The natural connection between human beings, their labour and nature penetrates the worldview of all cultures from different historical eras and it determines the thoughts of a person within a traditional society, including Bulgarians. For example, wheat production and sheep breeding are highly significant for Bulgarians – they measure their fortune not only by the size of their lands, but also by the number of their sheep. Certainly, this is reflected in the manner they rationalize things in this world. In these lands, dairy products are of great importance. For Bulgarians, the most valued and preferred milk comes from sheep, from which they produce cheese, butter and yoghurt. The same products are also made from widely available goat and cow milk. Buffalo milk is mainly consumed locally in the plains regions.
Fig. 1. A shepherd with his herd. Samokov region, 1946. Photo by an anonymous photographer. Archive of IEFSEM-BAS.
Yoghurt is one of the oldest foods in the Balkans. Most likely, the ancient inhabitants of today’s Bulgarian lands were familiar with its technology. Written and archaeological sources show that Bulgarians have been eating yoghurt for centuries and they make it by using a simple and primitive technology up until this day. Yoghurt is constantly used in every-day life and sometimes in certain rituals. Production requires the raw ingredients, sourdough, a container and a certain temperature. The fermentation process is brought on in order for the milk to turn into curdled milk, also called yoghurt. Its name and its taste are different from the names of the ingredients used.
Traditionally, milk is curdled in containers used only for this purpose. Most often, they are made of clay and more rarely of metal. The raw material – fresh or boiled – is poured into them. Its temperature should be close to that of the healthy human body or to the body of the animal that produced the milk. Bulgarians check the temperature of the milk by putting a finger into it – when it is pleasantly warm, without feeling too hot or too cold, then it is appropriate for making yoghurt.
If these conditions are present, the milk ferment (also called sourdough) is added to the milk. Most often, a small quantity (only a few spoonfuls) of an old fermented milk product is used – such as yoghurt, ayran (a cold yoghurt-based beverage drunk in many regions of Asia and Eastern Europe)or burkanitsa (a fermented dairy drink or sourdough starter, with which milk is mixed for fermentation). In some places, there are other ways to curdle the milk: by using a piece of bread, a mix of vinegar and milk, butter, dzhanki (wild plums, Lat. Prunus cerasifera), a gold coin or pure silver. The sourdough is diluted with some of the prepared milk, then it is poured into the rest of milk, the whole quantity is mixed well and the container is covered. With the addition of the sourdough in the raw milk, the fermentation process begins. In order for the process to take place correctly, the container is covered with a wool cloth or a piece of clothing and is kept at room temperature, so that its heat is maintained for a few hours. After this, the containers are uncovered and when they have cooled down, the yoghurt is ready. If the sourdough added is warmer or if the covered containers are kept in a warmer room, the yoghurt will become sourer.
When prepared, the milk with the added sourdough can be used both directly for food and to make other products. People make butter in their households from it by using a churn and the remaining liquid (burkanitsa) is used for direct consumption or is processed once again. In the second case, the product is boiled and strained. The result is a mass, which resembles crumbled soft cheese (izvara) and liquid (tsvik). The izvara is salted and kept similarly to the way cheese is kept and the tsvik is given to the livestock. Up until today, the butter and the curd are well-known products with a well-preserved memory of their technology. In contrast to them, burkanitsa has been nearly forgotten now.
Figure 2. A butter churn. Dubovska Mahala, Blagoevgrad district, 1952. Photo by Nikola Nikolov, Archive of IEFSEM-BAS.
The significance of dairy products in sustaining people in today’s Bulgarian lands is considerable. According to some researchers, these foods were the true reason for the survival of the Balkan population during the famines in the Middle Ages, which took so many lives in Western Europe.
Yoghurt is one of the most important foods for Bulgarians during the times when they do not fast, which are mainly during the spring and the summer. Most often, it is consumed on its own with bread because it is perceived as a ‘ready food’, meaning a cooked meal. Burkanitsa is also consumed on its own. It is described as a very refreshing drink, which was the reason for its use during warm summer weather and especially during work outside on the fields. During the summer, yoghurt and burkanitsa were brought every day to the fields, where people consumed them with bread, onion, salt and cheese.
Cooking with yoghurt is unknown for the preindustrial period in Bulgaria, but people eat almost everything with it during the non-fasting days. When there are pastries present on the table, such as banitsa (a cooked meal, consisting of thin pastry sheets, between which there is oil and different types of savoury fillings), tutmanik (a cooked meal, consisting of thick sourdough sheets, with oil and cheese in between the layers), fresh pita (bread with no sourdough added to it), yoghurt and the burkanitsa are always present as well. The baked katmi (a pastry dish resembling a pancake, which is prepared either with or without sourdough) is eaten by pouring yoghurt over them in Dobrudzha (a region straddling Bulgaria and Romania, on the Black Sea coast). The habit of eating pastries with yoghurt or with ayran is fully preserved up until today.
Yoghurt is also used for another dish in some regions. In order to make it, eggs are broken and put to boil in salted water for a few minutes, then are taken out of the water and put on top of yoghurt or curd and hot oil (butter or lard) with fried red pepper in it is poured over it all. A dish widely known nowadays is made the same way and is called ‘Panagyurski-style eggs’. There are certain products which were not eaten along with yoghurt during the preindustrial period in Bulgaria. The prohibition on mixing fish and yoghurt in one dish is well-known and fairly common even today, since it is thought that this combination is poisonous. At the same time, yoghurt is widely used for preparing different types of breakfasts, soups, main courses and desserts.
Figure 3. Wooden containers for mixing the milk. Gela villages, Smolyan district, 1983. Photo by Sofia Tancheva. Archive of IEFSEM-BAS.
Only dairy products produced from sheep’s milk are used in Bulgarian traditional ritual food. Yoghurt has the strongest link with food for St. George’s Day (23rd April/6th May), which is perceived as one of the biggest spring celebrations of the year, almost as important as Easter. The first sheep’s milk of the new agricultural year is curdled before St. George’s Day and the ready product is used for preparing the next yoghurt in the household. Usually, this happens according to the traditional technology, but in some places, people make a new curd from plants (herbs), St. George’s day rain or mist, collected from the grass.
During the traditional period, goat’s and cow’s milk were often used for baby food for orphaned children or for children whose mothers could not lactate. Yoghurt is also one of the first foods which children are given after the mother stops breastfeeding.
Author: Maria Markova, Associate Professor, Ph.D., IEFSEM – BAS (Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Studies with Ethnographic Museum – the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences), has been doing research for many years on the food and nutrition of Bulgarians during the traditional period.
Editor’s Note: This contribution from Maria Markova is part of an on-going series that began in collaboration with The Ritual Year Working Group of the S.I.E.F. (International Society for Ethnology and Folklore). We especially thank Tatiana Minniyakhmetova, author of the article on Udmurt yoghurt, and Bulgarian ethnologist Katya Mihaylova, for encouraging Maria to join us with her contribution. You can visit the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Studies with Ethnographic Museum at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences online here.
Markova, Maria = Маркова, Мария. Майчината кърма като първа храна (Breast milk as the first food). In: Минало (Minalo), 2001, issue 1, pp. 46-54.
Markova, Maria = Маркова, Мария. Традиционна технология на българското кисело мляко (Traditional technology of the Bulgarian yoghurt). In: Минало (Minalo), 2006, issue 2, pp. 48-56.
Markova, Maria = Маркова, Мария. Храна и хранене: между природа и култура. София, АИ „Проф. Марин Дринов“, 2011 (Food and nutrition: between nature and culture. Sofia, Prof. Marin Drinov Academic publishing house, 2011).