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.
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Whenever anyone asks me what were the high points of our recent trip to Europe I always answer with two simple words – the food. We happily indulged ourselves whenever possible, knowing we would be walking it all off within days and I was pleased to note that I came home carrying no more extra baggage than my shopping.
I was having a conversation about our foodie finds with my friend Kris Lloyd, the hugely talented and multi-award winning Woodside Cheese Wrights, not long after we got back and was waxing lyrical about some butter made from clotted cream (cultured butter) which we had bought on our last day in London. It was part of a significant haul that we took home from London’s Borough Markets (more about that later) for a final feeding frenzy and had made quite an impression. Kris commented that she had recently been “playing around” (her words) with cultured butter, including one which she had washed in whiskey. With the taste of the delicious, golden London lipids still lingering, to say I was eager to try Kris’ efforts would be something of an understatement.
Cultured butter is something of a recent discovery for many Australians, but has been in use for 100’s of years in Europe. The butter which we are used to is what Europeans refer to as sweet cream butter – delicious, but lacking in the depth of flavour of cultured butter. Cultured butter is made in exactly the same way as ordinary butter, but a live culture is added to the cream which is allowed to ripen for some time before being churned, salted (or not) and rinsed. Kris adds the culture to her cream 24 hours before she uses it to make butter, giving the cream time to “clot”. Cultured butter has a richer, deeper flavour which some find somewhat tangy and also comes with a little probiotic boost from the addition of the live culture.
Kris gave me three different batches to play around with – an almost unsalted butter, salted butter and the remarkable whiskey-washed version – and I’ve had a very happy day or two getting to know them. They are all truly delicious and definitely add an extra facet to the dishes I used them in – a Mushroom and Almond Bruschetta with Chevre and Vanilla Poached Oranges with Pikelets. I kept these recipes fairly simple in order to let the ingredients do the talking – there’s no point in using outstanding produce and then smothering it with other flavours and fancy techniques – good food doesn’t need to be tricky. The mushrooms I used came from Marco the Mushroom Man in the Adelaide Central Market and the sublime oranges were in our CSA box from Jupiter Creek Farm – all fresh, local and fabulous. I couldn’t help adding some wonderful Beerenberg Caramelised Onions to the mushroom dish – they finished it off perfectly.
- 500 gms Portobello mushrooms, sliced
- 30 gms toasted almonds, ground as fine as your food processor will allow
- 100 gms Woodside Cheesewright chevre
- 80 gms Cultured butter
- 1 tbsp chopped thyme
- 1 good pinch of salt
- Beerenberg Caramelised Onions
- 2 large slices sourdough bread
- Melt the butter in moderately hot pan, add mushrooms and salt, cook gently.
- When mushrooms begin to soften add the ground nuts and the thyme, continue cooking until mushrooms are cooked to taste.
- Slice bread and toast. (At this point you may/may not choose to butter it with more of the cultured butter. I’ll leave you to guess what I did.)
- Pile the cooked mushrooms on the toasts, sprinkle each with a teaspoon or two of the caramelised onions, then crumble the chevre over the top, serve.
The whiskey washed butter was used in an even simpler dish of pikelets with vanilla poached oranges, but the combination was absolutely stunning and much appreciated by the guests to whom I served it yesterday for afternoon tea. My good friend Meg is very partial to a wee dram or two of whiskey and her eyes glazed over just a little while eating these.
I’m sure everyone can work out how to make basic pikelets. As for the vanilla poached oranges – the oranges were simply peeled, making sure all of the pith was removed, sliced about 10mm thick and gently poached for ten minutes in a syrup made of 1 1/2 cups of white sugar, 1/2 cup of water and one vanilla bean, split open and scraped – hardly a recipe at all! I cooled them slightly in the syrup, buttered the hot pikelets with the whisky washed butter and layered the oranges and pikelets, topping with a dab of the precious butter. Eat, then swoon.