Panagia Festival – The Rising of the Bread

I am constantly amazed at the number of festivals that are organize by the municipality of Kyustendil; one for every season. My love of cherries makes me partial to the Cherry Festival in June, but the Panagia Festival, which celebrates the Feast of the Assumption, and the Virgin Mary’s ascension in to Heaven, according to the Eastern Orthodox religion. In christianity bread represents the body of Christ. The care and consciousness poured into making the bread symbolizes their devotion to Christ and their faith.The festival is more spiritual than gastronomic and that makes the bread more significant because it is seeped in tradition.

August 14th was the first day of the festival, it took place at the church of Kiril and Methodi in Bagrentzi, a small village located about 4 km east of Kyustendil. The focus of the day is the traditional and almost sacramental process of preparing the bread. The ceremony connected with the bread making centers on a young women and an older woman, either her mother or baba. The ritual is quite moving, seeing the torch passed down, preserving the tradition for generations to come. 
Coincidentally, one of the young girls was my neighbor Lily. She lives on my street and has played with my kids. I didn’t immediatly recognize her, but was touched by the pride she exuded being able to partake in the cermony. She assisted her grandmother (baba) preparing the bread. This was her second year participating and told me she felt a bit more prepared having taken part the year prior. She was able to anticipate her grandmother’s needs and what to do next, making to process seem like a culinary dance.

The recipe for the bread is simple and approximate, but the source of the ingredients is significant. The water is drawn from the church well, by the young girls representing purity and virtue.

The sanctified flour is then ladled from the trough and carried lovingly to the workspace. Each young girl receive her ration of bread from the elder.

A well is made in the center of the flour and the water and re-hydrated starter are added. The flour is pulled into the middle from the sides. Once a consistent ball is achieved, it is kneaded till smooth and elastic. The dough is then rested. During the resting, the fires are stoked and everyone celebrates with song and dance.

In addition to the official ceremony, The Bread House in Gabrovo descended on Kyustendil to share the traditions, culture and methods of making bread. Nadejda Savova, who is working on her phD in anthropology at Princeton University in The United States, shares her passion for Bulgarian culture, which has been organically incorporated into her doctoral pursuits. She teaches Eastern Orthodox iconography and traditional Bulgarian bread making techniques. Savova is one of the founder of the Bread House initiative. Through her travels around the world, she has set up numerous outposts, sharing the traditions and culture associated with bread. One of her criticism of food culture in Bulgaria, is that while food is extremely important culturally and the value is understood in a social context, but the appreciation for the quality of ingredients and the taste of local cuisine is lost.
The fires are optimal and the bread is ready for baking. The ceremony concluded with further celebration and dancing.

Gabriel was a huge hit with the kids. They were quite eager to give a cuddle to the youngest guest by far at the festival.

In the grand Bulgarian tradition a horo… with the youngest participants in jubilant celebration. In years down the road, I expect these girls will be helping their mothers and babas prepare the bread.

The next day of the Festival was dedicated to the displaying of bread and other goods, which have been artistically crafted to represent the talents of the bread makers in the villages surrounding Kyustendil. My next post will highlight the exhibition.

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Author: caseyangelova

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

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