by Peter Byrne
(Swans - June 19, 2006) So Bulgaria has knocked at the kitchen door of the European Union. Why not? The Bulgarians have surely smartened themselves up with dinner jackets since I first had a glimpse of them a dozen or so years ago. But what a fine morning that was and, to tell the truth, I wish they hadn't climbed up to the Western table. Let Europe unite with some place, well, less flavorful.
Sofia just after breakfast on a soft autumn day, 1993. I shook hands with Alfredo, an Italian resident and acquaintance of people I'd dined with in London. These global trenchermen explained that he'd been something in the Turin white-truffle trade before becoming man Friday to the major-domo at the Italian Embassy in the refurbishing Republic of Bulgaria.
I didn't ask Alfredo about his past -- or about his present for that matter -- but his intensity and quickness reminded me of an experienced pizzaiolo. It was soon obvious that he had a robust appetite for walking and had salted away considerable knowledge of the city. His hunter's instinct intrigued me. Didn't they send sniffer dogs to root up truffles? I thought I liked the way Alfredo sputtered, all enthusiasm. He was short and I was tall, but in no time I'd adjusted my stride and he'd found the right angle for his neck.
The other adjustment concerned our talk. Alfredo liked to bestow, not exchange information. He was a pot boiling over with facts. I had all I could do to imbibe them, keeping the lid on my own timid remarks. The lore and recipes he'd amassed in Bulgaria made him a missionary famished for converts. My role was to listen, gulp down his words and lick my fingers. He was the headwaiter, and I was the intimidated diner. When I did speak, he'd go, hmm, hmm, like a wheel whirling, a coffee grinder picking up speed.
I think this meant I'd better shut up or risk missing revelations leading to personal fulfillment, even surfeit. For it was my life at the table that exercised him. Walking set his thoughts simmering. He began like an ordinance officer, with a sweeping view.
"We arrived in the snow. It was January 1991. Sofia was all power cuts, sub zero temperatures and empty larders. Even the Sheraton Hotel only served cabbage soup!"
I had a weakness for boiled cabbage. It fit my picture of Eastern Europe. I was glad it had made the five-star menu.
Alfredo narrowed his eyes. I guessed that his gaze had tightened up that way since the ravenous 1991 winter. I decided the busy moustache that rose and fell over his tiny teeth dated from then too. With his back to the wall, in all that snow, he'd boldly inserted himself into the Bulgarian food chain.
"I'm going mushrooming tomorrow," he said. "You know those porcini that cost 250,000 lire a kilo in Milan? If you get out early, you can find them on the middle slopes. The locals sometimes come at you jabbering -- envy you know, as if they could cook a risotto ai funghi! But I bring a big stick and they back off."
A stopping tram barred our way. An old man spidery with rheumatism lifted a full plastic jerrican down before him, half falling after it. An old woman who belonged to him followed with a cloth bag jammed full of plastic bottles. She seemed propelled by the bag.
"Spring water," explained Alfredo. "Nix on that dribble from your faucet -- lethal. This is free for the taking, up on the mountain. The mineral salts keep the over sixties alive."
He thought a moment, speculating on my age and diet before going on.
"I take that sort of thing in tablets. I've a source in Belgrade whose brother-in-law supervises the sweepers in a Zurich pharmaceutical lab."
Alfred hurried through the crowd that waited to board the tram. It was an ancient model, articulated in creaky segments, and had spent a well-fed youth in some favored city of Western Europe. Exile brought it to a meager old age in Bulgaria. I pointed to the lace curtains in the cab. Alfred winced.
"The women drivers make little parlors with a dining nook. When there's a breakdown, they have a snack, fried bread dough, radishes, green onions, all the native delicacies."
I craned my neck but could only see a young woman with delicate shoulders in the driver's seat. Was she dieting?
"The men drivers' cabs are different," said Alfred. "A scrap of awning and a couple of big pin-ups, sometimes a Coca-Cola ad as a talisman. They swig rakiya and chew corn of the cob."
Alfredo never stopped. He was like a mouse that smelled cheese or some other gustatory goal in life. Now he motioned toward a figure sitting on a wrecked kitchen chair. The old man was selling red peppers. He looked dyspeptic as if the fixed smile of his wares gave him a pain.
"The peppers are hairy here, Balkan models," said Alfredo. "We're deep-freezing some. They're better preserved in olive oil. I brought some Tuscan first pressing with me. But the Bulgarians ran out of jars. That's why I'm going over the Greek border Sunday."
I managed to sneak a word in and ask if it wasn't lucky to have Hellenic culture only hours away by road.
"That highway is the way out of scurvy," he said. "Citrus alley over the potholes. Without it we'd have to squeeze our vitamin C out of sauerkraut like the Bulgarians."
Alfred's pace winded me. He ate up the pavement. When I fell behind his ergonomic backpack bobbed in front of my growling stomach. Did he have brunch stashed in there?
"Of course there are leeks," he said, "terribly overgrown, like small trees. You'll see them being moved around on carts. Unnatural things."
"Hardly fit on a Welshman's cap," I quipped. But Alfredo was on to the next course.
"Chewable meat's not to be found," he said with a touch of sadness. "They don't believe in hanging beef."
"Against capital punishment, are they?"
I'd only wanted to cheer him up. But he didn't relish banter. He grabbed my arm with impatience and stood me in front of a dim store window.
"Butcher," he said, leaving his mouth open in distaste.
It was hard to believe. A man with no neck stood at a high counter and fussed over red and white chunks of something. He wasn't butchering and certainly not hanging meat. He was sorting it, like a postman putting mail in pigeonholes before filling his pouch and setting out on his round.
Alfredo started walking again.
"We use an old washing machine wringer," he said. "My wife feeds in steak."
"And it comes out tender?"
"Not exactly. I keep telling her that with wages so low here we could pay to have a side of beef beaten with a wooden snow shovel for days at a time."
"Your raw material comes from a shop like that one back there?"
Alfredo sent a look of pity up at me.
"That guy with no neck's a body snatcher. I'm talking gastronomy. My Bulgarian friend phones me the night before a steer's for the high jump. I get a taxi with plenty of floor space. That's important, because they always clutter up the trunk with cans of extra gas. Then I rush out there at first light."
I could imagine Alfred beelining through the countryside. He'd sit up front beside the driver in a bone-shaking Moscovitch and scour the road at daybreak. At least once he'd have to get out to sniff for offal on the wind. The abattoir would be a Trebent repair shop where indestructible body panels were piled like bundles of old newspaper. In he scooted through a burlap flap that replaced the door. His friend met him with a raised cleaver and the leer of a chief executioner...
"They simply put the animal on the dirt floor and poleax it!" said Alfred in wonder. "If you're on the scene, you can get into the fray and grab the best pieces. Otherwise...," he sent a thumb backward dismissively toward the shop where the neckless butcher sorted his goods.
I nodded as if I'd digested all that. We passed a greengrocer's with a display like a burnt-out flowerbed.
"Cucumbers, porcoddio, we saw them in our sleep! I'd run around the suburbs all morning to find one."
It was a bitter memory that Alfredo prized, like the January-shriveled, gone woody, hard come-by vegetable itself. I profited from his nostalgia to get a word in.
"Is there a bread shortage?"
"Not now," he said sharply, fed up with my naivety. "Of course in 1991 we ate fallen crumbs with a spoon."
"Why are they waiting then?"
There were a dozen people, mainly older women, milling about in an odor of baking before an unadorned storefront. I could see plenty of loaves for sale inside. They were piled like firewood beside the counter.
"In '91...," Alfredo began.
I cut in, "Maybe they're respecting tradition."
He ignored my small talk for more solid fare.
"They're waiting for the hot twelve-o'clock loaves. Everybody does."
He led me over to join the line that had formed. No bell rang at noon, but on the hour from deep within came a battered wire-rack, tall as a man and pushed by one. The customers jumped to attention and held their shopping bags ready as if to trap a runaway rabbit.
The man behind the rack exuded sweat and power, a baker with a good supply of flour in a country dependent on bread. He began stowing loaves, big as babies, into the bags, which were homemade affairs, no two alike. When our turn came Alfredo said something and paid the woman taking money. Her eyes glazed an instant at his accent. He picked up a bread like a dinner plate a couple of inches thick.
Back in the street, his grin was greedy. He tore his purchase apart expertly.
"It's like pizza bread," he said, a shade perplexed, as if there might be Balkan treachery here, "what they call pitka."
It was chewy and filling, with a trace of oil.
"Never buy that other gutless stuff the natives feed on."
The customers hadn't his reservations and knew the staff of life even when shaped like a laundry bundle. Several bent-over old women went off loaded with four loaves.
I managed to swallow my pitka while Alfredo was still chewing his.
"You speak Bulgarian then?"
"Enough to do the shopping."
But Alfredo wasn't going to talk linguistics. He said he regretted not having eaten his part of the bread as a sandwich.
"If you know where to go, they have decent sausage and cooked meat." He said a Bulgarian word. "That's smoked chicken, pressed with herbs and gone pink. I tracked some down for our supper on Christmas Eve." Another Bulgarian word. "Young goat flesh with curious spicing. They cut it in thin flakes. It's rare as ginseng, but you can find it in some of the back-of-beyond villages." A Bulgarian word again. "No problem to get hold of, at least toward the beginning of the week, early in the day, when there's a full moon. It's like coppa, you know, Italian smoked shoulder-pork."
"Here's fish," I said.
A staggering phosphoro-stink hit us. Alfredo took me by the arm and made me peer into a low open door. I had to bend over. On a pocked tray was something like stiff twisted rope in short lengths.
"This is a Sofia fishmonger's. That stuff was frozen in the first ice age. But don't mislay your can opener, because most everything's in tins. Not the smell, though, they sell that separate. For heaven's sake, if you fancy fish, go to the Black Sea personally. I can give you an address. Or take the late flight to Athens. You arrive just in time to meet the fishermen coming back to Piraeus."
We stopped at a crossing. A Lada passed in front of us, square chested, determined, coughing its lungs up. It was green like the mold on bacon. I'd seen another model in the beige of anemic pastry cream.
"Strange color for an automobile," I said.
"Hmmm," said Alfred and scuttled ahead.
We walked on a splendid pavement. Everywhere in Sofia there were stone roads set with a 19th century sense of eternity. In the main they'd escaped asphalting. But when a stretch collapsed there was no hurry to rebuild it. Alfredo skirted a crater now with his rapid little steps. Nettles had taken root. I gripped his shoulder to extract a comment on the state of the roads. He misunderstood.
"They're passable boiled up in a stew. But don't ask me to drink nettle tea."
"Why aren't the roads repaired?" I ask, making myself clear.
"They're like the grocers' shelves," he said. "An item sells out and there's nothing done about the empty space. It's no one's job to fill it."
I couldn't believe it and asked,
"Don't they have those kids earning pin money who shift stock after hours?"
Alfredo broke his short stride to rub in my otherworldliness.
"Pins? Unavailable, my friend. Bulgarians are still using First World War versions handed down by their grandmothers and re-sharpened every generation. As for shifting stock, take a good look at that."
He pointed to a hulking block whose massive symmetry would have been impressive in 1902. It had gone up in the 1950s.
"When I was once foolish enough to go in there, I found out what happens when new stock arrives."
We were in the center of town and I realized that this must be the fabled Government Department Store.
"First some sort of alarm goes off. You see beefy matrons spring into action and stop the advance of wannabe customers. Two engineers run ropes around the sensitive area as if a bomb's been found. Then the lady wrestlers return to lock away the gewgaws that have just arrived from foreign parts. After the all-clear, the public creeps back. They're still voracious and mouthing apologies, drooling to buy something, anything. Tsum, they call the place. Can't you feel it sticking in your gullet?"
"Is there a food section?"
"I heard that in 1989 they got a shipment of pet food. In Berlin the Wall came down. In the Sofia Government Department Store there was only a round of barking and the odd meow."
We turned left, leaving the broad boulevard. This street threw up dust motes in the sunlight, boasted trees and countless strollers. People sat out in front of the cafés. They were too engrossed in the fine weather to do much talking or drinking, or anything else.
Some of them played backgammon. The clicks were unnerving.
"You get banitsa in those places. It's something on the way to being pastry, smeared with cheese in passing, but never left long enough in the kiln for my taste."
"Pleasant hangouts," I said.
But Alfredo took no hints and wasn't going to stop. Instead, he whirled that hmm, and walked faster.
"They say you can get everything in the big street market. But I won't swallow that. All the market can do is show you the misery you'll have on your plate if you don't nose out something tastier."
I looked up at the second stories of the shops that were trying to make the jump to department stores. They were cute bean hills beside the off-putting mountain of the Government Store.
"Nothing in those upstairs-downstairs places," said Alfredo. Then he spelled it out, "Nothing to eat."
We veered off to the right. This street went on as far as you could see. Both sides were lined with flimsy stalls. In the gaps, sellers stood with their goods at their feet. We walked past a row of faces as countrified as fence posts.
Alfredo exhaled in disgust toward the merchandise.
"Who wants half-bite apples or those stony little pears they feed to pigs in Calabria?"
I stared hard but still couldn't make out the end of the street. It was the first taste of euphoria I'd had in Sofia. Markets that went on forever conjured up a Bulgarian cornucopia. Alfredo did everything to bring me back to reality, his reality. The market was only more and more of the same thing. The tomatoes were misshapen country cousins to those his Mama made sauce of. The aubergines were born old, with wrinkles. You didn't know what might be under the dust on the melons.
He stopped, especially peeved, at one stall.
"Okay, so at this time of year they bring in some plums, and their plums can be pretty good."
He pressed one, his fingertips putting paid to its hoary patina. The farmer in attendance watched him, imperturbable, neutral, silent, a poker player. Alfredo continued to explain as we trudged on.
"But you can't just go up and buy them at the counter there."
People reluctantly got out of the path of an unmarked truck that crept along the market street. I wondered whether the camouflage paint it bore dated from the Kaiser's War.
"To freeze plums they have to be just this side of maturity. Once they're ripe, forget about them till next year."
I pointed to the back of the truck that had now stopped crawling. It was packed to the top with cases of more purple plums. Market strollers took note and hurried to line up at the stand receiving the delivery. The coincidence did not impress Alfredo. He sneered at the enthusiasm that energized even the most decrepit shoppers. We rushed on to the next dish.
Sofia's street market was eerily muted. There were no choral effects. Ships at sea could hear Sicilian markets. The spiel of Istanbul's bazaar beat like surf in a tempest. Here retailers went absent in dreams. They had a drip-by-drip sense of time. They nibbled all day without ever taking a big mouthful. Business was done from sunrise till dark night. Advancing daylight and gnawing appetite set the pace. No maw of a metropolis, the Sofia market was the backdrop of a Lenten fast.
Alfredo, nervous, bit his moustache. He couldn't scurry forward where people constantly crisscrossed or stopped to test the air for bargains. Sunflower seed peddlers, taking up positions in midstream, breasted walkers aside. They offered their tidbits in little cones made of newspaper. Alfred didn't think the seeds proper nourishment or worthy of attention.
"Could you get those in '91?" I asked him.
"They're no good for your canary. It will stop singing. My mother-in-law mails me organic birdseed she gets from Sri Lanka."
All the same, a sunflower seed culture abounded around us. I watched a family of four aligned on a bench, all working down fast to the small end of their cones. They were like soldiers presenting arms. A hand delved and found. An elbow bent. The seed only just made it in before the jaws closed. Action ensued between tongue, teeth and foreign object. Then out shot the vegetable debris. The hand delved again. Multiply that by four family members and again by four cones of seeds. Don't forget to figure in plenty of spit.
But it was a mistake to stop in front of anything that wasn't Alfredo's cup of tea. He waited for me slack-jawed, as if my interest was demented. We passed a row of mushroom sellers sitting like sages. They'd sliced and dried some of their produce and wrapped it in cellophane. Alfredo shook his head sternly over the packaging.
He was getting on my nerves.
"Would you say there's nothing at all worth buying in this market?"
Shaking his head yes, he didn't even smile. I'd been told that a Bulgarian nod meant no, while a sideway, back and forth motion of the head meant yes. But whatever Alfredo did with his mustached dome he was always saying no.
"What about yogurt," I asked, "bacillus bulgaricus, the fountain of youth and all that?"
"It's no good if they use cow's milk."
With his short arms he made a gesture that cancelled out both sides of the long street.
"Acceptable yogurt has to be made of ewe's milk. But it's hard to find. You look for a plastic pot with a sheep's head on the top. Even then you can never be sure what's under the sheep's clothing."
Having counted out yogurt, Alfredo shifted to a confidential tone. He seemed to be salivating again.
"I know someone down at this end."
A madman got in our way. He was tall and stringy and wore a baseball cap with a point at the top clearly designed by a hand that had never thrown a baseball. His silhouette was that of a starveling. Had he been denied something to eat? One stallholder in particular aroused his ire and, retreating in slow jerks, the madman threatened him over the heads of the crowd. He must have played the fool regularly since there were frugal smiles all around, even on the face of his adversary. But as lunacy it was as muffled and undramatic as the rest of the street.
Alfredo let me off at a tangent through market garbage the refuse pickers had refused but that four large dogs with their ribs showing found interesting. They looked up to ponder what we were made of.
"No danger," said Alfredo. "They only attack if you're carrying a bagful of comestibles. It's big of them really since they've lost a number of brethren to the cooking pot. Cave canem, especially when you order lamb chops."
Under a plane tree, dumped like a ton of coal, was a pile of squash. They were a ghostly gray-green as if Halloween pumpkins had been bled to death. I was glad Alfredo didn't notice them. The vegetables, resembling unwholesome stones, wouldn't have stood a chance with him.
He led me to a low thickset church. His goal was the tiny park beside it. He surveyed the fine assortment of figures seated on the benches, but it was a loud gurgle from around the back of the church that he was waiting for.
"It's him," he said. "He's deaf and dumb, a Rom from Romania."
The new arrival gave one of those earthshaking grins peculiar to his kind. I explained that I had to go off to choose a gift for the hostess who had invited me to lunch. The Rom voiced no objection. Alfred instructed me about a bookstore where I could find a cookbook and then waved me off. He'd already started a culinary chat with his friend in sign language. Lips smacked and there were abdominal references. Thumbs and forefingers discussed goat sausage and smoked chicken roll.
Without Alfredo, the market was a different place. Adrift in the current, I forgot what was worth buying. Who wanted to buy anything? I got my breath back and gasped after immaterial sustenance. I saw the farmers as eastern wise men peddling chew-and-spit seeds for the soul.
I finally stopped at a flower stall. I'd decided to pass over the Bulgarian animal kingdom and plump for the vegetable. A gray haired woman did me up a bouquet. Why hadn't she used henna like so many other Sofia women? Was that the strangeness? For something was strange. I'd been watching shoppers make purchases all morning and mine now was decidedly different.
In a half hour I was back at the squat church. I found Alfredo sealing an agreement with the Rom. Then they gestured a voluble au revoir. Alfredo was pleased. When I opened my mouth, the wheel whirled.
"Hmmm..." he ground some coffee.
"That character comes down over the Danube as easy as we cross the street. He knows the walnut trees that were out of the way of the Chernobyl wind. A fantastic contact. I've lined up a regular supply."
We exited on to the broad boulevard. It was time to say good-bye and Alfredo allowed me to speak long enough to thank him.
"Have you noticed, Alfredo, that flower sellers differ from all other Sofia merchants?"
Busy divulging facts, he hadn't noted what I had in my hand.
"They smile when they pass you the goods."
"Flowers?" he said again. "Only the yellow ones from zucchini can be fried. But you can never find any."
Alfred has accepted my thanks and wished me a hearty bon appétit. Then he made one of his beelines in the other direction. He'd been uneasy that his backpack was still empty and mumbled something about a truck driver he expected from Kazanlak with a load of sladko, a jam made from roses.
My bouquet awkwardly in hand, I walked toward my lunch appointment. Was I hungry? I couldn't decide. For some reason, I burped. At ground level, Sofia was glutted with eatables and sated with their absence. It made me want to think of higher things. For a start I looked up at the city's haze-wrapped mountain. I had a good stare at that crouched giant. He appeared to be replete and dreaming. I hoped the dream wouldn't be disturbed by the clash of knives and forks, or the dull clatter of plates.
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