Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Ciao, Italia! Здравей България! (Hello Bulgaria!)

Gelato school is over for me. I’ve already done the apprenticeship. What a wonderful time I had in Italy. The people who are attracted to Italian gelato are really friendly and warm. I made some great friends and learned a lot of things I will be putting into practice  soon enough. I made some frankincense gelato with roses and also got to experiment with chocolates, which is something I’ve never done before. There are some incredible things you can do with ganache! So with a certain regret, I left Bologna, and made my way east, to Bulgaria, for the next stage of the trip.

I’m waiting for my accomplice here in Sofia, and then we are off to see a harvest. It’s been a ridiculous amount of time since I’ve been in Eastern Europe--it was still communist back then! The last time I was in Bulgaria it was 1986 and nowadays if I tell anyone that they blanche, because they might not have been born yet! It’s a shock, I know. What I remember most was Plovdiv in the late autumn. It was freezing cold and we were hitchhiking to Istanbul. We had three day transit visas for Bulgaria, obtained that morning from the embassy in Beograd. We weren’t allowed to leave our vehicle, basically, but our vehicle was a Turkish TIR truck and he threw us out into the icy night a few kilometres before Plovdiv. Fortunately it was in a parking lot for a hotel. Unfortunately we had no local money and they guy at the desk didn’t give a damn and wouldn’t let us have a room anyway. Fortunately the guy also didn’t give a damn if we slept on the lobby furniture. I remember we scrounged some leva for coffees once the coffee shop opened at 6 am.
Ganache heaven: lavender, strawberry/jasmine, frankincense

We weren’t allowed to hitchhike, as we were supposed to leave with the truck--but we had to since we were illegally stranded in lightly falling snow on the wrong side of Plovdiv with two days left to get to the Turkish border. We tried to be unobtrusive. But we were obvious in our westernness. Everything about us screamed America! Somehow, luck continued to play nicely with us, but not without drama. We got a ride from two thickset laborers in a work truck, who took us into Plovdiv and let us out behind a building when no one was around. On the way we got stopped by the police! in 1986 Bulgaria these kind men would have been in big trouble for picking us up. But as luck dictated, we were stopped for some completely unrelated reason, and we hunkered down on the console, flattening out like cats, and absolutely still, with a blanket over us. The driver got out and greeted the police and they never came to check the cab of the truck.

Once left in Plovdiv, we had to walk out of town to find our next ride, and so began a Plovdiv-long walk but our luck held--we saw policemen, but their backs were always turned. After an hour or two scuttling along nervously, we got to a suitable spot, stuck out our thumbs, and found our next ride, another Turkish TIR truck, who did in fact take us to Turkey, albeit with more drama, but that is another story. What sticks in my mind about Plovdiv is that there was nothing really for sale. The market, which I had to stick my face into, had something like three bottles of milk and a sausage. The department store had nothing to  dress the windows and so someone had cut out flowers from colored construction paper and these were the display.

It’s a little different these days.

Since we haven’t seen any aromatics yet all I can comment on so far is the food but it’s really great. There is an emphasis on organic and local, like in Italy, and there are plenty of vegetarian and vegan restaurants. I ate mashed stinging nettles with cheese and eggplant (aubergine) and it was one of the best meals of my life. Now that’s saying something.

The bread is fantastic, very Balkan somehow, chewy and strong, delicious. The fruit is wonderful and they sell raspberries in cups at the farmer’s market, to eat as you stroll, with a little fork. And this is in the eggplant region. In my opinion, there are few places that actually understand eggplant. Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, maybe some of these other small countries in the vicinity. Otherwise it’s hit or miss.

The people are ridiculously helpful--the extraordinarily handsome baker gave me a piping hot loaf of his olive bread this morning. The language is very hard and I can say nothing! Strangely, some people speak Spanish. There are all kinds of small artisanal businesses everywhere, like in Italy, and if this sounds strange that I’m commenting on it, then you don’t live in the Gulf.

The overall esthetic is really interesting. It’s not slick at all, although locals have told me that Sofia is changing, for the worse of course. But to a foreigner like me, it’s really cool. Most of the buildings in my neighborhood still look socialist-era and even crumbling a bit in places. The cyrillic alphabet looks very exotic to me and the straightforward Bulgarian communication style is really exciting somehow. The streets are lined with trees and the lindens are in bloom--the fragrance of Sofia is sweet nectar.
Abandoned house in the middle of Sofia

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