My photo
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

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Tart me up

Here’s a neat way with courgettes that I made up all by myself, like the clever sausage I am. Now that we’re ramping up to Peak Courgette, it’s useful to have yet another courgette recipe to put into rotation, alongside other favourites like cake, briam (Greek potato and courgette bake) and fritters.

Herby courgette tart
Main ingredients are as follows, but use whatever you like (so long as it involves pastry and courgettes, obviously):

  • 1 x sheet of frozen puff pastry, defrosted and ready to use
  • Mascarpone
  • Garlic and whatever herbs you like, such as thyme and oregano
  • Onions (amount depends on how much you like onions!)
  • 2 x small/medium courgettes
  • Handful of cherry tomatoes
  • Pesto
  • Parmesan or whatever cheese you like (I'd maybe avoid the potential oil-slick of cheddar but it'd certainly taste good)


  • Roll out your puff pastry so it roughly fits whichever baking sheet is least covered in cat hair (just me? Okay then). Mine was roughly 30cm x 30cm. If you want to be really fancy and make your own pastry, you can’t go wrong with Felicity Cloake’s method for rough puff pastry from her trusty quiche lorraine recipe.
  • Spread the rolled-out pastry with some sort of tasty sauce. I did mascarpone, thinned down with a little milk to make it spreadable, mixed with some oregano, thyme and garlic from the garden. A light spreading of tomato passata, zhuzhed up with some herbs, sugar and garlic would also work. Basically you’re making a pastry courgette pizza. Act accordingly.
  • Caramelise some onions – I did two red, two white and cooked them with some olive oil, sugar and red wine vinegar to speed things along. Spread over your waiting pastry base and try not to think about how much you now stink of onions.
  • Use a potato peeler to make attractive long strips of courgette. Drape these artfully over the pastry.
  • Top with some sliced tomatoes – a mixture of red and yellow cherry tomatoes is pretty. 
  • If you have some, dollop a few spoonfuls of pesto here and there.
  • Sprinkle over some grated parmesan (did I mention this is basically a pastry pizza?) and season with salt and pepper.
  • Bake until the pastry is nicely crisp and the browned, cheesy top screams ‘eat me’. This took about 45 minutes at roughly 180C in our outdoor woodburning oven.

Alongside a salad this would, in theory, serve four polite adults – or two greedy ones. Personally, I ate three quarters of the tart by myself in one go, and had the remaining quarter cold for lunch the next day. I’m sure it would reheat well; I was just too hungry to wait.

In non-courgette news…

The rest of the veg garden is doing nicely. We’re in for a good tomato year, although the Wonky Polytunnel’s days are clearly numbered.

My flower-arranging skills leave something to be desired but my enthusiasm for home-grown cut flowers is burning brightly. These are our gladioli. We have them in sunny yellow, too, but here I was going for an Elton John meets Mariah Carey, I-only-want-the-green-jellybeans diva look.

After a long absence, the village sheep herd is coming by our house every day. In our early days here, there was also a village goat herd, and a small cow herd. Now only the sheep remain. That’s progress for you. In a few years’ time, there’ll be no village sheep and I’ll miss them. What I won’t miss, though, is the shepherd who drives (yes, drives) behind the sheep, constantly beeping his horn to get them to keep moving – thus making something utterly charming just a little bit shit.

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

June is over … and so is the stormy season?

The stormy season seems to be getting longer every year. When we first came to Bulgaria, there’d usually be a stormy few weeks in May – lovely warm days, then these great crashing storms in the evenings. Then, within a couple of years, the storms started creeping into June as well as May, but still mostly occurred in the evenings. This year, we had storms across the end of April, all through May and all through June – and they’d often crop up during the days, not just at night.

We gave up looking at the 10-day weather forecast because it just kept saying the same thing: ‘thunderstorms’ ‘a thunderstorm or two’ ‘chance of thunderstorms’…

I like the storms here. I’ve never seen or heard storms like it. We get everything from impressive, strobe-quick lightning storms, to almighty downpours that turn the village road into a shallow river. Sometimes the thunder booms so loud in the night, I wake up with a little scream, convinced the house is falling down (massive catastrophist that I am). We rarely have to think about watering the garden in May or June. Plants grow fat and burly from the combination of rain and sun. As do the weeds.

But it does tend to get a bit old after, you know, eight weeks of storms.

So we’ve been pleased to see that the first few days of July have been baking hot and calm. Not a snifter of wind. No yellowing of the sky, swiftly followed by rumblings and the inevitable power cut. Not even a brief shower.

To celebrate, I made a cherry pie with sour cherries from the garden, which we ate with vanilla ice cream. All very wholesome and old fashioned, in an endless-summer-holidays, jumpers-for-goalposts kind of way.

Hopefully, this marks the end of the stormy season and the start of summer proper. Being up in the mountains, it never gets silly hot here. We hit 33°C yesterday and the day before, which is manageable while maintaining everyday routines. (I think the hottest we’ve ever had was 37°C a few years ago, and at that point we just stayed indoors and lazed around like cats. You can’t do anything in that sort of heat. How on earth did France cope with 45°C? Did everyone just close the curtains and sit in the bath for the day?)

A very hot Baxter hiding out under the bamboo.

The garden seems to have coped well with the storms and we’ve not had any major casualties so far. In fact, it’s all looking quite full and chaotic (in what I hope is a charming, romantic way, but perhaps just looks a mess to other people).

In the flower garden...

A rare spot of watering.

And over on the veg side...

Leeks at the front, doing well.

New trellis for the butternut squash to climb up. Chillies in the foreground. Kale on the other side.

Wonky polytunnel is wonkier than ever this year after our 5.5kg tomcat got ON TOP of it. 

What about you? Have the skies been clear and friendly? Are you already sick of the heat? Is it really only the English who obsess over the weather? Discuss.

Friday, 21 June 2019

The majesty of Magazin Mania

One of my favourite things to do in Sofia (besides all the eating and drinking) is go to the big Magazin Mania second-hand clothes shop, located in the basement of the covered market (Central Market Hall). It’s even better when we take family and friends from England down there – just watching their faces as they take in the separate zones, weighing scales, and general jumble sale atmosphere is priceless. This is shopping with rules. Shopping with weights and measures. Shopping with the potential to find some really great old-lady nightgowns. Obviously, I love it.

One of my latest and more random purchases. How does a kitten destroy brunch exactly?
What's the heavy metal connection? If anyone can explain this t-shirt to me,
please do get in touch below.

There are Mania shops all over the country, not just Sofia. And, to be honest, our nearest store in Botevgrad is probably better for finding weird and wonderful clothing – the Sofia store is a bit classier, let’s say.

So this is how it works. Specifically in Mania – other second-hand clothes shops are available – they have separate ‘zones’: zala (hall) A and zala B. (By the way, we once went in a Magazin Mania with a zala C and I nearly peed. Oh the planning this will require, I thought, rubbing my sticky hands in glee.) Anyway, one zone is always smaller and cheaper than the other, and because they have different prices, you can’t freely wander between each zone carrying armfuls of clothes.

The only orderly way to tackle this is to start in the smaller, cheaper zone, pick out what you like and try it on in that zone’s changing rooms. If you want to buy any of the items, you have to take it to the desk in that zone, and get it weighed, bagged and marked up with the price. (Confusingly, you don’t necessarily pay there – you’ll probably have to take your bagged items to the other zone and pay for everything altogether at the end.) Then you can proceed to the second zone, where there are different prices, different colour shopping baskets, more scales and more changing rooms. Repeat the process: snaffle around for clothes, try them on, get them weighed, and you can finally pay.

How much you pay depends on how much the items weigh. Which always freaks out the folks from home. And, just to add to the fun, the price-per-100g (or whatever it is) is different on each day of the week. Basically, if you’re in the market for a heavy, ankle-length leather coat (and, really, why wouldn’t you be?), you’ll pay a lot more for it on, say, Thursdays than you would on a Monday. Even though it’s the same coat. Brilliant, right? What’s not to love about this crazy-ass system? It’s like a bonkers challenge – the Krypton Factor of clothes shopping.

Because sometimes you just gotta get the Led out.

I’ve bought some amazing stuff in lots of different second-hand shops over the years (and, in charity shops back home before that), but Mania is my favourite of them all. I once bought a vintage Italian leather bomber jacket in the cheap zone for 4 leva. That’s two quid, people. Two quid! I’m also the proud owner of a pure wool, calf-length camel coat – of the sort that was painfully fashionable in the UK last winter – bought for the outrageous price of 6 leva.

My beloved £3 coat.

And the sheer variety … oh man, if you’re drawn to things like faded My Little Pony t-shirts, tropical jumpsuits from the 1980s, and ridiculous hipster jumpers (yep, yep and yep, in my case), you’ll be in heaven. You’ll also find plenty of normal H&M, Marks & Sparks, and Primarni stuff, too.

I can't tell you how much of a winner I feel in this wide-leg, tropical jumpsuit.
I bust it out every summer.

Mad tassle shaman kaftan dress? Yes please.

As with any second-hand items, check for stains (of the bodily-fluid/won’t-come-out-in-the-wash variety) and holes (that can’t be repaired) before you head to the changing room. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve schlepped to the changing cubicle, undone my boots, peeled myself out of my jeans and jumper – all hot and bothered and blowing my fringe off my forehead because Bulgarian shops in winter are HOTTER THAN THE ACTUAL SUN – just to find out the thing I’m trying on has a fucking great hole in it. There is no greater pain.

Oh, and also, if you don’t want to buy some of the items you’ve tried on, don’t try and hand them to the member of staff stood by the changing rooms. They won’t put your shit back for you. Frankly, they’ll look appalled at the very suggestion and you’ll feel like a lazy Western arsehole.

What’s been your best second-hand purchase? Or does the thought of wearing something that someone else has worn (and in the case of at least one nightie I’ve bought, probably died in) freak you out?

Monday, 10 June 2019


We do like a good garden project, we do. Not those perpetual projects that never seem to get finished (or even really get off the ground). You know those types of projects – for us it’s things like replacing the nasty chain link fence at the front of the house (BORING!) or building an actual, proper shed (boring, but also daunting since the area where the shed will go needs some serious hard landscaping and a retaining wall).

No, I’m talking about the fun projects. The fru-fru things that aren’t particularly pressing but somehow leapfrog the more important projects.

Last summer it was making the terrace outside our back door. This spring it was revamping the edging on the veg beds. This summer: a Moroccan courtyard area. Because, well, why not?

We’ve got this strip of land between the house and the summer kitchen that we’ve never known what to do with. When we were turning the tumble-down barn into a summer kitchen, it became home to all the junk from the barn. Then, when we finally cleared all that junk, it became home to a pile of nettles and bindweed. It’s an awkward area, too – dominated by a huge, tangled mulberry tree and, somewhere underneath, our septic tank. It overlooks the driveway and wood store. It’s just a depressing mess.


So here’s the plan. We’re going to attempt to pollard the mulberry tree – basically chop the top off that sucker – to rejuvenate it and get it under control. The whole area will be terraced with stone. We’ll make a few symmetrical raised beds planted with statuesque, exotic-looking plants – maybe some hardy palms or something. There’ll be a wraparound bench around the mulberry tree. And we’ll build a tiled wall with a water feature/sink to screen off the driveway behind. Add some lanterns. Throw in some colourful cushions. Bung on a kaftan. And bosh, our very own Moroccan courtyard in the Balkans.

That’s the plan, anyway. Let’s hope it’s more successful than our never-ending front wall and garden shed projects. The idea of having a Moroccan courtyard and pretending I’m lounging in a Marrakesh riad is certainly more motivating than ‘it’ll be nice to have somewhere to put the rake’. In other words, I know we need a garden shed, but I want a Moroccan courtyard. Which do you think will get done first?

Monday, 27 May 2019

Gardening bore, May 2019

Still flying solo here for another few days while Rob finishes his trip to England. And it’s starting to wear thin now. The novelty of having the house to myself for a few weeks has been replaced with a sore back (from gardening), cracked hands (from washing up – I’m normally the drier-upper), and general lethargy (pasta? again? oh good).

Anyway, here are some lovely pictures of the garden, which is both a joy and a horrendously high-maintenance diva at this time of year. Seriously, it's the Mariah Carey of gardens. I'm exhausted. 

Slightly revamped veg garden with new edging for the beds. I've planted out some veg
since this picture was taken, so it's now a lot less bare.

Hurrah for Wonky Polytunnel 2019! Currently housing four tomato varieties and
some aubergines, and sheltering some seedlings down at the end.

View from the veg garden into the flower garden, aka Mad Old Lady Cottage Garden.

More of the flower garden.

More plants waiting to go outside.

Enjoying the terrace before he went back to England.

The things I have to deal with while he's off on his jollies.