Have you heard of little Annie? The one with the snow-white apron with a little dog on the front, sewn with a blue thread? The one who got lost, lived many adventures with her animal friends and returned to her desolate grandfather with an apron, full of money, so that she could finally buy him boots?
This Annie, adorably called Ането (Aneto, stress on the A, that is Ane plus the definite article TO for the neutral gender behind), is the main character of one of the all-time favourite children’s books in Bulgaria.
The book was written by Angel Karaliychev (Ангел Каралийчев) in 1938, unfortunately as a way for him to find peace and consolation after his own daughter Anna died, aged two. That was the second child Angel Karaliychev and his wife had lost so they decided to have no more children, in a step leaving one of the greatest Bulgarian children’s authors with no posterity.
On a separate line, Karaliychev’s wife was a theatre actress and at one point was about to choose her professional career over familial happiness. In a fit of desperation, Karaliychev tried to shoot himself, the bullet stuck in his shoulder and he refused to have it taken out. So, he lived for the rest of his life with that bullet in his body. …We Bulgarians are like that – we love and hate big-time, as poet and revolutionary Hristo Botev said.
As to Aneto, the book is part of the school curriculum in the third grade. It is a gem, barely longer than Exupery’s The Little Prince. The language is exquisite, very rich and nuanced, very poetic and gentle.
The illustrations are by prominent artist and political cartoonist Ilia Beshkov (Илия Бешков), a great master of his art. Beshkov was also a very intelligent and sensitive man, whose diary, written during the first and darkest decade of communism in Bulgaria, astounds with its human warmth, humbleness and stoicism.
The text of Aneto is full of culinary references.
- The eternal clay pot of beans is simmering on the fire, used both for heating and as a stove;
- The little garden of Annie’s grandfather is planted with cabbage, peppers and cucumbers and also has pear and apple trees casting fragrant shadows;
- On several occasions, the characters eat roast pumpkin. (You know, there is a short story by prominent Bulgarian writer Elin Pelin (1877-1949) about a man who declined a treat with roast pumpkin and its delicious smell haunted him in his dreams afterwards :));
- After a hard-day’s work, Annie’s grandfather Ivan drinks linden tea;
- Pears growing on trees by the roadside are a favourite treat and sometimes the only food the characters have for the day;
- Grandma Tanaska, a neighbor of little Annie, is cooking sorrel soup (киселец), picking the leafy green from around the village’s watermill; (it is not mentioned in the book, but sorrel soup would be onions, red pepper, sorrel and a handful of rice probably.)
- There is a Bulgarian saying, used in the book: “I will look after you as I would guard a dyed egg” (писано яйце), highlighting the importance of the Easter and the great symbolic value attached to dyed eggs in our country;
- Desperate and tired, after having looked for his lost granddaughter all night, grandpa Ivan goes to the local pub, drinks red wine and confides into the pub owner;
- The bad character of the book, a gypsy (that was before the time of political correctness) catches a duck, lights up a fire in the open, boils the duck in hot water and then eats it with the stale bread he carries in his woolen bag (a cross-body tote actually). He spices up the duck with salt, transported in a tiny wooden bowl with a very tight-fitting lid, so as to prevent the salt from spilling. In the past, the same bowls were used by shepherd boys and field workers to carry salt and “sharena sol,” a traditional Bulgarian spice mixture to accompany their lunch, usually consisting of bread and an onion.
- A small town which Aneto and the gypsy who sort of kidnapped her, visit, has on its main street a bakery, a butcher’s shop, a shop selling boza, a dairy shop and a cafeteria, if you’ll pardon the modern word. Boza is a traditional Bulgarian drink, also popular elsewhere on the Balkans and in central Asia. It is beige in colour, has a thick consistency and is sweet and slightly acidic. It is made from fermented wheat, rye or other grain and has a very low alcoholic content of about 1%. Until very recently, a small banitsa (a cheese-and-egg mixture baked in unleavened leaf pastry) and boza was the classic Bulgarian fast food. Nowadays boza has slightly fallen out of grace, because manufacturers have spoiled it, packing it full of sweeteners and preservatives in an effort to prolong its shelf life. Prepared in the traditional way boza spoils very quickly indeed, in about a day. However, nowadays there are organic boza brands which are supposedly OK.
- Dried prunes are a favourite sweet treat, sold at a village fair;
- A character in the book goes fishing, coats the fish he had caught with flour and fries them in fresh butter.
- Boys steal ripe and cracked melons and watermelons from a field and eat them;
- When Aneto and her grandfather finally reunite, they go to a pub, which is also a restaurant, to celebrate. They order fried eggs.
Aneto is supposed to have been translated into several languages, although I was unable to discover which exactly. But if you wish, dear Reader, look for it and read it to your children or for yourself, it is really a precious little book. I am thankful I rediscovered it now, in my mid-30s.
PS. The rights to all illustrations included in this post belong to Ilia Beshkov’s heirs. The photos were taken from a 2003 edition of Aneto by publishing house PAN.