Kyustendil was once known and maybe still is, as the “orchard of Bulgaria”, but recently, I think the title has been handed off to Plovdiv. While Kyustendil is not economically an agricultural giant, it in no way affects the quality of the products it does produce. The small parcels are by and large maintained naturally, without the use of chemicals. Unfortunately, this is not always a philosophical choice, but a pragmatic one, as fertilizers are expensive and most rural farmers can not afford them.
A few months back, Dessislava Dimitrova of Slow Food and I had the opportunity to sit down with the Director of the Institute of Agriculture, Dimitar Domozetov in Yabolkovo, right outside town. He is a spirited man, passionate about Kyustendil; one of his notable achievements, depending on who you are speaking with, was helping to create over 1000 hybrid species of cherry trees. The Kyustendil branch of the institute is responsible for all research concerning cherries, which helps to further solidify Kyustendil’s place as the Cherry Capital of Bulgaria.
During our conversions about the past, present and future of agriculture in Kyustendil, we started a dialog about organic, natural, bio (whatever you’d like to call it) food and farming practices. After the Socialist regime fell in the late 80’s the funding and subsidies for the sciences declined, if not disappeared entirely, until Bulgaria’s acceptance into the EU in 2007. The institute and rural farmers were essentially left to fend for themselves during the upheaval, so a return to traditional practices, helped to develop an emphasis on natural techniques. The research focused on these methods and the overall opinion is that the end product is of a higher quality and the cost to maintain is significantly lower. As a member of the EU, it is not clear what the future might hold for agriculture in Kyustendil, but at the moment natural is the way to go.
Members of Slow Food in Bulgaria joined in the festivities, hoping to start building a strong relationship with Kyustendil and at present the municipality, cultural centers and the Institute of Agriculture are amenable to fostering an alliance. Dessislava and another member were invited to participate, by helping to judge a friendly competition between villages, with categories like who grew the largest apple.
The largest Slow Food presence at the festival was not from Bulgaria, but Slow Food Osogovo in Macedonia. They shared with Kyustendil their unique recipe for Sharenа salt or “colorful” salt, it is a mixture of summer savory (chubritza), paprika and of course, salt; other ingredients can be added to reflect the personality of the creator. The salt is eaten with a bit of bread, which in this case was a bread whose recipe came from the Kriva Palanka, Macedonia only a few kilometers from the Bulgaria border.
By far, my favorite and clear winner of the harvest festival was the giant pumpkin. I made Maya pose in front of it, hence her snarky face.
For me the presence of a variety of pumpkins and gourds represent the quintessential passage into autumn.
Another beautiful table was from Bagrentzi. They are an active community and offered a pleasant showing. Bagrentzi was also the village, which organized the first day of the Panagia festival. The young girl, Lily that was assisting her grandmother made one of the dolls that were on display.
The cabbage Baba and Dyado are adorable. My girls loved the snow people made from cabbage!
I think as far as, which village put on the most spectacular display, that honor would go to Dragovishtitza. I might be a little biased but they offered me some homemade Rakia, what more can I say?
Followed by some real buttermilk. Not ayran; yogurt diluted with water, but freshly churned milk from the butter making process using the traditional equiptment. You can see the butter clinging to the side of the butter churn.
The end of the festival was bittersweet. The winter is coming and with the temperatures still pleasant, I still have time to can the last flavors of summer to prepare for lots of winter’s offerings… roots vegetables! The next major festival in Kyustendil will the on March 21st, the first day of spring… pretty much every one walks up Hissarlak and eats Kebabche and drinks warm beer, while parade of contestants vyring for the title “Miss Spring”. Good stuff!