Terra Madre Balkans 2012

Unfortunately, I missed the first Terra Madre Balkans (TMB) in 2010, but it was inconceivable that I would be absent from the second TMB hosted by Slow Food Bulgaria (SFB) this year. It took place June 29th to July 1st 2012. I had this event on my calendar for 6 months. I worked hard to try and participate in any way possible, but I had to realized my limitations with the late stage of my pregnancy and realities of being a new mom (again).

Why should there be a TMB if a larger meeting already exists in Italy? If you think back through the history of the Balkan region the boundaries were drawn and erased for hundreds of years… if not longer. The cultural implications of these shifts is that the proprietary rights of one country’s culture and traditions verses another country’s is debatable; when traveling through the region you find so many similarities in the cuisine and traditions. This is why cooperation and partnership in the region is necessary and vital for the preservation of the traditional treasures.

The first day of the event was dedicated to the sharing of ideas for sustainable rural development in the Balkans and discussing challenges and solutions for the protection of traditional foods, cultures and promoting the benefits of an agrarian lifestyle. The conference was held in Bulgarian and English for our international guests, which included Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Greece, Herzegovina, Macedonia, Romania to name few. I managed to hear a few speakers, such as one of the EU commissioners, who pledged the cooperation of the EU in the region to address concerns and work together to find solutions. After her speech, the floor was opened to questions. I almost got the nerve to as a question on an issue I find very important in Bulgaria and possibly other countries in the region.

My husband and I have been working for the last year to start an agricultural business in Bulgaria. This foray into farming is a new venture for us, especially considering our backgrounds. My hesitations stems from the fact that I feel like an interloper, since I am not Bulgarian or even from the region. I do however feel that my comments have merit. As an outsider, I feel I offer an unique perspective. I can view the current agricultural and food situation in Bulgaria with different eyes.

There are many programs that exist within the EU funding frame work for young farmers, but you can’t apply for the young farmer program without a working farm, something like 50 decacres or 5 hectacres, but you need the farm to get funds, so it is a bit of a catch-22. What I find lacking in the projects offered are the incentive to start farming; returning people to the soil and away from blighted cities. There are some cliché stereotypical images of the farmer and the agrarian lifestyle which bring to mind poverty and ignorance, industrialization means progress and the well-to-do and intelligent people reside in cosmopolitan urban areas… This idea was heavily ingrained in Bulgaria during the Socialist times, and to some extent in the US as well. When I thought of farmers as I child, I saw a dirty (literally) old man in overalls with a straw hat and chewing on a long piece of grass, which is how farmers were portrayed in the media… This idea is not based in reality, but propaganda to encourage people towards industry because that was the future. What is needed is a program that helps people become farmers and making it possible to get started… Maybe “40 acres and a mule” or “three acres and a cow“?

I left the conference after lunch. I had Gabriel wrapped to my chest in my Moby wrap and I think the three hours of quiet time I received from him was enough to ask of a newborn. We head home to return bright and early the next day.

In the weeks leading up to the TMB, I was working with the Kyustendil Cultural Center and Agricultural Institute to team up with Slow Food to protect native cherry, apple and plum species that have existed in area, possibly since the Roman times, as Kyustendil has been designated as the “Cherry Capital of Bulgaria”. TMB was the weekend after the Kyustendil Cherry Festival, so cherries were abundant. Angel and I donated 30kg of cherries from our orchard to be enjoyed during lunch and coffee breaks on the first day of the conference. The idea was that Kyustendil presents cherries and tasty delights from the region along with traditional folk dancers.

Day two was the yummiest of all. The morning was an Open Market, where the public had the opportunity to sample and purchase regional Balkan delicacies. Maya (my tasting buddy) and I were enjoying all of the different product. Some of which, I had no idea about, like a tasty red onion preserve that was sold out by the time I arrived.

I ended up purchasing some wild fig preserves from Slow Food Macedonia, which is produced my 32 women and their families of NGO Ekorosales, in the municipalities of Bogdancie, Gevgelika, Dojran and Valandovo. The Presidium, through Slow Food, will help to define the production rules with the help of local consultants to preserve this artisan product. These figs were enjoyed on a cheese and charcuterie platter with some wine and good conversation. The remaining syrup from the preserves, I drizzled in my yogurt. It also went nice some sparkling water and I think it would make an interesting take on the classic French Kir or Kir Royal… replace the cassis or black currant cordial/syrup with wild fig.

Another product that attracted my attention was garlic. I have a tough time finding large garlic cloves in Bulgaria. The ones available in the market are small, which are difficult to use in the kitchen. If I venture towards to large supermarkets, I usually only find Chinese garlic, which is greatly inferior. So, I get a yearly delivery of big, pink tinged garlic from France. When friends travel during the summers, I receive a nice treat. The garlic featured at TMB, also on the Ark of Taste and hails from Ljubitovica, Croatia in the Split-Dalmatia region. The inland of Croatia is sparsely populated, but recieves heavy traffic due to the booming coastal tourism. The soil is difficult and rocky for cultivation, needing the removal large stones before it is workable. The major crops grown are olives and grapes, but locals offset their income by selling their garlic to the tourist, during the season The Ljubitovica garlic is revered as a full-flavored and fragrant variety with reddish veins.

 
One of the largest representations from all of the Balkan countries present, besides Bulgaria was Romania. Consisting of a few tables they offered a wide range of products from cured meats and sausages, cheeses, breads and wine; all are part of “Alba Transilvania” an association for traditional and agricultural products.
For my gift of cherries during the first day of talks, they bestowed upon Maya some lovely cookies and pastries. 
From Herzegovina, I found a beautiful red pepper based spread called Ajvar. It reminded me of something I had enjoyed in Lake Ohrid, Macedonia. My friend Roy is truely a pepper enthusiast… so, I though a jar or two would be a nice treat. The spread is available online from Taste Herzegovina.
In Kyustendil, our choice for fresh bread is usually the 24 hour bakery Festa. The warm bread is tasty, but it lacks the depth of flavor and the crisp crust of sour dough oven baked bread. I couldn’t resist buying a loaf, but I regret not buying two. It was heavenly and the small bit of dip that was served with the samples was another winner. I managed to get the recipe, rustic and with loads of room for interpretation, but possible nonetheless. If you are interested in purchasing this some sour dough from The Hot Oven (Топлата Фурна), you can find out more details here!

One of the most exciting aspects of TMB was the round table discussion lead by Carlo Petrini. For those of you who are not acquainted with Slow Food as an organization let me provides some back story. Slow Food is the alternative to “fast food”. For those of you that can remember the mass protest in Rome in 1986, when McDonald’s wanted to open a new “restaurant”, near the Spanish Steps. This manifestation, lead by Carlo Petrini, a journalist at the time, served homemade pizza outside on the street to passerby’s. While their efforts were futile in keeping McDonald’s out, it was the birth of the Slow Food movement; beginning in Italy and 14 other countries. The tenets of Slow Food focus on the appreciation of regional produce and traditional food cultures, promoting the idea of community and eating together, plus the protection of species for preserving the diversity of plants.

The topic of the roundtable was “Food as Culture” and Carlo Petrini started the discussion by outlining some major issues with the culture of food today focusing on the Balkans. One point he made, which will be a hard sell in poor Eastern European countries is to pay more for “good food”. There is quite an interesting paradigm in Bulgaria, especially in Sofia and the big cities; new food products are coming and most of them are processed food or exotic ingredients that have travelled from far far away… these items have a hefty price tag and are not worth it… it provides no health benefit and lack real flavor. What is interesting is that the more affluent people are the ones flocking to these convenience foods, in some way these products emphasize the division of well-off and poor in Bulgaria. If you have money, you can afford these items, but if you are poor you shop at the bazaars or are ignorant of such international product, which in my opinion I prefer the latter.
In order for people to pay more for good food, they need to understand what “good food” is. The term “good food” is ambiguous. If you ask a 100 people what is “good food”, you will get 100 different answers.. For me, good food is produced on farms, local farms that respect the land they are working and strive to create the best tasting food products possible. These ingredients are then prepared using proper cooking techniques that highlight and amplify the natural flavors. The farm to table philosophy according to me. How do you educate people to better comprehend what they are putting on their plates and in their mouths. This is a difficult task that require effort all around.

The farmer population around the world is declining. There are many different reasons for the decline and each country has their own unique barriers. One thing is certain and that is the small producers can’t compete with the commercial giants. The challenges presented to small farmers are certainly a deterant. If you want to have more farmers and “good food”, they need to know that they can earn a respectable income to support themselves and their family. In order to receive a just wage, people need avoid purchasing commercial produce and packaged food, learn to appreciate “good food” and pay more for it.

In Bulgaria, the old agrarian lifestyle is what people in the Western world are returning to in droves, yet the Bulgarians are moving away from fresh food in favor of convenience. When shopping in Sofia at Piccadilly or Hit… I frequently look at what is in people carts or on the conveyer belts. I am shock at what people are buying. I want to jump up and down and scream… STOP! You had it right all along… Go back to Baba’s and Dyado’s garden… eat with them and learn their secrets… Learn from America’s mistakes and save 50 years of madness!

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Author: caseyangelova

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

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