Monday, 23 January 2012

Bulgarian Jottings III: Nazdravei! A Guide to Drinking in Bulgaria


Since I had loads of positive feedback and visits to my last post which was largely about getting drunk with Plamen Atanasov in Bulgaria, I decided to continue this week in a similar vein and post about getting drunk with Plamen Atanasov in Bulgaria. Well... him and other people too.

This week's offering is a little something I wrote back in 2003 and is the result of months of intensive, scientific research into alcohol consumption in that small Balkan republic. It is a work that I am particularly proud of. However, in the interests of scientific accuracy, I must make the following 2011 points:

1). When I returned to Bulgaria last summer, Shumensko had changed. It now has a snazzy label, (as opposed to the totally retro 1970s one that it sported before), and tastes nice. Therefore, do not let this article put you off drinking lots of it. It didn't put me off after all.

2). I stated in the article that Mekhmed Fuchdji's rakiya never gave me a bad head. He presented me with a bottle this trip and I took it home and drank a large portion with Paul Daly. Both of us were extremely ill afterwards.

And there we have it! But before you delve into the delightful domain of Bulgarian drinkdom, please grab yourself a drink, raise a toast to whoever made it, raise another to this website for reminding you to have a drink and then enjoy!

Oh yes, and thanks to Rafet Mercan for becoming a follower! I hope you are coping well with the harsh Kars winter! You are a braver man than me!

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all my Bulgarian Jottings

I: In the Beginning…

II: Shumen

III: Nazdravei!

IV: Razgrad and Isperikh

and remember, you can also read about my 2011 travels around Bulgaria!


That means ‘Cheers!’ by the way. You can tell a lot about my philosophy on life by the fact that the very first word in Bulgarian that I learnt was ‘Nazdravei!’ It’s the very first word that I acquire in most languages actually. I can say ‘Nazdravei!’ in Greek, Spanish, Vietnamese, French, Dutch, Japanese, German, Bulgarian, Mandarin, Cantonese, Russian, Polish, Danish, Albanian, Macedonian, , Tagalog and of course, English. The problem comes however, when I am required to say anything else.[1]
It is not surprising therefore, that alcohol should become an integral part of my Bulgaria experience. Indeed, on only my first day in the country, I was sat in a bar in Stara Zagora with my hostess Delyana Koleva, supping that town’s most famous product, Zagorka. I found it, incidentally, to be a pleasant, full-flavoured brew, far superior to the Efes that I’d been drinking the previous day in Bucharest. Similar in fact, to the Amstel that I’d got accustomed to whilst in Greece. I soon discovered why.
Radostina Petrova worked at the Zagorka Brewery. “Things are changing,” she said. “We’ve been taken over recently by the Dutch company Heineken, (who also, by the by, produce Amstel). Things are a lot more professional these days and I can see the company doing very well.”
They certainly have done too. Back in 1998 when she said those words, Zagorka, although one of the country’s major brands, was far from being the dominant one across the land. Plovdiv’s Kamenitsa, (with the classic sexist advertising slogan ‘Muzhete znaiyat zashto’ – ‘The men know why’), and Haskovo’s Astika were both vying for the position of top spot. Almost five years down the line however, and the Dutch experience seems to have paid off. Zagorka is now the ubiquitous Bulgarian beer and is to be found absolutely everywhere on draught or in bottles. In particular, its growth seems to have been paralleled with that of the Happy restaurant chain (Slogan: ‘Made in Varna, Born on Christmas Day in 1994’), an equally successful Bulgarian company whose chain of restaurants, akin somewhat to Britain’s Little Chef chain, serve only Zagorka beer to customers.[2]
I for one though am not all that impressed and instead yearn a little for the good old days when there were three varieties of Zagorka (Svetlo – Light; Spetsial – Special and Zlaten – Gold). Svetlo alas (as it was my particular favourite) seems to have disappeared these days, the label on the over-priced and overrated Zlaten changed to a hideous white and (yes, you got it) gold creation of some marketing expert and the writing on the Spetsial changed from Cyrillic to bland, boring, everyday Latin alphabet, presumably because the latter is trendier, or perhaps so that the new Dutch boss is able to read what he’s drinking?
There are many more beers however to Bulgaria than just Zagorka, Kamenitsa and Astika. Thankfully, most major and middling-sized towns seem to possess a brewery and the products of those holy places are often quite literally, holy water. But which to choose and recommend to the novice, in Bulgaria for the first time? That’s a difficult one and so, in the evening in May, just before attending the 2003 School Prom (as the Americans call it) Party in Zlatni Pyasutsi,[3] Plamen Atanasov and I decided to investigate this important issue in a full and scientific manner, by testing ten native brews blindfolded and then recording the results.
And here may I present those most interesting and important findings to you all:
Strong aftertaste
Not offensive
Hoppy, fruity       
Nothing special
Foul, soapy crap
Better than the last one
Much better than the last one
Good, has bite to it
Overdone, hoppy
Tastes like beer nuts[4]
Soapy, tastes like beer nuts
Good, funky, controlled
Not much taste
Astika, one of the country’s major brews, was not tested on this occasion. However, in another experiment carried out on my balcony with my brother, it came top out of a group of five beers, the others being Kamenitsa, Shumensko (which came a definitive bottom), Ledenika and another one of the cheap brands which I’ve forgotten (perhaps Ariana?). For those wishing to do further research on this fascinating topic, some other available brands include Pleven, Burgasko and Stolichnaya. Stolichnaya and Pirinsko also do black beers by the way.
Ladies and Gentlemen, will you please welcome tonight’s contenders!
Mmm… Overall the beer testing was a most pleasant experience even if it did reveal remarkably little save that each and every one of us has his or her own favourites. And even though those favourites did not include Shumensko amongst us three, there are many Bulgarians whom I know that swear by the stuff, so the moral of the tale must surely be, please try all of them for yourself.
Whatever your preferences might be however, one cannot doubt that now is a particularly good time to be a beer drinker in Bulgaria. Even the most ardent communist admits that the injection of West European expertise, equipment and quality control, couple with a healthy standard of competition, has resulted in better beers. Krasimir Krustev recounted to me over a beer or two one evening in Varna, how as a child, his father used to send him to the shop to buy beer with strict instructions only to buy that sold in green bottles, (as one can view the liquid more easily), and to check also for cloudiness and floating particles. Those two curses of the ale supper are now, thankfully, virtually unknown in 21st century Bulgaria.
But Bulgarians, when they drink, unlike their Britannic brethren, rarely do just that. Indeed drinking without a bite to eat is somewhat frowned upon in those parts. That’s what the British and Germans do. And they are people who merely drink to get drunk. Bulgarians on the other hand, rarely drink with that purpose in mind. Oh, I’m not saying that Bulgarians do not get drunk, because they do and furthermore, I am sure that they often enjoy the experience of doing so, but what is absent is the culture of binge drinking that plagues Northern Europe. Instead, the Bulgarian tends to drink because he or she enjoys the experience, the ritual of drinking itself. Even the kids that I taught, who all seemed to consume alcohol on a regular basis, not regularly get plastered like their counterparts to the north. I asked Krasimir Krustev what exactly the legal drinking age was. Apparently, after some thought (and he an advocate!) I was told that he was ‘pretty sure’ that it was eighteen, but on the other hand, that he was in no doubt that no one bothered about enforcing this law. But it is not enforced, primarily because underage drinking is not a problem. Instead the entire population, young and old, seems to display a remarkably mature attitude towards alcohol. The police aren’t petty enough to go around charging underage drinkers, but there again, the underage drinkers do not engage in such ridiculous displays of binge drinking as their British counterparts do. Put beside the Bulgarian approach, British law appears anal and the people whom it governs, immature. The Americans with their consent age of twenty-one and their Biblical conception of the ‘demon drink’ do not even come into the picture.
No, drinking is a ritual in Bulgaria, and a ritual to be shared by the whole family. And to soak up the alcohol and thus keep the ritual going for longer, one needs to eat. That’s why there’s always a salad, some beer nuts (such as the Bolyarka tastes of), a few pieces of salami, white or yellow cheese or lukanka (an expensive, slightly spicy sausage) on offer. And let me tell you, sipping a cold beer inbetween bites of tomato, meet or cheese is a far superior experience to simply having the drink on its own.
But drinking in Bulgaria is not just about beer. Oh no, not in the slightest! In fact, that fine hop-based product is not even the country’s favourite tipple, (probably because historically it was a late arrival from more Germanic lands). Bulgarians in fact, rarely drink beer when they are drinking seriously. No, when they mean to drink, then the honour falls to the national drink, everyone’s favourite beverage, the ubiquitous rakiya.
One might even say in fact, that rakiya is Bulgaria. You can’t be in someone’s home for more than five minutes before a bottle of the stuff is pulled out and your host has poured out a couple of fingers for you. Rakiya is what the Bulgarians grow, then make, then socialise with, eat with, muse upon and always take great pride in.
I first tried out the famous spirit when out on the kibbutz in Israel. “Please try this,” my friend Pepi had said.
“What is it?” asked I.
“It is rakiya made by my father.”
“Fair enough, but what exactly is ‘rakiya’?”
“It is like brandy, made from grapes.”
I looked at the dubious-coloured liquid in my glass. It didn’t exactly appear very inviting, but it did have alcohol in it; I could tell that from the smell. How much I couldn’t say, but again, if I were to trust my nose, I’d have said, a hell of a lot. ‘Oh well,’ thought I, the brave warrior of internationalisation, ‘here goes! Close your eyes and think of England…’
The taste that hit the back of my mouth was akin to that produced by a mixture of bad scotch and brandy. And the problem is, I don’t even like good scotch, let alone brandy. Thankfully, I didn’t retch, but I did grab a glass of water pretty quickly.
And so my relationship with rakiya did not, alas, get off to the best of starts. Thankfully, matters can be said to have now improved somewhat, although our bond is still only just cordial. I am given rakiya and I drink the rakiya that I’m given because it is polite to do so, because it’s put on the table in front of me and because it’s jam-packed full of alcohol. I no longer find the taste wholly repulsive. On the other hand, I cannot honestly say that I savour it either.
To be fair though, a lot depends upon which particular rakiya it is that one has been given to drink. That is perhaps where I went wrong. Mr. Minchev (Pepi’s father) is a fantastic fellow who I hold in the highest esteem. Whenever I am in Stara Zagora I always enjoy a chat with him, I am forever in his debt for the welcome he extended to a long-haired hippie associate of his somewhat wayward daughter back when that said Bob Dylan wannabe was on his first visit to Bulgaria, and furthermore, to top it all off, he even inspired a short story that I once wrote.[5]
He is however, unlikely to win any awards for his rakiya. Even now I struggle to get it down my gullet with a smile. And always do I wake up with a headache the following day. No, it was not the ideal first tentative sip into the world of rakiya. Mr. Metchkarov whose brew I tried next was a little better at it however. I accompanied him once to the distillery in his village of Dulboki where all the local stuff was made. It was an interesting experience even if I did fail to understand most of the processes. However, even his was a little harsh for my poor unaccustomed throat and the bad head was there too the following morning, (although to be fair, I think that might have been more to do with quantity consumed rather than the quality of the liquor).
It was on my third visit to the country however, that I finally encountered a master. When Ahmet Rashidov in Tutrakan pulled out his trolley with no less than three varieties of homemade rakiya on it, my heart sank into the floor. “Don’t worry,” his son Hassan whispered into my ear. “My father’s rakiya is the best. He is an expert. He is obsessed with its purity.”
‘And that’s what they all say,’ thought this particular Doubting Thomas.
Hassan however, was not lying. Initially out of politeness, and then out of enjoyment, I tried all three. Not one was offensive, all were smooth and both the taste and aroma were pleasant. I was surprised, on several fronts.
“It’s really good,” said I, honestly for the first time in my life.
“I told you so,” said Hassan as his father beamed and poured out another glass.
“But…” I didn’t know quite how to put this.
“But what?”
“But well… you are Muslim. And doesn’t the Koran have a problem with rakiya, even stuff as fine as this?”
Ahmet laughed and got out his homemade wine. His wife went into the kitchen returned with some salami as mezze.
“We’re not strict Muslims,” Hassan explained, offering me some of the pork-based sausage.
“And I thought that rakiya could only be made out of grapes?” I added.
“Oh no,” said Ahmet, “you can make rakiya from virtually anything you like so long as you distil it properly. Just like wine.” I thought about nettle wine, snake’s blood wine and sak√© and realised that the guy had a point. His three rakiyas were made from grapes, apricots and plums. I enjoyed them all, though the apricot was my favourite. “Nazadravei!” I declared.
And the following morning, my head was clear.[6]
Although most Bulgarians drink copious amounts of rakiya, I doubt that, at present, it is an industry with a great deal of money in it for, like Messers. Minchev, Metchkarov and Rashidov, virtually everyone seems to brew their own. There are of course commercial brands on sale in the supermarkets; Karnobatskaya seems to be the most popular, and according to the guidebook, the city of Silistra is famed for its plum rakiya, but by far the vast majority of rakiya consumed is produced by someone’s father or grandfather in the village distillery using grapes grown on vines in the backgarden. This of course, is only natural in a country with very little disposable income and a fine heritage of rakiya production, and it does make for an almost infinite variety of tastes and experiences. However, as times change, one does wonder as to how long this fine peasant tradition will continue? I for one suspect not very long and perhaps a mere fifty years from now, almost everyone will be drinking mass-produced brands from large professional distilleries such as we in Britain now do with our whisky and brandy.
The question though, is will such a change be a good thing? Initially one is tempted to say know, cherishing the quaint ways of the past and the preservation of national traditions. That opinion is also fortified when one thinks of the delightful liquor produced by Mr. Rashidov in the Tutrakan town distillery on the banks of the Danube. On the other hand, when one is reminded of Mr. Minchev’s efforts and the headaches that result from consuming them, the doubts do start to creep in. And when I remember how my throat and head felt after a single measure of my landlord, Svetlo Stanev’s obnoxious brew, then, well…
I am sorry to say, but I am all for progress.
Whilst I can stand the rakiya however, and actively enjoy the beer, it should be noted that neither are my favourite tipples in Bulgaria. No sir, not at all, for that honour must go to what is undoubtedly that country’s finest product of all, the reason that God created that green and pleasant land between the Black Sea and Belgrade, her wine.
Bulgaria is the world’s fourth biggest producer of wine. Ok, so that figure might not be true, but since it was written in The Atlas of Wine I’m going to assume that it is. The Atlas of Wine was a very big book, the only book in fact, that lived behind the bar at a certain establishment named The Bird in Hand where I had the privilege to work for several years. Quite why it was behind the bar in that esteemed ale house I am not quite sure. Both the landlord and landlady were hardly passionate readers and the patrons that came in were more interested in who ‘Clare that gets in the bar on Saturdays’ was ‘having a bit with’ and when ‘Gerry who gets in the lounge on Wednesdays’ would be allowed to drive again following his ban incurred late one Wednesday night, as opposed to the grapes of the Loire Valley. But anyway, I digress. The book was in the Bird in Hand, I was in The Bird in Hand and The Bird in Hand was several miles from the nearest village which resulted in it being a rather quiet place and yours truly having a lot of time to peruse The Atlas of Wine for want of something better to do. So there I sat, reading said atlas and gazing at the colourful maps of the vineyards of France and marvelling at the statistics contained within those pages. And at the end of a session of reading about Merlots and Cabaret Sauvignons, there was nothing finer than to pour myself out a glass of one of those said liquids, sit back and enjoy the ambience.
Alas, that latter bit was forever to remain a dream.
They only stocked Liefraumilch.
But back to the point, from that big book did I learn many things. I learnt that Moldova was the wine cellar of the Soviet Union although collectivisation and the break-up of ancient, family-owned vineyards had spelled disaster in terms of variety and quality. And furthermore, the same was also true of Bulgaria, which, as I have informed you already, was the world’s fourth largest wine producer, (behind France, Germany and the USA), but had suffered immeasurably during the socialist years. What I also learnt was that in Bulgaria, there were vineyards all over the country, not as in countries such as France, where they are centred around particular valleys, that Bulgarian wine is by and large, red and of a good standard, although there is some white which came not as highly recommended, and finally that the three main varieties were Merlot, Cabaret Sauvignon and Mavrud, names which, at the time, meant absolutely nothing to me.
Having learnt these facts, and knowing a little about Bulgaria from my friends the Kovatchevis in Israel, I decided some of these well-known and highly-recommended vintages and upon visiting the supermarket discovered them in great quantities, and furthermore, at a most reasonable price.[7] Now I was no wine connoisseur and on a student’s budget I couldn’t afford to become one, but what I did learn was that a £3 bottle of Bulgarian red was superior to its £3 counterparts from France, Australia, the USA and Spain. Only Chile was equal.
And once in the country I decided to deepen my understanding of her wines and soon found them to be equally good and even cheaper than the products that end up on the shelves of Tesco. Well, most of them that is… Like the rakiya, some of the homemade varieties could be a little, well erm… shall I say, vinegary? Nonetheless, even amongst the home-produced wines there are some gems and top of the table came again Mr. Ahmet Rashidov with his Tutrakan white which is better than most whites that one finds on a supermarket shelf.
My finest Bulgarian wine experience however, came in Melnik, the country’s smallest town, a gorgeous architectural reserve sandwiched between some hills in the far south-western corner of the country. I went there with Iva Metchkarova on a glorious sunny day in 1999 and we traipsed around the old houses, ruined churches and small fortress happily before she announced, ‘Now, there’s somewhere that I must show you!’
At the end of the narrow valley, where the town petered out, there was a cave, and in that cave there was a man. I’ve forgotten what his name was, although he did tell it to us. As well as that man, in that cave there were lots of casks lining the walls of the cavern, each and every one of them full of fine wine. We sat down at a wooden table, ordered some mezze – fine cheese and lukanka – and drank. In the cool dark of the cave, the equally cool and dark wine was magical. I savoured every mouthful and it was truly an experience which I shall never forget. The sunshine hit me like a wall of heat as we stepped back outside into that beautiful valley.
A few months into my year-long sojourn in Varna, I managed to obtain a part-time job teaching English to the Secretary and Floor Manager of the vast cash ‘n’ carry hypermarket Metro.[8] Along with the job came a card, normally reserved for those with a business, that enabled me to purchase anything that I had the cash for within that big blue warehouse. It was a gift from God, as with the largest selection of wine in the city, and a small supply of cash to purchase it with, it wasn’t long before we, (for Kate and Dave, my English neighbours, were also enthusiastically involved in the project), were going through the racks and giving our opinions on the Mavruds, Merlots and Cabaret Sauvignons. Many were the nights that we spent sat on my balcony, perhaps after a dip in the mineral springs, with a bottle of red, some cheese or sunflower seeds to nibble on, watching the lights of Druzhba twinkle in the distance. With a little music in the background and some fine conversation to enjoy, we were as happy as humans can be. The best things in life might not be free, but at four leva a bottle, they aren’t far off.
Druzhba, Bulgaria June 2003

Copyright © 2003, Matthew E. Pointon

[1] I have forgotten the Hebrew and Turkish. If anyone would be so kind as to remind me, I would be most grateful.
[2] That however, is only my impression. Krasimir Krustev, a Varnan advocate, reckons that Zagorka always held the number one spot, though in the mid-nineties, Kamenitsa rose dramatically in popularity so as to almost match it.
[3] Ok, so we weren’t school leavers or even school kids, so why would we be going to the Prom Party? I could try and justify it by saying that it was sort-of part of my job as a teacher, but I won’t. No, the sad fact of the matter was that there was a gathering of literally thousands of 18-year olds in a country with what I would say are the comeliest females in the world and we had been invited. I ask you, would you stay at home?
[4] Plamen also added, ‘An interesting concept, but ahead of its time. To be fair, he was quite drunk by this time. Beer nuts or birini fustutsi by the by, are a popular snack in Bulgaria designed to be enjoyed with (surprise, surprise) beer. Basically, they are peanuts covered in a barbeque-flavoured fried potato coating. This snack comes highly recommended by the author.
[5] Mitko Stanchev’s Balcony.
[6] Another short story of mine, Elif, the Most Loved, has a character from Tutrakan who enjoys making rakiya. I need not say who was the inspiration for that.
[7] It should be noted that I am talking about Britain here. During my two sessions in Asia (Japan and Vietnam) I saw not one bottle of Bulgarian though not for want of trying.
[8] The chain is known as Metro in most countries, but in Britain and a few others, we call it Macro.

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