I’ve just returned to Prague after ten days in Bulgaria, most of them spent watching the work of the Children’s Theatre School in Shiroka Luka, a three-week event which LLP Group sponsors.
I’ve consumed my fair share of Shopska Salads in the process, perhaps even a few too many, though I always look forward with a keen appetite to the first of them. A true Shopska Salad is a mound of roughly chopped tomatoes, cucumbers and cooked red peppers, topped with a relatively mild grated white cheese. It never tastes the same at home, but if you can put up with imitation, you can find it on almost any menu from Plymouth, to Prague or Poznan. Bear in mind that it will never taste as good as in the mountains of Bulgaria.
My first Shopska Salad of the trip was almost as evocative as the madeleine at the start of Proust’s long-haul Remembrance of Things Past, even though I eschewed the traditional accompaniment of a glass of rakiya (the local fruit brandy which tastes as I imagine lighter fuel would taste).
The second Shopska Salad was almost as good, the tenth a chore. But where I stay there isn’t much else on the menu. As with kebabs in Istanbul, goulash on the Great Plain of Hungary, pizza in the alleyways of Naples, fish and chips on the sea front at Bournemouth, cheese fondue in the mountains of St Moritz, and moussaka in the tavernas of Athens, the palate soon tires, and I long for something English and familiar, such as lemon sole with boiled new potatoes and green beans.
Don’t be fooled into thinking the Shopska Salad has an authentic Bulgarian pedigree and that it’s been eaten in Thrace since the days of Orpheus and Euridice. No, it is to Bulgaria what the Ploughman’s Lunch (promoted by the Cheese Bureau) is to the British – an invention. It was devised by Balkanturist, Communist Bulgaria’s tourist agency, in the 1950s, as one of a collection of salads, each supposedly typical of a particular region. The Shopska Salad is the sole survivor, and remains ubiquitous. It’s the only one that is a recognisable brand in Tokyo and Timbuktoo.
That said, it seems no different to me from all the other salads on all the other menus in Bulgaria. There’s Farmer’s Salad, Shepherd’s Salad, Bulgarian Salad, Thracian Salad, and so on, each constructed of tomato, cucumber and peppers, in different quantities, placed on the plate in a different sequence. This reminds me of my own cooking tricks some decades ago, when I was capable of only four main dishes – Winter Casserole, Spring Casserole, Summer Casserole and Autumn Casserole – all exactly the same (braising steak, wine, root vegetables and herbs stewed together for three hours or so).
Even so, I wish the Shopska Salad longevity, and in eleven months’ time I shall be looking forward to it again.