The Pressure Group Migrationwatch predicted, at the end of last year, that a combined figure of 50,000 Romanians and Bulgarians would arrive each year in the UK once restrictions were lifted in January. However, this forecast now belongs to the same category as bird and swine flu: the influx has failed to take place and the story, except among UKIP supporters, has now all but disappeared. However, there is a sizeable Bulgarian community in the UK (around the 35,000 mark, by most estimates), and the Turnpike Lane area of North London has been a key site for them. One way in which immigrants can influence their host nation is of course through their food and as I knew very little about Bulgarian cuisine, I decided some exploration was in order.
I discovered that Bulgarian food is a mix of European and near-Eastern and that it’s famous for its rich salads at every meal, cold and hot soups, a wide range of dairy products (especially yoghurt and white cheese) and a rich variety of pastries. Most dishes are baked, steamed or stewed while grilling is widely preferred to deep-frying.
On a cold late November afternoon I popped up to Turnpike Lane to get a closer look. My first port of call was the BG Cafe at 7 Wordsworth Parade, and a member of staff, who spoke good English, was happy to answer my questions while his colleague dealt with customers. The menu was in Bulgarian only so I asked about the special fare that they were offering and was shown various fresh items temptingly on display. They have about fifteen different types of home-made snacks and pastries including kiflas, which are large croissants and banicas, which are samosa-shaped and filled with cheese.
Boza is a popular drink made from baked wheat flour or millet and both large and small bottles of this were on display in the cold cabinet alongside more well-known international drinks. It has a taste that’s a mix of sweet and slightly bitter and apparently it has been proven to enlarge women’s breasts. Moving on quickly, a TV on the wall was showing Bulgarian programmes and beneath it was a noticeboard where numerous cards offered and asked for services. The décor was like a typical British caff and when I asked if only Bulgarians used it he told me that a lot of other people came in but usually just for coffees. He told me that the business had been running for three years. The full name of the cafe is BG Zakuska Bulgarian Breakfast and it’s open from 5.30 a.m. till 6 p.m.
Right next door is the Plovdiv Cafe and this no doubt caters for the evening trade as when I passed by around 2 p.m. there was no sign of life through the darkened windows.
Just across the road at 5-6 Queen’s Parade called IFC Food Centre which offers a good range of Bulgarian foods as well as produce from Hungary, Lithuania and Romania.
The guy in the BG told me about a popular local Bulgarian restaurant so after heading north along Green Lanes for a few minutes and turning right at the tube station into Westbury Avenue I soon arrived at Sunny Beach Restaurant on my right (8 Westbury Avenue). On that chilly afternoon a sunny beach seemed a long way away but most of the twenty or so patrons were sitting outside, presumably so that they could smoke.
The waitresses were busy so I sat for a while and looked through the extensive menu. I was impressed by the wide range of salads on offer – for example the traditional shopska, which is made from tomatoes, cucumber, onions and white cheese. At £4 for a large plate it looked like a tempting starter or side dish. Among the soups available was the intriguing Tarator yoghurt soup (£3), a mixture of yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, walnutes and dill, as well as tripe soup or meatball soup (£3.50). One of the traditional starters was burek, which is a deep-fried breaded red pepper stuffed with cheese (£4). A special main course for two was a selection of shish kebabs, chips and salad, which at £18 sounded a very good deal. Apart from traditional Bulgarian food there was a good selection of Italian pizzas and pastas as well as that old faithful the English breakfast.
The restaurant is fully licensed and among the Bulgarian drinks were bottles of Kanenitsa and Zagorka beer at £3 each, home-made rakia (a strong drink that’s also very popular in Turkey and Greece, and is not, in my opinion, for the faint-hearted) at £3 a glass and Bulgarian ouzo at the same price. Sunny Beach is open from breakfast time right through till midnight.
If you’d like to read more on this topic, there’s The Food and Cooking of Romania and Bulgaria: Ingredients and Traditions in Over 65 Recipes by Bulgarian born celebrity chef Silvena Rowe (Aquamarine 2010).
Every Saturday at the Bulgarian Cultural Institute, South Kensington there’s a food class entitled ‘The Cuisine of Grandmother’ . You can learn how to make traditional starters, main courses, desserts and pastries following very old Bulgarian recipes with master-chef Nasko. The course begins at 1 p.m. and lasts about two hours. A payment of £15 per session covers the ingredients and energy costs and of course you can take your creations home.
I’m going to visit another Bulgarian restaurant – Bolyary in Palmer’s Green – very soon to have a full meal so expect another update soon.
BG Café, 7 Wordsworth Parade, Green Lanes N8 0SJ Tel: 020-8881-3490
Plovdiv Café, 8 Wordsworth Parade, Green Lanes, London N8 0SJ Tel: 020 88898917
IFC Food Centre, 5-6 Queen’s Parade, Green Lanes London N8 0RD. Tel: 020 8347 8822.
Sunny Beach Restaurant, 8 Westbury Avenue, London N22 6BN, 020-8888-8801).
‘The Cuisine of Grandmother’ at Bulgarian Cultural Institute (188 Queen’s Gate, South Kensington SW7 5HL). The two-hour course, taking place each Saturday from 1 pm, costs £15. (http://www.bcilondon.co.uk/events/courses-workshops/)