I am not a food critic. But I know what I like. And on my recent trip to Vidin I experienced a moment of pure culinary bliss. Two of them, actually.
It was midday and we were tired after lots of interviewing and walking, so my friend Boyko and I walked into the main Bulgarian-Italian restaurant on Ul. Dunavska. (I’ll add the name when I remember it, but it’s not so unique; every neighborhood in Sofia seems to have one of these places which serve nice pizza, pasta, salads and grilled meats. Nothing fancy.)
Anyway, on this particular day I wasn’t sure what I wanted, but then I saw it on the menu: миш маш. When I heard its translation — Mish-mash — I instantly knew this was the Bulgarian culinary moment I had been waiting for.
It’s dead simple: eggs, cheese, tomatoes, onions, and maybe a few peppers, all frambled up in a pan and served steaming hot with toast. Add some meat and it wouldn’t be so different from a Texas breakfast taco, minus the tortilla. Less vigor with the spatula and you’d have an omelet, but then it wouldn’t be Bulgarian Mish-mash.
And in my very limited personal experience, it wouldn’t be nearly as good. Mish-mash — at least the heavenly version I tried for two days running — holds its moisture better than an omelet. Every bite was infused with the flavor of fresh tomatoes, eggs, and all the rest, creating a taste that was somehow new but also very familiar, like something my grandmother back in Illinois might have whipped up.
I suspect I’ve discovered something close to the heart of this Balkan culture. I told one of my nine-year-old daughter’s Bulgarian friends about my eggy moment, and she smiled from ear to ear. “I love Mish-mash!” she announced.
Perhaps I’m getting carried away. I told another Bulgarian friend who runs a fancy and truly superb restaurant about my epiphany, and he looked at me as if I had perhaps consumed one beer too many. But this миш маш from Vidin was so good and so evocative, like Proust’s madeleines, that it almost brought tears to my eyes.
Which reminds me of my other culinary moment in Vidin. I found my favorite Bulgarian beer.
Until that moment, frankly, I hadn’t been terribly impressed. Most of the local beers I’ve tried are perfectly respectable lagers — clean, refreshing, but ordinary. I lived for two years in Belgium, so perhaps I’m spoiled. And in a country where the best European beers line the shelves of every decent-sized supermarket, the eye does wander.
But then I tried Stolichno. It’s a dark beer, sure, but it doesn’t hit you over the head with bitterness and roasted coffee flavors like many stouts. They call it a bock, but to me, Stolichno presents a full bouquet of flavors — a hint of fruit, something smoky, but also some nice, bitter hops — in every sip. It reminds me of Chimay in a good way, and also one of my favorite American beers, the cask-conditioned Duck’s Breath ESB from the delightfully obscure McNeill’s Brewery in Brattleboro, Vermont.
Granted, Stolichno has been acquired by one of the large, multinational beer companies that swooped into Eastern Europe following the end of communism. But they appear to be leaving the 127-year-old recipe alone. In a world where bland sells, Stolichno is a gutsy survivor. Na zdrave!
And what do you know? I’ve written nearly 600 words about eating and drinking in Bulgaria. Perhaps I am a food critic after all.