Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Leave Your Stomach in Bansko, Bulgaria

Text by Albena Shkodrova | Photographs by Albena Shkodrova and Lode Desmet   
Hey, you over there! Do you speak Bulgarian? – the black silhouette of a hefty man with hands in his pockets emerges from the dark as we exit the shadow of the clock tower. The darkness and silence thicken, and start thrashing in our ears densely and stickily. From the other end of the square, his eyebrows crossed, between several vertical pieces of stones, stands the black monument of the eighteenth-century clergyman and Bulgarian National Revival figure, Saint Paisiy Hilendarski. There’s no way out now.

“Follow me. I will take you to the house of the butchers,” the man says, now in English, and with a gesture that won’t take no for an answer, motions that we walk after him. “Prices are low and there’s music,” he adds, as if that is some sort of a consolation. Then, pointing to our cameras, he asks, “If you want, I could bring my pistols?”

We quickly shake our heads and start taking our camera lenses apart, as we trot by the high stone fence along a small street, whose two lamps only serve to emphasise the impenetrable darkness. Fifty metres on, we stop at a massive wooden door. The man turns towards us and looks at us for the last time: “So, you don’t want the pistols?” Then, he pulls the door open and we are flooded by light and the smell of cooking. Over our heads, as if in slow motion, a neon sign flickers: “Kasapinova Kushta” (“The Butcher’s House”).

Getting something to eat in Bansko is quite an adventure.

Everything starts from this restaurant, one of the six most famous in the town, and leads us through heavy south Bulgarian experiences, in which meat is served with a side of smaller pieces of meat, sour cabbage is eaten all year round, and the specialties include meat dishes, such as starets – ‘old man’, karvavitsa - ‘blood sausage’, lamb’s head cooked in beef tripe and pork leg stuffed with bacon.

Bansko’s cuisine is definitely not devoid of charm, especially if one has been blown by the wind for eight hours on Pirin’s ski slopes, is tired like a dog and the only thing desired is to pass out from overeating with hot bacon in front of a fire place. Even though there are very few Bulgarians that approve of the painful metamorphosis of this once sleepy town into a mass tourist resort, many of us continue to go there to ski. And the taverns remain the brighter side of the days spent in Bansko. We visited six of them, where you are likely to end up for some reason or another – either because of their loud advertising or because of their old or new popularity.

You are likely to end up at

Kasapinova Mehana (The Butcher’s Tavern)

under the same circumstances as us, in which we are surrounded by several groups of customers, only one of them Bulgarian. The rest, during the off-season, seem to be Brits who live around here. We order banski sach – a dish cooked on a metal plate, home-made karvavitsa, or blood sausage, lyutenitsa – a tomato and pepper dip, kuyopolu – an aubergine and garlic dip, and chomlek – a meal consisting of veal knuckle, potatoes, mushrooms and spices, cooked in a clay pot. Then, we realise that the restaurant’s strongest point is the very friendly service. The sach, which is supposed to consist of three types of meat, is served quite impressively on a large wooden board together with mushrooms, roasted with cheese, and two halves of an onion, filled with solidified alcohol. After a short moment of panic, in which we try to prevent the fire from spreading onto the tablecloth, we concentrate on the meat. It is served on a high padding of sliced raw cabbage, just like in a Chinese restaurant. But the worst is that the pieces have mixed up their identity. The mushrooms turn out to be a pleasant compensation.

The luytenitsa is like the cheap kind that stores sell in jars, while the kyopolu is a little bit closer to the authentic original. The beef knuckle in the chomlek has obviously been boiled long enough, because it is juicy and soft, but the rest of the ingredients that should turn it into a tasty dish are insufficient and the feeling one gets is that of eating a piece of meat boiled in water. It is hardly spicy and the garlic is barely discernible. The strained yogurt with cranberry jam is especially good – the density and sourness of the yogurt are just right and make a pleasant combination with the jam.

Our next choice falls on

Dyado Pene (Grandpa Pene),

one of Bansko’s oldest and best known taverns, where they continue to produce a large part of their traditional vegetable purees and pickled vegetables, and some of the cold meat cuts, in the actual restaurant.

We squeeze through the memorabilia in the shape of old pictures, cow-bells and pieces of a tree strangely twisted towards the garden, where we manage to sit despite the waiters’ short-lived resistance – the winter is almost here and nobody but us wants to sit here.

We order komitski piperki – ‘revolutionary peppers’, kyopolu, karavitsa, kebapches – elongated pieces of ground meat, and kyuftes – meatballs, as well as two pieces of bread that is home-made, according to the service staff. The restaurant is located in a house dating back to 1820 and it is as authentic as possible for a Bansko tavern.

As we sit in the courtyard, watching the scant sun rays quickly creeping along the house’s façade, we hear a short squabble coming from the kitchen: “What are these komitski piperki?,” a man’s voice asks. “Well, you know, the kind that…,” the female voice’s explanation gets drowned by the noise made by the pots and pans on the stove. “And how exactly am I supposed to make these peppers?,” the man’s voice is heard again.

Slightly disturbed by this unexpected peek into Dyado Pene’s kitchen, we calm down again when we get the excellent kyopolu and supreme bread. According to the waitress, during last October in the yards behind the restaurant’s garden, over three tons of peppers were grilled. The karvavitsa turns out to be even more impressive. Here, unlike at many other venues, it is not the pieces of meat that dominate but the blood. The spices are also more bountiful than usual, which refine the flavour, and bring it closer to the Prilep shirden and even the French Boudin noir.

The ‘revolutionary peppers’ – fried and filled with tomatoes, bacon and white cheese, aren’t especially good and that is no wonder if one considers the fact that cook is probably making them for the second time in his life. Everything else, however, is superb.

The ground pork and beef kebabches and kuyftes aren’t local, they come from a meat factory in the town of Velingrad and supposedly contain nothing but meat. And their taste is quite good.

The yogurt with home-made cranberry jam here turns out to have a more natural, albeit a less sophisticated, taste. In the banitsa – the phyllo-dough pastry, which here is filled with Turkish delight, we discover elements of creativity in the shape of pieces of sugar-coated lemon peel that take turns with the cubes of Turkish delight.

After at least three sources tell us that Bansko’s best restaurant is actually in the nearby town of Dobrinishte, we head that way, to the famous

Makedonoska Krachma (Macedonian Tavern).

Located at about ten kilometres south of Bansko, Dobrinishte has no sign of any impressive architecture, but its main advantage is that is hasn’t been ruined by overdevelopment yet. The restaurant, found at one side of the central square, is located in a spacey, restored house and also boasts a pleasant garden, occupied by five always hungry and feverish cats.

From the hors d'œuvre, a good impression is made by the kachamak (in the photo above) – a dish similar to polenta: corn flour puree with cheese, the katak (in the photo below) – made from strained yogurt and crushed cheese, with added garlic and pepper, and especially by the home-made boiled potatoes, generously sprinkled with finely sliced leek and vinegar, in which garlic and spicy peppers have been soaked.

From the main dishes, we settle on smenka, which is similar to bacon, but with lots of grill-roasted meat, and served in a large portion on a wooden board, and karvavitsa, which is as good as that at Dyado Pene, if not better. It could actually be said that it ends up being the best we tasted. We aren’t immediately able to recognise the spice, which is reminiscent of camomile or linden. It turns out that it is in fact mint, but forest-grown. While we try and make our way through the detailed menu, the Bansko eating experience makes our blood freeze once again – this time from the entry that reads, “Grilled kid made to order.” The crime, it turns out, is the use of a not so frequently employed English translation of ‘baby goat.’ All in all, we do get away with murder, and quite cheaply too – the smenka dish, which includes meat for two, costs 11 leva (around 5.5 euro) and the whole lunch bill is under 40 leva (around 20 euro).

Back in Bansko, we decide to give


a try - one of the loudest self-promoting taverns, which we find filled to the brim, making it almost impossible to find a table. Smoky and noisy, it turns out that it has some of the most negligently cooked food. The waiters’ apparent diligence and slickness aren’t enough to compensate the impossibly small amount of banski starets – a typical sausage from the region, whose name literally translates to ‘old man from Bansko’, the grilled peppers without any spices, which – according to the menu, should be flavoured with garlic, and the “homemade” bread, which gives no sign of being such, and on top of it all, it arrives almost at the same time as dessert.

The fresh cheese, reminiscent of the “fresh” cheese, which has become quite popular in stores lately, is sprinkled with a few drops of olive oil and black pepper. The three types of meat in the katino meze get lost in the slightly spicy tomato sauce with onion and mushrooms, and all in all, the dishes are quite minimal and well below the level of Bansko’s good taverns.

And just as we think that we’ve tried the worst there is from Molerite, the pancakes arrive, which the menu boasts are the head chef’s specialty. They are cold and drowned in caramel sauce, which has the taste of having come out of a bottle.

After an unpleasant evening at Molertite, we decide to head to one of Bankso’s more “boutique” restaurants –

Barakyovata Mehana
(The Baryakova Tavern).

We had heard good things about it from different places, and visiting it is not only not disappointing, but puts us on the list of the place’s fans.

In addition to the warm and caring service, everything in the restaurant testifies for its attention to detail and respect to food and the clients.

All the tables surrounding the circular fire place, which is open at 270 degrees, are occupied by people who have come here to eat, not drink or sing. Here, it seems that everyone’s attention – both the clients’ and the owners’, is turned towards one thing – the pleasure of good food.

They bring us each a portion of tuna fish, compliments of the place, before we even order the excellent, truly homemade luytenitsa and the white, crispy bread that has just been taken out of the oven.

From the meat dishes, we give the karvavitsa a try and it is at about the same level as that of the Macedonian Tavern, maybe a touch more aromatic.

We also try the stuffed pork leg, with the filling made from pieces of meat and bacon and a roasted and crispy skin, making the taste even richer.

The kapama – a dish consisting of five types of meat and sour cabbage cooked in a clay pot, is also very tasty, even though it has been slightly overcooked – actually, many of the locals would cook it exactly like this if they followed the best home cooking traditions.

The local dessert specialty – the yogurt with cranberries, is also quite decent here.

We have left

Motikata (Literally, ‘the mattock’)

which many say is the town’s best restaurant, as our last stop. The whole time we spend in Bansko, just before the season’s official opening, we try to ignore the construction, the dug-up roads, the empty seasonal hotels for mass tourism and the ash lifted by the trucks. In the town’s centre, we seem to manage, but on the way to Motikata, we start having serious problems.

Located on the way to Shiligarnika, the ski lift’s upper stop, and the Pirin Mountain hut, this restaurant used to be located outside of Bankso, in the forest. Now, construction has crawled so far up the hill, that it practically surrounds the restaurant and obstructs its view to the peak. Separating it from the unfinished buildings are only two or three rows of disorderly trees. But still, Motikata has a wonderful yard, through which a small river flows. We ask to sit outside, since the weather is sunny and, being around noon, it is quite warm, but we are met by definite refusal.

Here, unlike at Dyado Pene, we fail in overcoming this opposition, so we settle inside, across from the fireplace. Soon, we find out that even though the service is far from perfect, all the compliments about the quality of the food at Motikata are really true.

Here, we try the best kyopolu hands down, accompanied by two chunks of white cheese and a curious mix of pickled fruits, consisting of bell peppers, onions, cornichons and olives.

The karvavitsa is also very good, and the katino meze is superior to that of Molerite by several levels. The biggest difference is in the sauce, in which the wine’s aroma is clearly discernible, and the vegetables don’t dominate.

The sesame-covered bread is also freshly baked and quite tasty.

One of the most impressive specialties are the Motika potatoes – fresh, unpeeled, sliced into circles and lightly fried in the best way, so that they are crispy both on the outside and the inside. The products have been carefully selected and of high quality. The only disappointment turns out to be the kapama. It’s not that it is badly made, it just does not taste that fresh.

As a whole, Motikata makes it among the top three of our ranking, together with the Baryakova House and the Macedonian Tavern in Dobrinishte. Dyado Pene is a very close fourth.

All in all, we come to the conclusion that Bansko does indeed have places where one can eat very well. The only problem is that the good venues’ offerings aren’t very diverse. If you’re here for the weekend only, this would not be a problem. It only gets unpleasant if you spend a week and are forced to order the same thing day in and day out.

Practical information:

Prices at all the taverns we tried were quite comparable, with a difference of 5 euro for dinner for two, excluding the wine, costing between 25 and 40 euro.

Macedonia Tavern
Dobrinishte, 1 Georgi Temelkov Street 1

Baryakova Tavern
3 Velyan Ognev Street

Kasapinova Tavern
4 Yane Sandanski Street

Pirin Street, at the exit of Bansko to the left

41 Glazne Street

Dyado Pene
1 Al. Buynov Street

The article was first published in Bulgarian in Bacchus Magazine, the most influential Bulgarian media on wine, food and gourmet travelling.

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