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Sunday, 15 December 2019

Decking the halls

Thank God for martinis.


It’s not been terribly Christmassy in the Auntie Bulgaria household this December. We both picked up a horrible bug that knocked us sideways for the first 10 days of December. I mean, this bug had everything: aches, shivers, sore throat, crackly wet cough, fever dreams, sickness, headaches, you name it. I had several retinal migraines caused by low blood pressure or low blood sugar or something. And I spent a feverish night begging Rob to stop the world’s commodities being traded through my jaw. My poor jaw was in agony from non-stop dreams of all the world’s commodities passing through it every second. Never been delirious before. It was pretty fun. Not for Rob, obviously, who had to try and placate me while I was tripping my balls off on bad (stock market?) dreams – all the while feeling pretty rough himself. What a guy.

So, anyway, when it snowed on 3rd December – our first proper snowfall of the year – neither of us could muster any enthusiasm to even take a picture. You’ll just have to imagine the scene instead. It snowed for a day. Everything was white. It was very pretty, probably. We were flinching in bed with the curtains closed.

One good thing about being ill is it gives you lots of time for watching Christmas movies. As a result, we’ve already watched loads of our Christmas favourites and it’s only 15th December. We’re fast running out of movies to watch. We might have to – gulp – dust off Love Actually.

As we’ve returned to normal health (and normal dreams), the Christmas spirit has slowly been building. We managed a couple of big supermarket trips, so we’re well stocked for Christmas and the winter – I don’t know about you but a full pantry always gets me feeling cosy and wintery. We managed to force down a few mince pies. And we put up the Christmas decorations yesterday.

As for what we want for Christmas, we’ve been apart a lot this year, each of us spending a lot more time in the UK for one reason or another. So what we really want for Christmas is two weeks of uninterrupted time off together, with both of us feeling healthy and happy and ready to embrace another year. That, and some good books, and plenty of bubbly and we’ll be living the dream.

What about you, what do you want for Christmas? And what have you got planned for the big day? For Christmas dinner, we’re eschewing turkey again in favour of a baked ham, and we’ll be having a very seventies fondue on Christmas Eve. There’ll be trifle for pudding, and our trusty cheesy-and-Marmite ‘sausage’ rolls (no actual sausage included) to nibble on. Boxing Day will be, as always, Pie Day, meaning we’ll bake a big pie with leftover ham, red cabbage and potatoes. Looking at it on paper, that’s a lot of cheese and pastry coming our way! But you have to feed a cold, right? That’s our excuse and we’re sticking to it.

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Hello again

If you were wondering why I’d been a bit quiet lately, it’s because I was visiting in the UK, and then going through the customary readjustment to Bulgarian life. It’s like jet lag (life lag?), where the culture shock takes a while to wear off. Our house seems too small at first and there are cats everywhere. It takes me at least a few days to remember I LIKE it that way.

(Latest news from the UK, for those who are interested. It rained every day. There’s yet another election going on. Something about Brexit. All female teenagers have terrifyingly thick eyebrows. And I saw a grown man vaping in a garden centre. Inside a garden centre. A grown man. Puffing on his e-cigarette and emitting a disgusting sherbet smell, oblivious to the fact he was the world’s biggest wanker. That’s pretty much it. Thanks UK, see you next time.)

Back to Bulgaria and Rob’s been busy making this year’s batch of cider. We’ve tried a bottle already and it’s the usual delicious, dynamite-strength nectar – definitely strong enough to send us into a sofa stupor over the Christmas/New Year period. There’s homemade red wine, too, as if our livers weren’t in enough danger. The white wine is refusing to clear for some reason, so we’re not sure if that’s going to work out.

Our store of cloudy cider, red wine, and cider vinegar (a happy accident
from a previous year's batch).

The weather is glorious here – misty and chilly in the mornings, then burning off to reveal warm sunshine. We’ve hardly had the heating on. It’s far too warm to even consider putting the winter tyres on the car or stocking up for winter. And yet we must, because we know winter comes like the flicking of a switch here. One day we’ll be gardening in short sleeves, the next it’ll be snowing…

Thanks to the warmth, the garden is still offering us plenty of tomatoes and chillies. And we’ve harvested the first of our giant Bulgarian leeks, using them to make these Glamorgan sausages. The rest of the leeks will stay in the ground over winter, and we’ll pick as and when we need them. Being able to get fresh produce from the garden in, say, February always brings a bit of cheer. I wonder what else we could grow that would stand in the ground through winter? Purple sprouting broccoli? Thoughts?

Harvested mid-November.

Big leeks.

Exciting developments in our nearest town, Etropole: we finally have a supermarket! True, it’s only a T-Market, it’s not even that big, and it’s unbelievably crowded (novelty factor), but it’s better than nothing. We no longer have to do a 50-mile round trip to the nearest Kaufland or Lidl. (I mean, we’ll probably still trek there occasionally. Lidl is often the highlight of my week. But we don’t have to, that’s the point.)

That pretty much brings you up to date. Anyone else noticed the eyebrow and vaping thing in England? What do you struggle to adjust to when you travel in either direction? And what’s good to buy in T-Market?

Saturday, 26 October 2019

Patience is a virtue


This month I’ve stood in a 90-minute queue for something, had two separate hospital visits (nothing serious) that both involved lengthy waits, and endured a three-hour flight delay. Every time I was waiting, I kept expecting to get restless or annoyed or impatient.


But nothing happened. I didn’t constantly look at my watch. I didn’t swear (no more than usual, anyway). I didn’t even tut. I just stood/sat there, waiting for events to take their natural course.

Turns out I’m, like, totally Zen. Which is weird.

It’s Bulgaria’s fault. The country has gradually chipped away at my natural impatience until there’s nothing left. Somewhere along the way we just got used to simple things taking a whole morning, and the fact that everything – EVERYTHING – takes longer than you think. Now, faced with an inconvenient delay, all I can muster is one of those typical Bulgarian shrugs. (You know the type I mean. That downturn of the mouth. That almost imperceptible rise of the shoulders. The look that just says, meh, what can you do? That shrug.)

And it’s brilliant. I feel like – how to describe it – a grownup? I’ve finally evolved from a petulant being who wants everything now goddammit to someone who’s learning not to get worked up about things I can’t control. It’s liberating. What’s more, all that shuffling and complaining and looking at the clock was tiring. Now all I have to do is shrug. It’s way more energy efficient.

So thanks, Bulgaria, for teaching me the virtue of patience. All I need to do now is apply the same Zen attitude to Brexit news, and I’m pretty sure I’ll achieve actual enlightenment.

Friday, 4 October 2019

Scavengers

You know what’s the surest sign that winter is on the way? It’s not the arrival of this year’s wood order, which finally turned up about a week ago…

The annual Rob-in-front-of-the-wood-delivery picture.

Nor is it harvesting the tempting butternut squash, which we did this week, arranging them on a sunny windowsill to cure (basically toughen up the skins so they store well over winter)...

So pleasing.

Nor is it being woken up by the sound of gunfire in the night, as hunters celebrate the start of the hunting season, which is another thing that happened earlier this week…

(I do not have a picture of a grumpy, pyjama-ed me being woken up by gunfire. Sorry.)

Nope. The surest sign that the weather is turning comes from our four cats, who morph from outdoor-loving creatures that refuse to come home for their dinner because they’re having too much fun eating lizards into fluffy, fat layabouts who nag us for food the second we walk into a room, regardless of the time of day.

Picture me sitting at my kitchen table tucking into a delicious breakfast wrap (courtesy of my one true love, Bake Off Nadiya) and being greeted with this face…

'I want what YOU'RE having.'

And cat number four, Merlin, almost just swiped a chunk of halloumi from the kitchen worktop. Which might be the most first-world-arsehole sentence I’ve ever written.

So that’s pretty much our life now, every mealtime, until the cats get used to the change in weather. At least they’re cute. I mean, not cute enough to give them any of my food (no matter how hard Iggy stares), but still pretty darn cute.

Cat bros.

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Last of the warm days

Hot as it’s been during the day lately, there’s a definite feel of autumn in the air. I’m scribbling this outside as, next to me, Rob scrats the apples for this year’s cider. I wish you could smell what I smell right now. It’s a mixture of apple juice and red wine – apples being pulverised and ripe grapes announcing they’re ready to be picked. I don't know who loves it more: me or the wasps.

Scratting the apples using his homemade apple torture device.

The hill at the back of our garden is covered in crunchy leaves (we really must find time to rake them up this weekend). I’m beginning to crave stodgier food, and the butternut squash on the vine are constantly teasing me with all the squash lasagnes, risottos and soups that are to come. Every harvest from the tomatoes, chillies and courgettes feels like a last hurrah. We worship any remaining sign of colour in the flower garden.

Chillies still going strong, but maybe not for much longer.

Also, the neighbour has started laughing at Rob for wearing shorts instead of long trousers – always a sign that the season has definitely changed. (The locals being sticklers for dressing according to what the calendar says, not the actual temperature outside.) To be fair, though, it’s properly cold when we get up in the mornings. It’s almost time to pack away the flip flops I use as slippers in the summer, and dust off my serious fleece-lined slippers.

I think autumn is my favourite season. (Although, ask me again in July when I’m lazing next to a pool, or in May when a new gardening season is ramping up, and you’d probably get a different answer.) Maybe it’s because it always feels like we get a proper autumn here in Bulgaria. In England we only ever seemed to get two seasons: the cold wet season and the warm wet season. (Which reminds me of the guy in Las Vegas who told me Vegas also only had two seasons: the short-shorts season and the long-shorts season.)

Anyway, here’s to a good Bulgarian autumn … and homemade cider. Lots and lots of lovely homemade cider. It should be ready to drink around Halloween, so if I ‘go dark’ for several weeks in November, don’t worry. We’ll just be losing ourselves in cider.

Monday, 9 September 2019

Dry

Not dry as in sober, you understand. (Number of alcohol-free evenings in the past week = a pitiful 1. Instead of cutting back in the weeks after a holiday, our alcohol consumption tends to notch up a gear for a while.)

Dry as in no water. I can’t remember when it last rained. Sometime in July? Much as I love a dry, sunny spell, our poor garden is one step away from becoming a feral desert à la Mad Max: Fury Road.

I’ve said before how stingy we are with watering. What this means in practice is:

  • Pots get watered once every few days – every day in extreme heat only.
  • Tomatoes in the polytunnel get watered every five days, because they’re under cover and can’t fend for themselves.
  • Veg beds get watered once a week, but only if it hasn’t rained in that period. If it’s rained, they get nothing.
  • Flower beds get watered almost never. Just two or three times a summer normally, when plants are really struggling.
  • The lawn gets watered … haha, as if. What grass we do have is yellow, manky and entirely neglected by August, but somehow refuses to die.

Partly this watering routine is a time/effort thing – we just have too many beds to be watering them every five minutes. Partly it’s our gardening ethos – we want robust, tough plants that can largely fend for themselves and don’t need mollycoddling. And partly it’s environmental – I don’t want to be a lecture-y dick about it, but water is precious, right? (Also a handy excuse for not washing so much).

Needless to say this routine has gone right out the window this August and September. Everything is struggling. We’re spunking water left, right and centre, just to try and keep things alive (we’ve given up on the garden looking ‘good’ for now, just ‘alive’ will do).

There have been casualties. Some of the cosmos have given up and browned off to nothing (a shame as they’d otherwise go on flowering until the first frost). I’ve lost a few cuttings from my favourite dahlia. And the courgettes are refusing to give us more than one or two fruits a week, even though we’re lavishing them with water, comfrey feed and positive affirmations.

'You are loved. You are beautiful. Please stay alive.'

It’s not all bad news, though. The butternut squash have been LOVING the heat. I mean, the leaves are constantly droopy, no matter how much we water. But the fruits are massive.

Rob built me a bigger, more robust trellis tunnel for the squash. I can walk all
the way through and admire these brutes.

A lot of gentle cupping goes on. Ahem.

We’re also having a good grape year. Normally either our white grapes do well, or our red grapes do well – rarely both in the same year for some reason. But this year, both are happy. As am I, at the thought of all that lovely wine.


And the leeks are stonking, even though they’re a thirsty crop.

Well on our way to giant Bulgarian leeks this year.

If there’s one lesson we’ve learned from this dry spell, it’s that we seriously need to improve our soil. Don’t get me wrong, our soil is good. It’s rich but drains well. It holds moisture fairly well but is rarely waterlogged (even in the June downpours). It’s not too stony. It’s not hard to work. We’re lucky. But we also take it for granted, and maybe haven’t looked after it as much as we could have. We spread a miniscule layer of compost on the veg beds each spring (and this year we didn’t even get around to that). The flower beds get nothing. Next spring, and every spring after that, we’re going to add as much compost and leaf mould as we can spare, everywhere.

Anyway, how’s your garden holding up in the heat?

Saturday, 31 August 2019

Samothraki (smug holiday slideshow alert)

Ever wondered where all the beautiful young (and young-at-heart) Greek hippies go on holiday? Ever fancied holidaying in Man Bun Central? Ever longed to wear your bum bag, bucket hat and ugly sandals with pride, in a totally non-ironic way?

The answer is Samothraki. In fact, the northern Aegean island, reached by ferry from Alexandroupoli, might be the answer to everything.

We’ve just spent nine days on the island and although it’s a bit of a mission to get to, it’s worth it. If you like quiet, pebbly beaches (we only saw one sandy beach in nine days), waterfalls, gorges, rock pools, an imposing mountain (Fegari, a decent 1600 metres high), and an almost total absence of Brit tourists, then Samothraki is worth a look.

It’s not too expensive, either – probably because of the, shall we say, earthy demographic it attracts. Our hotel, the charming Hotel Orpheus in Therma, was around 40 euros a night (for those on a tighter budget, the two local campsites were doing a roaring trade), and a two-course dinner for two rarely cost more than 35 euros, including a shed-load of the local wine.

(The trick is to not constantly convert everything into lev, otherwise it all seems ruinously expensive. So when a glass of wine costs you three euros, don’t scream internally ‘Six fucking leva? Are they out of their man-bunned heads!?’ Instead think, ‘What a jolly good price that is compared to other Greek islands or, shudder, the UK. La la la.’ That’s the trick. I never consistently pull it off, though.)

Here are just a few snaps of our Samothraki adventures. I’m already looking forward to going back one day.

Beautiful beaches, some wild, some less so





Hora, the main town





Sanctuary of the Great Gods



Stunning nature





Miscellaneous Greek loveliness






Thursday, 15 August 2019

Visitors

We’re always so grateful when friends and family come to visit us. Much as we love it here, we’re well aware that a random village in Bulgaria isn’t everyone’s idea of a top holiday destination.

That means we treat any visitors like the Big Deal that they are. Neatly folded guest towels? Check. Over-catering? Check. Constantly offering them a drink every five minutes? Check. Buying enough alcohol to fuel an 18–30s holiday? Check. Planning activities for every morning, afternoon and evening like it’s an Everest expedition? Check, check, check.

But you know what? Sometimes the best holiday moments for visitors are when you’re chilling in the garden, after a lazy morning at the pool, making homemade pizza and helping the kids (theirs, not ours) toast marshmallows. Because, sure, a random village in Bulgaria may not be everyone’s idea of a top holiday destination – but it’s what they’ve come all this way for. To see where we live, to marvel at the village sheep herd, and all those little, uniquely Bulgarian things.

A few pics from our friends’ visit last week…

It certainly helps to have a beautiful, big-ass pool nearby, especially when the temperature tips
over into the thirties. This is at the RUI hotel and golf resort in Pravets, just over the mountain from us.

Prohodna (Eyes of God) Cave in Karlukovo is a must-see.

Any excuse to make like tourists in Sofia.

Makeshift fire pit in the garden.

Friday, 2 August 2019

What to do with all those tomatoes? (Inspiration needed)

Just a small selection of this week's bounty.

Following last year’s ‘What to do with all those courgettes’ post, I thought I’d do the same with tomatoes – except this time with more of a plea for ideas.

Here’s what we normally do with all our toms:

Eating fresh and uncooked
We eat lots of lovely fresh tomato salads, obviously. This tomato and pomegranate molasses salad from Sabrina Gayhour’s Persiana cookbook is one of my favourites. I’m also very partial to eating a just-picked tomato, still warm from the sun, cut in half and sprinkled with crunchy Maldon salt. Heaven.

Bruschetta. Skin and deseed the tomatoes, then dice. Mix with chopped garlic, torn basil, olive oil, salt and pepper, and serve on thick slices of toasted (good-quality) bread, drizzled with more oil on top.

This spicy tomato and pepper dip (Ezme) is delicious with bread and other dips, like cacik.

Gazpacho. This cold tomato and cucumber soup is perfect on a baking-hot day, served with giant fried croutons on the side. We use the recipe in our old Moro cookbook, but this Felicity Cloake version looks pretty similar. Eat and think of Red Dwarf (Dwarfers will get it).

Cooking with tomatoes
Thinking about it, in the summer, we mostly use our tomatoes fresh and uncooked. When we do cook with tomatoes, it tends to be a simple pasta sauce, with skinned, chopped tomatoes, basil and garlic. Or I’ll sometimes make this tomato and sourdough soup from Ottolenghi, if we’ve got more tomatoes than we know what to do with.

Cooking with tomatoes tends to be a winter thing for us. In which case, we use our processed, frozen tomatoes. Which brings me to…

Preserving for the winter
We don’t bottle our tomatoes (i.e. preserve in jars, with all that heat-processing malarkey), because I’m still scared of dying from botulism. (Although, I don’t know why. We bottled and heat-processed some peaches last summer and they were both delicious and non-lethal.)

Instead, we cook a massive batch of tomatoes down, say, once a week – without faffing around with skinning or deseeding first, just roughly chop and bung them in a big-ass pan. Simmer until the mixture has reduced down to a consistency that’s perfect for stews, curries, soups, etc. This takes an hour or two, depending on how much mixture you’ve got in the pan, size of pan, and so on. Then we blend it up and sieve off the skin and seeds. And voila, homemade passata. We ladle the passata into food bags (each bag being enough for one batch of soup or stew or whatever), label the bags and store in the freezer. You’re probably only supposed to keep this sort of stuff in the freezer for a few months, but we have no problems storing frozen passata for up to a year.

Rob also makes tomato ketchup every year (using this recipe, but doubled). It’s runnier than shop-bought ketchup, but very tasty.

Every couple of years, I also make some chutney with tomatoes, apples, pears, onions and various spices (sometimes dates, too). But we so rarely eat chutney, I’ve still got jars on the shelf that are years’ old. Let’s just say there’s no need to make chutney this year…

I'm also toying with the idea of drying tomatoes in the sun, then storing in oil. Anyone done this?

What do you do with your tomatoes? What tomato recipes couldn’t you live without? And what’s your favourite way to preserve all that sunshine for the winter?

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)

Method:

  • 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.