The Way We Eat Now

Dear Reader,

It’s been a long time since we’ve last talked about food, but it’s not in the least because I haven’t been thinking about it. On the contrary, food, and more specifically – how to achieve more nutrition with less of it – is high on my mind every day, ranking close to paramount issues such as where to park the car when I go to work in the morning, or what did I forget to buy when I shopped for dinner. (I do make lists, it’s just that my thought runs faster than my ability to catch it on paper. :))

Office lunch, home lunch. Canned or home-baked. I like simplicity so I have thought of several staple dishes that I rotate on a weekly basis. When I was a kid, I remember reproaching my mom exactly for that. So it’s ironic that I ended up doing the same. Pictured is canned salmon, boiled buckwheat (30 g raw), baby spinach as much as you can take, and capers and a splash of mustard for luxury.

If you were wondering about the post title, it’s a reference to the 1875 novel The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope, which has been on my Kindle for probably five years now, and is still patiently awaiting my attention. When I got the Kindle initially, I was very keen on it, but with time my enthusiasm cooled down, as I found I still preferred paper books, because I like to underline and write in them, and I like to touch them, and I adore the smell of ink and paper too.

A delicious book I am currently reading, mostly in the park. The Family Stage – An Anthropological History of Family Eating in Modern Bulgaria. Modern meaning my favourite period of after the Liberation and before the advent of communism. Author is Rayna Gavrilova, a university professor in cultural studies, and publisher is the St. Kliment Ohrisdki University Publishing House.

I recently read in a paper the opinion of prominent Bulgarian media and journalism expert and national media regulator chairman Georgi Lozanov, who claimed reading paper books will not die out because of its deeply appealing eroticism mind you, which consisted exactly in this engagement of the senses I told you about. I hadn’t quite thought of calling this erotic, but if he insists…I won’t contradict the experts.

Anyway, what I wanted to talk about today, is an article in one of the few passable Bulgarian papers, Capital weekly, which takes a look at the fridges of five Bulgarian households to enlist the five major trends shaping the food consumption habits of Bulgarians over the years between 2004 and 2015.

Ouch, this does look bare, doesn’t it. It’s my fridge, I like to keep is as lean as possible, so that I can see what is in there and not have food spoiled because I’ve forgotten it. You should see my mom’s fridge, it’s the complete opposite. So she laughs at mine and I laugh at hers. But otherwise, it contains eggs, sesame tahini, cheese curd, Bulgarian yellow and white cheese, yogurt, canned bean leftovers, a jar of rose petal jam, bananas and cooked lentils in a pot. The two drawers that are not seen below are for fresh fruit and vegetables. The fridge has a tiny freezer compartment at the top. I searched hard to find one like this, as modern fridges tend to have larger freezer compartments at the bottom, to store all the frozen pizzas you might need. Well, I don’t freeze anything except the occasional bag of fresh frozen berries, parsley and dill.

As always with such cross-sectional observations, I could draw the same conclusions without applying the scientific approach the paper claims to have used, and of course, some, or about half, of the observations, did not apply to me. 🙂

The article claims that the consumption of basically every food group sold in the average supermarket, including alcohol, has increased, with the exception of cigarettes and potatoes, whose consumption has declined, and the special case of bread, where consumption has increased, but has largely shifted towards artisanal sourdough and other, perceived as healthier, varieties. Given that population has generally decreased over the period, and that the increasing number of pensioners do not exactly boast very high purchasing power, I conclude that working Bulgarians have simply started buying and eating more. 

Office treats from artisanal bakeries, brought by me and another co-worker. My daughter had a name day, so that was my reason. 🙂 But sitting at a desk all day opens up one hell of an appetite and resisting is a spiritual feat in its own right.

So, according to Capital, the five trends are:

Predictably, 1. the growing popularity of healthy eating amid 2. efforts to cut middle men and source food directly from 3. the increasingly fewer domestic farmers. Fair enough. After the unstable pre-industrial food supply, where a single hailstorm could wipe out your many months of work, and the tampered-with industrial foods that fed Bulgaria’s mainly farming population after forcing it out of villages to play proletariat in the rapidly expanding cities, Bulgarians want to retrieve what they have lost in terms of food simplicity, genuineness and sustainability. I can totally relate to that and in fact tend to shop for bread and dairy from small shops located close to home and selling boutique brands of domestically-made products. People I know have established personal contacts with farmers or have joined cooperatives to order together from farms and collect their orders by previous appointment, but I am not as organic as that. Such constant interaction and endless arrangements with strangers exhaust me so I avoid them like the plague.

Haha, I like to think this is an ordered drawer. 🙂 So it’s rolled oats, buckwheat, three types of rice, lentils, beans, bulgur, raw crushed cocoa beans, coconut flakes, walnuts, hazelnuts, chia seeds in a jar, and a small packet of sugar, as I’ve recently made (sweet) macaroni and cheese for the children.

In line with all of the above, item 4. – rising demand for premium-segment products, alongside price-driven mass tastes. It’s a developing country we’re talking about, so no big surprises there.

Again, I do think this is ordered. 🙂 Five packages of filter or loose herbal tea (peppermint, linden, chamomile and two mixed), Brazil nuts, sesame seeds, spices (opened packages to the left, unopened to the right), homemade Bulgarian mixed spice in a wooden container, and some Roobars for emergencies. Roobars are great Bulgarian-made organic-raw-vegan bars and this variety – chia seeds, dates, coconut and lemon – is my favourite.

Lastly, 5. – a marked nostalgia for communist-time food products, perceived as cleaner and more authentic compared to their present-day counterparts. Aha! This feeling, expertly exploited by dairy, processed meat and beer brewing companies, whose products all claim to possess the taste of those times, is one big illusion, or delusion, which I most decidedly disagree with.

If there was anything genuine about the food in those times, it was the result of the regime’s technological backwardness, which failed to take advantage of the newest food processing technologies because it could not afford to import them, both financially and ideologically, as these technologies, quite uncomfortably, were mostly developed by the Western capitalist world.

Spice drawer – pink Himalayan salt, red pepper, and other most-used spices, a bottle of sunflower oil (obtained as rent from the agriculture company working our land in the Wallachian village :)), two bottles of olive oil and apple vinegar.

So the regime used to send out business delegations with the secret mission to somehow steal know-how and (illegally) replicate the technology at home, without the state having to pay for it and without making it known it was in fact an enemy infiltration. Many emblematic confectionery products of the times were born in this way.

Those most-used spices, stored in almost decade-old jars of baby food, are chubritsa or savory, spearmint, cumin, basil and oregano. I like to keep the jars in exactly the same order at all times, so that I know which is which without looking at the labels.

Another issue was that the USSR had the ultimate say on which country produces, exports and imports what and in what quantities. In line with this, Bulgaria received low-quality coffee from Vietnam and India, very suspicious industrial fat mixtures from the USSR to use in the mass confectionery products, and also very limited quantities of cocoa mass and powder, that created real problems to the five-year plans for domestic candy manufacturing, aimed at satisfying the increasingly sweet tooth of the population. Thus, the emblematic children’s chocolate bar Kuma Lisa (meaning Auntie Fox or something) was made with a high content of rosehip puree to make up for the insufficiently available cocoa. No wonder the present-day product, discontinued by now, has failed to replicate its taste.

Picture shows a single piece, weighing about 80 g, of the 2-kg chocolate bar our graphic designer brought us when she got back from her summer holiday. The hand holding the piece belongs to our junior graphic designer though. I say, these two girls have the coolest nails!

The books on communist lifestyle and whatnot that I own predict that the rapid paces of the technological progress would, in a few years’ time, be able to produce foodstuffs out of petroleum products (like margarine), thus resolving all possible food supply problems blocking mankind’s way to the bright future. Sounds delicious and healthy, don’t you agree?

So, if any food of those times was unadulterated, it was rather a result of the regime’s shortcomings, and not something authorities had systematically pursued. All those missing the genuine foods of yore – you were simply misinformed and are actually nostalgic about your youth or childhood, so get a grip.

Typical Bulgarian breakfast with a modern twist – homemade banitsa and organic rye boza. I resent those Brits saying it tasted like glue though. Do they mean they had actually tasted glue and know what it tastes like? However, consistency may be a bit like wallpaper glue, I have to admit that.

Now my list of food-related things that have changed over the past decade:

  • The advent of freshly-squeezed fruit juices and smoothies, sold at every corner, and the growing popularity of organic/vegan/raw and protein bars. – These are the new fast foods, as cunning as the devil, as they so successfully pose as super healthy and yet are mostly sugar.
If you want fruit, eat it whole, as God made it. Berries are the most fitness-friendly fruit varieties, as they contain the lowest amount of sugar per 100 g.
  • The advent of bread-baking machines – an ingenious way to make you spend money to buy one, buy all kinds of expensive flour mixes, clutter your kitchen and on top of that overeat, because of all the delicious bread you’ve been baking. A brand new, slim-fit, healthy flour mix may be just what the doctor’s ordered.
Popara, or bread sop, for the children at the seaside villa – an excellent way to use up stale bread. Contains bread, cheese, butter, sugar and hot water. If you buy artisanal bread, you’ll have stale bread on your hands at almost all times, as artisanal bread grows hard overnight, unlike industrial bread, which develops fungi but remains soft.
  • The advent of aggressively-named food-robots containing zillion parts, like the NutriBullet. Costs an arm and a leg, is a nuisance to store, and a nightmare to clean. Used to turn good old whole fruit and vegetables, packed with fiber, into sugar-heavy drinks or anyway into liquid calories your brain does not register as food. So you drink the juice and reach for a slice of the delicious healthy bread that you baked yesterday.
So instead of creating odd mixtures in a food robot, try eating the potential ingredients separately – takes longer, and all the chewing will make you satisfied with less.
  • The advent of culinary reality shows, bearded hipster men cooking, and supermarket-sponsored cookbooks. So apart from football and politics, everybody is now expert on cooking too.
Including an acquaintance of mine, who has just started mixing and packaging muesli and nuts under I ordered this for the office and I have to say, it is awesome. Can totally be eaten out of the box, without water or milk, as I chose a variety containing seeds only, no oats.
Gluten-Free Paleo – primal  energy for concrete-jungle warriors. Sounds like it was made for me. 🙂 Contains 30% cocoa flakes, 15% sunflower seeds, 12% chopped almonds and cashew nuts each, 10% almonds and pumpkin seeds each, 5% flaxseed, and 2% blueberries, cranberries and strawberries each. Try making that, it is really delicious. 30g, or about a handful, is my portion size.
  • The mass penetration of palm oil in dairy products, for the sake of bringing their price down to satisfy the mass taste, while often failing to reflect the ingredient substitution on the label. I can’t quite blame people for buying, but politicians and manufacturers – it’s a shame. An interesting observation with regard to cheese – Bulgarians firmly stick to their one type of cheese and yellow cheese, in spite of the huge variety of imported cheese available on the market. We try them, we even love them, we use them in sandwiches and salads, according to the latest fashions, but cook our favourite banitsas and other cheese-based dishes with our traditional types only, as the others simply won’t do. That’s cheese patriotism for you, which even the most patriotically unconscious Bulgarians practice.
This is Bulgarian white cheese that I bought from a seaside supermarket. It was obviously made for export to Turkey, and has been certified as halal.
I swear that until seeing this, I have never thought of whether or not Bulgaria had a halal certification office. I shared this with co-workers and they told me the same. Bulgarian Muslims shop at the common supermarkets, just like everybody else, and the inscription COW’S MILK CHEESE is enough for them to consider it acceptable. Really. Nothing sold in mainstream Bulgarian shops has a halal or kosher or any other similar inscription on the package. And there are Turkish and Arabic meat shops where the meat is presumably halal, but this somehow goes without saying and is not advertised at the shop’s entrance. Non-Muslims buy meat from these stores too, because we trust them. I forgot to insert this in the Three Things I Love About Bulgaria post, but I should have. We, Orthodox, Muslim, Jewish, Armenian, Catholic, live peacefully together, without erecting religious walls between ourselves. This is something very valuable to preserve  but unfortunately, there are foreign-sponsored organisations trying to break that. We’ll see.

Just like the essence of the whole is reflected in its parts, the cheese patriotism might be the individual-level manifestation of the base and superstructure composition of human society, as per the Marx gospel. If you have no idea what I’m taking about, that’s good. It means you’re young and ideologically uninhibited.