My Bulgarian culinary adventure began as many meals there do: with rakia.
For those of you who don’t know, rakia is the national drink of Bulgaria made of fermented grapes. Traditionally, rakia is homemade, and each family has their own secret recipe. I’ve been told it normally has an alcohol content of around 40%, but because everyone makes it differently, every glass is a surprise, and you can easily end up off your face if you aren’t careful.
So there I was, fresh off the plane and dying for some food. I was running on two hours of sleep, though a quick nap in the airport Starbucks hardly counts as ‘sleep’. You see, the only flights to Burgas Airport were through London Luton, and it left at 5:30 in the morning. Having arrived at Luton at 9 o’clock the previous evening, I had a few hours to spare in the airport, but I am too cheap to fork out 70 pounds for a few hours in a hotel.
As it turns out, after midnight Luton turns into one giant hostel with people sleeping on every bench and in every corner. I managed to claim a table in Starbucks after the cleaners were done with it, but I didn’t have much time to enjoy it.
After getting a taxi to Nesebar, the PhD student who came to pick me up and I decided to grab a bite to eat before I got settled in at the hotel. After making some off-hand comment about wanting to shove pizza into my face, I was brought straight to Uncle George’s.
The restaurant itself was set back from the street. Several tables with checked table cloths were set out in the fenced-in garden under a pergola covered in vines. It was a beautiful sunny day, and we were greeted by Uncle George himself, smiling as always.
He directed us to one of the tables and exchanged a few words in Bulgarian with my friend. Both Uncle George and his son were incredibly warm and welcoming, and almost as soon as we sat down in the little courtyard, they brought out a shopska salad (my first love) and two small glasses of some unassuming clear liquid.
I had heard of rakia before we left Edinburgh, but I didn’t know much about it. It’s like fermented wine, they said. It’s sweet, they said. Can’t be that bad, I thought. Hoo lordy, was I wrong. That stuff was STRONG. Full disclosure: I am a wuss when it comes to alcohol in general, and this was potent. All I could think of was the time I took a shot of military grade grappa in Italy with my family. It burned.
In my jet lagged, sleep-deprived, starving state, I knew I couldn’t finish that teeny little glass, or I’d be asleep under the table real quick. Pro tip: if you are weak like me, don’t finish the glass. Bulgarians are seriously hospitable, and it will be swiftly refilled. Good hosts don’t let their guests sit with empty glasses, and polite guests don’t refuse their host’s hospitality.
We had a nice chat, the pizza was great, and I definitely felt better after eating something that wasn’t plane food. After an hour or two we said goodbye, heading off to the hotel.
I was never brave enough to try rakia again after that first experience. But from that first day, I was told if I ever had a problem to go to them. Uncle George’s was something of a landmark for all of us newbies at the field school. Those guys would have my back…even if I couldn’t quite finish the rakia.