"Bulgaria? I've never heard of anyone going there." Everyone I talked to said the same, from family to work colleagues to the credit card operator at my bank who was updating my travel records.
What's there? Cheese and lots of yoghurt as I would find out over my five day visit, part of an international delegation sponsored by EU Dairy Daily (funded by the European Union and the Republic of Bulgaria).
But first let's be clear about where Bulgaria sits on the map, because hey, I know my geographic knowledge was wanting. Bulgaria is bordered by Romania, Serbia, Macedonia, Greece and Turkey, with coastal access to the Black Sea in the east. Its population was 7.3 million in 2011.
EU Dairy Daily is a three year programme that aims to promote Bulgarian dairy products - particularly kashkaval, sirene white brine cheese and yoghurt - to Australia and the Middle East. Our group (made up of delegates from Australia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates) would be visiting dairy farms and factories in the country's capital, Sofia, and nearby city, Plovdiv.
Drinking yoghurt with lactobacillus bulgaricus
If there's one thing you notice immediately in Bulgaria, it's the omnipresence of white cheese and yoghurt in the diet of locals. White cheese and yoghurt is to Bulgarians as rice is to the Chinese. They cannot fathom living without it.
In fact this prompted the Nobel Prize in Medicine winning scientist, Professor Ilya Metchnikoff, to develop a theory that linked the longevity of Bulgarians with their regular consumption of yoghurt. The specific bacterial strain in Bulgarian yoghurt is lactobacillus bulgaricus, which flourishes in Bulgaria but often struggles to survive elsewhere.
Professor Mariya Baltadzhieva from the Bulgarian Academy of Science in Sofia
The alleged health and life-prolonging properties of lactobacillus bulgaricus has propelled Bulgarian yoghurt to international markets, especially Japan and the United States. It has even prompted researchers at the Bulgarian Academy of Science to develop capsules that contain the bacteria alone, ready for easy ingestion.
Respected researcher, Professor Mariya Baltadzhieve, swears by them. She is a huge believer in the benefits of lactobacillus bulgaricus and offers her own youthful appearance as proof. It's only later that we eventually find out she's 82!
Dairy Farm, Popovitsa
Dairy cows in the feeding shed
We start at the beginning of the yoghurt production line by visiting a dairy farm in Popovitsa, about a two hour drive 180 kilometres southeast of Sofia. There are 5,000 cows at this dairy farm that sprawls across 7,000 hectares.
Pregnant cows feeding on hay
Here the dairy cows are sorted into sheds depending on whether they are pregnant or not.
Newborn calf standing up for the first time
In the 'labour ward' we were lucky enough to see a newborn calf stand up for the first time ready to be licked clean by its mother.
The milking shed is a rather daunting sight of milking machines connected to digitised monitors, but the handlers all appear to be patient and gentle with the animals.
The cows are milked three times a day for one month and then given one month to rest in a rotating cycle.
All the milking machine are computer controlled
The life of a dairy cow is a tough one, with artificial inseminated pregnancies to maintain milk production. The cows are calved three times before being sold.
The newborn calf being moved to the nursery
Artificial insemination techniques mean there is a 98% chance of producing a cow. The newborns are reared in a nursery and then moved to larger pens until they are ready to become impregnated for eventual milk production.
United Milk Company, Plovdiv
The milk from the dairy farms is transported by trucks to processing factories. We visit two factories: the first one run by United Milk Company in Plovdiv.
Our group suited up to visit the processing factory
We put on sterile coats, hairnets and slippers to tour the factory.
Milk vats and pipes
It takes 6.5 to 7 litres of fresh cow milk to make 1 kilogram of white cheese.
Steel maze of pipes
The cheese is packed into plastic boxes, vacuum packs or tins and is currently exported to Russia, the EU and Lebanon.
Retro canapes with white brine sirene cheese
In the presentation we tried a range of canapes made with their sirene white brine cheese.
White brine sirene on crackers
Sirene is the Bulgarian equivalent to feta, although perhaps not quite as salty as Greek feta.
Product tasting honeydew milk and vanilla ice milk
The company also produces plain and flavoured yoghurts as well as flavoured milks. The honeydew melon milk was strangely addictive, flavoured with honeydew and coloured green by using natural chlorophyll. The vanilla ice milk tasted just like melted ice cream!
Our media and business delegate group in discussion with UMC employees
Dairy factory, Dalbok Izvor
Troughs of fresh milk
The second factory we visited was in Dalbok Izvor, about 200 kilometres southeast of Sofia.
Adding rennet to the milk
Here we watched rennet being added to fresh cows milk that will eventually coagulate and form sirene white brine cheese.
The end product: sirene white brined cheese
Fresh curds that will be turned into kashkaval cheese
The factory also produces kashkaval, a yellow cheese that is somewhat similar in taste to a mild cheddar.
Hand packing blocks of cryovac sirene white brined cheese
Despite the mass volumes, packaging here is largely done by hand, a process that one delegate called "artisan".
Sirene white brine being sealed by machine
Garlic sirene cheese dip, a new product to their line
In the briefing room we were invited to try their entire range, but the biggest buzz was around their newest product, a garlic sirene cheese dip that was just punchy enough with garlic and included small chunks of sirene cheese.
Retail packs of sirene white brined cheese and yellow kashkaval
Lactobacillus bulgaricum starter for the commercial production of yoghurt
In Sofia we visited LB Bulgaricum Plc, the only state-owned company in the dairy sector in Bulgaria and registered owner of the Lactobacillus Bulgaricum trademark.
Yoghurt products with LB Bulgaricum made under licence by Meiji in Japan
The company produced fresh dairy products as well as freeze dried starter cultures. The freeze dried starter cultures are used by Meiji in Japan to produce LB Bulgaricum yoghurt under licence.
Meiji yoghurts with LB Bulgaricum
University of Food Technologies, Plovdiv
Part of our tour included a visit to the University of Food Technologies in Plovdiv. One of the most interesting projects they are working on is developing natural food flavourings by experimenting with yeast. At the moment they are concentrating on creating rose flavours but hope to extend this to other flavours to develop natural and more affordable additives, instead of using artificial and synthetic ingredients.
Mehana Izbata, Sofia
Shopska salata 4.90 leva (about AU$3.60)
And the food? We ate yoghurt and cheese with almost every meal, just like every other Bulgarian. Shopska salad is the national dish, and an entree that everyone eats before their main meal. It's like a Bulgarian take on Greek salad with amazingly ripe tomatoes, crisp cucumbers and slivers of red capsicum covered in a cloud of grated sirene white cheese.
It's a refreshing salad that works brilliantly in the heat, enriched by the fluffy shreds of sirene white cheese that melt on the tongue.
Priasno bivolsko sirene na satch 8 leva (about AU$5.85)
Fresh buffalo cheese grilled with honey and walnuts
We gorged on a feast of cheese-themed dishes at Mehana Izbata in Sofia, a cosy restaurant hidden in the cellar of a building. The grilled fresh buffalo cheese was another eye-opening moment, reminiscent of a soft haloumi that had been grilled until stretchy yet swollen in a puddle of local honey and scattered with shards of walnut.
Tchushki "byurek" 5.90 leva (about AU$4.30)
Roasted peppers in breadcrumbs stuffed with cheese
Tiny red peppers stuffed with cheese were also a hit, crumbed and deep-fried and served with a cool yoghurt sauce.
Agneshka glavitchka 10.90 leva (about AU$8)
Roasted lambs head
For my mains I went with the roasted lambs head, served not whole as I'd hoped, but picked apart into a potluck surprise of lambs brains, tongue, cheek and eyeball. The eyeball was the best bit. Really. Soft and gelatinous and entirely edible, unlike the chalky eyeballs you find in fish.
Homemade ice cream 5.90 leva (about AU$4.30)
For dessert there was homemade ice cream, lusciously creamy and studded with candied fruits and nuts like a Bulgarian version of the Italian cassata.
Starata Kashta (The Old House), Kardzhali
There was more shopska salad when we ate at Starata Kashkta (The Old House) in Kardzhali after visiting the archaeological site Perperikon.
Grilled fish with chips
They have a charcoal barbecue grill in the kitchen which lends a tantalising smokiness to my river fish, served with hand cut chips and salad.
Yoghurt with honey and walnuts
For dessert everyone loves the yoghurt with honey and walnuts. The thickness of the yoghurt is extraordinary, almost like an ice cream, and yet the yoghurt is quite mild in flavour without any distinct sourness. The honey does add a slick of sweetness and crushed walnuts provide texture. It's an idea I'm totally stealing for home!
Manastirska Magernista, Sofia
Kozunak soft sweet bread
The Manastirska Magernista translates a Monastery Cookhouse and offers a mammoth range of traditional Bulgarian dishes. There are often Bulgarian musicians roaming the restaurant too as well as a glut of Bulgarian paraphernalia. Our host explains that the different sized cowbells above the door frame were often a signature of a shepherd's flock, each set uniquely sized so every flock had their own distinct (and instantly recognisable) tune.
Buffalo cheese, sheep cheese and cow cheese platter
There's more cheese to be had, including a tasting platter of different cheeses made from buffalo, sheep and cow's milk.
Barbecued pork ribs
We feast on meat tonight, digging into hunks of barbecued pork ribs, lamb ribs, chicken fillets and coils of karnache pork sausage.
Traditional karnache sausage and grilled chicken
Victoria Pizza, Sofia
Goose liver with caramel apple 22.70 leva (about AU$16.60)
Our group inexplicably ended up at an Italian pizza restaurant for lunch one day but who was I to complain when there was goose foie gras on the menu? It was a huge portion of six thick slices served on a bed of cooked apples and a lake of toffee.
Medium Regina pizza 11.49 leva (about AU$8.40)
Fresh mozzarella, prosciutto, mascapone, figs, olive oil
with extra blue cheese and almonds (asked for walnuts but got almonds!)
This was backed up by a prosciutto, mascarpone and green fig woodfired pizza which I adorned with extras of blue cheese and walnuts. The walnuts came out of the kitchen as almonds but it was still tasty, and the upskirt pizza shot passed the test too.
Pizza upskirt shot
Crunchy zucchini with milk sauce 6.90 leva (about AU$5)
Our host, Vladimir, also shared around his zucchini chips, coated in the crunchiest batter you could imagine. These were amazing.
Izbata Winery, Sofia
Gradinska salata 6.90 leva (about AU$5)
Eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes seasoned with honey, garlic and buffalo cheese
After a massive meal at lunch, I took things easy at dinner. The eggplant, zucchini and tomato stack was capped off with two triangles of creamy buffalo cheese.
Tarator 2 leva (about AU$1.40)
Cold yoghurt and cucumber soup
And I also made sure to try the other Bulgarian national dish, tarator. It's a cold yoghurt and cucumber soup that tastes much like a diluted tzatziki but it's cool and refreshing and would be perfect for summer.
Zhenski Pazar Women's Market, Sofia
Grapes 1.3 leva / AU$0.95 per kilo
In the small snatches of free time we had, I was keen to visit the local market and made a trip to Zhenski Pazar Women's Market.
Open air market stalls
The Women's Market was so named because initially it was run by and patronaged solely by women. Today you'll find both men and women stall holders, although I was saddened to read that this market is set to be demolished and replaced by a new modern covered building, reducing the number of stalls from 114 to 65.
Blackcurrants and redcurrants
At the moment the foothpaths are dangerously cracked and crumbling but there's a lot of charm about this market, even if the stallholders have a reputation for being decidedly grumpy.
Raspberries 1 leva / AU$0.70 a tub
The fruits and vegetables are incredibly cheap. We couldn't resist one of these tubs of raspberries for only AU$0.70, snacking on them as we roamed from stall to stall.
Makeshift stalls in alleyways
It's a wonderful place to people-watch and observe how locals go about their daily life.
Green grapes 1 leva / AU$0.70 per kilo
Main covered section of the market
Walnuts 2 leva / AU$1.50 per kilo
Blackcurrants 6 leva / AU4.40 per kilo
Banitsa cheese pastries
Banitsa 70 leva (AU$0.50)
I find room for a banitsa, a Bulgarian version of Turkish bourek, that is commonly eaten for breakfast. The pastry is light and flaky which works brilliantly with the salty burst of sirene cheese inside.
On a second visit I snack on krenbirska, a soft bread plaited around a thin strip of sausage.
Scenes of Sofia and Plovdiv
Newsstand in Plovdiv
Bulgaria may have been freed from Communist rule in 1989 but there's still a strong Soviet presence in Bulgaria today - you can see it in the architecture, the utilitarian fashion (interrupted occasionally by head-to-toe Adidas tracksuits) and the overriding sombreness in its people.
Wooden church in Plovdiv
But there are also incredible pockets of history, with old churches squeezed in between buildings and a wealth of archaeological sites that would make any ancient history fanatic weep with joy.
The Ancient Theatre, Plovdiv
In Plovdiv we visited the Old Town which includes this amazing ancient theatre at the top of a hill, offering sweeping views of the city below. This traditional Roman theatre dates back to the early 2nd century, with a stage - or skene - that is made up of three levels with porticos and statues.
The theatron includes a open spectators' area - or cavera - that consists of 28 concentric rows of marble seating. Honorary reserved spectator seats were inscribed, and included names of city council representatives, magistrates, friends of the Emperor and more.
Plovdiv Roman theatre
The building was used for Thracian provincial assemblies as well as gladiatorial fights, evidenced by the safety barriers that were discovered in front of the first row.
Attila the Hun was responsible for much damage to the theatre in the 5th century AD. The theatre was only found in the 1970s after a landslide revealed the ruins. Since then it has undergone significant excavation and restoration.
Today the site is used for the performance of plays and musicals during the summer.
Wild rosehip bushes
Ruins of the ancient city of Perperikon
Perperikon was another impressive site, an ancient Thracian city in the eastern Rhodope mountains, perched at the top of a 470m high hill. At the moment it's a steep climb up a dirt track but the site is in the process of renovation and access will soon by via a paved path.
Tombs of rulers at Perperikon
It is believed that the Perperikon settlement was first inhabited around 5000BC. Legend has it that the Temple of Dionysius was found here.
Church pulpit remains dating back to the late 4th century AD or early 5th century AD
At the moment the site is completely open to the public, meaning people can touch and walk whereever they like. A new visitor centre is in the process of being built which will include walkways over the site to protect it from damage and further disintegration.
Remains of a Roman tower
Hexagonal Roman tower
The church of St George (the rotunda) built in the 4th century AD, Sofia
There are wonderfully old churches in Sofia too.
Ancient ruins of the Roman city Serdika found in the centre of Sofia. Excavations have uncovered 7 streets and 2 early Christian basilicas. The archaeological layers date back as far as 1st century AD.
And in the centre of Sofia, construction work on an underground station uncovered a new archaeological site: several streets of the Roman settlement Serdika which was founded in the 1st century AD.
Housing estates in Sofia
Across Sofia, housing estates loom large on the horizon, built during a period of rapid industrialisation as people moved to the cities in search of work.
On our last day we visited the Monastery of Saint Ivan of Rila, founded in the 10th century and restored in the 15th century after raids, and again in the 19th century following a significant fire.
Frescoes of Rila Monastery
The Rila Monastery perches high up in the Rila Mountains, 117km south of Sofia at an elevation of 1,147m above sea level. The air is crisp and pure and the backdrop of mountains is impressive.
Wooden balconies at Rila Monastery
The Rila Monastery looks like a fortress from the outside and with good reason - it holds a significant collection of artworks, historic relics and valuable religious artefacts.
Fresco at Rila Monastery
The monastery is the largest and most well-known Eastern Orthodox in Bulgaria, attracting domestic and international tourists every weekend, especially from nearby Greece.
Frescoes at Rila Monastery
In 1983 the monastery was granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
Queuing at the monastery bakery
And would this be a proper post without donuts? At the monastery, there's a tiny window where you can purchase loaves of bread, yoghurt (of course!) made from buffalo or cows milk, and mekitsa donuts fried fresh to order.
Mekitsa donuts made from flour and yoghurt
The mekitsa donuts are made from a dough that incorporates flour and yoghurt (I'm telling you, Bulgarians love yoghurt).
Mekitsa donut with icing sugar
They're super hot from the fryer and the dough has a soft but chewy density. We dust ours with icing sugar, fend off the hovering wasps, and soak up our last few moments in Bulgaria while we can.
Grab Your Fork visited Bulgaria as a guest of EU Dairy Daily.
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67 Khan Asparuh Street, Sofia, Bulgaria
Tel: +359 (2) 980 3883
Open 7 days 8am - 12am
18 Slavjanska Str, Sofia, Bulgaria
Tel: +359 (2) 989 5533
Open 7 days 11am - 12am
Kardzhali 6685, Bulgaria
Tel: +359 (2) 875 460
Rila, 2643, Bulgaria
Tel: +359 7054 2208/3383
Open 7 days 7am - 8pm
Starata Kashta Tavern (The Old House)
2 Georgi Benkovski Str, Kardzhali, Bulgaria
Tel: +359 (36) 162 884
Victoria Piza Restaurant
Todor Alexandrov Blv, Sofia, Bulgaria
Tel: +359 (0887) 699 465
Open 7 days 11am - 12am
5 Tzanko Tzerovski Str, Sofia, Bulgaria
Tel: +359 (0888) 123 474
Open 7 days 11am - 12am
Women's Market Zhenski Pazar
Stefan Stambolov Boulevard, Sofia, Bulgaria
Open 7 days 9am - 6pm (approx)
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10/14/2013 02:38:00 am