Kyustendil Cherry Festival 2012

I live in the south-west of Bulgaria, in a town called Kyustendil, for those of you who were unaware. I love my town for a variety of reasons, but one high on the list is the fact that Kyustendil is considered the “Cherry Capital” of Bulgaria… that might not be the official name, but now it is! When driving to Kyustendil during the early summer months, as soon as you begin your decent from the Konyavo mountains (if you are coming from Sofia) you will see small fruit vendors lining the road with their umbrellas, scales and crates of gorgeous cherries.

Everyone in the area has at least one to two cherry trees, but very often people have significantly more. You can see new trees being planted every year, especially recently with the funds from the EU. Some people sell vast quantities to cherry buyers who distribute them to Sofia and beyond or others choose to reap more of the profits by selling their own in smaller quantities. We are of the former group with our 200+ trees.

My first time being in Bulgaria during the cherry season was 2007. I was completely unaware that the trees on my street were primarily cherry. Who needs to go to Washington DC or Japan to enjoy cherry blossoms, they were lining my street. Once the cherries began to ripen, I noticed another peculiar habit that I would have not been exposed to if I was living in the States; people would graze on the cherries on the while walking down the street. Kids on the way home from school would jump towards the branches with the darkest and sweetest fruits, while the younger kids had to settle for the easier to reach branches with the slightly less sweet ones. I was hesitant to eat fruit that was growing on the street, it was just my mindset at the time, I had not quite made the connection of where food came from. It was mind boggling. Up until that point in my life, I had only had fruit off a tree when I went on an elementary school trip apple picking; this was a solitary occasion. I finally got up enough gusto to endulged while walking towards the center of town with my husband. He was snacking on cherries and djanki (Джанки), an unripened wild plum, while pestering me to just try some and I finally did, and immediately realized that these were the best cherries I have ever eaten in my life. I was hooked on street snacking!

Like most Bulgarian towns, they have many celebrations and in Kyustendil, we have an annual Cherry Festival. It is normally held during a weekend near the end of June. This year it was June 22nd and 23rd. It is a big tah-dah where many of the small villages that surround the town have unique cherry traditions, which they display during the festival.

The festival started with a show that included many different folk singers and dancers. One of the performers happened to be an American Peace Corp volunteer that my Mother met up with while she was walking around. His name is Leo and he has been in Kyustendil for two years. I thought I knew every foreigner in town, he had heard of me, but I had not known about him. I didn’t get to see him perform, which I planned to and waited an hour and a half; because as most things go in Bulgaria, the show started about 45 minutes late and Gabriel (1 month old baby) needed to get home.
This year, we even had a group of journalists from China covering all aspects of the festival and Kyustendil. I stopped to ask them about their visit to the town and if they had come specifically for the event which they replied “yes”. They told me that they would only be in town just for the weekend before returning home. I was impressed that the news of this small town cherry festival had found it’s way to China.
The Institute of Agriculture – Kyustendil, one of the organizers of the event, located just outside of town, works to protect the some 200 varieties of cherries in the region and over 1000 hybrids. I hope to work with them and Slow Food to help preserve the cultural heritage of the indigenous and ancient cherry varieties. I look forward to learning more about orchard science and finding interesting uses for the different varieties in culinary applications.
This year was extra special year for me because my parents, who were visiting from the US, got to experience cherries in a way that is not associate with a supermarket. My parents actually helped us pick cherries at our orchard. While they were not fast or even managed to keep the majority of the stems on (FYI: cherries with out stems don’t keep, so you can’t sell them), it was a great time! I think by the end of the 2 – 3 weeks that we had cherries, we consumed so many of them through cooking and out of hand snacking that I didn’t manage to preserve any… I did however find a fantastic recipe for Cherry Gazpacho!!!
It is always bittersweet when the last of the cherries have been picked and consumed. I know that I have eaten more than my fill, but I am still looking forward to next years bounty.
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Author: caseyangelova

Eating, Gardening & Living in Bulgaria www.caseyangelova.com

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