Drinking With Bulgarians
27.05.2012 § 2 Comments
If you’re ever in Bulgaria, and you’re doing travel right, you *will* find yourself drinking in the company of Bulgarians. Whether it’s in a restaurant with dinner, in a bar, in a city park, or on a beach slash mountain peak, here are a few essential tips.
First of all, Bulgaria’s alcohol industry is decentralized (unlike Ontario’s), and you can buy alcohol pretty much anywhere. The official drinking age is 18, although it is rarely enforced in restaurants or shops, resulting in a young alcohol-savvy population for which the allure of the forbidden is removed and alcohol is a known quantity. Types of alcohol to buy locally include beer (bira / бира), wine (vino / вино) and rakia (ракия). Cognac (Pliska and Preslav are good brands) is also a safe bet. At all costs avoid buying Bulgarian whiskey, gin, vodka, etc. International brands of those types of alcohol are found in stores and are reasonably priced.
When drinking with Bulgarians, it is important to observe the ritual of cheers. The Bulgarian word for “Cheers” is “Nazdráve” (literally, “on health”). You may state it loudly once in the overall din, but it is important to make eye contact with every drinking companion as your glasses or bottles touch. Subsequent rounds of salutation may occur, in which case the same rules apply.
It also helps to understand the social role of drinking in Bulgaria. In most cases the consumption of alcohol is aimed less at getting drunk and more at facilitating social interactions. Alcohol is consumed in grand quantities, but at a leisurely pace, never downed at once, and it is almost unfailingly coupled with some sort of accompanying snack. The Russians call this “zakuski”, while in Bulgaria we prefer the Turkish word “meze”. Meze is typically served alongside rakia, vodka or wine. As expected, each type of alcohol calls for different types of meze. Here are a few particulars:
Most beers in Bulgaria are pale lagers with alcohol content hovering around 5%. Notable brands are Zagorka, Bolyarka, Ariana, Kamenitza, and Shumensko. Beer is served cold in half-litre bottles or on tap (“nalivna“) and is consumed casually with meals, on the beach or in the park. It is rarely the drink of choice at a bar or on a night out, with Bulgarians opting for stronger drinks. The price of a bottle of beer hovers around 1 Lev (80 cents US), and a pint costs somewhere around 2.5 Leva (2$ US). International brands such as Heineken, Amstel, Carlsberg, Staropramen, etc. are also widely available. If the beer is not accompanying a meal and meze is required, opt for “pub fare”: French fries with grated sirene, mushrooms in butter, breaded chicken, and, along the Black Sea coast, plates of fried caca (a small fish known as European sprat).
Bulgarian wine needs its own set of articles, compiled in a separate blog by connoisseurs. Not being one myself, I’ll only say that Bulgaria has ~50 major wineries creating red and white wines from a variety of grapes: Muscat Ottonel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Riesling, Traminer, Ottonel Blanc, Gumza, Dimyat, Mavrud…Go and sample without prejudice. Appropriate meze for red wine are thinly sliced cold cuts, sirene or kashkaval sprinkled with paprika.
Rakia, Bulgaria’s aromatic grape brandy, hovers at around 40% vol. Ranging from crystal clear to light amber in colour, rakia is sipped as an aperitif and paired with salads such as shopska, but also kiselo zele (a form of Sauerkraut) or cold cuts. The best Bulgarian brands of rakia to try are Burgas 63, Peshterska Muskatova (Selection), Straldzanska Muskatova (Selection) and Tzar Simeon.
Vodka is best consumed neat, alongside a glass of tomato juice or with pickles, pickled fish or kiselo zele. Blended whiskey is paired with salted nuts (peanuts, almonds, cashews, hazelnuts), while single malt whiskey can and should be consumed without meze.