That cool May evening, Chorbadji Marko, without his hat in a warm robe, was having dinner with his family in the yard.
The table was set, as usual, under the grape vine (asma) between the clear and cold spout of the cheshma, which sang like a swallow, day and night, and between the tall, bushy boxwoods, which darkened by the wall, always green in winter and summer. The lantern shone on the branch of a lilac tree, which hung amiably over its fragrant lilacs over the heads of the children.
The above is an excerpt from the novel Under the Yoke by the great Bulgarian author and patriot Ivan Vazov. It is no wonder this chapter begins with an idyllic warm family dinner under the vine or as we Bulgarians call it “asma.”
An asma is a wooden or metal structure like a pergola to support a climbing grapevine.
Whenever you go to a Bulgarian house in Bulgaria or even here in America, you’ll find a grapevine and a vegetable garden. The gardens are small, but you’ll be amazed at the variety they produce. Bulgarians are well-known gardeners, and this is true here as well. In some gardens, you can find nettle and other rare, exciting varieties known for their curative power. Another plant that is famous and beloved is the Bulgarian geranium called zdravets, an herb spoken about for centuries in songs and poems.
Let me explain why an asma and grapevines are so important to us. An asma is where friendship is offered around the table or just a place to take a break from work to sit in the shade. Under the grapevine and in the vineyard are where we celebrate wine and love every year on February 14. This day is not only St. Valentine’s Day, it’s also Trifonovden, St. Trifon’s Day, one noted for festivities surrounding grapes and wine.
Wine has an important place in the life of Bulgarians. Each region in Bulgaria is known for a specific type of wine, and they all have their unique tastes and quality. Bulgaria was one of the largest wine producers, but lost its place after the government changed in 1989. The glory of Bulgarian wine has been written about around the world and has been raved about by many connoisseurs of fine wines.
Based on historical facts, Winston Churchill was one of those known connoisseurs. Every year, he ordered wine from Melnik, a small town in Bulgaria famous for its red wines. The climate and soil produce heavy, full-bodied wine with a unique taste. In the town, which has no more than 300 inhabitants, there is a wine museum, and almost every house has a cellar carved into the rocks where the sparkling red liquid is stored. The mastery of making wine is passed from generation to generation.
Like everyone in rural Bulgaria, my grandparents produced wine. My mother still keeps this tradition alive in her small vineyard. It’s a ritual she performs the entire year, starting with paying respect to the god of wine in February. After months of hard work, she harvests the grapes in late fall when they’ve turned into red, holy juice and puts it into wooden barrels that have been in use for many generations. An important part of the process is to clean the barrels with warm water and other special ingredients inside and out to make sure everything is clean, pristine, and ready for the young wine. She also puts a cotton bag containing herbs into the barrels to make the taste of the wine unique and bring out its healing power. Each household has their own recipe. One popular ingredient is St. John’s Wort, an herb used by healers. It is believed to increase the hormone of happiness. Combine this with the wine and you definable have a great cure for stress and anxiety.
My grandmother was poor and she used wine, honey, and herbs to cure coughs and everything else. She mixed wine and black pepper, wine and honey, and boiled wine with different herbs. My grandfather drank the wine and the rakia produced from the wine to heal his soul and forget what was stolen from him by the Communist party until he left this world early.
It’s no wonder why wine is so important to Bulgarians. It has an old history going back to the Thracians, who used to live in the area which is now modern Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, and at one time even extended farther. Thracians were fine craftsmen; they believed in immortality and had beautiful horses. Some scholars speculate that when the Thracians populated the area, they were the first to bring viticulture to the region. They brought grape vines, cultivated them, and began wine production.
In the past, Trifon Zarezan was a popular event in February. Groups of men, young and old, went to the nearby vineyards, bringing food and wine to celebrate the day. After setting their bags of food, baklitsi (wooden vessels for wine), and tools down, they walked around the outside of the vineyard, holding up icons of Saint Trifon. When they returned to the starting point, they faced east and made the sign of the cross three times. The oldest in the group would kneel by a strong grapevine root and pour red wine around it three times. He also broke a crust of bread and put four pieces into the hole, equal distances apart, saying, “How many drops in the wine that many grapes in the vineyard this year.”
They also scattered “magical” ashes around the vines to ensure a good harvest. The ashes came from a budnik, a log burned on Budni vecher, Christmas Eve. Sometimes a priest went to the vineyard, but since he was old, I don’t remember seeing him as part of the festivities. In some villages, people also selected a “King of the vineyard.” His success during the year ensured everyone else would have bountiful harvests.
They used shoots from the grapevine to make a wreath to decorate their baklitsa or to wear as crowns. They’d also cut more shoots to take home to place by the family’s icons. My grandmother kept the wreath and used it in the fall when she made sauerkraut. She placed it into a barrel to cover the cabbage and make sure the juice stayed steady and didn’t get too sour. In my books, you can read and learn a lot about the rich traditions and rituals.
We also use wine and bread in rituals to welcome people to this world and send them on their way to eternity.
In northern Bulgaria, it’s a custom on souls’ day to pour wine over your loved one’s grave and when you leave, to pour a drop at the cemetery gate. Some soul always sits there at the invisible doorstep. Wine is poured as a symbol of remembrance for all souls—for those you know and those you’ve never met. Baba used to carry home-baked bread, boiled wheat with sugar and nuts, and wine when she visited the cemetery to honor all the dead.
No Bulgarian table (trapeza) lacks wine; it’s part of weddings, name days, and bereavements. It’s part of life. Nowadays, people continue to congregate in the vineyards, sing songs, and celebrate. The tradition has its own followers here as well. Whoever has a name day that day opens the doors of his home for relatives and friends. Wreaths are also made from vine rods, like the wreath of Dionysus.
Food and wine unite people no matter what their nationality or language is.