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Hi, I’m Auntie Bulgaria, aka Claire Ruston. In 2010, my partner and I bought a dilapidated village house in the Balkan Mountains in Bulgaria. This is our story. Find out about my freelance writing and editing services at

Friday, 19 October 2018

174. Kittens with dirty bums, and other stories

You’ll have to forgive the slightly sporadic posting of late. Work is busy busy to an almost oh-dear-I’ve-slightly-overcommitted-myself level. Which, as someone who has zero problem saying ‘no’, is unusual for me. Still, I’m not complaining. Work is what keeps us in cake, kittens and Ikea rugs, after all.

Speaking of cake, kittens and Ikea rugs…

We’re still diligently catching up on Bake Off every week and baking something inspired by the programme most weekends. Last week was vegan week, which isn’t really our bag. But based on a vegan mocha cake that Briony made, I baked a (non-vegan) coffee and walnut cake, made with walnuts from our garden and coffee from … well, Lidl, obviously.

I always enjoy sharing our cakes with the neighbours. You never know what their reaction is going to be. Bulgarian cakes in the shops tend to be glossy, heavily decorated concoctions that, to my mind, don’t really taste of anything (which, as my style and life icon Prue Leith would agree, means they’re not worth the calories). So my homely English cakes must look really plain in comparison. Then there’s the issue of our neighbours’ incredibly sweet tooths (tooths? teeth? There’s no way to say it in this context that doesn’t sound weird). One time I made this delicious Nigella lemon meringue cake that was achingly sweet. But because it had lemon curd in it, they complained it was too sour. So, anyway, coffee in a cake was a risk. But they demanded I made another one for the next day (I didn’t), so I think that means they liked it.

We have so many walnuts this year. We’re lucky enough to have two trees in our garden and one just outside our boundary that drops half its payload in our garden. This has probably been our best walnut year ever and I reckon the crop will easily last us two or three years. Looks like I’ll be baking a lot of walnut cakes, walnut bread and walnut pie (if that’s even a thing?) this winter.

Walnuts drying off in the spare room. This isn't even half of our haul.

Merlin and Baxter, our new kittens, are settling in well. They’re a nightmare with food. (Baxter has even eaten some shelled walnuts that Rob left on the table for two fucking minutes while he went to the loo. That can’t be normal.) And they get really manic around 9pm at night. And they keep trying to sit on top of our precious house plants. But look how cute they are.

They still enjoy stacking on top of each other. Merlin (The Grey) has filled out a
bit since I took this picture, but he's still a weird-looking dude.

Baxter claiming this plate as his own. Look at him, he's practically
daring me to do something about it.

You know what’s a brilliant thing to do when you’ve got new kittens? Totally redecorate your lounge, so that you can’t use it for a month while concrete and new flooring is laid, have four cats living in the kitchen in the meantime, and then, when the upheaval is over, let manic kittens loose on your lovely new things. Great idea. Highly recommended.

Mad boho lounge. There's *just about* enough colour and pattern going on
here to satisfy me. I like to think Prue would approve.

Gone is our dangerously bumpy old floor in favour of actual nice tiles. (The selection of tiles used to be awful in Bulgaria – really nasty, shiny things that Del Trotter circa 1985 would have loved – but it’s got so much better. Amazingly, we didn’t even have to travel to the big smoke of Sofia to get these lovely tiles; we found them in Botevgrad.) The tattered (but good quality, so I’m not getting rid of it) sofa has been covered with second-hand throws and blankets, and cheap cushion covers from Ikea. The pictures are drawings of Sofia that we picked up in a second-hand bookshop last winter for 15 leva. And we’ve splashed out on a gorgeous yellow rug to finish everything off, but it’s not going anywhere near that floor until the kittens stop being arseholes and learn to clean their bums properly. #LifestyleGuru

Monday, 1 October 2018

173. Autumn routines

Isn't autumn the best? I mean, today is dark, rainy and freezing – it’s a chilly 8°C right now, when this time last week it was almost 30°C – but who doesn’t love an opportunity to wrap themselves up in an oversized cardigan and legitimately wear Ugg boots?*

Wood delivery, mid-September 2018.

It’s the little annual routines that make autumn my favourite season. Packing away flimsy summer dresses and saying hello to my trusty old-man jumpers. Transitioning from white wine to red wine. Getting the wood delivered (wood for next winter, that is – this year’s is already chopped and stacked). Lighting the fire for the first time. Moving the tender succulents that have been enjoying life in the summer kitchen back into the real kitchen. Wearing hats. Cooking curries, stews and hot soups after months of salads and gazpacho. And baking. All the baking…

(Christ, but the new Bake Off is brilliant. I love Noel’s whimsy and Prue’s determination to dress more garishly every week. I want to be her when I grow up. This season, we’re trying to make something inspired by Bake Off every weekend or so. We did Chelsea buns a few weeks ago, and last weekend we made a dark, sticky ginger cake chocked with nubbles of stem ginger. Our neighbours were fascinated by it. ‘Why is this cake so BROWN?’ they kept asking, while prodding it. ‘It’s very BROWN isn’t it?’ ‘But how do you get it so *prod, pause, prod* BROWN?’ It's hard to explain the concept of treacle in Bulgarian but I gave it a good go.)

Considerably big Chelsea buns.

The only downside to autumn is the extensive list of jobs that need doing to get the garden ready for next spring and preserve whatever’s left to harvest. So as well as all the dividing and replanting that needs doing in the flower beds, we’ve also got to:

  • Collect the quince and make quince jelly
  • Collect the walnuts (really wish we'd done that before this morning's rain)
  • Make this year’s batch of wine
  • Cook down and freeze the apples for apple crumbles and pies (no need to make cider this year as last year’s batch is still going strong)
  • Clear away the cheapo polytunnel plastic (destroyed in a freak windy afternoon last week) and burn the blight-riddled tomato plants
  • Dig up and store all the dahlias that were frosted last week (yes, we’ve had our first frost already, which is always a bit gutting when the flowers were still going strong)
  • Bring in the last of the tender plants (cannas, lemon tree, lime tree, various pots on the terrace – our house is becoming more chaotic with plants every winter)

And all this while wrangling the two new kittens who have joined our household. Honestly, it’s hard to prioritise garden work when the fire is on, and there’s cake to eat, red wine to drink and kittens to play with.

Introducing Merlin and Baxter. Not, in fact, a two-headed freak, but two individual kittens
 who like to stack on top of each other. I love them more than cake.

*As my office is at the cold end of the house and we haven’t put the stove on today, I’m also currently wearing fingerless gloves and a large scarf. It’s a look that can best be described as ‘Boho Hobo’ or, à la Sam Rockwell in the movie Mr Right, ‘Fancy Homeless’.

Thursday, 13 September 2018

172. Sozopol and Sinemorets

Yes, we went to Sozopol and Sinemorets on holiday. Again. I know, I know. We’re getting a bit stuck in our holiday ways as we get older.

Every year we say, ‘Let’s go somewhere we’ve never been before. Albania! Macedonia! Georgia!’ Yet we nearly always trundle off down the motorway to Sinemorets. There’s just something very lovely about going back to a place you know so well, it feels like coming home. I blame my parents, for taking me on the same (albeit wonderful) Isle of Wight holiday every year when I was a kid.

We’ve only ever been to Sozopol in June, when it’s fairly quiet, so we were shocked at how much of a resort it is later in the summer. There were holidaymakers everywhere. We even saw shirtless English men walking around grumbling about how the food in every restaurant was the ‘same old, same old’. *shudder*

Luckily, we were only there for a night, and were in a very quiet little guesthouse in the Old Town. I mean, Sozopol is gorgeous, and it’s always worth a visit. But maybe go in the off-season.

Pretty Sozopol Old Town.

Old-timey (and totally-safe-I'm-sure) wheelchair ramp.

Ah, sweet little Sinemorets. Just a random little village by the sea, a few kilometres from the Turkish border, where half-built hotels sit on windy cliffs overlooking gorgeous sandy beaches. If that sounds a bit strange, it is. There’s not much to do there other than enjoy the beaches and sip G&Ts overlooking the water. It’s my idea of heaven.

We noticed there are more and more Brits coming to Sinemorets now. But the resort is still sleepy and largely unchanged from when we were last there two years ago. There’s now a supermarket, which is convenient. (Even if it was randomly blaring out really loud rap music. I was a big rap fan in my teens, but it’s definitely not conducive to shopping. You try choosing a suitable box of tampons in what feels like a really aggressive, well-lit nightclub.) And, to our utter delight, a craft beer shop has opened by the village square. Otherwise, the place was pretty much the same. (‘Same old, same old,’ as some miserable fuckers would say.)

If you go to Sinemorets, maybe avoid Butamyata beach. It’s beautiful and clean and has fun watersport stuff, but it’s the busiest beach in the village by a mile. We prefer the northern beach, the one where the Veleka River empties into the Black Sea. Stunningly beautiful, very quiet and charmingly European, with plenty of naked penises enjoying their day in the sun.

Lipite beach (reached by climbing up over the rocks at the end of Butamyata beach and taking the cliff path for about 15 minutes) is also quiet and wild. Again, no clothes required.

Our favourite beach, with the Veleka River on one side and the Black Sea on the other.

Windsurfers on the river.

I'm definitely not A Dog Person, but even I find dogs at the beach irresistibly cute.

A drink with a view.

Anyway, that’s our fun-in-the-sun over for 2018. Next year, next year, we’ll definitely go somewhere new. The Albanian coast, maybe. Lake Ohrid in Macedonia, perhaps. Or possibly hiking in Georgia. But, to be honest, Sinemorets is already calling us back…

Thursday, 23 August 2018

171. Birthday Weekend

I’m not exactly sure when the notion of Birthday Weekend was born. But at some point I was no longer satisfied with a run-of-the-mill one-day birthday bore-fest. I began to stretch the festivities out over two or (wherever possible) three days. Like a festival.

Come to think of it, more than one of my Birthday Weekends has involved buggering off to a random campsite, armed with fancy dress and as much booze as would fit in the car. One memorable year, we celebrated my birthday at the Spirit of Burgas festival, even though we’d only arrived in Bulgaria the day before. (Who needs unpacking or renovating when you can bugger off to a festival on the other side of the country?)

But I’m older now, and my Birthday Weekends are decidedly more sedate. Last year we went to Melnik and enjoyed a dawn hike through the majestic pyramids followed by (lots of) wine tasting at Melnik Winery.

This year, being both old and skint, we stayed closer to home and did a pizza-in-the-garden evening with friends on the Friday, followed by a couple of local hikes on the Saturday.

For the hikes, we started with an ‘eco trail’ that runs from behind Hotel Everest in Etropole up to a peak called Sveti Atanas . ‘Eco trail’ turned out to be a bit of a euphemism as, although it was well marked with blazes, it was really overgrown and we had to fight our way through head-height brambles most of the way. It was also really uphill, reminding us (again) how we’ve lost a lot of the fitness we built up for the Rhodope walking holiday last year.

Still, the view from the top was grand. From the peak you can see the main ridge of the Central Stara Planina (Balkan) mountain range. My hips were proper tingling near the edge up there. (Does anyone else have hips that are extremely sensitive to heights??) We had a very sedate, very English picnic of quiche – homemade by Rob – and biscuits on the peak, then tottered down and took another trail, this one much gentler and better maintained, from the hotel over to Etropole monastery. 

View from Sveti Atanas.

Hiking back down. Etropole visible between the trees.

And after all that walking, Birthday Sunday was spent mainly complaining about my poor old hips and colouring in evil psychedelic cats. Yeah, that’s right, colouring in evil psychedelic cats in my cat colouring book. My cat colouring book for adults. I still know how to get freaky.

Keeping busy in the garden while Rob kept a constant supply of prosecco flowing.

Hey, man, come check out my groovy commune. I promise not to murder you in your sleep.

Thursday, 9 August 2018

170. What to do with all those courgettes

Cake. Surely the best use of a vegetable?

I’ve not yet found a great way to preserve courgettes. We recently tried fermenting courgette batons in brine (mixed with dill flowers, horseradish leaves and sour cherry leaves of all things – it’s a Ukrainian recipe). The results are currently sitting in the fridge, waiting for the flavours to develop, so the jury’s out on whether this is worth doing. It didn’t even use up that many courgettes.

And I know you can freeze grated courgette in bags, ready to use in cakes and tarts in the winter, but, honestly, who wants to eat courgettes in January? I don’t, which explains why our frozen courgette efforts just sit there taking up space in the freezer all year. Now, I prefer to try and use up every last courgette during the course of the summer and autumn.

Here’s how we do it…

Going Greek
Our courgette fritters/balls (and more balls in the background).

A big batch of courgette fritters uses up more courgettes in one go than anything else. Double the recipe if you have to. Triple it, even. You won’t regret it. Courgette fritters are amazing, and there’s no shame in eating them for two days in a row. Our favourite method is a Greek recipe from a book called Vefa’s Kitchen (they’re big, fluffy courgette balls rather than flat fritters), but you might like to try:

Serve the fritters/balls with tzatziki and salad. I also like them with a smokey, spicy tomato or pepper sauce dolloped on top.

We had a lovely courgette dish in Greece once, where the courgettes were simply cut into discs, coated in flour and deep fried. I support the deep frying of pretty much any vegetable. Again, serve with tzatziki. A nice, cold beer wouldn’t go amiss, too. Maybe a harbour view…

(And if you’re really into deep frying. Try these courgette fries with sumac salt from Sabrina Ghayour’s book Sirocco. Uses up loads of the blighters.)

Back to Greece, and I urge you to give briam a try, a simple baked vegetable dish of layered courgettes, potatoes and tomatoes. When I first came across the recipe I thought it might be a bit dull but it’s surprisingly delicious in real life. I think it’s the long, slow bake (90 minutes) that makes it so tasty.

Not that I’m obsessed with Greek food or anything, but I’m also dying to try this Greek courgette filo pie (spanakopita) recipe by Ottolenghi. A friend has made it a couple of times this summer and says it’s great.

I like colour. My wardrobe is full of clashing colours and prints, so much so that, even though I have enough items to wear a different outfit every day for probably a year, none of it sodding goes together. Anyway, I’m the same with food, and I love to see loads of different colours on the plate, so although it may sound weird, thin courgette slices work well on a homemade veggie pizza, accompanied by red and yellow tomatoes, and dollops of bright green pesto.

Again, when it comes to colour, I’m like an excited toddler with bad eyesight. So when I saw ‘Rainbow Salad’ on a menu last time I was in England, I obviously ordered it. It was made up of ultra-thin slices of raw beetroot (a mixture of red, golden and stripy), plus long, thin ribbons of green and yellow courgettes, vibrant red cherry tomatoes and green leaves, dressed with a simple oil and balsamic vinegar dressing. Imagine me reaching out a pudgy hand and dribbling ‘pretty … gimme’ and you’re not far off my actual reaction when the plate arrived.

If you’re not obsessed with packing as many colours as possible onto a plate, try making a simple side salad of thin courgette ribbons (cut with a vegetable peeler) tossed with dill and a lemony vinaigrette dressing, and left to muddle for half an hour before eating. Nice with barbecued pork skewers, I reckon.

And now we get to possibly my favourite use of courgette: cake. If you’ve never tried grated courgette in a cake, you should give it a go. The courgette kind of melts into the cake, so it’s not obvious you’re eating a vegetable (great for tricking children), and it makes the whole cake lovely and moist.

I regularly make this courgette chocolate cake (without the margarine icing) and it’s such a useful recipe to have up your sleeve because you don’t need eggs or butter. So even if your fridge is bare, you can still cobble a cake together. The batter is extremely dry and breadcrumby until you add the grated courgette. Don’t worry, that’s normal.

Also, I’ve been making my own adapted versions of a BBC Good Food courgette and orange cake recently. It’s one of those brilliantly easy, all-in-one-bowl, no-need-for-a-mixer type of recipes. The original recipe is here, but I’ve been tweaking as follows:

Chocolate orange courgette cake

Follow the BBC recipe but, instead of putting in 100g of sultanas (really? Sultanas? WTF BBC), add 100g of chopped dark chocolate. Much, much better in my opinion. It’s like a Terry’s chocolate orange but in cake form.

Personally, I don’t bother to make the cream cheese frosting from the recipe. Not because I don’t like frosting (I could happily eat a bathtub of the stuff); sometimes I just want a nice, plain cake. But if I was feeling decorative, I might be tempted to melt down some extra chocolate and splatter it over the top, Jackson-Pollock style.

Lemon and poppy seed courgette cake

There are lots of recipes for this sort of cake online but, buoyed by my chocolatey orangey success, I decided to adapt the recipe myself. Here it is:

  • 150g sugar (I used brown, but caster sugar would be fine)
  • 125ml sunflower oil
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • Grated zest of 1 lemon, plus juice of half a lemon
  • 2 small or one medium courgette (around 300–350g), grated and squeezed to extract as much of the liquid as possible
  • 2 tablespoons poppy seeds
  • 300g self-raising flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • Pinch of salt

  • Heat the oven to 180°C. Grease and line a cake tin, either a loaf tin (mine measures 30cm x 11cm) or a 20cm round tin – either is fine.
  • Beat together the oil and sugar in a large bowl. Add the vanilla.
  • Gradually beat in the eggs, and add the lemon zest and juice.
  • Stir in the grated courgette and poppy seeds.
  • Gradually and gently fold in the flour, baking powder and salt.
  • Pour into the prepared tin and bake for around 50 minutes. (In our woodburning oven, it can take anywhere between 45 and 70 minutes. Sometimes, if the cake is starting to brown too much near the end of the cooking time, we have to cover the top of the tin with foil. Oh the joys of baking in a woodburning stove.)
  • It’s a moist cake so when you test it with a skewer or knife, you might get a few crumbs sticking to it, but there shouldn’t be any wet batter coming out on the knife.

You could top this with a cream cheese frosting, like the BBC recipe (using lemon zest in place of the orange zest). But I like to make a runny glaze by stirring some icing sugar into the juice of one lemon, and adding lemon zest plus a sprinkling of dried thyme leaves. Simple and pretty.

I’ve also made this cake with a syrup instead of any kind of icing. If you fancy trying that, bring 100ml water and 75g of sugar to the boil in a pan, add the zest and juice of half a lemon, and boil for five or 10 minutes until it starts to thicken. As soon as the cake comes out of the oven, prick it all over with a skewer and pour the warm syrup over the top.

I think both cakes are nicer (as in, moister) the day after they’re baked, so keep that in mind if you’ve got the vicar coming over for afternoon tea.

Finally, the original recipe says to store the cake in the fridge, but I don’t bother if it’s only sitting around for a couple of days – I guess it’s more important for the frosting rather than the cake. But I’m pretty cavalier about these things. Last weekend, I ate a week-old piece of the chocolate-orange version, even though it was starting to develop a bit of a mouldy fuzz. (What? Only a very slight fuzz, which I scraped off. And you know what? It was still really moist!)