When some members of my family first came out to Bulgaria on holiday, one of the few complaints they had was that they couldn’t get hold of any decent food and there was a point when I agreed with them. On the contrary, a group of our friends came out to stay with us and raved on and on about how great the local food was, both in the supermarkets and in restaurants. I have had mixed experiences here so far, and having been here a little while I have learnt how and where to shop for food. This guide may or may not help you if you are a holiday-maker. Finding good food is often down to luck, finding the right restaurant or supermarket, but hopefully it will point you in the right direction. I have written a separate detailed article with advice based on our experience of eating out in Bulgaria, so in this article I will be talking for the most part about food shopping.
A general point before I begin is that more often than not you will be better off shopping in a more traditional method – think England minus 30 years. This means going to different speciality shops for the different things you require. There is no such thing as the out of town supermarket here, although I imagine that with time big international chains such as Tesco and Lidl will move in to fill that requirement as affluence and consequently thing like car ownership increase (I can’t imagine many people willing to take their horse and cart 40km out of town just to take advantage of the latest BOGOFs at Tesco…).
Having said this, there are hypermarkets dotted about the country. Our nearest, Metro (a Europe-wide chain, the brand in the UK is called Makro), is in Rousse. We usually go there once a month to buy bulk staples: flour, dried meats and cheese, milk (which we have yet to find in any other form but UHT unfortunately), butter, pulses, toilet paper, washing powder, beer and wine. To shop at a shop like Metro you will need to bring some ID and be part of a registered Bulgarian company.
Beware when shopping in hypermarkets such as Metro as you often can’t get single items; so think carefully before you buy that 10,000 pack of flying saucers because, like BOGOFs (that’s ‘buy one get one free’ offers to the uninitiated), you may find that you consume a lot more than you would otherwise, thus you actually make very little saving. But for staples such as toilet paper etc. that you actually need it is definitely the place to go, as long as it is worth the petrol cost. Be careful as well that some products, such as eggs, aren’t cheaper locally. Furthermore, from the perspective of quality the hypermarket is most definitely not the place to get some products. Fresh meat is usually relatively poor. It is worth trying your local butchers (all of them!) to find a decent source, from which the meat hasn’t been frozen and appears fresh.
Fruit and vegetables are best sought at the local market – I imagine this applies in any country really. You get a lot for your money here – usually you can also buy things like honey, walnuts, pulses, herbs and spices too, not to mention clothes and shoes. This is also the place to get plants and trees when the time comes – fruit trees appear in the winter so if you are planning to plant them then this is the time to hunt them out. Live animals (chickens at least we have seen) are also often sold here. Our local market is in the nearest town to our village and there are often car-boot stalls too if you’re into that sort of thing.
Small supermarkets and cornershops abound in little towns and villages. We have found that in the deep winter stocks have been dwindling – I am not sure if it’s because deliveries are less frequent or because people have been bulk buying as a result of the unexpected cold.
Although we have adapted quite well to the ingredients on offer here, making use of cheap seasonal ingredients, it is still a major bummer not to be able to get hold of certain things such as decent cheese (the cheese is generally very mild here although you can get some soft European cheeses such as Brie and Edam you would be hard-pressed to get strong hard cheese such as cheddar), a good variety of herbs and spices (I miss bay leaves a lot and will be stuffing a small tree into my hold luggage next time I go to visit the UK), risotto rice (maybe not the top of everyone’s list), cider, Guinness (you can buy Guinness in cans but it’s REALLY expensive as it’s imported), real ale. There is a man called Andy – of Andy’s Foods – who imports British food items and ships out across Bulgaria so if you are missing a treat have a look at his website. We are also planning on brewing cider once we have the house in a little better order as it is pretty easy, so stay tuned for that article.