An urban-rural exchange about growing and preserving, food festivals, and good neighbourliness in Bulgaria. The conversation partners are Elitsa Stoilova, a food studies and anthropology researcher at Plovdiv University and Emilia Shusharova director of the cultural centre in the Bulgarian village of Kurtovo Konare, moderated by Lindsey Foltz.
Lindsey Foltz became acquainted with Emilia Shusharova and Dr Elitsa Stoilova through their mutual interest in Bulgarian foodways and social change when she was researching for her doctorate in Anthropology and food studies there. As well as being the director of the cultural centre in the rural village of Kurtovo Konare, Emilia coordinates community efforts related to Slow Food including a convivium and an annual food festival. Elitsa is an assistant professor at Plovdiv University specialising in the evaluation of tangible and intangible human resources.
Lindsey Foltz: Emilia, can I ask you to share a little about the history of the food festival in Kurtovo Konare and how you became connected with Slow Food?
Emilia Shusharova: We started the food festival in 2009. It’s a festival of peppers and tomatoes, which are popular here in Bulgaria as traditional or local foods. Then in 2013, we happened to meet the Bulgarian Slow Food representative Desislava Dimitrova, which set off a whole path of discovery where we began to go back to the old varieties of fruits and vegetables that we had lost.
A year later we entered the Slow Food Ark of Taste heritage collection with the Kurtovska Kapia (a local sweet red pepper), and our local variety of pink tomato. We also made some other discoveries and renewed local interest in, for example, the nearly extinct Kurtovka apple, and a variety of peach called “Red Kurtovka”, which was only growing in one or two gardens in the village. Now we have a few people growing this peach, which turns out to be very tasty and makes us wonder why it has disappeared over the years.
This chance meeting with Slow Food showed us that not all is lost, that it is up to us to save what we had as food in the past, and that old varieties can be quite valuable and have proved to have market demand. We have now started to sell our local “Popski Fasul” beans that we traditionally grew for personal consumption but have now started to sell commercially.
Lindsey Foltz: Elitsa can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you met Emilia and the work you have done in Kurtovo Konare over the years?
Elitsa Stoiliova: I’ve been conducting research into festivals and food festivals and their regional and local significance in Bulgaria for a long time, that’s how I met Emilia and her team. And because they’re very open to partnerships and collaboration I’ve also had the opportunity to be a jury member a couple of times for a couple of the food festival competitions that they’ve had such as the “Lyutenitsa Queen” competition. Lyutenitsa is a spicy vegetable condiment and the title is given to one of the women from the village each year.
Lindsey Foltz: It’s interesting to me that a lot of people in Bulgaria make winter food, however in Kurtovo Konare there are different motivations for this practice. Do you think food preservation practices are a long-term sustainability strategy for future generations?
Emilia Shusharova: Well, to use myself as an example, before we initiated the festival I hadn’t made lyutenitsa since my grandmother stopped making it in 2000. I also never imagined that I would again. But gradually the idea caught fire and from year to year more and more people have started to make their own preserves again – especially lyutenitsa.
In the 15 years since the festival was founded in our village, people have really started looking for and creating all sorts of other variations of vegetable preserves, compotes and jams for home use again. And the good thing is that a lot of young people do it too.
Home-made preserves are something very good, especially in times of economic crisis. Plus, they are clean, good products. I have observed that some colleagues in other villages have interesting things going on as well. They are holding events related to food and I see that a lot of young people are getting involved. I hope that this tradition will be continued, that it will not disappear.
We are also working on another idea, which Elitsa may like to comment on. I am currently enrolled in a training programme on intangible cultural heritage through the Bulgarian Centre related to UNESCO. We have begun working on making a submission for lyutenitsa to be put on the UNESCO list as a living treasure. This would protect it like, let’s say, borscht or Mediterranean cuisine, truffles in Italy, etc. It’s all part of an effort to preserve the tradition and pass it on to the younger generations. That’s what’s important and to have continuity.
Elitsa Stoiliova: It’s also interesting that you’ve started to present traditional, local food to tourists so that there can be some income from it. It makes sense to pass it on in this respect. But it’s still necessary for people to have the motivation to do it. I think the steps that you’re taking are very logical. If we’re talking about sustainability then economic incentives would secure ongoing motivation as well. On the one hand, UNESCO can help maintain your status for lyutenitsa – not just for you, but nationally and internationally as well – and on the other hand there’s income generation around that type of food too.
Lindsey Foltz: Alongside formal heritage preservation efforts related to home-preserved foods, there is also the aspect of family tradition…
Elitsa Stoiliova: I think two things are important here: how much tradition you have in your family and the knowledge of how to do these things. In many cases, there is some kind of inherited pattern in the family. In the past, the older people – the grandparents of the mothers and fathers – would include the younger people in the practice and so they became part of this domestic “canning factory”. But if that tradition is broken within the family – when the grandparents pass away or the connection to the village or to the people who grew their own produce is broken, then the practice stops.
I have observed that many in our mothers’ and fathers’ generation stopped making preserves so people between 25 and 40 years of age now are either starting to learn to do it themselves or are seeking out memories from other people in their mothers’ and fathers’ generation – if they remember at all how things were done. Or they watched preserve-making when they were children and are now, years later, trying to remember how to do it themselves.
It’s not necessarily the case that you have established recipes handed down through the family. You may need to find them yourself by using the internet, asking friends, and adapting some of those and other things – by making kimchi, for example. So, it’s interesting that people are not only making traditional Bulgarian preserves but also other foodstuffs. I think the things that are the most frequently made tend to be the ones that don’t require so much time and effort: whether it’s sauerkraut that just ferments itself, or pickles and jams. In terms of yoghurt, for example, I don’t know many people who make it.
A friend of mine and I were talking the other day and she said “Hey I’m going to start making a batch of fermented cabbage (kiselo zele) now”. And I said, “Do you know how?” and she said, “No, I’ve never done it, but I’m going to try because I’ve always really wanted to and I know it’s not that hard. Why shouldn’t I just give it a go?”
So, it’s not so much a stable tradition as there’s renewed interest in making preserves. But whether this friend who made kiselo zele for the first time this year will continue to do so in the future is another matter.
The bigger question is: How did our families and parents break those traditions? Why do we have fewer and fewer people living and producing their own food in villages? It is true that after the elderly people who live in the villages pass away, their houses are either sold or turned into vacation villas or they just sit and crumble.
It’s also related to how much time and inclination you have to put into domestic food production and preservation. As much as growing your own food has to do with eating, it also has to do with having more produce than you can eat and preserving it for later. In this respect, we don’t really have a problem with basic nourishment at the moment – it’s more like domestic food production and preservation has become this boutique, niche thing that is not so much about relying on it for sustenance.
Emilia Shusharova: I have a different experience here in the village with reference to the issue of family learning. My son and daughter-in-law live nearby, 100 metres away. They never buy yoghurt, they buy nice fresh milk from a farm and they make it themselves. And when I make the lyutenitsa, my son always roasts the peppers, so the young ones are included and my sister-in-law and I peel them, then grind them.
I forgot to mention something else: we have a Slow Food praesidium in the village. In around 2015-16, after we became members of the movement, we became the 6th praesidium in Bulgaria. A praesidium is a community group that preserves old varieties of plants and animals. As such we could be funded and participate in projects of this bigger international organisation. We have 16 people involved, 15 women and one Englishman, Scott, who has been very active in making lyutenitsa, even one year he was crowned the “ Lyutenitsa King”. He’s always asking the older people and doing quite interesting things: making his own preserves, going to the farmer’s market… So here’s a foreigner who’s also learned our traditional food preservation.
And as for the empty houses, there are also newcomers, from Sofia and from Plovdiv especially, who are buying them and they are creating a nice youthful community, which makes me happy because they want to cook, grow and prepare food themselves too. This is good because it’s livening up the village and nice people are moving in.
Lindsey Foltz: Could you compare how life was under socialism with life after the end of the Cold War in Eastern Europe? How do you think the path of socialism has influenced modern techniques and food preservation practices in Bulgaria?
Emilia Shusharova: In terms of food, most of the people in the village worked in the TKZS [consolidated cooperative farms], we had a cannery that produced a lot of produce for the Soviet Union back then, so a lot of workers came from all over the area to process and make canned goods.
I remember these canned foods because my father and my mother worked in the cannery, and I used to go there often as a child. It was interesting for me to watch the processes. So I know how the food was prepared for mass production. Although there were nice canned goods, it’s quite another thing to have homemade preserves because you know they are made with clean products, nice products, well-washed and so on.
The people who worked in the TKZS didn’t have time after work and were too tired to cook their own food so we children would wait in line to take home the food in jars from the centralized cafeteria to eat.
When my grandmother retired, she was at home more and cooked very nicely so we went back to home-cooked food, but there was a time when a lot of people would take home pre-cooked food, which might seem a bit strange now. After the changes in 1989, there were times when you couldn’t find food, the stores were empty. So we had gardens and we went back more to homemade, traditional food then.
Another point is that the forced collectivisation of the TKZS played a very negative role. today. In the West, there is that principle of acting in cooperation but with us at the moment, people find it very difficult. Everybody acts individually and it’s very difficult to form any voluntary collective associations. There are many benefits to cooperating, for example, we make lyutenitsa together, we can be friends, we can make some kind of common association. But no, everyone acts individually and that’s how things are.
Also, after the changes, we slowly started to get our land back and to grow things, and gradually that’s how we got to find the old varieties that had disappeared. On the TKZS (we called them “palmetto gardens”, or plantations) they grew imported fruit and vegetable varieties, which displaced the traditional ones. Even now, it’s still difficult, because if people want a quick profit, the imported varieties are very prolific and bring more income. That’s why a lot of people grow Dutch tomatoes, imported peach varieties and other fruits and vegetables. The traditional ones are grown, but they’re not as high yielding and that complicates things a little bit in our effort to get back from growing all the traditional varieties to market.
Elitsa Stoiliova: I didn’t really catch that much of socialism, but I can talk more about the 90s period and the effect of socialism and some of the practices that I’ve been able to observe.
I didn’t grow up in a village. One of my grandparents was from Plovdiv and the other one was from a small town in northern Bulgaria, but it was still a town. There were allotment gardens around towns full of small plots with access to water for irrigation. So there was this additional infrastructure where even though you lived in a town you could grow your food. There are fewer and fewer of them now. My grandparents used to go in the evening or whenever they had time to water and take care of their allotment that was just outside town.
In the hungry years of the 1990s, I remember that the inter-block spaces in Plovdiv, in the neighbourhood where I lived, started to have small gardens for the people who lived on the block so that they could grow their own food. Unfortunately, many people didn’t respect each other’s labour and the harvest was often stolen from us. I mean, you’re out there watering your tomatoes, your cucumbers, and you are enjoying their growth and hoping to pick them soon and then somebody else comes along and picks them first.
So there was this tradition of small, urban farming that’s now coming back and very popular worldwide. But this time it’s seen as an option and as a practice as opposed to the previous thinking that to prevent hunger there needs to be a place where people can grow their own food if they want to.
One of the practices during the communist era that I think helped people to get acquainted with the land and farming, in general, were these brigades in which young people and people from certain enterprises or jobs were obliged by the state to help to harvest produce. Yes, it was forced work for the state. (Now there are private farms where you pay to be able to go and pick something), but I think it was still a good experience. I think these are all good practices with tradition that can be adapted to the current situation in the Bulgarian context.
Emilia Shusharova: I was just thinking about the brigades as you mentioned them. I personally was in a student brigade and then as a community centre worker on various different brigades. As students, we also worked in canneries, which was quite exhausting shift work. But when I started working in the Kurtovo community centre, everybody joined in: teachers, staff, town hall members… we all went out on a brigade to pick apples, peppers, tomatoes; whatever was needed to help to harvest the produce faster. Every year in the autumn we went on these brigades.
Towards the end of the 1980s, we got a greenhouse; almost every house had its own greenhouse. Selling our home-grown produce from them was a little bit difficult because doing so was forbidden at one point. At night people would drive out with produce in their cars to sell it. It was a bit complicated to manage, but everybody was doing it. It helped them out financially.
We would sell our produce in the mountain villages from Devin onwards, mostly in Northern Bulgaria: Shumen, Pleven, Targovishte… I remember my grandfather was a buyer for a canning factory – he bought jars for the factory from the town of Novi Pazar, in Shumen province. I used to go with him as a child in the truck. He used to take our produce and other people’s produce from the village with him as well so he could distribute vegetables along the route and return hauling the jars for the factory.
Lindsey Foltz: More recently, what effect has the last few years with COVID and the war in Ukraine had on your work?
Emilia Shusharova: We still held the Festival in 2020 and 2021, although in 2021 it was a bit more complicated because the government banned festivals. But we could still host farmer’s markets so we did it in this form for two days. People still presented their produce and everybody was continuing with their home canning. So COVID did not have much effect in this respect.
Last year, Ukrainian war refugees from Mykolaiv moved in next door, and we often exchanged recipes. The third day of the 2022 festival was dedicated to Ukrainian borscht, which has been protected by a UNESCO designation too. For this, we gathered Ukrainians from the area who prepared the borscht, including my neighbours.
We also held summer cooking classes with kids. We contracted a Ukrainian woman to teach them how to make pelmeni (meat dumplings), and Ukrainian borscht. We are doing everything we can to show that war is a bad thing, and that, of course, my colleagues and I are of the opinion that this war is an aggression towards Ukraine, so we lend a hand in every possible way to the Ukrainian people who are around us, including food which brings us closer.
Lindsey Foltz: Elitsa, what have your experiences been?
Elitsa Stoiliova: Because of the closures during the COVID pandemic, a lot of people started to appreciate the idea of village life a lot more as something that is not only nice and gives you the opportunity for more freedom, but also to grow things for yourself and to have more space.
A lot of people who have houses in villages started fixing them up and maintaining them. And others who hadn’t generally thought about buying a property in the countryside were now doing so. There are those people who somehow over the years have rethought rural life as something positive and started to change their lives to invest and really turn their whole life around from urban to rural. I don’t know to what extent this will remain a lasting trend.
In Bulgaria and in the European context, there is and has been quite a big issue with the depopulation of villages with fewer and fewer people involved in farming and raising livestock. My hope is that these critical periods, with the pandemic and with the war, might lead to something positive like the return to the village and a rethink about our dependency on resources. Both the war and COVID showed us how vulnerable we are, how dependent we are on world markets, and that it is good to, have your own independence, especially in terms of your food.
Lindsey Foltz: How do you imagine the future of these practices in Bulgaria?
Emilia Shusharova: I hope that the young will continue with them because I can see that there is interest. The women who are in our praesidium all have daughters and grandchildren who are very active in helping them. I see that with respect to home canning and food preparation, even at the festival itself, there are several generations involved: grandmothers, daughters, grandchildren, granddaughters, and everybody helps. We all share this observation as well because we know each other and I see more people from extended families getting involved.
Elitsa Stoiliova: I don’t know, because Kurtovo Konare is in many ways a very good example. But unfortunately, it is also an exception compared to how things typically happen in Bulgarian villages. I can only guess. I really have hope for people who are now buying houses in the countryside – although, in most cases, they are not villages where they have roots. They are just places where they found a cheap house or they liked the countryside and the scenery around it. But I don’t know whether they will have the strength, the faith and the effort to stay because it’s not easy. It’s not easy, to maintain a house, to look after land and animals.
I think a lot depends on how much these villages are going to be able to create the kind of active communities again as Kurtovo Konare has. These good things are starting to go beyond being a community centre initiative. The people themselves are bringing their families together through home canning, through participating in small business ventures around food.
A lot also depends on where the villages are located geographically. Kurtovo Konare has the advantage of being near Plovdiv, so a lot of people can live there while working in town. In other words, the proximity to a bigger city helps with access to a livelihood whereas many other places lack the infrastructure that a city provides, such as schools, hospital care, shops, and so on. In many other areas in Bulgaria, it’s not just villages that are depopulating, but also smaller towns. In Ivaylovgrad, for instance, which is not that small a town, there is almost nothing, there is no hospital there anymore. There is a polyclinic, but to have quality hospital care you have to go over 100 kilometres away to Haskovo.
The problem is much bigger. I don’t think you can rely solely on active rural or urban communities to sustain small towns and villages. There are also, unfortunately, some missing government policies as well.
Without targeted government support for small rural communities and towns, I think increasingly they will disappear. Many will disappear. Others will be transformed into something new. It was through these young people moving to the countryside and learning traditional practices and also through COVID that it became clear how easily you can choose not to work in the city. Indeed many sectors moved completely to remote work. So that is another opportunity that doesn’t tie people to the city so much.
I think that those processes can help at least some villages to attract one or two newly settled young people, who will in turn attract more. As Emilia said, these young people attract other young people eventually… but we’ll see.
Lindsey Foltz has a PhD in Anthropology, specialising in Food Studies, from the University of Oregon. She writes about everyday food sovereignty and engages in applied social justice work. She is currently the Associate Police Auditor for the City of Eugene, Oregon.
Kurtovo Konare has 2670 inhabitants, of which 56 per cent are 18-65 years old, 25 per cent are over 65 years old and 18 per cent are under 18. The village is located between two rivers in a very fertile part of southern Bulgaria, 20 kilometres from the second largest city of Plovdiv and 17 kilometres from the Rhodope Mountains. It is located in Stamboliyski municipality, one of the most densely populated in Bulgaria. Kurtovo Konare is proud of its fame in Bulgaria for vegetable production and its contribution to the economic history of the country. Local varieties include: “Kurtovska kapia” peppers, a long-lasting apple variety called “Kurtovka”, a peach variety called “Red Kurtovka”, a variety of beans called “Popski fasul” and the “Big Babin” pink tomato. Thanks to the Slow Food Convivium, these varieties are now listed in the World Ark of Taste.
Cover photo © Lindsey Foltz