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

beyond the comfort zone

So I’ve been right outside my comfort zone this week and I have loved it. I’m back in Bulgaria, visiting dear friends from way back who are doing astonishing work to bring about deinstitutionalisation of the orphanages here. (You can read about my previous visit here and here.)

This is what it looks like outside.

Beautiful, isn’t it? The only problem is that inside the central heating has broken down. Now anyone who knows me will tell you that I am a complete wimp about being cold. I have even been known to take a hot water bottle to bed in May. If you had told me the situation before I left I honestly might have wondered if I could cope. I can now see how pathetic that was and how much very good stuff I would have missed if I had chickened out. And frankly, I may be wearing a fleece and a woolly hat in bed but I am managing to have a perfectly good sleep every night!

This is a small and rather silly example but it did make me wonder how much else might be passing me by because of rigid ideas about what I need in order to function – and how many opportunities I might be missing to do something useful. My friends have been telling me about their early days out here and thoroughly humbling me. I’ll save you the horror stories of giving birth in a provincial Bulgarian hospital, but as another example, they moved into an unfinished house with a one-year-old child and all slept together on the floor while they gradually decorated it and installed a kitchen.

It is quite horrifying to think that if they had refused the challenge of moving well outside their comfort zone, many abandoned children here could still be incarcerated in a dilapidated, understaffed orphanage instead of settled in the beautiful small group homes that their charity has set up


After the soothing train journey I wrote about yesterday, I met up with an amazing couple who spent a whole year working with abandoned children in Bulgaria, children who were living in even worse conditions than the ones I blogged about here and here. Alan and Jenni were inspiring and challenging and gave me lots of food and wine. What more could you ask for?

Well, no matter how good a trip away, it is always great to return home so when I arrived back I took some photos of one of my favourite places in Sheffield. This is Sheaf Square,  just outside the station.

On the right as you walk up to town is the Cutting Edge sculpture, an installation that celebrates steel, which has played such a crucial role in Sheffield’s history. I love the contrast between the rigidity of the structure and the constant, shimmering play of light and reflection.

On the other side of the path is a lavish water feature which similarly juxtaposes clear lines and strong patterns with endless fluidity.

The path continues up to Sheffield Hallam University and then into the Millennium Gallery and the glorious Winter Garden. It’s a rare example of truly successful regeneration and one of the many things that make me proud to live in Sheffield.

children of silence 2

In a big, airy room in the same orphanage where Stoyan lives, I meet Ivanka. She has Down’s syndrome and I guess she is about three years old. She toddles towards me, resplendent in short, blue and red checked dungarees, a thick mop of dark brown hair flopping on her forehead.

I reach down and pick her up. Unlike Stoyan, she is stiff and arches away from me. I remember my friends, who visit this orphanage regularly, telling me that many of the children do not understand how to be cuddled.

I sit down and gently rub her back. She yanks at my earrings. Then, without warning, a low keening sound issues from the back of her throat. I start to burble in her ear, the sort of nonsense I used to tell my own children when they were distressed – chit chat, sing song, silly little sounds repeated over and over again.

The thought hits me like a punch in the stomach. Ivanka has never known what it is to have a constant, reliable voice in her life, the familiar murmuring of mother or father or both, a hundred times a day, every day of the year.

Never before have I paid any thought to the way we provide background noise for our children. How everything they do is accompanied by the reassuring sounds of a voice they have heard since they were in the womb. How even before they can understand speech we are telling them I love you, you are special, I am here for you.

In the orphanages, I also saw many children whose limbs were growing at strange, painful angles because they had not received the physiotherapy and other treatments they needed when they were born. When I think about Ivanka, I wonder how a child’s personality might also distort if she does not receive that basic, early affirmation.

Exterior of orphanage, central Bulgaria

Ivanka is one of thousands of children with disabilities who have been abandoned in Bulgarian orphanages. In the Communist years, disabled people were viewed as shameful. Orphanages were built miles outside centres of population and the children hidden away for fear that the people might suspect the authorities were unable to produce a perfect society. A woman giving birth to a disabled baby was told to give it up: the state would care for it better than she could, said the doctors.

I think of these abandoned children as the children of silence. Perhaps they themselves are silent because they have long since given up on trying to communicate with others. Or they are like Ivanka, surrounded only by meaningless, impersonal noise from people who are stretched to the limit, an ever changing whirl of carers rushing to try and do the basics for an impossible number of charges.

They are also children about whom the world has been silent for far too long. In 2007 the BBC screened Kate Blewett’s documentary about the horrendous conditions in an orphanage at Mogilino. You can view it here but be warned that the content is extremely distressing. As a result of the film, that orphanage was closed.

Additionally, since Bulgaria’s accession to the EU four years ago, a policy of deinstitutionalisation has been introduced. But there are still too few people speaking up for these youngsters.

One exception is the Cedar Foundation. Cedar is where I found hope in Bulgaria. It is where I had the humbling experience of meeting people who are not afraid to dream big dreams and give their lives to righting the injustices meted on children like Stoyan and Ivanka. More of that next time.

children of silence 1

I went to Bulgaria to look at the work of the Cedar Foundation,a charity run by some good friends of ours who have a passion to see abandoned children moved out of orphanages and into high quality, community-based care. As part of my trip I got the chance to look around a couple of orphanages. This is the first of two posts about some of the children I met.

The orphanage is a bit tatty outside but the inside is clean and bright with freshly painted walls. A lot of overseas donors have invested here and it shows. There is equipment to help some of the disabled children and the grounds are reasonably well maintained.

Nevertheless, there is something that bothers me. As we walk through the rooms, I try to put my finger on what it is. Despite the colourful furnishings and the jolly pictures on the walls, something is very wrong.

It is only when we reach the babies’ dormitory that it hits me. Eight babies, all awake, lie silently in their cots. I have a sudden flashback to when my own children were that young. I know only too well that a wakeful baby in a cot might burble for a bit if you are lucky, but sooner or later that child is going to yell to be picked up.

There can only be one explanation for the silence of these babies, and that is that they have long since stopped expecting anyone to respond to them.

I walk over to a gleaming white cot where a little boy of about 10 months is lying quietly on his side. I crouch down and smile through the bars. His limpid brown eyes barely flicker. Slowly I push my hand towards him and stroke his finger. Suddenly his expression quickens and he sits up and looks at me. Then his face cracks open into a miraculous smile. I notice his two top teeth are just pushing through the gum.

I reach down and pick him up; he snuggles into me. The director of the orphanage tells me his name is Stoyan*. He arrived aged three months and weighing only five kilos. I bury my face in his wispy brown hair and inhale the delectable smell of baby. He is plump now and his fat fist grips my little finger.

The group I am with is moving on. Reluctantly I turn to put him back in the cot. As I prise open his hand to release my finger, his face crumples.

Now I am leaving the room and it is no longer silent. Stoyan is wailing, a high, heart-rending cry of distress. And I, like every other adult he has ever known, ignore it and walk out of the door.

For the rest of my stay in Bulgaria, I am haunted by the memory of Stoyan, and of the other children in that room. The twins who were abandoned by a woman who already had six children. The little girl with a kidney problem who was going to have her photograph taken for an adoption magazine. ‘Wish her luck,’ said the carers, cheerfully.

I am ashamed to remember how my children’s yells used to irritate me. On the flight home, a girl in the seat behind me cries on and off for the entire three-hour journey. I am no longer annoyed. I have understood something about crying children – that their distress is a sign that they are healthy and that they expect, rightly, that when they are upset, someone will respond to them.

*names have been changed


When I wrote here that I felt my life was moving into a season of change, I was imagining something gradual, like the gentle shift from summer to autumn with its slow shortening of days and gradual turning of leaves.

Now that I’m back from my week in Bulgaria, I’m thinking I might have misjudged that. The intensity of this time away felt less like a gentle transition and more like a sudden switch from one dimension to another.

I’m not prone to hyperbole – quite the opposite in fact – but I don’t think it is too much to say this trip may have changed my life.

I’m a little bit dazed by it all at the moment, but in my next two or three posts I want to try and capture something of the experience. I’ll be looking at what I learnt about the power of big dreams, what happened to my faith and, especially, why I no longer mind the sound of crying children.

In the meantime, here’s a picture of Sofia’s beautiful St. Alexander Nevsky cathedral which I was lucky enough to visit during my stay.

season of change

My lovely daughters have made it possible for me to get my hands on a digital SLR. Miriam handed it down to Susanna when she upgraded, and Susie has lent it to me because of a forthcoming Very Exciting Trip.

I’m still just practising and haven’t really got the hang of all the knobs and twiddly bits, but I’ve been having a great time capturing the shift from summer to autumn round here.

I’ve always loved September and seen it as a time of new beginnings. I’ve worked in education, and of course my children’s big milestones – nursery, primary school, big school and (gulp) university – have always come at this time of year.

Now that I work similar hours all year round and my children actively discourage me from accompanying them to their places of study, I was afraid the excitement might dim a bit.

That was before the aforementioned trip came up! I’m very excited to say that I shall be travelling to Bulgaria tomorrow to stay with some dear friends for a week, see some amazing work they’ve been doing and even talk about a possible shared writing project.

What with passing a big birthday recently, along with watching the ‘children’ become ever more independent, I’ve been really aware of the seasons of life changing as well as the seasons of this particular year.

In many ways it seems like a time of loss. Of course we are glad to see our teenagers growing in independence and making their own decisions. But there is still the wrench and a sense of disorientation as they move further and further away from home.

This trip’s been good for reminding me that I can be more independent now too! As the season changes outside the window, I’m getting quite excited about the new horizons that might open up.