The Uniting Power of Wine

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.

asma1

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.

wine symbolism

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.

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Note: This article contains excerpts from The Wanderer and Light Love Rituals.

The Wanderer - A Tear and A Smile       Aveela_Light-Love-Rituals-thumbnail

Bulgarian Easter Traditions

Easter for many of you was this past Sunday, but for the Orthodox, it will be on May 2 this year. In recognition of this holy day, I’d like to share with you an excerpt from my book, The Wanderer, my memoir about my experiences of being an immigrant, and how our customs and traditions influence our lives. At the end, I’ve also included a traditional Easter recipe: Lamb with Dock. Enjoy!

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Since the majority of Bulgarians are Orthodox Christians, many of us celebrate Easter twice—once on our own holiday, and again to honor friends and new relatives with different backgrounds, or just to make our children part of the surrounding culture.

Easter holidays in Bulgaria start with Lazarov Day (Lazar’s or Lazarus’ Day) and Tsvetnica (Flower Day) and culminate on Easter. This year Tsvetnitsa is on April 25. These are the best spring holidays when nature wakes and everything comes back to life. People open windows, clean their houses, and go to church every Sunday. When I was a student, we were forbidden to attend church. Back in the Communist era, we were told we had to forget religion and traditions so as not to undermine the authority of the Party. Even so, we hid and walked to attend the service secretly, so we weren’t expelled from school. The world is small, as we like to say, and one year, I stood side by side with my French teacher in church. She looked away from me with candles in her hands and pretended she didn’t see me. I did the same. We both knew we needed to keep the secret.

egg_knocking_colorIn Sofia, the measures were quite strict, but in small villages and towns people were able to celebrate and attend church more easily. In the years when I studied in Sandanski, a small town in southern Bulgaria, a friend invited me to the holiday in one of the neighboring villages so that I wouldn’t be alone at the boarding school. The alley was pretty: white houses stained with colored rugs, and yards arranged with flowers and greenery. The church stood at the entrance to the village on a small hill with a view to the nearby Struma River. After the liturgy, young and old went out and, instead of the traditional “knocking” of their colored eggs (that is, tapping them end to end), they began to throw them over the church roof. Then they went outside the church yard, set food on picnic tables, and the fun began. The people of southern Bulgaria were warm and hospitable, and I always felt at home during my school years. It eased my nostalgia.

Bulgaria is a small country, but every region, village, and town has its own rituals and beliefs. It was interesting to observe traditions by visiting families and places that were new for me. I think we all need to be open to new experiences and appreciate the beliefs of others. Each ritual or custom has a reason behind why it’s performed.

Some of these traditions are regarding eggs, one of the most common foods at Easter, for Bulgarians and other nations as well. From ancient times, the egg has been a symbol of birth, resurrection, and eternal life—life and death—with a belief that the world was born from the golden egg, that is, the sun. The parts of the egg represent the four elements. The shell is symbolic of earth: the membrane represents air, the liquid is water, and the yellow yoke is the sun and thereby fire.

The time to celebrate in secrecy eventually passed, and after the change of government in October 1989, democracy brought back freedom. Everyone then had the right to practice their religion. Easter and all other holidays are impeccable for Bulgarians not only today, but also in the past.

When I was a child, from time to time I stayed with my grandparents in a village in northern Bulgaria. Easter in my memories was about colors and flowers. I remember Lazar’s Day and the lazarki, a group of cheerful girls who walked from door to door to sing for the prosperity and health of the occupants. The girls carried baskets and dressed in traditional costumes, wearing wreaths made from flowers. At the time, I badly wanted to join them, but I was too young. When they arrived at our house, Baba went to the cellar and brought eggs, honey, and walnuts as gifts for the girls.

On Tsvetnica, the next day, we went to church to pray. For us, it was a double holiday because my grandmother’s name was Tsvetana (which means “flower”), so we also celebrated her name day. On Flower Day she made me a wreath from willow branches and flowers so I would be slender and playful like the tree. After church, people came over to celebrate her name day. The feast was not as it is now. Back then, the doors were open for all guests—those expected and unexpected alike. They came in happy, bringing gifts and wishing her good health. Baba gave them red wine and home-baked bread and other meals she had prepared for her special day. Since it was Lent, people fasted and kept other prohibitions.

My grandmother used natural dye to color the eggs: beets for the red, onion pills for the orange, and gold from the seeds of the dill. She also used these natural colors to dye wool and cotton. She told us we needed to color the eggs before sunset on Maudy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter). If we couldn’t color them on that day, we had to dye them without telling anyone. The reason for this was that we had to make sure the devil didn’t discover us dyeing eggs on Friday or Saturday. If he did, he’d destroy the healing and protective powers those special eggs held.

I still generally dye the eggs on Thursday and always make a red egg special for God. Traditionally, this is the first red egg. It has magical, healing power; on Easter morning, I rub the egg against my children’s cheeks and make a cross on their foreheads for health. We keep this red egg set aside for a whole year. Sometimes our kitten forgets it’s a holy egg and breaks it early. When the kitten doesn’t break it, we don’t throw last year’s egg away. Instead, we bury it in the garden for fertility.

The culmination of the Easter festivities happens on Sunday. In Bulgaria, we went to church and on the way back visited the graves of our closest relatives to give them food, eggs, and wine.

Now and in the past all our Easter festivities are filled with light and love. Nature wakes up, and everyone is looking forward to the coming summer and long, sunny days. People are craving light, joy, and love.

A major part of the festivity is the meal. In addition to the traditional bread called kozunak and the colorful eggs, Bulgarian cook lamb.

lamb-with-dock

Lamb with Dock

Lamb with dock or spinach is one of my favorite meals during this season. This delicious dish is suitable for Easter and to welcome Spring.

I’m not a gardener, but I have few spices (mint, parsley, fresh garlic) in my garden that are a traditional part of Bulgarian cuisine. Dock is one of these plants, but you can substitute fresh spinach or even kale if you like to experiment. There’s nothing complicated in preparing lamb with dock.

Dock – commonly known as broadleaf dock, cushy-cows, butter dock, kettle dock, curly dock, and smair dock – is a species of flowering plant in a buckwheat family Polygonaceae. It’s native to Europe but is also available in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries.

Since ancient times, dock has been known as a medicinal plant and used in traditional remedies. It possesses various antiscorbutic, astringent, cholagogue, depurative, homeopathy and laxative properties which have beneficial effects to maintain one’s overall health.

To prepare lamb with dock, you need:

2.2  pounds boneless, trimmed, lamb shoulder, diced
2 Tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 midsize onion or a green fresh onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1  1/2 Tablespoons sweet paprika
2 cups water
25 grams butter, cubed
1  1/2 cups from the water where the meat was boiled
1 cup basmati rice, rinsed and drained
1 bunch of dock or replace with spinach, trimmed and roughly chopped
Salt & pepper

  1. I always precook my meat. Start with making portions of the meat, put in a pot and cover with cold water and 1 teaspoon salt. Boil the meat for about 1 hour on medium heat.
  2. Sprinkle diced lamb with 1/4 teaspoon salt. Place a large pot or casserole dish over medium-high heat and drizzle in half the olive oil. Add half the lamb and cook for 4–5 minutes until meat is golden. Transfer browned lamb to a plate, and repeat with remaining lamb and oil.
  3. In the same pot add more oil, then add the onion and garlic and cook a further 3–4 mins, until the onion begins to soften. Once the onion has softened, add the rinsed rice.
  4. Transfer browned lamb to the pan and mix and stir paprika through it. Add water (from the water that the lamb was boiled in) and bring to a boil.
  5. Add the chopped dock or spinach and mix thoroughly.
  6. Place the pan in the oven (non preheat) on 375 F (no need to cover) and bake for 1 hour, until rice is cooked and lamb is very tender.

Enjoy this delicious spring meal made with gift a from nature.

The Art of Forgiveness

The following is an excerpt from my memoir, The Wanderer.

According to Orthodox tradition, every spring before Easter, we ask our relatives for forgiveness. We also call our parents and other relatives in Bulgaria and ask their forgiveness. Even if we haven’t hurt or offended them, we use it as a way to get rid of the negative energy in our lives.

It’s important to differentiate between forgiveness and trusting someone again. Can you forgive a person when he hurt you several times? If you do, does it mean you approve of his actions? Are you giving this person permission to hurt you again? Some people don’t change for the better; they become more self-centered.

You can forgive, but you don’t have to forget.

Forgiveness is an important part of our lives. It’s no wonder Bulgarians, like other Orthodox, have a celebration called Proshka, Forgiveness. On the church calendar, this occurs before the Easter fast begins. The idea is to cleanse not only the body, but also the soul.

Although the church and other rituals were strictly forbidden during the Communist era in Bulgaria, my grandmothers honored them rigorously and taught us children to honor them. Before dinner, we had to kiss their hand and ask for forgiveness from them and our parents. It wasn’t just words; it was a serious matter. I saw the respect and dignity on their faces as we paid our respect.

Afterwards, for my cousins and me, the day was like a party. My grandmother made her delicious round bread, cooked fresh eggs, baked banitsa, and had homemade feta cheese and white halva. When she didn’t have white halva, she used Tahan halva, but they both melted in our mouths. We all waited for the dinner to end so we could make a hamkane.

My grandmother tied a red thread to the end of the dough roller, like a wooden rolling pin. To the other end of the thread, she attached a piece of halva, a piece of cheese, or a hard-boiled egg. We children stood in a circle on the floor or around the table with our hands behind us. We eagerly awaited our grandmother to shake the thread and make the halva dance. Like kids in America playing a donut game or apple dunking, each of us struggled to bite into the halva and get it to stay in our mouths. My brother and my cousins always won.

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