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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, 24 July 2020


Because, sometimes you just have to get in the washing machine and hide away from everyone.

Is it me or is the world particularly deranged this month? I mean, more than usual for 2020. You know shit’s not right when you see the actual president of the United States utter the words, ‘Show me the deaths chart,’ in a TV interview. Like it’s a totally normal thing to say, too. Show. Me. The deaths chart.

Meanwhile, Bulgaria’s embroiled in yet another corruption scandal. And the bag-of-grey-skin-and-red-hot-narcissism that serves as the UK’s prime minister says the country’s response to coronavirus shows off the ‘sheer might’ of the UK. Sheer might? SHEER MIGHT? To paraphrase that scene in When Harry Met Sally, I’ll have what he’s having.

And why, for the love of God, can’t anyone in Bulgaria wear a mask properly. It’s not a chin strap. I get it, masks are uncomfortable, especially in the heat. But when you wear it around your chin you literally have all the discomfort of strapping something to your face in hot weather with NONE OF THE FUCKING BENEFITS.

Anyway, this is why I’m staying indoors for the next, oh I don’t know, forever, and making chutney. Last weekend was mango chutney (mangoes being a rare find in the shops, and mango chutney even rarer). This weekend, I’ll be making a beetroot, apple and onion chutney with our first beetroot harvest of the summer.

OOOh, and we harvested the first of our spuds. We haven’t bothered growing spuds for years, but I can’t think why. It’s so fun squirreling around in the earth and coming up with big spuddy nuggets – like panning for gold, only with more starch. Today we’ll be throwing some spuds on the barbecue, along with veggie sausages, and generally congratulating ourselves on living in the middle of nowhere away from all the batshit craziness.

But if this madness continues, I might have to further isolate myself and get in the washing machine with Iggy. He may be our dumbest cat, but he’s got the right idea there.

Friday, 10 July 2020

Out in the garden – a photo essay

‘Photo essay’ being a grandiose way of me just inserting a load of pictures instead of crafting a logical collection of words. (It’s Friday. It’s sunny. We’re barbecuing. Who wants to be inside typing?)

Here goes…

In the veg garden

Pepper sizing up the garden.

The veg garden is beautifully full this year, with lots of flowers as well as edibles.

Gladioli (for cut flowers) and calendula among this year's stonking beetroot.

Exciting new crops for this year: sweet potatoes (which we've not grown for years); our first kaffir limes;
a wild-and-woolly-looking potato patch (spuds not being something we normally grow);
and our first attempt at green beans.

Plus a few old favourites: purple sprouting broccoli; tomatoes; grapes; this year's garlic harvest;
the first butternut squash on the vines; and monster courgette.

In the flower garden
And to think we never gave a toss about flowers until a few years ago…

Meanwhile, the rustic greenhouse project continues
I mean, what can I say, it’s huge. And it’s so far behind schedule, Rob’s had to plant the tomatoes and build around them!

Thursday, 25 June 2020


We did it. We did the post-lockdown cliché thing. We went to Ikea.

We needed a new teapot, you see. And some margarita glasses – yes, we needed margarita glasses – and Rob wanted some special paint for a garden project. So we figured we’d do a quick get-in-get-out run to Sofia. And it was fine. There weren’t any queues to get into Ikea. There were some queues at the checkout, but people were mostly keeping their distance and wearing masks. We used so much hand sanitiser, the car smelt like an alcoholic had been sleeping in it for weeks.

It was the most ‘going out’ we’ve done since February, and I can’t say I’ve missed it that much. My bank card almost combusted with the shock of being used to pay for such frivolous things (all we’ve bought for months is food and petrol and, er, cement). And it certainly hasn’t led to a new-found confidence about going out. In the two weeks since our cheeky Ikea run, we’ve gone back to hunkering down at home and only venturing out for mushrooms, soya milk and gin. Because we’re fun like that.

Here in Bulgaria, everything has been returning to normal across June – non-essential shops, bars and restaurants (even for indoor service), cinemas, blah blah blah. But coronavirus cases are on the rise, breaching 100 new cases a day for the first time since the pandemic started. Yesterday there were 130 new cases. That won’t sound like a lot to anyone in the UK, and it isn’t. But I read one Bulgarian health expert said that if the country were to hit 300 cases a day, the health system wouldn’t be able to cope.

So I don’t really feel like getting back to normal, and am kind of aghast that other people do. Obviously, I’m showing my privilege here, because I can work from home. Some people don’t have the option to stay home. Others, though, are just bored of it all.

Look, all I’m saying is, I went out to buy margarita glasses, felt a bit dirty and guilty about it, and now I’m staying in (food shopping aside) for the rest of 2020.

Christ, I didn’t even sit down to write about coronavirus. I sat down to write about our veg garden! I’ll do more of a deep-dive on this year’s veg-growing efforts next time. For now, I’ll just say things are coming along well – despite the iffy weather – and the veg garden is beautifully full, with flowers as well as edibles.

Also, we’ve been busy making stuff. Inspired by something we saw on Gardeners’ World, we made a rack for drying herbs. Like everything in our lives, it’s wonky AF, but it works well – much more effective than hanging herbs in bunches covered with a paper bag, which is what we used to do.

And another thing we saw on Gardeners’ World: we made a succulent garden. Pretty, isn’t it?

Finally, we turn to cat news. Iggy, our oldest, dumbest cat has started eating ants. We have a big rock in the garden that must be on top of a nest, because it's always covered in ants. (Our garden is like a minefield of ants’ nests. You have to know where to step and where not to step if you don’t want your feet covered in angry ants.) Iggy has recently discovered these rock-loving ants (it’s only taken him eight years), and seems to find them pretty tasty. His technique has evolved somewhat over the last few weeks, although I’m not sure it’s evolved for the better – while he used to sit next to the rock, licking the ants off it, he now sits on the rock, waits for the ants to crawl all over him, then just cleans himself with his paw, scooping the ants off his body and into his mouth. I mean, are there classes you can take to improve your cat’s intelligence? Like dog agility classes, but for the cat’s, you know, brain? Answers below, please.

Thursday, 11 June 2020

The boomiest of booms (also, cake)

Stormy season has arrived. Look at those clouds rolling in.

Ah, June. A great month for those Brits in Bulgaria who love wanging on about the weather. (So that’s all Brits in Bulgaria, then.) It’s hot and sunny one minute, then you hear the familiar rumble of thunder rolling in over the mountains, then before you know it, the road is a river, there’s water coming into the house in various places and the garden is getting pummelled.

Not sure if anyone’s studied this, but Bulgarian thunder must be the boomiest in the world. I don’t know if it’s because we’re in a narrow village that weaves between mountains – so the thunder reverberates around – or the general lack of other noise (except cars, tinkling sheep and chainsaws), but the thunder here is LOUD. In the old days, it used to make me cry out and spill whatever alcoholic beverage I was holding (I’m usually holding one). Now, we just give each other a look that says ‘Blimey, that was another big one.’ Each storm seems to circle above us, then move away, then circle back for a final flourish. BOOM!

Yesterday’s storm was the biggest of the year so far. When it storms, most of our cats either come home or find somewhere dry to hide in the garden. Not Baxter. Ordinarily, Baxter is our smartest cat, an evil genius who has somehow learned to unlock our locking cat flap. But when it rains or there’s a storm, he’s the only one guaranteed to come in sopping bloody wet. And immediately try to jump at us for a cuddle. I think he does it to torment us.

A very wet Baxter, looking like the unloved 'before' picture
in an RSPCA advert.

God knows how bad the garden looks today after yesterday’s storm. It’s almost midday and I still haven’t been outside to inspect the damage. Our tomatoes had no protection from the hailstones. And I hadn’t got around to staking the taller of the foxgloves. It probably looks like a dystopian wilderness out there. And it looked so pretty before the storm…

I suppose I’ll have to brave it after lunch, head outside, and try to salvage floppy, bedraggled plants wherever possible. (And do the daily snail hunt. Bastards.)

Speaking of lunch, Rob made this delicious toffee apple upside-down cake the other day. It’s egg-free, dairy-free and looks as pleasing as an Orla Kiely bag. (Which is very pleasing.)  

He also made – he’s been getting more into baking lately, which is great for me as I get all the pleasure of cake with none of the mess of making it – some fab peanut butter banana bread blondies. These were so good we didn’t even take a picture before falling upon them and devouring them, like a small but no-less-efficient pack of hungry wolves. Highly recommended if you want a different take on the lockdown banana bread cliché…

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Cold spring, gardening boast

Spring flowers from the garden.

Hard to believe it’s June next week, when it feels like spring barely got started. It’s been a funny old spring, weather-wise. Much colder than usual, with only a week or so of temperatures above 25°C. The rest of the time, the thermometer has been struggling to get out of the teens.

You’d think the garden would be lagging behind as a result, but it doesn’t seem to be. Things are growing well enough. The courgettes and squash have been planted out pretty much on time. The tomatoes haven’t been planted out yet, but that’s more to do with logistics than the weather (their home-to-be, the sunken greenhouse, is still just a hole in the ground).

The only casualty of the weather has been my chillies – after two separate sowings, all I’ve managed to germinate are two pathetic seedlings, which possibly haven’t survived yesterday’s downpour. It’s not a disaster – we still have loads of last year’s chillies in the freezer – but I’ll miss them in the garden. There’s something very festive about a plant decorated with ripening chillies, like an edible Christmas tree. Maybe the neighbours will donate some spare plants…

Otherwise, the garden is looking well. Or at least, the half of it that isn’t a building site is looking well. Gardening has been a godsend this spring, as we’ve spent even more time at home than usual. It’s given us exercise, fresh air, fresh food, and constant things to look forward to. Gardening is an optimist’s game, after all.

It’s also mindful work. Which is good for people, like me, whose brain is constantly skipping ahead. (Kumail Nanjiani said that when he eats something delicious, he’s mourning the end of the delicious thing from the first bite, rather than actually enjoying eating it. That’s me, with everything.) When I spend an hour weeding, I almost forget that 2020 has been knocked completely off its orbit.

So although it’s freezing cold and rainy today, although the garden is probably being munched by our unwanted snail army as I write, enjoy some pictures of warmer days this spring and indulge me in a little gardening boast.

But first, let’s remind ourselves what it looked like when we bought the house 10 years ago…

Grass, molehills and some mature trees. That was it.

The 'view' from the back of the house wasn't exactly great. Unless you
 like chain link fences and haunted umbrellas.

And here it is in May 2020. I mean, we'll never be 'done', but we've come a long way...