Newsweek: Bulgarians - Our Newest Buddies

Views on BG | March 5, 2003, Wednesday // 00:00

By Gersh Kuntzman

I started getting into Bulgarian wines a few weeks ago, when the French started opposing us in the United Nations Security Council. Don't get me wrong, I oppose the impending war with Iraq and think that the French and Germans have legitimate reasons beyond their normal anti-Americanism for trying to block us.

But that doesn't mean I can't embrace our new ally, Bulgaria. This is a true friend of America-unlike Turkey, whom we had to buy off; Spain, who are aligning with the U.S. just really doing it just to get back at the French; or England, with whom we practically share a language. You know that old expression, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going"? Well, that's Bulgaria in a nutshell! In the midst of this worldwide tide of anti-Americanism, this is a country that picked up its metaphorical surfboard and said, "We're totally stoked, dude!"

Bulgaria actually seems to like us. I mean really like us-in that Sally Field way.

And I like them right back. In fact, the mere mention of Bulgaria brings to mind Will Rogers's famous axiom: I have, indeed, never met a Bulgarian I didn't like. Think about your own experiences with these exotic people of the East(ern Europe). I'll bet you've never met a Bulgarian who wasn't charming, demure and, to top it off, a fantastic dancer.

So that's why I've started showing my support through copious consumption of Chateau Boriana. Sure, you French-wine-drinking snobs may scoff, but repeated tastings of Chateau Boriana revealed an extremely drinkable red-and when I say "extremely drinkable," I mean that exactly the same amount of Chateau Boriana merlot was required to get me as messed up as I get on the genuine French stuff. At $5.99 a bottle, you do the geopolitics.

And how about a little cheese to go with your wine? Those America-bashers may enjoy their chablis and brie, but I'll take my Chateau Boriana with a few hunks of Bulgaria's delightful sheep's-milk kaskaval-an ethereal cross between sharp cheddar and provalone.

And Bulgaria also exports some of the world's best feta-which really comes in handy right now, as the Greeks seem to be siding with "old Europe." In fact, Bulgaria is the only thing standing in the way of Greece's effort to turn the very term "feta" into their own monopoly, like (oh the irony) the French and Champagne.

In reality, the style of cheese we commonly know as "feta" was invented in the Trakiya peninsula, which is now in Southern Bulgaria. Admittedly, my Bulgarian friends were foolish to call their version "white cheese," while the Greeks created a mystique by using the word "feta"-but that doesn't change the fact that Bulgarian feta is the best in the world. And that's not the Chateau Boriana talking!

"Every Greek knows that Bulgarian-made feta is much better than Greek," says Malincho International, an importer of Bulgarian products.
"Bulgarian feta is becoming more and more popular," said Olga Dominguez, the cheese buyer at Zabar's. Despite its location in the heart of New York's liberal Upper West Side, Zabar's is experiencing a bit of a rush on Bulgarian cheeses right now.

"Even in this neighborhood, people are saying that they don't want to buy French cheese right now," Dominguez said.

Why stop at wine and cheese? If you like eggplant, red peppers, green tomatoes and onions, you're already a lover of Bulgarian cuisine. In fact, the entirety of Bulgarian cuisine seems to consist of those four ingredients mixed in different quantities. Ajvar? Go heavy on the red peppers and lay off the green tomatoes. Danubian salad? Go heavy on the green tomatoes and go light on eggplant. And the Bulgarians treat eggplant the way George Washington Carver treated peanuts. They fry it, roast it, grill it, bake it, mash it and puree it.

If you're mouth isn't watering, it will be soon. Thanks to our new alliance-and the fact that a decade without a Soviet sugar daddy has left Bulgarians hungry for more than just friendship-Bulgarian imports will soon be flooding the American market.

"You can't touch them price-wise," said Stan Mazepa, owner of Pulaski, a food company that imports Bulgarian roasted peppers. "Italian roasted peppers may be a marginally better, but they're three times the price."

And you know how Americans love a bargain-more so ever since it looked like Italy's support in the U.N. was waning.

One man behind the coming Bulgarian invasion is George Stratev, who has organized farming cooperatives to ensure that the riches of the Valley of Thrace and the Rhodope Mountains starts flowing toward the West. Next up-Bulgarian yogurt.

"It's fantastic," Stratev said. "You've never had yogurt like this. It has a live culture, lb bulgaricus, that acts on the lactose in the milk. It's perfect if you're lactose intolerant! It's a yogurt that actually improves your digestive flow. Most yogurts can't make that claim!"

Stratev is based in New York, and, as such, hob-nobs with Bulgarian diplomats who tell him that they'll stick with the U.S. come hell or rejection by the rest of old Europe.

"We're a very small country that's in a difficult position," he said. "We expect to join the European Union in 2007, so we are not trying to cause any separation of Europe. But you know, our small country has not had much luck aligning itself with the big powers. We were on the side of Germany in World Wars I and II. I hope that this time around it will be different. We are in need of foreign direct investments, but will not be unreasonable like Turkey."

For now, it seems, our friends in Bulgaria are happy enough with just being friends-and that's another thing I love about them. While other countries ask us for money, Bulgarians are far less demanding.

"We feel the support of the United States," said Elitsa Panayotova, head of the commercial and economic office of the Bulgarian Embassy in Washington. "Why, just the other day, Commerce Secretary Donald Evans was in Bulgaria meeting with our president and prime minister. That sent a very strong message of support."

Man, if Don Evans is a strong message of support, these guys will be friends for life.

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