Outside of a house in a tiny Bulgarian village, a rosy-cheeked man smiled as he held out a tray of tiny glasses filled with a pale yellow liquid. “Welcome,” he said. “Try some. It’s good, made from our own peaches.”
I threw back a shot of the rakiya. The fiery homemade brandy instantly brightened my morning and perhaps explained the pink in his cheeks. Then we filed into the home, taking seats around the kitchen.
We were in Bulgaria as part of a trip with Viking River Cruises. Starting in Hungary, we slowly travelled along the Danube River to Bucharest, Romania, with stops in Croatia and Serbia, too.
From day one, the trip was a food-lover’s dream. Every night, on the boat, we enjoyed never-ending wines, gourmet meals and interesting conversations about upcoming stops. Every day, as the ship docked, we toured the attractions and enjoyed local wines and spirits, meats, cakes and coffee.
Taking advantage of the optional visits — ranging from artists’ colony tours to ancient castles — I signed up for a morning cooking class offered during our stay in Ruse, Bulgaria. We’d take a bus to a nearby village where a renowned home cook would teach us, in English, how to make classic Bulgarian dishes.
As the luxury coach drove out of town, the Soviet-style factories on the edge of the city gave way to bucolic green hills. Goats and sheep grazed, while roses tumbled skyward in almost every yard, including the one where we stopped.
Once in the house, we settled down to make Bulgarian specialties: the country’s famous homemade yogurt and banitsa, a layered dish made with phyllo pastry and feta. Hands washed. Aprons on.
The yogurt was easy. Basically, just warm some milk in a pot. Stir in starter, or a dollop of leftover yogurt from your last batch. Wrap in a tea towel and let it sit on your cupboard, working its magic.
And the banitsa? The list of ingredients started off pretty tame: phyllo pastry, feta, eggs and oil.
But then Ramona, our friendly host and instructor, pulled out a bottle of acid-yellow-hued soda, a favourite, she assured us, amongst Bulgarian kids. She poured us all a taste — imagine Sprite, but 100 times sweeter — and then splashed half a tea cup of it across her dish, before popping it in the oven.
My tastebuds still reeling from the sugar shock, I knew I wasn’t the only skeptical face in the crowd.
A short time later, however, she handed out slices, still warm from the oven and fragrant with the scent of dough and cheese. As I bit into mine, I had almost forgotten the soda. I just knew I wanted to know more about what I was eating.
Banitsa is a traditional Bulgarian pastry often served at Christmas and on New Year’s Eve. Like, say, chocolate chip cookies or chili in North America, every Bulgarian family has their own take on the classic dish. Some prefer it like a dessert, with pumpkin, cinnamon and walnuts in the mix. Others make it savoury, with minced meats and onion, or spinach or nettles. A forgiving recipe, it can be adapted, really, to whatever you have in your kitchen. My kind of food, I thought, as I tucked the recipe carefully into my bag.
I also bought a small plastic pop bottle of the rakiya. Its label — a simple photocopied sheet — lists the ingredients (peaches, sugar) and the place of origin, one “General Marinov’s Village.” Named after a hero during the Serbo-Bulgarian War in the 1880s, it has a population of about 146, I find out later. Just a handful of streets and people.
The bottle makes it home safely, but it doesn’t taste the same at home in Canada.
And I haven’t found that sweet soda here in Calgary. Nor have I looked for it. The dish is as adaptable as we’ve been promised, and our Canuck sodas work just as well. Banitsa, it turns out, transcends borders, a delicious reminder of a fun morning in a faraway place.
Ramona’s Bulgarian Banitsa
Ramona (she didn’t give me her last name) makes myriad variations of this dish — she sometimes adds cubed pumpkin or apple, plus cinnamon, sugar and walnuts instead of the cheese. She also sometimes makes it with spinach, eggs and cheese, too.
Ramona also added a bit of soda, a very sweet Bulgarian pop, and, in North America, she uses Sprite or 7-Up. I found that the recipe was far too soupy here with the addition of the soda, so I’ve left it out — and, weirdly, it pretty much tastes the same. Either way, it’s a very rich dish; a tiny slice goes a long way.
1 packet of phyllo pastry, thawed
400 g feta, drained and crumbled
½ cup plain yogurt (no gelatin added)
½ tsp baking soda
1/4 cup melted butter
Preheat oven to 375 F. Grease baking pan with some of the melted butter. (I use a deep Pyrex pie plate, roughly 22 cm across top and 6 cm high).
Crumble the cheese into a big bowl and add eggs. Stir until yolks are broken.
Add baking soda to yogurt and stir. Add to egg-cheese mixture and stir.
Using a pastry brush, oil pan with melted butter. Place three sheets of phyllo over bottom of tin. Spread thin layer (1 cm or so deep, about 1 cup of mixture) of egg mixture on top. Place two-three more sheets of phyllo on top, and continue to layer, just like making lasagna, until pan is filled. Top dish with three layers of phyllo and brush lightly with melted butter. Bake in oven for 30 minutes, or until dish is golden-brown and cheese has melted. Serves about eight. Serve warm and refrigerate leftovers.