A la Recherche du Temps Perdu

…or 10 Culinary Childhood Memories I Fondly Cherish

ASMA

Garden, Town of Kalofer, 1948, Oil on Paperboard, Bistra Vinarova ( 1890-1977); София 2013, Държавна агенция Архиви, издателска къща Агато, Пламена Димитрова-Рачева

There are many things one loves about one’s childhood but certain things do stick more than others and, with the passing of years, somehow start being remembered as the quintessence of the entire period.

I have had a predominantly urban childhood so, quite logically, many of my cherished food-related memories are connected with my summer stays with my grandparents in two villages in north-western Bulgaria.

One of them, distanced almost equally between the Romanian and Serbian borders, has offered me a really multi-language experience, as the people there did not speak Bulgarian among themselves, but Wallachian, which is some sort of a Romanian dialect, sometimes mixed with Bulgarian words. We also watched much Serbian television and visited the neighbouring Serbian towns, some 20 km away.

The grandmother of my mom was completely illiterate, had gone to school for three years only and spoke Wallachian exclusively. The couple of words she knew in Bulgarian, she had learned from us…She and her husband also had Romanian names and their illiteracy was by no means exceptional among their peers. Rather, that was the norm.

The many changes in Bulgaria’s political and economic conditions over the 20th century had made it possible for their children, so my grandparents, to study and produce posterity who in turn moved to the capital to study, work and raise a family. It flatters me to think that I am the crowning jewel of this remarkable chain of events. To continue the trend, it would be good if I manage to help my own children outdo me…

So, remembering the things past in no particular order…:

  1. It was mine and my cousin’s duty to buy our daily bread. There were two bakeries, one at the central village square (площада) and another closer to the village outskirts. The number of bread loaves that we bought daily ranged between 2 and 4, and even more in the case of guests…So we drove to one of these bakeries by bicycle, dangling one or two fabric totes on the bicycle handlebar. The bakery saleswoman was dressed in a not very clean blue overcoat (the workers’ uniform at the time), all covered with flour, gave you the bread with her hands, and accepted your money and gave you change without gloves or other hygienic precautions. Now, I don’t want to sound pretentious, but that does strike me, from my current perspective. Once we had the bread in our totes, the best thing was that we could taste it as it was – still warm, with a heavily floured crunchy crust and a divine smell…Each of us frequently ended up eating half a loaf by the time we had reached our house…Sweet and dear memory!
  2. After delivering the bread, another responsibility I and my cousin had toward the family lunch table, was to pick ripe tomatoes and cucumbers and fresh parsley from the garden to make the salad. (Bulgarians always have a large bowl of fresh vegetables at the table, both for lunch and dinner, and not only during summer. A table without a salad – that’s a calamity! Nothing to eat!) I still remember the large, overripe and fragrant tomatoes that fell into your hands almost by themselves, at your lightest touch. The cucumbers were not of the smooth variety (сорт Гергана) but looked more like zucchini and had small thorns on the skin, rather like a cactus, so picking them was kind of challenging. The parsley was a grass growing behind the house, it was also very fragrant when picked. We washed it at the garden sink and my cousin used to browse at the bunch and roll her eyes in satisfaction. Needless to say, the salad, which also had onions, sunflower oil, vinegar and salt, was something which no current supermarket-, organic- or any other variety of vegetables can reproduce. Some do come close though.
  3. When the midday sun was at its hottest, at between, say 14 and 16 pm, we liked to eat fruit at the garden table, comfortably situated under a grapevine archway (асма) and right next to a lemon tree planted in a large wine barrel. The fruit selection included melons, watermelons, pears, peaches and grapes, all from our garden. We used knives to cut the juicy fruit but otherwise ate it with our fingers only, which often resulted in impolite sounds and stains on clothes. Also, the fragrant fruit juices attracted flies, bees and wasps to partake at our snack. The battle for food between mankind and the insect kingdom had on several occasions resulted in stings on hands and arms – annoying and very painful. But slurping at a ripe peach or a piece of watermelon, with its juices trickling up your arm toward the elbow…irreplaceable, as the ad goes!
  4. Next to the parsley behind the house, we had a long row of raspberry bushes. I and my cousin loved very much to walk along the path right next to them, pick raspberries and accommodate them like small caps on our fingertips. When we had picked ten raspberries, so one for each finger, we started eating them, slowly and with great pleasure, right there in the bushes, without washing them. Then we repeated the process again…and again. Even now, I can almost feel the dry and velvety surface of the raspberries as they touched my lips before I tasted their juicy inside…
  5. In late August we used to make lyutenitsa (a kind of a tomato-and-pepper chutney, stress on the YU sound) and close in jars tomato sauce for cooking. These were several awesome days of breath-taking smells and abundance. Tomatoes and red peppers (the dear, sweet chushkas!) were gathered in large plastic buckets and laundry baskets, washed at the garden sink, cleaned from handles and seeds and washed again. Then a large pot of water was brought to boiling on a portable hot plate and the tomatoes were parboiled, in groups of several at a time, in a silicone shopping mesh (мрежа) inserted in the boiling water. This made the peeling of their skins quick and easy. The chushkas for the lyutenitsa were baked on an open fire over a large tin sheet and those for the cooking tomatoes were grinded, together with the peeled tomatoes, raw in a meat grinder. Needless to say how sweet, smokey and autumnal the whole process smelled like. Makes me hungry even to think of it. After all the preparations, the grinded vegetables were poured into a very large flat and square baking dish and were cooked on a 19th century wood-burning fire stove placed almost in the open air, under a roof that secured a 3-4-metre dry area in front of the warehouses where wheat, corn, dried corn leaves and stalks and straw were kept (now that’s called патул in Wallachian!). I and my cousin were responsible for stirring this mouth-watering-smelling, thick and bubbly mixture until ready. The same way we also stirred bubbly fruit mixtures when we made jams, mostly strawberry and raspberry…The intense dry heat and the smell, mixed with sounds from the hen-pen, rooster crows and dove coos …– such bliss and tranquility that it makes my heart ache.
  6. Speaking of open-fire adventures, my father is a chemist and at one time was really passionate about distilling his own grape rakia (brandy, THE indigenous Bulgarian drink!) That was done by hiring the village rakia distillation equipment (казан, consisting of two copper pots connected with tubes and valves), putting your fruit on one side, placing a bucket on the other and waiting for the distilled alcohol to trickle down. You occasionally take the bucket, measure its alcohol content with an alcohol meter and set aside the stronger first blood which is undrinkable. I remember the distillation process taking about 24 hours during which time there were constantly people around that copper казан, maintaining the fire and tending to the distillation process. It was great fun being there and taking. Your clothes, skin and hair smelled of fire smoke for days after that, but what of it, it was still awesome. Another awesome thing was that my father used to colour and scent his rakia with bits of aromatic woods he inserted directly in the bottles. That made the bottles look like magic potions prepared by some evil sorcerer….
  7. Chushkas are a staple of the Bulgarian national cuisine and baked chushkas are a living legend. I intend to dedicate a separate post to them and the ridiculous electrical appliance, a Bulgarian invention mind you, which was commonly used to bake them. For now I am just saying that baking chushkas involved putting between one and three chushkas into the appliance, depending on its capacity, and waiting for them to bake, meaning their skin to become dark and raise slightly above the chushka itself, so that you can take it between your fingers and peel it off. While baking, chushkas release small amounts of water which results in a specific popping sound…awesome. The baked and unpeeled chushkas were stored either in a large covered pot or a plastic laundry basked covered with a newspaper… Baking chushkas was a great time to read, I cannot recall how many books I’ve read throughout my chushka-baking career…
  8. Another food-related activity I found very stimulating to reading and mind-improvement was garden watering. You take a long hose, insert one end into the garden sink and put the other in the concave strip of land lying between two rows of planted something – chushkas, tomatoes, cabbage, cucumbers…anything. You let the water flow, take a tiny chair and sit yourself in front of the watered plants, watching like a hawk for the concave strip of land to fill with water without overflowing, so that you can remove the hose to the next strip…Watching like a hawk is an exaggeration really, I mostly read and kept an eye on the hose with my peripheral sight…The cool thing was that you needed to water plants in the late afternoon only, so that the sun does not burn their wetted leaves. So while siting, you could also enjoy the sunset and the progressing evening, even hear the early song of the crickets. The latter actually dominated the aural background, as this hour was almost midnight for the hens and roosters and they had already been long asleep on their horizontal wooden poles in the pen. A time to shut up and dream.
  9. Speaking of hens, I loved very much picking carrots from the ground and feeding the hens with the green foliage that sticks above the soil before the carrots are harvested. The hen pen was surrounded by a chain link fence and I would insert the grass through the diamond-shaped holes. This drove the hens crazy, they’d run toward the grass, clucking and literally jumping on top of each other’s backs to get a bite. Silly birds! I’d sometimes insert the carrot grass through a higher hole and this made the hens jump like lions to get it…Oh, how I was laughing…!
  10. Last, but not least, in my other village, there was a large cherry tree on which I loved to climb and eat cherries. I also habitually took a fabric tote with me to fill for the others (as in, love thy neighbour), but I must confess that I ate way more than I put in the tote. However, at the end the tote somehow ended up full, which may be used to gauge the amount of cherries that I had devoured in the process. I pride myself for having never fallen from that tree. Separately, in that same village, my paternal grandmother had the habit of making us eat our lunch under an apple tree, seated on really tiny three-legged wooden stools around a wooden table, raising some 40 cm above the ground…That was a Turkish-style table called софра, sofra, stress on the final A, which you could also use to roll pastry sheets for banitsa. I adored that table. My grandmother used to cook with much onion and I still fondly recall her hot potato dishes…May she rest in peace.

***

Some of these episodes, like the watering and the jam/lyutenitsa making, can be reproduced for my children, only the fruit and vegetables will be bought from the marketplace or other people’s gardens at best. Others are, however, irreplaceable because the people and the point in time that made them possible, have long slipped into eternity. But the memory remains, as Metallica sing…