I’ll come clean right from the get-go here and tell you that prior to a couple of months ago my ignorance on the subject of Bulgaria was almost absolute. If pressed, I could say that it was in Eastern Europe and had once been part of the Eastern Soviet Bloc – and that was really all I had. Happily, thanks to an invitation from the Bulgarian Dairy Association (sponsored by the EU) that gaping hole in my education has been repaired and I’ve been blessed to visit and get to know a beautiful country with a fabulous food story to tell.
Bulgaria has a modern and efficient dairy industry and is largely known for it’s manufacture of white brined cheese (what we would know as feta), yoghurt and a yellow cheese called Kashkaval. When Bulgarians speak of cheese they are referring specifically to the white brined variety which they are absolutely crazy about. They are high quality manufacturers of this cheese and export it around the world. Bulgarian yoghurt is probably the most pleasant plain yoghurt I have ever eaten, having a notably mild flavour without the strong, sharp, tang that other plain yoghurts possess. While it is possible to export it, they have a growing business and interest exporting just one distinctive component of it and, given what I now know about it, I can see why.
I imagine, like me, that most of you have some yoghurt in your fridge, but I’m wondering if many of you are aware of some of the historical facts about this healthy dairy product – I sure wasn’t. While the specific origins of this functional food are shrouded in the dusts of millenia, some cultures are known to have been consuming it as a regular part of their diet since ancient times. Bulgarians, in particular, have been noted for their longstanding tradition of producing distinctively high quality yoghurt and a significant consumption, per capita, of it. One of the (innumerable) other things of which I was unaware is the fact that Bulgarians are thought to be particularly long-lived and that early last century this came to be linked with their yoghurt-eating habits and the peculiar properties of their own Lactobacillus Bulgaricum.
Fresh, plain yoghurt contains probiotics or live cultures, but L. Bulgaricum is considered to be far and away the most effective of these when it comes to breaking down lactose in the gut, populating the gut with good bacteria and having an inhibiting effect on the development of harmful gut bacteria. Many studies have found it to be beneficial in digestive, alimentary and inflammative joint conditions, cholesterol and triglyceride levels, with recent studies in Spain showing positive results on the immune system. I was fortunate enough to meet one of the Professors of Milk and Milk Production Technology from the Bulgarian Academy of Science in Sofia who spoke to us about the extraordinary properties of L. Bulgaricum. Prof. Mariya Baltadzhieva also has firm beliefs about it’s role in slowing down the aging process – views that seemed completely validated to me when I discovered that this remarkable woman whom I had assumed to be in her late 60’s was in fact 82.
Bulgarians also consume enormous quantities of their beloved white cheese on a daily basis – as did I whilst there, mostly grated over their most popular salad, the Shopska Salad. This salad is always served as a side dish at either lunch or dinner (or both) and consists simply of fresh, diced tomatoes, cucumbers, onion and parsley covered with a generous layer of grated white cheese. Grating the cheese, unlike cubing it as we tend to do in a salad, means that it mingles with each mouthful and if one takes the added step of drizzling the salad with a little good quality olive oil it almost becomes similar to a creamy dressing. I’d urge you to give this serving idea a try – I’m a convert and it’s how I’ll be using white cheese in the future.
As far as I know* (see comments below) we can’t get any L. Bulgaricum yoghurt here in Australia yet – and I think that’s a bit of a shame because we are missing out on a significant functional food. Like sourdough yeasts, the lacto-bacillus localises quite quickly losing it’s unique properties so batches of the yoghurt have to be regularly re-started with imported dried L. Bulgaricum starter. It seems to me there’s a great point-of-difference marketing opportunity just hanging there for an entrepreneurial Australian dairy (learn more about it here). Just sayin’.
Whilst in Bulgaria, Lambs’ Ears and Honey was a guest of the Bulgarian Dairy Association.
Edited 3 October, 2013.