A Bulgarian Breakfast

Dear Reader,

Are you a breakfasting type? Yes?

And what do you take as your first meal of the day? A continental breakfast or a full-English? Or perhaps something hipster-style like parsley-and-avocado smoothie, orange chia jelly or cashews creamed with coconut milk? 🙂

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Coffee! Regardless of the breakfast foods, what would the morning hour be without it? Though I never learned to appreciate the French Press coffee. It is very fragrant but has no body at all. A black espresso ristretto for me, thank you. But the plunger pot does look chick, doesn’t it? 🙂

Truthful to the most famous gastrosophic conclusion of the 19th-century – Der Mensch ist was er isst (Man is what he eats), belonging to German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, your breakfast choice would to an extent define you by revealing some of your values and attitudes – to food and to yourself, among others.

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I had a handyman in the house recently – the same one who razed our current flat almost to the ground and rebuilt it slightly more than a year ago. He has become a friend and this is the afternoon coffee that I served him, accompanied by dark chocolate and rose- and walnut-flavoured Turkish delight. He hates my coffee because it is too strong for him and I am unable to brew weak coffee, so I offer him hot water in a jug for him to dilute the beverage as much as he wishes, away from my horrified eyes. 🙂

However, whether you choose to have breakfast or opt for enjoying the luxury of going without, remember that the mere possibility of such a choice is a cultural and (national as well as personal) wealth-related attainment that is less than a century old. At least in Bulgaria.

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The morning peppermint tisane I am currently having. 🙂 Ever since I started the intermittent fasting, I have switched to tisanes in the morning, as I find coffee too harsh on an empty stomach. I have moved coffee drinking to after each meal apart from dinner, which has reduced my daily coffees to two, on most days anyway. So one evolves. When I partake at breakfast buffets in hotels, I find that most Bulgarians opt for herbal tisanes and milk-based drinks, while foreigners have black tea. Despite our long-time affiliation with the tea-drinking Ottomans and the USSR, Bulgarians never really became tea drinkers. According to this VERY informative British food documentary, coffee came to England first, in the beginning of the 17th century, while tea followed several decades later. Tea was eventually adopted as a home drink, not the least because it was easier to prepare.

While all of the options listed at the beginning of the post are available and widely enjoyed in my country today, the time when our breakfast menu was far more moderate – or non-existent at all – is very much in the living memory of middle-aged Bulgarians, my parents included. 

Home-baked bread. Bread, or products from flour, are a breakfast staple for Bulgarians.
Home-baked bread. Bread, or products from flour, are a breakfast staple for Bulgarians.
Home-made yogurt - another breakfasting staple around here. :)
Home-made yogurt – another breakfasting staple around here. 🙂

Although my country does not have a typical national breakfast known by a certain name, older generations of Bulgarians had developed a notion of what typical breakfast foods are. Based on the (agri)cultural specifics of our land, these were mostly centred on the following holy trinity of ingredients: flour, milk/cheese and eggs. 

Typical Bulgarian breakfast number one - dough balls shaped as patties and fried in oil. They are called mekitsi, accent on the first I, and are gorgeous. The mekitsi can be served either sprinkled with powdered sugar, or be complemented with cheese, jam or honey. A more modern addition which I find disgusting is chocolate spread. The typical drink is yogurt thinned with water. My mom fried these on Sunday especially for me to photograph. :) Although you have to knead the dough and fry it, the mekitsi are actually quick to prepare as the dough does not have to rise. For the record, the restaurant at my office building, which I quite impolitely call a canteen, offer mekitsi for breakfast.
Typical Bulgarian breakfast number one – dough balls shaped as patties and fried in oil. They are called mekitsi, accent on the first I, and are gorgeous. The mekitsi can be served either sprinkled with powdered sugar, or be complemented with cheese, jam or honey. A more modern addition which I dislike is chocolate spread. The typical drink is yogurt thinned with water. My Mom fried these on Sunday especially for me to photograph. 🙂 Although you have to knead the dough and fry it, the mekitsi are actually very quick to prepare as the dough does not have to rise. For the record, the restaurant at my office building, which I quite impolitely call a canteen, offers mekitsi for breakfast. Would you like me to post a step-by-step recipe one of these days? Yes? My kids would be very happy to consume the outcome. 🙂

So the mekitsi…:) My Mom tells me this is the most typical breakfast she remembers from her childhood. My grandparents had wheat fields, hence the flour; and reared sheep from which they obtained milk and cheese. 

Still according to my Mom, another typical breakfast of the past, which has fallen out of grace today is the popara, a sop of bread and milk; or of bread, cheese, sugar and water; or of kozunak (the Easter bread), milk and ridiculous amounts of sugar. 🙂 In her Wallachian village, the latter was served to children as a special treat around Easter and in the summer, on the holiday of the village’s patron saint. 

In the same time, both my Mom and Dad tell me, the mekitsi were a novelty that appeared during their childhood, so in the 1960s. According to them, my both pairs of grand- and great grand-parents used to breakfast on cornmeal boiled with water, of varying density and with or without butter, according to availability. So something like the Italian polenta, in Bulgarian called katchamak, or mamaliga, after the Romanian word that has penetrated the parlance of the Wallachian village :).  

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Another typical dish – bread slices fried in egg, and served with yogurt, cheese, jam and honey. Popular in the past and still popular today. I enjoy making them for the children, as they are very active and need much energy, but otherwise I don’t touch them. 🙂 I put on my denim hot pants as an antidote. 😛
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Breakfast is served. 🙂

As proof that the notion of breakfast foods appeared in Bulgaria around the middle of the 20th century, I can show you a very quaint cookbook of 1870, which was actually Bulgaria’s first, authored by poet and bonvivant Petko Slaveykov (1827-1895).

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Today the book is known as The Cookbook of Grandpa Slaveykov. The table of contents is several pages long, so quite hard to paste here, but it contains recipes, written in a very funny and old-fashioned language, for cooked dishes only, such as kebaps, stews, soups, meatballs and baked meat and vegetables. Further down we have dough and sweet dishes, khadaiffs and helvas (as separate chapters! :)), vegetable dishes, pilafs and oshafs, which are compotes or soups of dried fruit. Moreover, the book offers recipes on “Jams and syrups to be taken before the coffee,” various sausages and drinks. The drinks chapter is quite inspirational in that it contains romantic options unheard of today, such as carnation, lemon, orange or lemon balm rakia, as well as rakia spiced up with anise and myrrh resins and incense. Pretty cool, hah? I have about a litre of good home-made rakia, I may try to produce boutique quantity of one of above! 🙂

Various books on the history of Sofia and related topics tell me that in the first half of the 20th century, people typically breakfasted on stale bread and cheese or onions, depending on availability and whether it was Lent or not. An option my parents remember is bread slices with pork lard spread on top and sprinkled either with powdered sugar or with sharena salt. 🙂

Funnily, the existence of this bread-and-lard breakfast has at one time also been supported by Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borissov, who, in an obvious PR effort, chose to share with the general public the breakfast menu of his childhood.

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This is the Bulgarian Big Mac – broiled bread slices with minced meat. 🙂 They are delicious and again – served with a herbal tisane or an ayran. These, known under the enchanting name of Princess Sandwiches, are Bulgarian street, or fast food, as well. To prepare, you just buy minced meat, spread it on top of the bread, add spices like ground black pepper, chubritsa or cumin, and broil to readiness. You can broil bread with Bulgarian yellow cheese in pretty much the same way.
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And we cannot go without the exquisite banitsa! I would be curious to count how many unleavened pastry sheet brands are available at hypermarkets in Sofia…Knowing how popular and beloved banitsa is, there must surely be tens of them! 🙂
Well-risen banitsa, baked a long time ago.
Well-risen banitsa, baked a long time ago. I still have and use the baking dish, which I took from the Wallachian village. It had been bought decades ago but had never been used, kept as dowry or something… 🙂

Another breakfast option, popular both today and in the past mostly as street food, is the gevrek, a round piece of boiled leavened dough, which is delicious, but quite hard to chew. 

Boiled gevreks. There are softer options too, baked in an oven and sprinkled with sesame or poppy seeds. Source: Click here.
Boiled gevreks. There are softer options too, baked in an oven and sprinkled with sesame or poppy seeds. Source: Click here.

While I was in Vratsa, a town in north-western Bulgaria, I came across a very funny warning a central street bakery had chosen to issue:

Tag says: We DO NOT sell SOFT gevreks. :)
Note says: We DO NOT sell SOFT gevreks. 🙂 I guess this evidence of salesperson exasperation was the result of the high demand for softer dough products, expressed by Vratsa’s ageing population.

After the 1960s, bread, butter and jam or honey were becoming increasingly popular at breakfast. Also after the 1960s, meaning after the communist regime had published several of its highly educational cook books, had cakes, sweet breads and other dough-and batter- based foods become more widely adopted among the Bulgarian peasantry as breakfast or special-occasion foods, depending on the richness of their ingredients.

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An awesome little cook booklet published by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in 1960. Title is: Course Materials on Raising the Everyday Life Culture of Families. It contains scientific information on food as well as recipes – not just as lists of ingredients but as theory too. Like, stews are prepared this way, which differentiates them from kebaps which are prepared that way…The booklet is actually quite informative. Looks like the new authorities had taken their task of culturing the peasantry pretty seriously. 🙂

For example, a cookbook on the nutrition of children aged between 3 and 6, published in 1983, recommends that breakfast be offered at between 08.10 and 08.40 AM, which obviously presumes the child gets up at 8, washes and hits the table at 08.10 sharp :))

The suggested foods include milk and milk products, butter, honey, jams, rosehip tea and dough foods with a cheese/egg or meat filling.

Book cover.
Book cover.

Book What to cook when Mommy’s Away, which I presented here, lists the following as recommended breakfast menu for the family: a warm drink (tea, milk or melange), honey, jam or marmelade, butter, cured meats, cheese, boiled eggs, tomatoes, fruit juices, nectars, bread, dough-based foods and sandwiches, among others!…

Breakfast and lunch, if you have both, are 4-5 hours apart for God’s sake! One would surely survive on a much smaller ration. But anyway, that was the regime wanting to show off abundance, at least on paper. 🙂

It may be that my family were commoner folks than the average people these books addressed, because I have never had neither such an overflowing table nor tomatoes and boiled eggs at breakfast until I started watching my weight as a teen. Before that I used to simply have a slice or two of bread with butter and jam or honey, or a cheese sandwich with no drink, as I didn’t like drinking while eating.

I have always wondered whoever ate all the food that these books listed at breakfast. And whoever laid a special table for breakfast too, as my family, just like everybody I knew, had our meals in the kitchen, where the table was never completely free of non-breakfast related things. 

To complicate matters further, I compared my family’s breakfast foods and ways to what I encountered in popular children’s books at the time and wondered even more. 

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This is the cover of one of my favourite childhood books – Three Little Friends by Estonian writer Eno Raud (1928-1996). This was also one of my favourite books for reading while eating. The eating suitable for reading was in the afternoon and typically consisted of a huge bowl of yogurt mixed with jam, diced fruit or a compote. Cherry and raspberry compotes rocked with this! 🙂
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The Lady in Purple lives alone and has kidnapped one of the Three Little Friends to look after him as a pet. She cooks for him and tries to cheer him up with walks in the park, but the Little Friend resents his freedom being taken away. Here the two are eating pancakes. The lady offers to fill the pancakes with wild berry or strawberry jam, but the Little Friend dejectedly refuses, so the lady sprinkles his pancakes with powdered sugar. This was more in line with breakfast, as it was happening in my home. And my Mom folds pancakes in the same way. I still think of pancakes being just rolled with their ends not folded to the centre, as not done properly. 🙂 However, the welcome breakfast the Lady in Purple cooks for the Little Friend is so sumptuous, I remember dreaming I could have a similar one too. It included a steaming coffee jug and boiled eggs covered with embroidered handkerchiefs, a selection of white, dark and half-half bread, a plate of cured meats, ham and yellow cheese and also fresh milk, butter, cream, cottage cheese and, surprisingly, grated carrots. SOME breakfast, what do you say?
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Something very popular in my childhood which is still served as lunch dessert in many school canteens – macaroni baked in milk, eggs, sugar and cheese. In Bulgarian, this is simply called Oven-Baked Macaroni. It was also popular as morning breakfast or afternoon snack.
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A really hearty breakfast option 🙂 These are rye bread slices sprinkled with olive oil on the inside; complemented with tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, oregano and ground black pepper and baked in a ribbed skillet. Not really typical or anything, but awesome!
Open-faced sandwiches with olive oil, tomatoes, fresh basil and parmiggiano. Bruschetti or something. :)
Open-faced sandwiches with olive oil, tomatoes, fresh basil and parmiggiano. Bruschetti or something. 🙂
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A meal more in line with my current nutrition ideas. According to my fitness and nutrition instructor, this is breakfast, meaning the first meal of the day, regardless of the hour. Oftentimes I have this as office lunch, which still is the first meal of the day but I call it lunch, because of the hour. 🙂 Anyway, these are raw vegetables, or crudites to sound more chic, sprinkled with fresh lemon juice to prevent them from darkening. Other vegetable options include lightly steamed broccoli and/or cauliflower florets. The bowl contains one or two boiled eggs mashed with 50g of hard white cheese, 30g of pure butter and ground black pepper. This tastes great, accompanied by a peppermint tisane, and is very filling. Also, it is slow to eat, so is emotionally fulfilling too. 🙂

As you see, breakfast as a meal has developed by leaps and bounds in Bulgaria over the past 150 years. 

While the idea of breakfast, with its mood, tastes, smells and the tinkling of dishes and cutlery, has always inspired and uplifted me, I have found that breakfasting on the above carb-rich foods makes me feel unhappy and guilty once their gorgeous taste and the sugar rush have subsided. 

So, as I have already shared, these days I have decided to go without, in an effort to savour more fully the next meal of the day – lunch. I have enough strength to resist mekitsi and, deep down, I have vowed to never have them blunt the epic taste of these:

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I have finally managed to find fish that I have not broiled with lemon! 🙂
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These are peppers stuffed with minced meat and rice, which my Mom cooked today for my grandfather, who is 91 and lives alone. Apart from this being awfully kind, the peppers also look awfully good, don’t they? 🙂

A final suggestion – regardless of what and when you’re putting at your table – don’t forget to also put on form-fitting clothes, nice cutlery and flowers, as these have been empirically proven as hugely effective weapons against pigging out. Man is what (and how) he eats after all, remember? 🙂

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Chicken breast cooked in fresh tomatoes, spinach and olives, accompanied by a spinach-avocado-and-carrot salad. I have obviously had spinach to use up. 🙂
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As musical accompaniment to your elegant eating, of mekitsi or other, please accept Mikhail Glinka’s piano music, as lovely as lace and hydrangeas. 🙂