The Firebird

Dear Reader, 

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The Firebird – a metaphor of inner strength, a wild dream or a little extravagance, that sees one through dire times. Source: Pinterest.

Imagine a dreary winter, one of several actually, in which strong winds of political change are unsettling decades of certainties, manufacturing plants are being closed down, stores are becoming increasingly empty, food is rationed, and inflation – a term generations of Bulgarians have been largely unfamiliar with – is creeping up, eating at the nation’s savings stashed in jars and under mattresses. 

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Sofia, 1991. There is food crisis and the sharp increase in prices, largely brought about by the USSR’s new political and economic course under Gorbachov and the unwillingness of foreign banks to lend to Bulgaria, virtually empties the stores, in a blow worse than that during the wars, as there at least had been agriculture back then. Source: LostBulgaria Lost Bulgaria is a great online photography archive resource.
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Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), who put the Russian Firebird fairy tales to enchanting music for a ballet that premiered in 1910. Source: Wikipedia.

Many people in towns and cities don’t know where their next meal is coming from, electricity blackouts every two hours lend a weird rhythm to everyday life, a palpable feeling of uneasiness and backwardness can be sensed everywhere.

The performer of one popular song composed at the time tells his imaginary interlocutor he won’t have anymore promises for the future, and would rather have one flower and comfortable shoes, mind you, right now.

Another song wonders where the islands of Malta and Java could be, half-bitterly noting that there are so many means of transportation in the world, and Bulgarians are not on any one of them.

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Sofia, the food crisis of 1991. People are waiting in line to buy rationed bread. Family members used to wait separately and not speak to each other so that they could buy more. That was possible when the ration was per person. For foods such as milk and meat there were ration books, so the number of people waiting was irrelevant. Oddly enough, in the past years I have been reading a lot, and watching documentaries too, on the health benefits of the wartime rations in the UK. Don’t be skeptical, there is  much sense in this. One did have a feeling of scarcity and perhaps hunger all the time, but one also ate small portions of low calorie food that was most of the time also low on fat and animal protein. In addition, one had more active daily pursuits. Small portions, low calorie food and lots of movement is still a recipe for healthy body weight today. God knows, I am not advocating food poverty and malnutrition. I am just suggesting there is perhaps something positive that can be learned from this. Because going all the way to unrestricted abundance in everything, as the West did after WWII, turned out not to be the Holy Grail of health either. Source: LostBulgaria.

There is no indulgence cooking, as meals are made out of whatever’s available.  

At this point, Bulgarians know nothing of fresh pasta, red or beluga lentils, Parmesan cheese, mozzarella and Camembert, lasagna, sushi, smoked salmon, avocados, mangoes, or gourmet oils, tea and coffee.

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Food crisis and inflation in Sofia, 1991. A negative income shock. Tag on the counter says Ham, BGN 50, which is exorbitant, given that until 3-5 years ago the average salary in the country was something like BGN 200. During communism, the consumption of processed and cured meats became a symbol of urban prosperity and people were convinced that was meat they ate, as in quality protein and amino-acids. Many still can’t be persuaded otherwise and shudder in horror when they read of the contents of present day salami. Well, guess what, those of the decades past were just about the same, only the information about it was scarcer. Source: LostBulgaria.
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Sofia, food crisis, February 1991. Meat is available only at the wet markets, priced BGN 30 per kg, but the buyers are few. Source: LostBulgaria

One can very well imagine that people back then, their very survival and belief in the country future threatened, were not much into reading, or publishing, books, or generally catering to loftier spiritual needs outside of their bleak kitchens. In fact, many took to selling their home libraries right on the streets, but as you may well imagine, the buyers for those, though for different reasons than for meat, weren’t that many either. That’s the time when theatres and concert halls went empty, and remained more or less so for nearly a decade. 

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Civilsation. A Personal View by Kenneth Clark. Super deluxe Bulgarian edition of 1977, less than a decade after it was originally published in Britain. I don’t know what possessed the Bulgarian Communist Party to translate this so quickly. Detente? We couldn’t travel,  but he was critical of capitalism, it’s perhaps this.

Indeed, according to Kenneth Clark’s marvelous book, cultural continuity and civilisation depend upon a feeling of stability, meaning people having hope in the future and reasonable assurance that their lives are bound to improve. This is when they feel up to the task of building, stone upon stone, of writing or publishing books, or of creating, or consuming, other cultural products. People experiencing the bloom of civilisation are supposed to feel that they and their communities occupy a certain slot in time and space, which allows them to both look together into the future and glance behind into the past. 

Well, in my humble and unbiased opinion, communism in the 1980s in Bulgaria failed to meet many, if not all, of the above criteria. 

Imagine my surprise then, when, during the many visits that I paid my parents over the past Christmas festivities, I discovered at their home a book I had totally forgotten about. As is usual with things one has not laid one’s eyes on for years, I saw in it levels of meaning I had failed to think of before. 

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Chinese Cuisine, published in 1992. This is perhaps the first book on foreign cuisine published in Bulgaria’s (recent) history. What astonished me, however, is this – whoever had enough spiritual comfort and leisure to think about Chinese cuisine in the face of empty supermarket shelves and rationed staples…?!?

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Price BGN 24.8. What has until recently been a good portion of one’s monthly salary was just the price of a 150-page book in 1992. Authored by two Bulgarians and published in co-operation with the Chinese Embassy to Sofia, the book contains a very interesting foreword, and detailed information on ingredients and cooking techniques, as well as a good-natured admonition that the Chinese cuisine is immense and this book does not begin to cover it. The wannabe gourmet cook is also warned, quite rightly too, that they wouldn’t be able to procure many necessary ingredients and cookware. Very true, but the spirit that went into publishing this is admirable. 

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Something I cooked based on this book – white chicken meat with mushrooms, ginger, garlic and soy sauce. I don’t know how Chinese it was, but I liked it.

Flipping through this book, I read about many things that intensely stimulated my imagination and I thought of the effect they would have had on an adult person in 1992. Or indeed, in 1997, when, on January 10 people, exasperated by hyperinflation, poverty and insecurity, took over the House of Parliament and toppled the government. Twenty years have passed since then, incredible. 

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Something I have had the honour of tasting – White Chrysanthemum tea. The infusion is medium-yellow in colour, and the taste is halfway between chamomile and sunflower. The look is very chic indeed.

For example, the book told me that the Chinese started studying cooking as an art some 1,600 years ago when Western Europe was still mostly living on hunting-gathering. The Byzantine civilisation had a cuisine, and the Arabs too, but not at the advanced level of that in China. 

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Real chrysanthemums, see how well they’ve been preserved! Real beauties.

Cooking, according to the book, is a manual activity requiring both creative thinking and procedure following, as well as patience. These characteristics, the book argues, are very suited to the natural propensities of the Chinese, which can explain the heights to which they had brought the art of preparing food.

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Pork, similar to the chicken. My ability to cook Chinese takes me this far. 🙂 I object to frying and to adding sugar to the sauce, so maybe that’s a reason. Anyway, this is pork, boiled in broth, then very gently fried and spiced with garlic, white pepper, soy sauce and wine. The chicken above was marinated in Cointreau as I have a bottle of this and don’t drink it, and it was very tender. So marinading meat in hard liquor is something I learned from this book.

According to Bill Bryson, whose book I’ve mentioned here, the impatience of the first settlers to America, and their attitude to get things done quickly, aggravated by harsh climate and the need to conquer an immense land by travelling, is at the root of America’s fondness for food on the go. Quick cooking translates into quick eating and ultimately into not paying attention to the food at all, which, according to many present-day nutritionists, is what’s behind America’s obesity problem. The Puritan-inspired hypocritical attitude to pleasure may be another factor, but I digress.

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Remember the Snow Chrysanthemums? They produce a red brew which tastes very different, bolder and fruitier compared with the white ones, so I can’t really say which one I like better. Snow when I’m naughty, white when I’m nice?

The book on Chinese cooking also contains a memorable thought, apparently considered commonsense in China, and this is that everything which walks, crawls, flies or swims is food. I still have to fully come to terms with this. 🙂 

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Da Hong Pao, an oolong tea. That’s for when I’m wearing black and an Oriental perfume. …Dear Reader, this is absolutely gorgeous. It has the robust and sweet, chocolatey flavour of a good cigar. The colour of the brew is a deep tobacco brown-green too.

I found thinking of the following foods and ingredients fascinating: shrimp paste, okra paste, soy paste, beans paste, swallow’s nest (made of seaweed and shrimp bits, not mud), century eggs and duck fed on ginger, among others. What has perplexed me however is this – where does the Chinese penchant for frying come from?  

If you care for more Asian-inspired food, check out my lame first attempt to fry rice, and the offerings at a mountain hotel that I recently visited. 

…After so many words, if I had to summarise the basic idea behind this post, it would be something like this: even in the most dreary times, tender shoots of joie de vivre work their way through the heaviest snowdrifts. (God, I hope I don’t sound like a Miss Lonelyhearts here…!)

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Source: 123RF.com

Or, even more briefly:

the Firebird can cast an enchanted plume just about anywhere,
Boryana

PS. Songs for you: Dreamer by Europe and Богатство, Bogatstvo or Fortune, by Tangra. Both lyrics tell of dreamers looking at the stars and thinking that that’s perhaps more important than rent or other types of ordeal. May sound corny to you, but a mild disregard for reality is a life-saving technique. As far as I remember, Nobel Prize Winner Saul Bellow once said: “In an age of madness, to expect to be untouched by madness is a form of madness. But the pursuit of sanity can be a form of madness too.