Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The night Jodie giggled after drinking a glass of Rakia

I discovered the restaurant on one of my walks to work. Golden Apple is located just around the corner from our house, and it looked like an island of modern cuisine in a relatively dumpy neighborhood. The waiter spoke to me in English and apologized that they didn't have any menus in English. I promised him that I would be back with my wife for dinner.

It turned out to be our best meal in Bulgaria so far. But for Jodie, much of it may have been a blur, for we were served Rakia with our starter carrot salad.

Rakia is a popular fruit brandy in Bulgaria, and I guess you could call it the national beverage. Jodie's head was spinning after our first course.

We enjoyed a delicious steak dinner and the Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon just made our heads spin even further. Jodie ended up giggling, but I didn't feel anything until I stood up to go to the bathroom. The meal concluded with a shared piece of homemade cake and for Jodie, a strong cup of coffee.

It was a good thing that our house was just around the corner.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

What? No Applesauce in Bulgaria?

We had company for Saturday lunch, and when planning the meal, Jodie wanted to bake her favorite chocolate cake. The recipe called for applesauce, but alas, we couldn't find any in the local supermarket. We searched high and low, and two employees sent us off on wild goose chases in the direction of jams and canned fruits, but no applesauce.

Needless to say, there was no chocolate cake for lunch that day. At least two local women have since confirmed that applesauce is not on sale in Bulgaria. We'll keep our eyes open.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The day Ellis got a 5 Leva haircut

I had passed the barbershop/beauty salon many times on my way to work. I had seen men getting their haircut there, but there was always a line waiting for the scissors. The opening hours were posted on the door - from 07:00 to 19:00. Today, on my way home from work, I bravely stepped in.

"Dobre vecher," I said. I knew how to say "Good evening." I followed that by "Ne gevorya Bulgarski," informing the entire room that I didn't speak Bulgarian.

There were three women working in the shop, and none of them spoke English. But under a hair drier, her hair rolled up in curlers, one customer knew English. She stood up and asked me, on behalf of the staff, what sort of haircut I wanted.

"Kus," I said, proud that I had learned the Bulgarian word for "short" in preparation for my visit.

"How short," the lady in hair curlers asked. "1, 2 or 3?"

I hadn't realized that there were these variations of the adjective "short." Maybe it was a Bulgarian thing. "Very short," I replied.

Language barrier or not, women barbers the world over know how to use an electric razor and my excess hair was soon on the tiled floor. Not a bad job, even Jodie agreed later.

How much? I indicated as I stood up to leave.

"Pet Leva." Five Leva. That works out to 14.50 shekels.

I paid her and thanked her with a robust "Blogodariya". Thank you!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Pictures from Koprivshtitsa

These are just a few of the pictures we took on our visit to the museum town of Koprivshtitsa. More pictures have been posted on Ellis's Facebook page = you can see them by clicking here.

Panorama Hotel.

The colorful street near our hotel, with the main color being white.
Oskelov House.
Village resident.
Snowy Koprivshtitsa.

The Georgi Benkovski house.
Street scene.

The Karavelov House.

The Bulgarian symbol of Spring, which has not yet come to Bulgaria.

Winter Visit to Koprivshtitsa

We woke up on Saturday morning to see that Sofia had turned into a wintry, slushy mess. Should we go away for the weekend as planned? We decided to brave the elements and took a taxi to the Central Station.

The Central Station is actually two separate buildings. The cavernous Central Train Station was very cold, and the level near the platforms was like a freezer. Jodie noted that the woman's bathrooms were just holes in the ground (please aim carefully). The Central Bus Station was more modern, more crowded, and much warmer. In both stations, you could book your travel to destinations all across Europe.

Our bus left from the Traffic Market parking lot between the two stations. We boarded the bus, and only after it departed, the ticket lady came down the isle collecting fares. It was 10 Leva one way. The bus was a local line, stopping in villages along the way. The direction we traveled was eastward, towards Burgas. As we drove, we climbed into snowy mountains, but in other flat areas the fields were green.

As we approached Koprivshtitsa, 120 kilometers from Sofia, the forests and mountains had a heavy covering of snow. We ended our 2 1/2 hour bus journey and emerged into the snowy town. The hotel was 1 kilometer away from the town center, a distance easily walked on a normal day. But this was not a normal day, as it was snowing, and streets were icy. Jodie fell hard on the ice, and we were sure our weekend had ended before it started. But Jodie got up bravely and we continued our walk. The hardest part was the 50 meters ascent up a snowy and icy lane to the hotel itself.

We had booked our room at the Panorama Hotel in advance. It turned out we were the only guests, as others had canceled due to the weather. The hotel is a family-run affair, with 32 beds, and the younger staff speaks English. At dinner Saturday night, the family sat at one table, while we sat at the next, close to the wood burning in the fireplace.

Our strolls through the colorful streets of Koprivshtitsa were a bit limited by the snow and ice, but we did manage to see a lot. The town is full of Bulgarian history; it is where the April 1876 Uprising against the Ottoman Empire began. There are at least 80 homes in the town that date to the 1800s. Six of them have been opened to the public as house museums. We visited the Oskelov House, just off the main village square. This house belonged to a wealthy merchant. Its facade of cedarwood imported from Lebanon was adorned with painted views of Padua, Rome and Venice, which Oskelov had visited. Uniforms for the revolutionaries were sewn upstairs. Oskelov was killed in 1876, at age 55.

At dinner we had a true taste of Bulgarian food. We started with a Panagyuska Salad, which was made of very finely diced pieces of tomatoes, cabbage and carrots, with mayonnaise splattered on top. Okay, very similar to coleslaw. Then we shared Cheese Pastry Peppers, which were bits of fried cheese stuffed inside long red peppers. Our main course was scrumptious grilled trout, which melted in our mouths. Jodie and I knocked off a bottle of 2007 Targovishte Chardonnay, which ensured a good night's sleep.

We woke to discover that another 3-4 inches of snow had fallen overnight. Afterwards we discovered that it was much easier to get around walking on the new snow. For breakfast, we had Mekitsi, which are traditional fried Bulgarian batter cakes, similar to doughnuts, topped with homemade berry jam.

Just up the street from the hotel was Benkovski House, which belonged to the family of Georgi Benkovsi (1844-1876), another leader of the Uprising. The house was less fancy than the one we had seen the day before. Benkovski, who rallied the locals to fight against the Ottomans, was killed in 1876.

Walking on the snowy streets, Jodie warned Ellis against slipping on the ice. Ellis responds by saying that he tripped more on the step in the hotel room, than he did on the streets.

After checking out of the hotel, we visited the Karavelov House, which belonged to writer Lyuben Karavelov and his family, which also included politician Petko Karavelov.

A short visit to a souvenir shop in the town square was followed by another traditional Bulgarian meal, this time with french fries covered with grated cheese.

The April 1876 Uprising was crushed, and most of its heroes were killed. A year later, Russia and Serbia went to war against the Ottomans on Bulgaria's behalf, and the yoke of Ottoman oppression was lifted at last, and Bulgaria became an independent country. It all began in the colorful town of Koprivshtitsa.

We will definitely come back to Koprivshtitsa, but it will be in the summertime. Then we'll be able to explore all of the alleys and lanes, and cross the wooden bridges over the River Topolnitsa, without fear of slipping on the ice.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Banitsa

Last week I had lunch with some of my co-workers, and one of them ordered Banitsa (Accent on the first syllable) – and he told me a little about this dish.

This dish is made with phyllo dough, feta cheese and many variations from there on. There is a sweet version made with pumpkin and honey, and a more savory version with either just cheeses, or with an addition of spinach, or green onions. I was told that many Bulgarians eat this for breakfast, along with yogurt – apparently, you can also see people buying it on the street on their way to work.

There is a lot of Greek and Turkish influence in Bulgarian food, and you can see it in this dish also. It reminds me of the Turkish spiraled “spinach bareka” that you see in Israel. The frozen variety that I saw in the supermarket (now that I know what I was looking at!) looks a lot like this.

I searched for recipes on the Internet, and the recipe that I found and tried was from a site called Traditional Bulgarian Recipes from Ralitsa’s Kitchen.

So, I went to the supermarket, managed to find phyllo dough and the rest of the ingredients, and had my first try at “Traditional Bulgarian Cooking”. Tonight, Ellis and I had a traditional meal of Banitsa, “Shopska” (basically, Greek salad with Feta cheese, but without the black olives), and “Snezhanka” Salad (like the Greek yogurt and cucumber salad) and it was very good. Due to the fact that you can’t get low-fat cheese here, I probably won’t make this very often – but I’m sure that you can try substituting with low-fat cheeses with success.

So here’s the recipe that I tried – I made the spinach version.

Banitsa
Ingredients:
10-12 sheets phyllo dough
200 grams grated yellow cheese (kashkaval, cheddar, parmesan – you can use only kashkaval, or add a mixture of kashkaval and the others – I added cheddar)
500 grams white cheese (Bulgarian or Feta)
7 eggs
100 grams butter
½ cup soda water
1 cup yogurt

Mix 6 eggs, grated butter, crumbled white cheese, grated yellow cheese and yogurt.
In a buttered pan, lay a layer of phyllo (use a couple pieces for the first layer). Spread a layer of cheese mixture, then another layer of dough and continue until all the mixture is finished – ending with a layer of dough.

Take a sharp knife, and cut portions in the pan. Take the last egg, and mix it with the soda water, and pour over the pie – making sure that all the phyllo dough is wet.

Bake in a preheated oven at 200 for 40 minutes or until golden.

Variations:
Spinach: Same as regular, but substitute 3 eggs with ½ kg spinach, cut and lightly sautéed – no more than 5 min.
Green onion: same as spinach, cut up 5-10 green onions (about 1 cup) and sautee for approx. 10 min.

Enjoy!

March is Woman's Month

On Wednesday we woke up to snow flurries, with the weather forecast predicting more of the same throughout the day, and throughout the coming week. However, by the time I walked to work (and yes, on many mornings Jodies goes in a taxi while I walk), it had stopped snowing and there were only gray skies threatening from above.

During the morning, the snow resumed, and Jodie reported that it was hailing as well. A short while later I looked outside the window, and the sun was shining. There were patches of blue in the sky, and it looked like winter was behind us at last.

An hour later, and the snow flurries were back. Nothing was sticking to the ground, but it was cold, very, very cold. But half an hour later, and the sky was blue again. The wind was strong, but in the sunshine you could imagine that it was spring.

On and off through the day, the snow flurries came and went, alternating with hints of warmth.

The Bulgarians call March the Woman's Month. No, this is not a tribute to women, but a local consideration of the changing, and very unpredictable weather. Sexist or not, this is March in Sofia.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Getting Your Hair Done in Bulgarian

Today, I took the leap, and got my hair colored and cut locally....

Firstly, in my neighboorhood, every other shop is a hairdresser (or a pharmacy - I don't understand why they need so many!). I decided to stay away from the ones that looked like they only cut old ladies and mens hair. I asked at a more modern salon, but they weren't open on Saturdays. I was talking to a coworker and she made me an appointment at her hairdresser, who is close to here. She callled her in advance, and explained what I wanted, and I found the place ok.

Well....it was an experience! The "salon" was not at all modern - old painted tables in front of the mirrors, baskets with combs and scissors - I'm sure that they never heard of sterilizing anything. I'm used to having the hairdresser make small parts and carefully applying the color on small areas of hair at a time - here, she had a large comb and just kind of combed a bunch of hair to one side and "shmeared" the color on, and then combing over another clump of hair and repeating the process...

While I waited with the color, I had my nails done - they came out nice. Now, when it was time to wash my hair, she called me to the back, and there was a large, deep rectangular old, (once)white sink, and I had to lean forward over the sink while she rinsed my hair! No chair, where you lean back and have your hair rinsed in a special sink - this was more like what you would do in your bathroom! As the water was running down my face and into my eyes, I almost started laughing, but realized that that would be very rude...

I can't give a verdict on the haircut yet - I have to re-wash it and use my cream on it to see if it came out like I like, or if it was just basically a "haircut" instead of being "Styled". Pricewise, I must admit, you can't compare - the haircut+color was around NIS 100 - a little over a third of what I was paying at home, and the manicure was half the price as it is in Israel (NIS 27!) I will have to see if I'm satisfied with the way it settles in, or if I decide to stick to some of my more Western conveniences, and go to a modern hair salon (And pay more - I'll have to find out what the price is in some of the fancier places) - but, I did have a very local experience - and it's good to try things at least once, and know how the locals live!

I will say that the younger women in Sofia (which is the capital city of Bulgaria) are attractive and wll taken care of. A lot of the older population are what we would think of when we think about older, poorer people who lived most of their life under communism. And I would guess, that when you go out to the country, you will still see a lot of poorer people. and not as modern a way of life.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The dirty streets of Sofia

The snow has gone, and yesterday morning's unexpected, unpredicted snowstorm is a thing of the past. It was not a pretty snowfall. The snow was very wet, and the streets filled with dirty, mushy slush, making walking on wet, snowy sidewalks difficult and splash-dangerous.

With the snow gone, you can see the garbage piling up on the streets. Sofia's city government recently canceled the concessionaire status of its major garbage collector in 19 neighborhoods, and as a result, there is no garbage collection. The bins are full, overflowing with refuse. At least when it snowed, you couldn't see the mess.

And about the streets, someone should look into fixing them. They are full of pot holes, making trips down the cobblestones of Dimitar Hadzhikotsev, our home street, a real obstacle course.

And a final note about the streets. The city has just begun digging up Chernivrach Blvd., the main thoroughfare we travel on every day on our way to work. The reason for the construction - an extension of the city's Metro system. The construction is expected to last for four years, meaning that there will be additional traffic jams and hastle on the Streets of Sofia for the near-seeable future.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

What? Not Again!

This is what we see out our back window this morning. Yesterday the sun was shining and it was so warm!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Food and Eating Out in Bulgaria

Grocery Shopping
Buying groceries has been a challenge. There is a large supermarket at the mall near our apartment, where we do most of our grocery shopping. There are many products which are easily recognizable, and we can manage to figure out what they are. There is very little English listed, unless the product is imported. I don’t think that there is much of a law here regarding listing of ingredients, or their nutritional value. And whatever is listed, is so small, that even my new multi-focal glasses don’t help! So, you can buy canned tomatoes, but not be sure if they are crushed, whole or chopped! Spices have been a real challenge – all the green ones look the same!

Fruits and vegetables aren’t always the best quality, and most come packed in packages, instead of loose in big bins, like we see in supermarkets in Israel. There also isn’t a great variety to choose from.

One of the things that we’ve found the hardest to adjust to, is the cheeses. The notion of “light” or “low-fat” cheeses is almost non-existent. We’ve found that the few items that we’ve seen that are listed as “lite” seem to be a minimum of 12%! You can find low fat milk and yogurt (which is very good), but I guess they just don’t believe that this concept should carry over into cheese!

There are quite a few areas that we haven’t dared to try yet – still trying to understand which of the meat is beef and which is pork….chicken is pretty recognizable, so it’s a fairly safe bet, and this week we managed to figure out which was chicken cold cuts-quite an accomplishment! Needless to say, we stay away from the aquarium with the lobsters swimming around in it!

There are quite a number of small, local food grocery shops in the neighborhood, but they seem to specialize – one shop is for drinks and snacks, another can have fruits and vegetables, and near us is one shop where all they carry are cleaning products and shampoos/soaps etc!

Eating Out
The food in restaurants is quite good, but again, we have to go through the menu to see which food doesn’t include pork or seafood – which is probably half the menu! The weirdest part of eating out, is the way the food is served – the waiter takes your order, and the food arrives in whatever order they get it ready! We’ve had situations where we ordered soup and a main course – one of us will get our soup, and while in the middle of eating the soup, the next course will arrive – and in the meantime, the other one is still waiting for the first course! There’s no point in getting upset – this just seems to be the way it is done….I guess the Bulgarians still have a way to come in catching up with the idea of customer service….Also, when you ask for the bill, they always ask you if you’re paying cash or credit card – I don’t really understand why, but I guess they print a different kind of bill depending on how you plan to pay…..On the whole, eating out is much cheaper than what we’re used to – even an “expensive” meal here will be about half of what we would pay in Israel.

That’s it for this week – hope you’re enjoying my little diary of experiences!

The Sofia Synagogue




Today we went to see the Synagogue of Sofia (http://www.sofiasynagogue.com/), =which was quite interesting. The synagogue was built in 1909, and they will be celebrating 100 years in Sept. The Jewish community in the States donated money for the renovation of the synagogue, so you can see that it's being worked on and restored.

There is a beautiful chandelier, which weighs 2 tons! The decorations on the walls are of Spanish and Arabic influence. Since the original Jewish population arrived in Bulgaria from Spain, this is the influence that is seen. The Jewish population in all of Bulgaria today is 6000, of which 2000 live in Sofia. Before WW2, the Jewish population of Bulgaria was 52,000 - we have learned that the Bulgarian king at the time, although he sided with the Nazis, refused to turn over the Jews of Bulgaria to the Nazis. Most of the Jews left Bulgaria after the war and moved to Israel.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The night we dined on Raclette cheese and gherkins at a Swiss Chalet

It was drizzling when we left our apartment on Saturday evening, but amazingly, there was a taxi available right outside. We gave the taxi driver the address: 50 Botevgradsko Shousse Blvd. The driver knew where this street was - it was on the eastern side of Sofia where we had not been before. But as he drove up the street, we couldn't find number 50.

Finally the driver parked the car, apologized to us, and got out to find someone who could locate number 50. (Of course all of this was in Bulgarian, you see). He got back in after a few minutes, and we turned the corner. and there it was.

Chalet Suisse (http://chaletsuisse.eu/index-en.html) is an authentic Swiss restaurant which opened in Sofia three months ago. Two of the owners are authentic Swiss, and by coincidence, they found a an almost authentic wooden house in the city and refurbished it to look like a mountain chalet. The menu is very fondue - of the cheese and chocolate kind. But now, for the first time, they had imported Raclette cheese into Bulgaria.

Raclette is a traditional Swiss cheese which the Swiss cow herders used to take with them as they were moving cows to the mountain pastures. The restaurant has a special oven on which they heat half of the cheese wheel, then scrape the melted mass off and serve it with potatoes, gherkins and pickled onions. This was topped off by a bottle of white Swiss wine from Ballavaud.
The meal was expensive, together with the taxis back and forth, and the wine, it came to about 100 Levas (260 shekels).

The occasion was a get-together of an organization/website we've joined called Ex-Pat in Bulgaria (http://www.expatinbulgaria.com/), for foreigners living in Bulgaria. So at dinner we had a chance to meet with some other people new to the country. Well, one Scot was already retired in Sofia for 9 years. The organization/website is owned by the same owners as the Sofia Echo, the only English language newspaper in Bulgaria. So we ended up meeting some interesting people. And drinking some good wine.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Mt. Vitosha in the sunlight


Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The night Jodie drank 2 Martinis and lost her chips in a hot game of poker

We've just gone through a few days of Bulgarian holidays. The first of March is bound up with ageless folklore and is called Granny March. Ahead of the day, the locals give each other red and white strings, tassels andother ornaments, which are worn on the wrist until one sights a stork or the first buds on a tree. As there aren't too many storks these days in Sofia, we have to hope the Spring comes quickly, or else these colorful bracelets will cut off circulation to our hands.

March 3 is Liberation Day here, marking 131 years since the country, with the aid of Russia and other allies, threw off the yoke of five centuries of Ottomon oppression. Last night there were some fireworks heard in the distance, but on the whole, except for skipping work for what was in essence a 4-day weekend, we are still not sure how, or if Bulgarians celebrated.

Last night, Jodie and I joined 5 other Israeli coworkers in a poker tournament. The buy-in was 20 Leva (about 50 shekels). It was the first time Jodie had ever played a poker tournament, it was the first time her pair of Aces fell to a trio of Kings, and it was the first time she had not one, but 2 Martinis to drink. I also lost, so at 11:30 pm we went outside to hail a taxi home, which wasn't the easiest of tasks.Today things should be back to normal in the country, and we're still 3 days away from the weekend.