The Transience and Seriousness of Pleasure

Dear Reader,

There is perhaps no other word in the human vocabulary that is so fraught with opposing meaning encompassing all the spectrum from sacred to profane.  

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Bulgarian poet of Jewish descent Dora Gabe (1886-1983) had a long life full of pleasure. She had a powerful creative drive, translated from Polish with exquisite mastery, knew good food, and was in rivalry with another Bulgarian female poet over a man for almost her entire life. Source: Click here.

Pleasure. In the late 18th century, the fathers of the American Declaration of Independence made the pursuit of happiness an unalienable human right, while at the same time a remarkably joyous style of architecture and music, rococo, was flourishing in Western Europe, with the aim of giving visible and aural substantiality to pleasure through melodious flow, complex symmetry and elaborate decoration.

While Bach was composing intricate contrapuntal music glorifying God at the northern end of Europe, his contemporary Handel was travelling to take in the air du temps from across the continent, and in Austria, composers like Haydn and Mozart especially were being commissioned to produce music for the well-bred pleasure-seeking activities of the local nobility. Opera, the absurd art of singing what words can’t say, and ornate opera houses looking like churches, were also inventions of the period.

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Union Club was the restaurant of the high and mighty in pre-Communist Sofia and was one of the first places where quality European cuisine was being served.  The rich and depraved characters of the Bulgarian manufacturing industry of the 1930s as describer by Dimitar Dimov’s Tobacco novel, used to dine here. The building does not stand anymore but the high building on its right, on Rakovska Street, still does, as pictured here.  Source: Stara Sofia.

Also in the 18th century, Haute Cuisine was making its way in France, and Marie Antoinette, a young pleasure-seeking Austrian, uttered the notorious phrase “Let them eat cake,” a faux-pas that has helped bring about the Europe that we know today. 

Pleasure is a serious business as it is a powerful force driving human behaviour. Yet its nature is so transient that extra care should go into cultivating the art of experiencing pleasure without the detrimental effects of numbing overexposure. In fact, the essence of and attitude to pleasure have been central to philosophical schools of thought since at least the time of the ancient Greeks. 

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Maria Luiza Blvd in Sofia, 1930s. It looks the same today, only there are more cars and tram wires. In their treatment of Sofia’s pre-1944 buildings, the Bulgarian communists remind me of the barbarians before the year 1,000 who took over parts of the Roman Empire and did not demolish, but neither did anything to preserve, the buildings of the civilisation they’d conquered.

After being held in high regard for at least part of the existence of Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, pleasure was outright banned during the Middle Ages, and was pronounced bad for morals, health and well-being by the later Puritans. The experience of pleasure presupposes leisure and certain material security, which is why the forms of and approaches to pleasure evolved with the increase in trade and the rise in disposable incomes after the French Revolution in Europe. This, interpreted as smugness and staid materialism, made the communists condemn pleasure as a contemptible demonstration of bourgeois excess after 1944 in Bulgaria. 

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A Bulgarian cake. Source: Click here.

While forcing the Bulgarian population into abject culinary boredom for about half a century, the communist party did manage to develop a recipe for an exquisite chocolate cake, the Garaschtorte, which astounds with its lavish use of natural dark chocolate, an ingredient Bulgaria used to buy with US dollars and in very limited quantities.

As I have mentioned in this post, nobody is quite sure of the identity of this recipe’s author, as people interviewed for a comprehensive study on the culinary history of communism in Bulgaria I first talked about here, claim it appeared in either the 1930s or the late 1950s, and if the latter, was developed to cater to the party nomenklatura and well-off cultural elite. This is in line with a trend that originated in the 18th century too, namely to consider pastry – composed of white flour, sugar and chocolate – as food for the chosen few and an embodiment of refinement and luxury. 

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Another Garasch cake, from the Romantika pastry shop.  This is the typical look of this cake. The looks of the cakes pictured above and below this one deviate from the original, which features one circle of green-coloured coarsely grated almonds only.

If I may paraphrase somewhat whimsically Bulgarian exiled journalist, novelist and playwright Georgi Markov, whom I mentioned here, too much Garasch cake surely placed one among the well-off and the elite; not so surely was that elite belonging to the realm of culture as in uninhibited artistic creativity within a totalitarian system. However, despite Markov’s disapproval of the close liaisons between artists and party officials under communism, such liaisons allowed many people to have their cake and eat it, and for several decades too.  

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A piece of Garasch cake I bought for the family to have as dessert. We usually have fruit so this 80g piece cut in four was just enough as a sweet treat. My mum laughed at me when she heard this, but I’m serious. Excess is a sin. Source: Nedelya pastry shop.
During the 1980s, the Garasch cake was sold in a pastry shop close to the deluxe Sheraton Balkan Hotel in the centre of Sofia and according to my mum, it cost BGN 28, an exorbitant amount compared with the average salary of BGN 150 at the time. 

When I was a child, I disliked the Garasch cake because it was dense, as opposed to light and porous, and its pieces were small, between 70 and 100 g each. I did not appreciate the complex dark chocolate taste with a hint of walnuts, and typically opted for larger pieces of layered cakes with ribbons of whipped cream frosting. I must say, the more the better mindset is a rather childish one.

A great Garasch cake recipe in Bulgarian. Blog author claims this is the way it is made at the Sheraton Balkan hotel. The cake looks excellent, but in size and appearance it comes across as more of a Sachertorte variant, rather than a Garasch.

Today I appreciate the Garasch cake exactly for the same reasons I disliked it in the past. It is Bulgarian, and its richness and compactness embody quality and moderation. In this age of overblown and over-sized everything, the Garasch cake comes across as an exemplar of genuineness and sophisticated modesty. Modesty in consuming food of quality I consider a modern-day form of politeness. Also, everything about the Garasch cake summarises the way I believe pleasure should be experienced in general – by anticipation, mindfulness and a deliberate pace.

Boryana

PS. For goodbye, six string sonatas by Gioachino Rossini and the final words of Kenneth Clark’s marvelous TV series on Civilisation I talked about here. I include them because I started talking about behaviour-and attitude-shaping beliefs, and I happen to wholeheartedly uphold those of Kenneth Clark, only I could not have expressed them with such eloquence and nonchalant elegance myself.  

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Ah, my beautiful city. St. Nedelya Church, the Faculty of Theology and part of Vitosha Blvd. I drive past those every day. Source: Pinterest.

“At this point I reveal myself in my true colours as a stick-in-the-mud. I hold a number of beliefs that have been repudiated by the liveliest intellects of our time.

I believe that order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta. On the whole, I believe that knowledge is preferable to ignorance, and I am sure than human sympathy is more valuable than any ideology.

I believe that in spite of recent triumphs of science, men haven’t changed much in the last 2,000 years. And in consequence we must still try to learn from history. History is ourselves.

I also hold one or two beliefs that are difficult to put shortly. For example, I believe in courtesy, the ritual by which we avoid hurting other people’s feelings by satisfying our own egos.

And I think we should remember that we are part of a great whole which, for convenience, we call Nature. All living things are our brothers and sisters. Above all, I believe in the God-given genius of certain individuals and I value a society that makes their existence possible.”

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He may call The Great Whole Nature, but I say, Amen to that!