Recipe: Shopska Salad
One of the dishes that was pretty much ubiquitous when we visited Bulgaria, and could be found pretty much every meal we had, was shopska salad. It is Bulgaria’s national salad, apparently created as part of tourism campaign in the 1950s, its colours of red, green and white match those of the Bulgarian flag.
The dish is popular throughout the Balkans – we also enjoyed it in Bosnia and Herzegovina and it made a regular appearance on menus in Croatia as well. There are all sorts of variations. Fruit and vegetables in Eastern Europe are usually more delicious than those we get at home. They make look uglier but they taste so much better. Because the salad uses very finely grated cheese you get a lovely hit of salty cheese with every forkful as opposed to, say, a Greek salad which uses cubes of cheese. It’s a really easy recipe that tastes absolutely great. This version is the one that we ate in Bulgaria.
Shopska is traditionally made using Bulgarian sirene cheese which is difficult to get in the UK. Feta cheese is more easily available and is a really good substitute. Here’s our recipe for shopska salad.
Shopska Salad Ingredients
1 cup of feta cheese (we like the barrel aged variety as it has a lovely rich, salty flavour)
1 tbs red wine vinegar (white wine or cider vinegar can also be used)
2 tbs sunflower oil (sunflower is more traditional but it is fine to use olive oil if you prefer)
Pinch of salt (go easy) and pepper (as much as you like)
Many recipes recommend removing the seeds from the tomatoes and cucumber but we hate food waste so we tend to leave them in.
Wash the cucumber and chop into cubes
Wash the tomatoes, cut out the stem and cut into small cubes.
Make the dressing: combine the oil, vinegar, salt and pepper – we recommend minimal salt as the cheese is salty; often we omit the salt altogether. Mix together and then pour over the cucumber and tomatoes. Let them marinate for a few hours if you wish.
Finely grate the cheese. If you have an ordinary grater that’s absolutely fine but if you can, use a grater with a really fine setting. Feta is quite soft, so isn’t the easiest cheese to grate but it is worth persevering to get a lovely fine mass of cheese.
Place the marinated vegetables in a bowl. Sprinkle over the grated cheese. Devour.
Variations. It is perfectly fine to add in other vegetables: finely chopped red onion, chopped celery, red or green bell peppers etc. If you want to add some herbs such as parsley or basil, that’s okay too.
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Bulgaria Beautiful Places
The countryside of central Bulgaria is a joy to travel through with its stunning mountain scenery and picturesque villages. We spent time travelling through this lovely region, visiting rural communities, and staying in village houses or family pensions. There are some really beautiful places in Bulgaria in the region between the Balkan Mountains and Central Balkan National Park and then further west in the Pirin National Park.
Veliko Tarnovo is a pretty town, and one of the biggest in the region. It boasts an impressive fortress, Tsarevets, which was a stronghold in mediaeval times, overlooking the town from a position of strength on its hilltop location. It was the main fortress of the Bulgarian empire that ruled between 1185 and 1396.
It’s a shame that we visited on a particularly vile day – it really is a lovely town and the fort is fascinating.
The Emen canyon is located around 20km from Veliko Tarnovo. The Negovanka River has cut its way through the soft karst limestone on the edge of the Central Balkan range to give rise to a dramatic landscape with cliffs, waterfalls and some caves. It’s a beautiful area to go walking – eco-paths have been put in with boardwalks.
It’s not too far from the impressive Dryanovo monastery, which is located in the Andaka river valley. It was destroyed twice during the Ottoman rule but has since been restored and is a working monastery.
Tryavna is a delightful town which has retained a great deal of character from its beautifully preserved buildings. The pretty clock tower is a focal point of the town. It is famous as a centre for traditional arts and is renowned for its woodcarvings. Places to visit include an icon painting museum and the Kazakov art gallery, which exhibits the works of revered Bulgarian artist Dimitar Kazakov-Neron, who didn’t let an allergy to oil paints stop him creating thousands of works.
Etar Ethnographic Museum
Bulgaria’s rural heritage is celebrated at the Etar ethnographic museum located close to Gabravo. It makes for an interesting morning wandering along the cobbled streets around the open-air village that show off Bulgarian traditional buildings. It also offers working displays as well as demonstrations of local crafts.
There are a number of exhibits showing technology that uses water, including water mills…
…there’s even a washing machine, used to wash rugs, which makes use of the stream that flows through the village. Just put the rug in the huge tub and let the flowing water churn the dirt away.
A number of restaurants serve traditional Bulgarian food which is fresh, tasty and hearty. When you are used to eating mass produced supermarket food which looks perfect but has somehow lost all its flavour, it is joyful to be able to eat fresh fruit and vegetables which may be oddly-shaped, gnarly and, well, just a bit ugly, but the flavour is so good.
There is even a baker at Etar, churning out delicious fluffy loaves from a traditional wood-fired oven.
The Troyan monastery is located some 10km south east of the town of Troyan and it is the third biggest monastery in the whole of Bulgaria. It was built around the 16th century but, like many monasteries in the country, had to be reconstructed in the 19th century following the ending of the Ottoman invasion of Bulgaria. The interior and exterior decorations were created by Zahari Zograph, who was also responsible for painting the beautiful and distinctive Rila Monastery. It contains one of the country’s most important icons in Bulgaria – The Three Handed Virgin.
Koprivshtitsa is a charming rural town, nestled in the mountains. It has retained its architecture from the Bulgarian National Revival period, a renaissance period for the country following Ottoman rule. It is also a centre for folk music and hosts the National Festival of Bulgarian Folklore event every five years or so.
It’s a delightful town to wander through – we even met a couple of local piggies who wandered with us.
The surrounding countryside is lovely too and there are lots of opportunities to go walking in the area.
Pirin National Park
Moving further west lies the Pirin National Park, another gorgeous mountainous region. This is a great area for walkers – there are plenty of hikes amidst spectacular scenery. There are lots of grassy trails to follow, with a few rocky sections, and some crystal clear lakes that reflect the blue sky and the mountains above.
The Rila monastery, or to give it its formal name The Monastery of St John of Rila, is possibly the most beautiful of all Bulgaria’s beautiful monasteries. It is a UNESCO world heritage site. It is believed that the original monastery was established in the 10th century and named for a hermit, St Ivan of Rila. The revered hermit actually lived in a nearby cave and his students built the monastery. The building was initially constructed at its present site in the 14th century but, like many monasteries, was destroyed and reconstructed over the years. The present monastery dates the mid-19th century, with additional buildings added over the years.
The inside of the monastery is painted with colourful frescoes and it also contains many precious icons.