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Bulgaria is a very beautiful country, full of rolling mountains, glistening lakes and alpine valleys, with a culinary tradition influenced by 500 years of occupation and a strong agricultural tradition. Before World War II, agriculture was the chief sector of the Bulgarian economy, but the face of this changed substantially after the war with the collectivisation of over 90% of agricultural land. Private, domestic vegetable plots have always been maintained on some level, contributing quite substantially to alleviating food shortages at some stages of Bulgarian history and probably going some way to explaining the passion in that country for the range of fabulous, fresh salads available everywhere.
Since 2007, Bulgaria has been a member of the European Union and agriculture is once again a thriving part of the economy. The countryside is a cornucopia of orchards and fields of vegetable crops, and almost every home in every village that we drove through had extensive and well tended vegetable gardens. Most of the produce from these gardens is organic as few can afford costly fertilisers or pesticides.
Those who live in the cities and towns source their fresh produce from a range of outdoor markets of varying sizes and at the random roadside stalls that pop up spontaneously in side lanes and street corners. I visited the largest of these, The Women’s Market, which is extensive, with a wide range of seasonal produce supplied and sold by small-holders from near-by outlying regions. The food here is truly magnificent, although it would be unrealistic to expect to find your new best friend here – the traders are a somber lot. This may have something to do with the prices which are eye-poppingly cheap – great for the consumer, but not such a happy circumstance for the grower.
I also paid a visit to the night markets on Graf Ignatiev Street in central Sofia. This is a popular shopping street, with trams running down the centre of the road. If retail therapy is what floats your boat, I’d suggest having a wander through the many small boutiques and stores around there but, once again, I just couldn’t take my eyes off the amazing fresh foods. One stall was selling hot, ready-cooked pumpkin which was available in whole slabs or prepackaged with a spoon, ready to eat while you wander around window-shopping.
My visit was in the early days of the northern autumn, so wonderful food was still readily available – I’d imagine the selection would become much more limited later in the year, although I suspect the Christmas markets would be pretty special. With such abundance around me, I enjoyed fresh berries and fruit with my morning yoghurt (another of their specialties), but the one thing that truly blew me away was the flavour quality of the tomatoes. I ate the local specialty, Shopska Salad, every day and was never once disappointed in the colour, flavour or texture of the tomatoes. No wonder they’re so keen on their salads in Bulgaria – they’d be mighty disappointed if their tomato selection was limited to the poor examples we tolerate here.