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Traditional Bulgarian diet during Lent fast

Photo: Lyudmila Savova
Today consumers are tempted by a myriad means for cleansing the human system. Both medical and alternative methods, medicines and food supplements are involved in the process. In the past however, all that Bulgarians did was follow a few simple rules. They usually consumed what they produced themselves. Moreover, they observed fasting periods as prescribed by the Orthodox Church. Next we reveal to you the traditional Bulgarian diet during fasting and a host of parables and beliefs linked to fasting practices.

Giving up certain types of food is common in the history of all peoples of the world. Under the Orthodox Christian canon food of animal origin should not be consumed on Wednesdays and Fridays. Besides, there are longer periods designated for fasting during the year. The longest fasting occurs twice annually, before Christmas and before Easter, and for each of the two occasions fasting goes on for seven weeks. Fasting is prescribed for the eve of 29 June, Sts. Peter and Paul Day, and two weeks prior to the Assumption on 15 August. During periods of fasting there are important church holidays when fish is allowed.

In the Bulgarian tradition fasting was observed very strictly. “Fasting is prescribed to humans, because they have many sins”, a Bulgarian proverb goes. There are cases when fasting is linked to legends about saints. According to one of them St. Nicholas was a fishermen by trade. He caught a huge amount of fish and because he wanted to sell it, he ordered that there should be fasting before his feast. And, provided that on St. Nicholas Day fish is a must on the menu, his plan turned successful. Another legend has it that Mother of God was engaged in beekeeping. Once the year was good and she obtained huge quantities of honey. To make sure that the honey will be consumed, she prescribed a period of fasting prior to the feast of Assumption, 15 August.

In traditional beliefs, the most important point during the Great Lent is the Great Compline, the first three days after Cheesefare Sunday, when nothing is either eaten or drunk with the purpose of spiritual cleaning from sin. In certain points of Bulgaria there was a ban on any green food on Cheesefare Sunday – an act believed to protect from serpents during the spring. In some regions farmers were warned not to plant onions and garlic during Todor’s Sunday to prevent illness among both humans and animals. Still, during the Great Lent the first yield of leafy plants such as spinach or nettles is key to the spring diet of fasting, as well as beans, onion and garlic stored throughout the winter.

In the bracket from 15 to 18 c. quite a few travelers visited Bulgaria as well as the chroniclers of the crusades. They mentioned some facts about eating habits in the Bulgarian lands under Ottoman rule. Some wrote that the food was prepared with modesty and cleanliness, and that the diet was pretty diverse. Legumen foods enjoyed great popularity – peas, beans, wheat and croup. In the 16 c. maize was imported in this country from America. So travel notes from that period mention food prepared from it. Most often maize was boiled. Polenta was also popular. Literary sources from the Middle Ages report that gruel was an essential part of the traditional Bulgarian diet. During fasting milk and eggs were avoided. Instead more roots and herbs were added. Traditional cheesecakes would be transformed during the Great Lent, as cheese and eggs were replaced with spinach, leeks and walnuts to make a tasty filling. Households would prepare for the Great Lent during the preceding autumn – various vegetables and herbs were left to dry up in special rooms and closets.

In the past various dishes were prepared from chickpeas. Rice is a newcomer to Bulgarian cuisine. Before that croup was much more common and was used to make gruel, bread, stuffed peppers and vine or cabbage leaves. The Great Lent went better in case households had big enough supplies of olives and olive oil. Olive oil was used sparingly because it was important not only for the diet but also to keep alive the flame in the family’s vigil lamp traditionally placed under an icon.

Translated by Daniela Konstantinova

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