting some sweet red peppers until the skins were lightly charred:
Then the raw vegetables were sautéd in olive oil:
The tomatoes and soft pepper pieces were added to the mix and the whole lot simmered for 10 minutes. Some recipes suggest puréeing the lutenitsa but I wanted something chunkier so went in with an old-fashioned British potato masher for a minute or so which gave me the texture I was looking for – thick and chunky with a bit of bite.
Recipe for lutenitsa – Bulgarian vegetable relish
Makes about 2lb. Having tried out a couple of different recipes found on websites dedicated to Bulgarian food, this is my small-scale chunky version of the classic lutenitsa recipe.
2 medium carrots, peeled and diced
1 onion, diced
1 medium aubergine, diced
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 large roasted red peppers, skin and seeds removed and then diced
1 400g can chopped tomatoes
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon dried thyme (or summer savory if you have it)
2 tablespoons sugar
salt and pepper to taste
Take a medium sized saucepan and fry the onions, carrots and aubergines in the olive oil until soft. Add the red peppers and fry for a further 2-3 minutes. Add the tomatoes and seasoning, bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Add a little water if the mixture seems too dry. Mash some of the mixture using a potato masher. You are aiming for a thick ratatouille type texture. Spoon into a clean preserving jar, cool, seal and refrigerate.
Recipe for Bulgarian yoghurt
Adapted from the instructions given on the Bulgarian yoghurt website http://www.bacillusbulgaricus.com/
2 litres whole milk
1g (1/4 teaspoon) of freeze dried Bulgarian yoghurt starter
Bring the milk to just below boiling point in order to kill any existing bacteria which could react with the Lactobacillus Bulgaricus. Be careful not to burn it.
Cool the milk down to 110°F (43°C). Without a food thermometer, the easiest way to test for the right temperature is to dip a finger in the milk – if you can comfortably count to 5 then the milk is just right.
Pour the milk to a separate processing container eg a large bowl. Add 1/4 teaspoon of the starter. Mix well – stir well for about 5 minutes. Cover the container loosely with a lid.
Let the milk and culture mix ferment in a warm draft free place overnight.
The fermentation process will continue until the milk reaches pH of 4,7. The fresh yogurt will be set in about 5-6 hours (or overnight). If the place is too cold (50F or less), the process may take longer (10-12 hours). In general, leaving the yogurt sit for longer after it is set, will result in a denser and more acidic yogurt. When your yogurt is ready, move it to the fridge (or a cool place) for storage.
Keep the remaining yogurt starter in a Ziplock bag in the freezer.