By Adam Centamore

Still reeling from the jet lag caused by 11 hours of flying and the stress of a painfully short layover in London, I sat down for my first meal in Sofia, Bulgaria. Sitting at a small outdoor cafe table on the popular Vitosha Street, the bright sunshine helped clear my head from all the travel.

Looking over a menu written almost completely in Cyrillic script, it took some internet-assisted decoding to order a Бupa (beer) and oбЯ∂ (lunch). Rather than expend what little energy we had left on more translating, I put my fate in the hands of my partially English-speaking waitress. With a beaming smile, she obliged.

Shortly after, she presented a platter of still-warm bread from the oven topped with hunks of local sheep’s milk cheese and a pot of lutenitsa, a thick, chunky spread made from red bell peppers and tomatoes. The tangy, salty bite of the cheese melded perfectly with the sweet and spicy condiment. I was blown away at the simplicity of the combination, and how amazingly delicious it was. My Bulgarian cuisine adventure had begun.

This Balkan country shares borders with Serbia, Romania, Turkey, and Greece. Filled with mountain ranges and expansive plains alike, Bulgaria has a population of around seven million—fewer than the cities of London and New York—and over 72% of its residents live in urban centers. Under the control of Russian communism until joining NATO in 2003 and the European Union in 2007, recent emphasis on technological and scientific industries have improved Bulgaria’s fortunes considerably. Bulgaria is still the poorest country in Europe, however. The average monthly income is just over $600 per person. It’s not hard to find evidence of this, even in the capital city of Sofia. Buildings on side streets are covered in graffiti and in various states of disrepair. Neighborhoods are crowded. People rely heavily on erratic public transportation.

Look past these immediate, obvious cues and you’ll see a different city. The streets are clean and nearly free of trash. Storefronts are usually tidy and brightly lit. And, there is amazing food everywhere. From modern cafes selling fresh coffee and pastries to long-standing markets offering up stalls of fish and cuts of pork, there is no shortage of opportunities to eat well.

Just outside the center of the city where old communist government buildings tower over the streets is the Zhenski Pazar, “Women’s Market.” A Sofia landmark for over a century, this open-air market has just about anything one could need for their daily life, with storefronts selling everything from clothing and outerwear to car parts and pottery.

The center of the market is all food and offers countless options. One kiosk features nearly 40 varieties of olives, gleaming with oil and studded with fresh herbs. The next presents the buyer with dozens of different types of fish, all fresh and packed on ice. One cart sells impossibly huge leeks and mushrooms, the next complements the assortment with bell peppers, cucumbers, and the greatest tomatoes I’ve ever had. (Seriously. I ate dozens of tomatoes in the few days I was there. They were incredible.)

I stop at yet another stall to indulge in the famous Bulgarian street food banitsa, phyllo dough stuffed with cheese and sometimes egg. It can be found in individual portions or served in long slabs for people to tear pieces off. The flaky crust is buttery and just a touch sweet from the light sprinkling of sugar. It’s fresh from the oven, so the cheese inside is still hot and slightly melty. It’s a great snack, perfectly accompanied by an ice-cold can of locally made Stolichno wheat beer. (Find our recipe here.)

For me, part of the allure of this eastern European destination was its enigmatic wine culture. What little Bulgarian wine I could find at home intrigued me with its quality and diversity. Rumors of a greater wine experience for visitors further piqued my interest. I needed to know more…and I wasn’t disappointed. Bulgarians love their wine and are excited by its growth on the world stage.

Settling into a small outdoor table at Balaban, one of the many neighborhood ßUHeH баƅ (wine bars), I wait for a menu. Sinatra wafts out from the bar’s stereo. A stray cat stops at my feet long enough for a quick scratch before darting off. After a few minutes, the owner comes to the table and cheerfully asks, “What do you like—red, white or rose?” I was open to trying anything.

Each wine presented a new exciting palate of aromas and flavors. Deep and brooding Mavrud offered up layers of cinnamon and blackberry. The light color of Tamianka in my glass belied intensely perfumed aromas of flowers and stone fruit. Bottle after bottle of local Bulgarian wine was opened. Glasses were filled and refilled. Sinatra crooned on.

Because of its location, Bulgaria offers many different regional cuisine options as well, a feature I was more than happy to take advantage of each night for dinner. One night it was a Turkish cafe; the next, Greek.

Pottery by Anna (native Bulgarian) & Tammeron Francis, Clay Wood Pottery.

For our final night in Sofia we dined on Serbian cuisine at Kotiloto, a restaurant high up the side of Vitosha, the mountain massif on the outskirts of the city. After a round or two of the famous local grape and plum spirit rakia, we dug into the mezze set before us. More of those amazing tomatoes, thickly sliced and topped with herbed cheese and olive oil, pickled cabbage, and cauliflower, and tuna laced with orange and corn. My favorite was s a spicy roasted yellow pepper dusted with paprika and stuffed with equally spicy fresh creamed cheese. I could not get enough.

Once we devoured the appetizers, the table was cleaned off. Giant steins of red ale were delivered and wine glasses refilled. The main courses then were served—huge platters of grilled meats. Tender lamb swimming in milk and Serbian cream. Slabs of pleskavitza (spicy patties made from beef, lamb, and pork) were accompanied by chunks of grilled onion. Hunks of smoked pork neck and sour pickles played off each other perfectly. Beautiful plates of hot, puffy pita bread just kept coming.

For dessert, we tried another famous Bulgarian food, the yogurt. It’s tangy and creamy and thick and smooth. Think Greek yogurt but somehow so, so much better. There’s a freshness to it that is exquisite. It’s served with nuts and honey made up the road a bit. Small snifters of aged rakia settle the stomach. It’s perfect.

It’s difficult to sum up my Bulgarian cuisine experience in a sentence or two, perhaps because there are so many facets to it. On the surface, it seems so simple. Fresh vegetables. Simply prepared meats and fish. Spice profiles that glean influence from all of Bulgaria’s neighbors.

Maybe that simplicity is the secret itself. It’s not the fresh vegetables, it’s how fresh they are. It’s not the simply prepared proteins, it’s how simply the ingredients are prepared—symphonies of flavor created by just a few perfectly selected ingredients.

I think back to that pot of lutenitsa. Peppers and tomatoes coming together in a way that took me completely by surprise, and to my delight. Like that first bite, Bulgarian cuisine caught me off guard in a thrilling way.

by: Adam Centamore is a wine & cheese educator and author of Tasting Wine & Cheese – An Insider’s Guide to Mastering the Principles of Pairing. When he’s not hunting for the next great wine and cheese combination he can be found jetting off to European countries, eating and drinking as much as possible and trying to blend in with the locals.