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St. Nikola, a Bulgarian icon

Today, December 6th, is one of the bigger holidays in Bulgaria: Nikylden, or the Day of St. Nikola Mirlikiiski, or St. Nikola the Miracle-Maker. St. Nikola is the guardian of fishermen, sailors, travelers, tradesmen, and bankers (Who can tell me what the connection between them is ?). Nikola was a historical figure born in 270 BC in Patara (today in Turkey). Legend says he inherited a great fortune from his father but gave it all away to those in need. The saint also performed many miracles that delivered sailors and fishermen safely from sea tempests. According to another legend, he plugged a hole in a ship with a carp fish and thus saved it from sinking!

Nikylden is more than a religious day for the Orthodox Christians; it is also a nameday for all bearers of the name Nikola, Nick, Nikoleta, Kolio, Nikolai, Nicholas, etc; actually, most Bulgarian families celebrate the holiday even if they don’t have a Nick in the family.

Poseidon (Neptune) puts a pagan spin on the celebration of St. Nikola

St. Nikola is also associated with the sea, ocean, rivers, and lakes, and in this sense is similar to the Greek god Poseidon (called Neptune in Roman mythology). Germanic nations also celebrate St. Nicholas’ day, although slightly differently, and even associate this saint with Santa Claus.

In Bulgaria, we eat fish on December 6th – preferably fish with scales like carp or sheat-fish because “naked” fish without scales symbolized poverty. We bake the fish whole and stuff it with walnuts (check out a few typical Bulgarian Nikylden recipes here).

To me and my family, the Nikylden feast is the equivalent of a Thanksgiving Feast because my father is called Nikola and he is a “tradesman”. This means that my house is always full of guests on this day!

Traditionally, you don’t send official invitations for your nameday: you are supposed to prepare a big meal and expect your closest people to show up for dinner by themselves. So you basically never know who is showing up until they do, but you expect your closest relatives, godparents, best man and woman, and good neighbors to pay a visit. They might bring flowers, alcohol, and other presents.  Don’t expect them to leave before 2am.

Stuffed carp - I want to be home right now!

The table is, naturally, very festive! In addition to the stuffed carp, my mother also prepares salmon, shark, scard fish and turbot (eh, probably not all of them every time!). We have a variety of salads and other yummy dishes and lots of wine – Villa Melnik of course!

I’m so angry I missed it again this year, but HAPPY NIKYLDEN, DAD!

The Russian church St. Nicholas the Miracle-Maker in Sofia, Bulgaria

Namedays are very big in Bulgaria, maybe even bigger than birthdays. There are less presents for the person celebrating but more of a communal feel since this day is not a personal celebration, but a celebration of all people who bear the same name, of the saint, and of all the virtues that the saint represents. I love my name, Militza, because it is the name of my great-grandmother and is very rare, but I’ve always been jealous that it is too rare to have a saint or a nameday associated with it! Oh well, I just get to celebrate my birthday and half-birthday!

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On Tuesday, my mom and I went to an ice-cream and wine tasting! The event took place at Gelateria Confetti in Sofia and was organized by Bacchus, the wine and gourmet magazine.  Read the magazine’s article here. These are the six combinations (click on the pics to enlarge):

Vanilla truffle ice-cream with nuts and chardonnay paired with Cluster Chardonnay

Dark chocolate ice-cream with nuts paired with Solitaire Merlot

Strawberry and pistachio ice-cream with fresh strawberries and mint leaves paired with Asti Canti sparkling wine. One of my two favorites for the night!

Lavender ice-cream, cheesecake, and Rudesheimer Berg Roseneck Riesling Spatlese – my definite favorite for the evening, both in terms of ice-cream and wine!

Prosecco ice-cream decorated with melon, paired with Rosé

And the gran finale: Malaga ice-cream decorated with grapes and paired with Gran Feudo Blanco Dulce de Moscatel!

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Read my previous post about sexy Bulgarian ice-cream advertising.


Don’t you just love a summer cocktail at the beach!

Here are my four suggestions from four of my favorite countries:

Pimm’s: My latest discovery! A delicious English 25% alcohol similar to gin and served with “lemonade” (or the generic name the English use for Sprite, 7up and ginger ale) and chopped cucumber, orange, strawberry, and mint. Order it at any pub! Refreshing and citrusy! I might have gotten a bottle for myself from London 😉 What’s the time? It’s Pimm’s o’clock!

Sangria : Typical for Spain and Portugal, but also for Boston’s Newbury street, with red wine, rum, apples, oranges, lemon, strawberries or also with white wine, melon, and pineapple.

Mastika/Ouzo: These are respectively the Bulgarian and Greek version of a 40% liquor made of mastic, a Mediterranean tree. These drinks are served as a digestif and have a very distinctive liquorice sweet smell and taste. The best part is that they turn milky white when you mix them with ice or water because they “crystallize”.  In Bulgaria, we love Mastika mixed with Menta, a mint liquor (this cocktail is called Cloud) as well as taken with watermelon (or together with girls with watermelon bras)!  In Greece, they have Ouzo with mezze such as octopus, zucchini, and calamari. I’m sure that men can tell you the difference between the two, but I’m not that good!


I just came back from the best ski resort on the Balkans, Bansko! Bansko is a charming town in the north-east part of the Pirin mountain, situated at the foot of peak Vihren (2914m). The town’s unique architecture, combined with the new hotels, the entertainment establishments, and the modern ski and snowboard facilities, makes Bansko a favorite winter destination for foreign and Bulgarian tourists.

In total, the ski slopes in Bansko are 70 km long, and with the help of my ski instructor, I’m proud to say, I conquered almost 10 of them! Not only did this patient, dedicated person teach me how to fall, stop, and turn (in this order), but he also introduced me to a key skiing concept: après-ski.

Après-ski refers to the socializing, eating, drinking, dancing, and general merrymaking after skiing. I don’t know how they do it in the Alps, but in Bulgaria, après-ski takes place in a mehana: a tavern-like restaurant with a huge wine selection, a grill, and often times, with live folk music. And what better way to celebrate the joy of the beloved winter sport than with good friends, hot mulled red wine, and a traditional Bulgarian meal! Here are several of my favorites:

Let's begin with the quintessential Bulgarian dish, Shopska Salad: fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, and onion, roasted red peppers, lots of sirene (white feta cheese), parsley, and a kalamata olive.

Continue with warm agneshka chorba (lamb soup). Notice the clay bowl and the table cloth with folk motifs.

A sach is a hot clay plate. The Banski sach meal can contain a mix of different meats and vegetables. This one has two types of sausage, aubergines, zucchini, tomatoes, carrots, onion, peppers and mushrooms.

There should always be meze on the table to go with the hot mulled red wine from the Melnik region. Here you see sirene (white cheese) and two types of lukanka, one of which is the famous Banski staretz ("old man from Bansko".. I hope it's not what it sounds..). After all this food, you don't need any dessert!

What else happened in Bansko?

This town is famous not only for the great mountain resort, but also for its rich history and culture. Here, on August 21st 1901, the Bulgarian revolutionary Yane Sandanski kidnapped the American missionary Elen Maria Stone and held her for six months until the attention of the whole Western world fell not only on the kidnapping but also on the fate of the entire Balkan peoples after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Read my previous post to learn more about the international crisis known as the Miss Stone Affair.


Customer Service at Restaurants in Eastern Europe

  1. Choose the table you want (in the smokers section or the non-smokers section) and sit down. If there’s not enough chairs, pull some over from a nearby table.Grumpy waiter
  2. Try to make eye contact with the waiters passing by. If no one notices you, wave your hand to the idle waiter goofing off across the room. If still nothing happens, call the waiter out loud
  3. Take your time looking through the menu. Read the appetizing description of every dish.
  4. Ask your waiter about a particular dish. The restaurant may not currently have most of what’s on the menu, but you might get recommendations about the what they actually have. Just don’t ask too many questions or you might piss off the waiter.
  5. Order salads, mezze, and aperitif (rakia or ouzo).
  6. These come relatively quickly. Take your time picking on them. Your main task now is to converse with your friends.
  7. When you start to get hungry, call the waiter again (if you see him around). Order the main course with wine or beer. Order a lot of everything.
  8. The food takes some time. No worries, you can keep ordering aperitif and carry on the merrymaking.
  9. evil waiterFinally, an hour after you’ve arrived at the restaurant, the main meal arrives, and the party is at its peak. Maybe you won’t get exactly what you ordered, so you can get in a little argument with the waiter; but do it just for the sport because you know that you’re not going to change anything, right?
  10. It’s ok to try from everyone’s plate with your fork. It’s ok to be loud and to propose a toast to people from other tables. It’s perfectly fine to sing.
  11. In another hour or two, when everyone starts to get a little bit sleepy, order dessert and coffee (or digestive).
  12. Ask for the bill. For once, the waiter will respond quickly.
  13. Only one person receives the bill: the one who invited the rest, the oldest one, or simply the friend whose turn it is this time; if you are students, you can also split the bill equally. Round the bill to the nearest 5 or 10: that’s the waiter’s tip (2-3 Euro, maybe 7-8 if the bill was high).

Customer Service at Restaurants in the States

  1. You are greeted by a smiling hostess who asks you about the number of people in your party and seats you at a suitable table.
  2. A grinning waitress immediately comes and introduces herself. She does some small talk. She pours you ice and water and hands you the menus.fish waiter
  3. Look at the pictures in the menu and choose one.
  4. You put on your jacket because the AC is be blasting.
  5. In 5-10 minutes, the waitress with the 24-carat smile brings you your dish. She refills your ice and water.
  6. In 5 minutes, she comes back to ask you how everything is and to refill your water again. She makes some small talk and looks like the friendliest person in the world.
  7. If there has been some mistake with your order (you wanted Diet Coke but they brought you Coke Zero), or you think it’s not cooked well (stake is way too bloody) you can always return it to the kitchen for reworking.
  8. The moment you put down your knife and fork, she takes away your plate so that it’s not in your way. She asks if you’d like dessert.
  9. She brings the check without you asking for it and leaves it on the table with the words “No pressure guys, take your time.” Customer Service
  10. Some of your friends pull out their calculators. Some pull out cash and some, credit cards. You start calculating how much everyone’s dish cost and how much everyone owes for tax and tip. You give 15-20% tip.
  11. You are in and out of the restaurant in 40 minutes.

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So, what say you?

Should we identify any pros and cons and try to change our ways, or should we just shrug shoulders and accept the “cultural differences”?

Which approach to customer service do you prefer and why?


I would like to join the ongoing in Bulgaria public debate.

In mid-August, the Ministry of Economy presented the video clips for the new advertising campaign for Bulgarian tourism under the slogan “Magic Lives Here”. The campaign aims to change the perception of Bulgaria from a destination for low-cost European youth travel destination, to a more luxurious tourist destination.  The four video clips focus on our Black Sea summer resorts, mountain ski resorts, SPA and wellness centers, eco-tourism and cultural heritage. They are about be broadcasted on four European TV channels: Euronews, Eurosport, Discovery, and National Geographic, in September (read more in Radio Bulgaria’s website).

The project theoretically has a good perspective, but the video clips became notorious because the majority of Bulgarians don’t like them. Newspapers, TV shows, online media, politicians, intellectuals, and celebrities all took a stand in the public debate. The common opinion seems to be that the videos are full of clichés, that they copy other countries’ promo videos from several years ago, are outdated, are executed poorly, have bad quality, and don’t portray Bulgaria accurately.

The most widely discussed aspect, though, is the campaign’s cost. The making and broadcasting of the videos totals at 7.5 million leva (3.7 million euro), which is a significant sum for a country of this size. The campaign is partially funded by the EU. Experts in the field of advertising agree that the production price, almost half a million leva is way too high. Many common people believe that this money would have served better if it were invested in infrastructure.

One is for sure, an ad campaign can always be improved.

Instead of taking part in the blaming and whining, I’d like to take a more productive stand in this debate. Here is my list of the things the next campaign should not omit (in no particular order and without claiming to be exhaustive):

Tourism and Nature:

  • Hikers going to the Seven Rila Lakes
  • White mountain peaks of Rila and Pirin with skiers and snowboarders
  • The wide golden beaches and deep blue of the Black Sea coastline
  • Crowds of people at sea resorts like Sunny Beach and Lozenetz with their luxurious restaurants, clubs and hotels
  • Rafting  in Struma river in September  surrounded by the autumn colors of the forest
  • Small quiet beach camping sites like Smokinia with surfing, windsurfing, and diving
  • Balneotherapy at the mineral hot springs in Velingrad
  • Horseback riding in the Balkan mountain range near the village Skravena
  • Families visiting the Thracian sanctuary at Perperikon
  • Beach festivals (The Spirit of Burgas), concerts in the open, and clubs in Sofia
  • Rock-climbing near the Belogradchik rocks
  • Students exploring the prehistoric paintings at the Magura cave and the Ledenika cave
  • Views from Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna, and Rouse

Cultural  and historical heritage:

  • Thracian golden masks and jewelry
  • Ancient Roman amphitheatre in Plovdiv
  • Typical architecture of 17th-century houses in Veliko Turnovo
  • Houses-museums of Bulgarian revolutionaries in Koprivshtitza
  • Old crafts from the time Bulgaria was in the Ottoman empire in Etura
  • Vast vineyards and wineries in Melnik, the wine capital of the Balkans
  • Scary masks at the Kukeri carnival in Pernik
  • Nestinarki dancing on fire in the village of Bulgari
  • Esoteric Paneurhythmy dance ritual near the Seven Rila Lakes
  • Children hanging martenitsi on blossoming trees
  • Rose-picking and rose-oil production near Kazanluk
  • Singers and bagpipe-players in traditional garments during the folklore festival in Zheravna
  • People dancing the horo during a wedding
  • Merry crowds enjoying the Bulgarian cuisine, lukanka, liutenitza, banitza, in a kruchma (pub) in Bansko
  • Orthodox Christian baptism in the Rozhen monastery and the icons in the Rila monastery

For the next three days, the village of Zheravna will be a one-of-a-kind time machine.  The Festival of The National Costume Zheravna 2010 will take place from August 20th to 22nd for the third year in a row. It will gather thousands of people from all regions of Bulgaria to celebrate with dance and music as their ancestors did 100-150 years ago.

The only condition for attending the festival is to wear a traditional costume. It could be authentic, theatrical, or custom-made. It could represent any region, social status, profession, or craftsman guild. See pictures and read more about Bulgarian folk costumes on the official website from the link above.

Participants will enjoy traditional cuisine: meze, cheeses, dried and grilled meats, banitza, breads, wine, and rakia. They will observe and take part in old-style wrestling, kukeri parades, nestinari dances, and the work of various craftsmen. The celebrations will be accompanied by traditional bagpipes, kettle drums, and cymbals as well as by dance performances by professional folklore ensembles and troupes from all Bulgarian ethnographic regions and other Balkan countries.

The use of modern devices and technology, even of chairs, forks, and watches is very restricted in order to ensure the authenticity of the experience. The festival is organized by Foundation “Bulgare”. Zheravna 2010 is a truly magnificent reincarnation of Bulgarian culture and heritage.


Speaking of taxes, let me present the Bulgarian view of this unnecessary and easily avoidable social burden.

As a member of the EU, Bulgaria had to comply with the European standard excise duty on alcohol and tobacco products. This basically meant that prices of bottled alcohol and the cost of alcohol production would increase drastically.

Home-made alcohol is brewed from garden-grown plums, apples, and grapes in large distillers in basements and log cabins

So far so good, but the European Union didn’t know that for centuries, Bulgarian families have produced wine and rakia (80 proof alcohol made from grapes, apples, or plums) in the comfort of their homes. The European tax would mean that many low-income families would be deprived of their traditional source of income and of a very typical Bulgarian alcoholic delicacy.  

Thus, the whole nation rose against the cruel tax. The people threatened to enter protests and to hide their distilling condensers in their attics and basements.

Not long enough, the government complied with the people’s demand to preserve the home-made wine and rakia and abandoned its plan to raise taxes. It was a true people’s victory.

But this is not the climax of my story.

As a sign of gratitude, Bulgarian villagers named a brand of home-made rakia from vintage 2009 after our Prime Minister Boiko Borisov, Borisovka. Not surprisingly, the village happens to be the picturesque Kapatovo in the Melnik region, the birthplace of my father! The idea for Kapatovo’s rakia Borisovka came from the Russian vodka Putinka, which was named after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Boiko Borisov, similar to Putin, is a notorious figure in the Bulgarian political arena and in our popular culture.

It seems that not only Americans have a special attitude towards taxes!

Read the article on Kapatovo’s rakia Borisovka from Reuters.  


Lately, I have been trying to familiarize myself with online social media (as you can tell from my blog) and internet marketing (that’s a long story). I’ve also been thinking about wineries (that’s an even longer story). So there it is, my thoughts on how the two can work together to create some very interesting initiatives.  

The Fledgling Wine initiative joins the efforts of Twitter, the Californian winery Crushpad, and Room to Read, a non-profit that promotes literacy for children from third-world countries.     

$5 from every $20-bottle of the fledgling Crushpad wine, vintage 2009, goes towards the noble cause of Room to Read.  

What makes this initiative interesting to me is that it presumably targets wine connoisseurs,  who are generally expected to be more affluent than the average person (since they are used to buying wine from this same vineyards for $50 per bottle, according to the winemaker).  

I believe that it’s a great idea to target wine-lovers, who often times are the intelligentsia , the more sophisticated social class, and who would spend their money not only on good wine, but also for good causes.  

Still, by lowering the price of their wine and starting this “social winemaking project” in partnership with Twitter, Crushpad takes away from the elitist feel of buying vintage wine for a socially responsible cause. Crushpad makes the connoisseur experience available to everybody.  

The idea of making something far-fetched and elitist (such as premium wine in the eyes of the wine-ignorant, access to the global communication flow in the eyes of the internet-unacquainted, or education and literacy in the eyes of poor kids in India) seem attainable and real, is the heart of the Fledgling Wine initiative; and a truly noble cause.  

That’s why I think the Fledgling Wine is such a great project. Read more about Twitter’s Bottles for Books.  

Cheers!  

And happy Liberation Day, March 3rd, to all Bulgarians living and studying abroad!  

Watch this video from the official website

 

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Read my post on the Bulgarian Day of Wine, Trifon Zarezan.


If you are in love, celebrate St. Valentine's day. If you are in love with wine, celebrate Trifon Zarezan's Day on Feb 14th (Feb 1st, new style)

You are either very happy or very miserable on Valentine’s Day; there seems to be no middle position.  For most people.

Bulgarians have found a simple solution to this problem of the extreme emotions. We celebrate two holidays on February 14th, St. Valentine’s and St. Trifon Zarezan!

On the day of St. Trifon Zarezan, the guardian of vine-growers, we celebrate our love for wine! According to the old custom, this is the day when you prune the old twigs of the vine, so that it can sprout anew in the spring. This is an old ritual for vitality and fertility. Vine-growers, gardeners, winemakers, tavern-keepers, bartenders, and men called Trifon have a special day.  Together with them, we all feast and drink wine.

Actors dressed in traditional Bulgarian clothing demonstrate how to prune the vines in preparation for the spring

So, if your loved one is with you, celebrate St. Valentine’s! If not, get on some good wine and forget about love!  Different saints for your different desires!

(The Catholic St. Valentine’s Day was not very popular in Eastern Europe before Western pop culture introduced the holiday. Today, shop windows’ decorations, love-themed events, and the general obsession with chocolate, red roses, and pink hearts testify that Bulgarians, as most other peoples, prefer to be drunk on love, not wine.)

You can learn more about the folklore aspect of Trifon Zarezan from this article: http://www.balkanfolk.com/news.php?id=94

Read more about other wonderful Bulgarian traditions, Martenitzi and Kukeri Processions.

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