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Bulgaria - Food and Drink
In Bulgaria, there are two different kinds of domestic cheese. There's a yellow-colored Kashkaval (Кашкавал), which is more or less similar to the Dutch Gouda, and the more popular white Sirene (Сирене), which is a kind of Feta cheese, quite similar to Greek Feta in taste. It is originally made from sheep’s milk and it can be also made of cows’ or goats’ milk, or a mixture. "Sirene" is also the general word for "cheese" in Bulgarian, so it is used to refer to foreign cheeses as well. The word Kashkaval is derived from Caciocavallo, an Italian provolone-style cheese.
The traditional Bulgarian yoghurt contains Lactobacilicus Bulgaricus, a bacterium which serves as the basis for "plain" yoghurts in other countries. Normally, it is made from cows’ or sheeps’ milk, but it can also be made from buffalo milk, with a remarkably stronger taste. As the favourite around the country, Bulgarian yoghurt is also an important ingredient in many dishes. The most famous one is Tarator (Таратор), which is a cold soup made from yoghurt, water and cucumbers. A drink called "Ayrian" is a salty yoghurt-water mixture that is also very popular in the country.
Traditional bakeries in Bulgaria offer different pastry products. Banitsa and mekitsa are the most common. Pizza, dyuner (Döner) or hamburgers can be also found, and there are many local and international fast food chains as well.
Bulgaria has more than six hundred mineral water springs around the country, so the quality of Bulgarian traditional drinks is considered to be high. A yogurt called "ayrian" and millet ale called "boza" are two traditional non-alcoholic beverages in the Balkans.
A strong (40% vol) and clear grape brandy, called rakia (Ракия), is the Bulgarian national drink and is served neat, usually at the beginning of a meal with salads. In some smaller towns, some families still distill their homemade rakia and it is then usually much stronger, starting at 50% vol. Another popular drink is Mastika (Мастика) (47% vol). It is similar to Greek Ouzo and Turkish Raki.
Bulgaria has several well known local wine varietals. These include Melnik, Mavrud, Pamid, Gamza (Гъмза) (red dry), Kadarka (red sweet) and Keratsuda (white dry). Local lagers like Zagorka, Kamenitza and Shumensko are among the best when it comes to inexpensive and widely available drinks.
Bulgarian food is quite similar to the food served in Greece and Turkey in many ways. It mostly includes tomato, cucumber and cheese salad (shopska salad), moussaka (musaka), filo pastries (byurek) and stuffed vine leaves (sarmi). However, there are important differences, such as using sunflower oil instead of olive oil for cooking and flavouring. In the regions that are far from the Black Sea, there is less emphasis on fish dishes and the cuisine there relies more on vegetables and fruit. The meal often begins with a salad or the traditional meze (appetizers). Both are usually accompanied by a glass of rakiya.
Many of the Bulgarian traditional dishes feature yoghurt, cheese, spices and herbs. Chubritsa is a herb similar to oregano and it mostly appears dried and crumbled in many soups, stews and even some types of bread. Dill-scented tarator cold soup is the the most common during the summer. There are also many dishes that don't include meat, such as the "monastery-style" bean soup of white kidney beans and vegetables. Bulgarians love stuffed vegetable dishes and it can be said that peppers are their favourite. Usually baked in summer, peppers are deep-fried and filled with a mixture of cheese and eggs. Carp caught in the rivers of Bulgaria, mostly in the Danube, is the traditional dish served on the important feast day of St. Nicholas.
Food in the mountains
Geography plays the most important role in the regional variations of Bulgarian cuisine. Livestock farming is common in the lower mountain ranges, most notably in the Rhodopes, Stara Planina, Strandzha, Rila and Pirin. The famous kiselo mlyako, which is a yoghurt made of cows' milk, is usually eaten plain, but it can be also used as the base for tarator cold soup and the ayrian drink. Bulgarian cheese is a familiar sight for most visitors, since it is very similar to the Greek feta cheese.
Cheese appears in a large number of dishes, from filo pastry banitsa to shopska salad. The hard, yellow cheese called kashkaval is not as widely used, but it is an essential part of any meze. The famous Bulgarian sausages and cured meats are also key ingredient in many meze dishes. Spicy sausages such as sudzhuk, banski staretz and strandzhanski dyado, and the air-cured ham elenski but, seasoned with herbs, all come from the need to preserve meat to last through the long and bitter winters in the mountain regions. Hearty stews are a mountain tradition as well, with kavarma and pork ribs with kidney beans among the tastiest and most popular.
Food in the plains
The tastiest fruit and vegetables in Bulgaria come from the plains south and north of Stara Planina. Berries, orchard fruits, melons and grapes are among the many commonly used fruits. Bulgarian peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, aubergines, courgettes and potatoes are also very important in Bulgarian cuisine. Many salad dishes, such as shopska and ovcharska (shepherd's salad) originated in the plains of this country.
Food at the coast
The dwindling fish stocks of the Black Sea are slowly on the mend, so it is possible to enjoy grilled bonito and stewed or fried scad, usually served at the end of the summer. Sprats, which are served fried or marinated, are available throughout the year. Mussels are plentiful, but they must be bought from pollution-free sources. The Bulgarian fish soup ribena chorba is seasoned with thyme, and may be made with fresh or saltwater fish.
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