making food happen


Trigrad, Bulgaria

Trigrad, Bulgaria

If you go to the ‘supermarket’ in the little Bulgarian village of Trigrad you will find crisps, biscuits, imported chocolate and, if the season is right, a few bunches of grapes. There is homemade pizza that can be heated to take away, a counter of cured meat, some cheese and, in the morning, bread.

The whole thing is about the size of a London corner shop and the range of food fits on four shelves that run round two of the walls.

You’d be wrong to think the inhabitants were short of things to eat though. Wander around this sprawling village in the Rhodope mountains, not far from the border with Greece, and you will see food growing everywhere.

 

Trigrad tomatoesborlotti beans

 

Trigrad turkeys

We visited in early September: there were tomatoes sprouting out of old oil cans, borlotti beans ripening on canes, watermelons dangling in front gardens and even a few turkeys scratching in someone’s yard.

On the lower slopes of the mountains there were rows and rows of brightly painted beehives, and everywhere trees laden with fruit: pears, apples and wild plums.

Trigrad beehives

Trigrad pears

There are no fancy hotels in Trigrad but you can stay in a family guest house. Ours looked down over the town with its jumble of red roofs, tiny mosque and even tinier church.

Trigrad church

Every evening our landlady Nadia and her husband Vincy invited all eight of us into their dining room, where Nadia served a three-course meal prepared entirely from scratch in an ordinary domestic kitchen. Meanwhile Vincy plied us with rakia, a clear spirit made from plums that goes surprisingly well with just about anything, particularly by the time you get on to your third glass.

The couple took huge pride in what they gave us. Through our Bulgarian-speaking friends Nadia told us how the trout she was cooking had been caught only hours before in a river just ten minutes’ walk away.

Trigrad river

Vincy explained that the rakia had been made by a friend of his. As I understood it, this meant it was not the absolute best we could have (that would be Vincy’s own) but it did come a close second.

In Trigrad it seemed as if not just the growing but also the preparing of food was woven tightly into everyday life. At the start of one of our walks we passed a woman carrying a plate piled with slices of warm cake: she insisted that we all took a piece. We saw another woman roasting peppers in her garden. They may have been the very ones Nadia served us that night, dripping with garlic and olive oil, meltingly soft and tasting of smoke and sunshine.

Trigrad peppers

What struck me forcibly in contrast with England was the range of food-related skills on display. It seems it is normal in Trigrad to be able to build a beehive, harvest honey, pickle vegetables, distil spirits, construct a barbecue and produce three meals a day for a roomful of complete strangers – and that’s just what we saw in one very short stay.

I don’t know whether the inhabitants of Trigrad wish their local store carried a wider range of food. I’m guessing some of the women we saw harvesting squashes might wish they didn’t always have to go out in the blistering midday sun.  I didn’t see many young people either, so I’m not trying to say this was some kind of romantic rural idyll.

But I did see enough to realise that these people have something many of us in the UK have lost. It’s a kind of confidence around food and growing, and a pleasure in eating that seems devoid of the self-consciousness and class assumptions that often accompany conversations about food over here.

With even supermarket bosses admitting that food prices are likely to rise substantially in the near future, it’s a confidence we urgently need to recover.

I often go on about Incredible Edible Todmorden, the brilliant project that is trying to give everyone in the west Yorkshire town of Todmorden access to good local food. On one of my visits recently, a resident told me about the difference that joining a growing project at her son’s school had made in her life.

‘The idea of growing something used to seem like an enormously daunting scary world of otherness that was nothing to do with me and I couldn’t possibly learn that – it was for other people,’ she said.

‘But I’ve found that it is such a simple but satisfying experience and the feeling is growing in me that if everything goes tits up and we can’t get any food anywhere then I have the means with which to provide food for myself and my son.

‘I am starting to get to the stage where I’m learning more every year that I’ll be able to make food happen.’

I love that phrase of hers – ‘able to make food happen’. The residents of Trigrad seem able to make food happen almost without thinking.

The residents of Todmorden and other Incredible Edible projects around the country offer hope to those of us who find it more daunting.

Todmorden police station

Todmorden police station

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11 comments

  1. I came here via A Girl Called Jack but it’s this post that called to me, as we’ve not long ago returned from a week in Bulgaria, where my mum-in-law now lives. She kept telling us about the poverty of their village, but I couldn’t really believe that they are poor when I saw the food that they grew and shared freely.

    They may not have much out there, but they know what’s important, and that they have in spades.

    1. Absolutely. i think the real challenge is to find a way of development that brings more employment to rural places and gives young people a reason to stay, without losing the aspects of life that, as you say, are what’s really important.

  2. I love this post – the fact that the people in this village are connected to millennia of food knowledge, so that it is normal for them to be producing most of their food, that that process has not been co-opted by agribusiness.
    I live in Tasmania, the poorest, most agriculturally-based state of Australia, and I have to say that I have never lived anywhere, except the Highlands of New Guinea, where people are more closely connected to their food. So many people keep chickens, grow vegies, keep a sheep or two, or a cow on a couple of scrubby acres, make their own sloe gin or beer from local hops. Many people have prize tomato varieties whose seeds have been saved for generations. And these are not yuppy hobbies, but limited-means necessities.
    I am really hoping that the newly emerging slow-food culture will save all of this knowledge and keep it current in Tasmania before pervasive global consumer culture wipes it out. I belong to a little group that is collecting and practising all sorts of these garden and kitchen skills culled from older members. I am so sad that I didn’t get to mine my own grandparents’ skills before they died, and want to make up for lost time. Because truly, no matter the state of the economy, if I can grow vegies and make my own sourdough bread, and keep a roof over my family’s head, I will be rich indeed.

  3. Hello! I really liked your blog post – about my country 🙂 I also like the comments that point out that people here in Bulgaria do know what is important and how to make ends meet. It’s true that growing your own food is kind of a staple here in the country. I am in my 20s and I know how to make preserves, roast and pack away vegetables in the freezer or in pickle jars, freeze packs of meat – raw or cooked, from home animals or given to us by friends – and usually even people in the bigger cities have someone they can go back to that grows or makes what they need, be it a turkey for Christmas (we imported the custom here and there), excellent rakia, or more vegetables than they can eat. I and my parents lived in Burgas, one of the bigger cities on the Black Sea coast, for several years after moving from my small hometown – but they don’t like relying on shop-bought food. The taste is different, it’s more expensive, it’s simply not the same. Having grown up with meals coming mostly from a full garden complete with livestock (my grandmother took care of it! in her 80s! alone! feeding a family of five while my parents worked), I tend to agree. So now my parents still live in Burgas, but keep the garden, which we still have, operational. They say that this has drastically cut down their food expenses as they buy only a few foodstuffs that we don’t produce at home, their diet has improved, consisting mostly of vegs (livestock can’t be kept as it needs round-the-clock care and my father can only spare one or possibly two days a week), and they are pleased and proud to be able to live on their own food.
    I could go on with details on the topic, but basically what I mean is that I agree with you. Even the city balcony “garden” as my mother calls it, full of herbs in pots, from chili through rosemary to basil, contributes greatly to making your meal more exciting. In addition to the taste, which IS better, there is also the sense of having produced the food yourself which is especially rewarding.
    Growing our own food, or being once removed from someone who does, has saved many Bulgarians in a very poor economic situation (which is a long and thorny topic). So yes, I’m fully behind projects like these that encourage people to start doing it for themselves.

    1. Gergana – thank you SO much for taking the time to post this comment. I think it is really powerful. The fact that you are young and live in the city is enormously encouraging: it shows that increasing urbanisation does not have to mean an inevitable loss of these crucial skills. It also strengthens my hope that in countries like the UK we really can recover these lost arts and make them part of people’s general knowledge again.

  4. Thanks Joanna and Gergana. Your posts struck a cord with me. I’m also Bulgarian and have been living in Nottingham for the last 13 yrs. One of the reasons I’m involved with the Transition Sherwood Community Food Garden is my heritage- my Granny growing and preserving in a village and my Mum growing food in her apartment in the capital Sofia, buying stuff from the market and preserving it in jars.

      1. Thank you. We share posts from Incredible Edible Todmorden (great work there) on Transition Sherwood FB page. Today I’m making Green Tomato Chutney from their blog with the last tomatoes from my garden and apples a friend gave me from his allotment.

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