Hot Rakia & Sheep’s Brains—Bulgarian Cuisine Gets Interesting in Varna

Diagonal Craft Beer Bar Varna Bulgaria

Tasting a flight of craft beers with Nina at Diagonal Craft Beer Bar in Varna

Varna is feeling like home. In fact, Bulgaria seems like home. Long-term travel, especially by motorcycle, with no itinerary, gives me to settle in when it feels right. Here in Varna, it feels great.

Tonight I meet Nina, my new friend, and sommelier at Sea Terrace. It’s her night off, and we will give our palates a bit of rest and explore Varna’s hot and new craft beer bar. On a quiet leafy street in Old Varna, Diagonal Craft Beer Bar features fourteen taps. The beer selection is from Bulgaria and a few international craft offerings as the taps rotate.

We share a flight of some more unique offers. The bar sits on a street corner, so Nina and I grab a table on the street. It’s balmy, so a cold beer makes for the best cool-down recipe for this evening. The cozy bar’s minimalistic decor is tasteful and offers seating on two levels. In this heat, today, almost everyone is sitting near one of the big windows or a table on the street.

Nina and I agree on our favorite two of the five different brews in our flight. Even though we’re enjoying crafty craft beers, we can’t help but talk about wine. We reflect on our trip to Salla Estate and how they never offered us a taste of its Pinot Noir. Then Nina tells me about a Bulgarian rose that I must try. She promises to get me a bottle before I leave. My bike is weighing down with so many great bottles of Bulgarian wine. But that’s okay. More to share with new friends down the road.

After completing our craft beer tasting, Nina suggests we have dinner at a traditional Bulgarian restaurant in the old part of town, not from here. It’s a short walk, and soon we’re seated on the patio at Staria Chinar. Our waiter explains that this translates to “Old Sycamore.” The menus are all in Cyrillic, so I let Nina order for the table.

“Can I order a few things and not tell you what they are?” The question catches me off guard. Why should I mind? After all, I am the “Food Explorer!” Right? Mostly I’m open to trying anything. I guess I have some reservations, but I cannot think of any now. I remember Maria prodded me to eat chicken hearts last month in Athens. I wonder what Nina will put in front of me.

2012 Santa Sarah Mavrud & Cabernet Sauvignon Blend

2012 Santa Sarah Mavrud & Cabernet Sauvignon Blend

The wine list is also in Bulgarian Cyrillic. Nina is the sommelier, so she can make a solid choice. The first wine Nina chooses is sold out. She chats with the server, who disappears and returns with three bottles. This is a visual and tableside wine list. One bottle is from Santa Sarah, the winery where Nikolay Krastev headed up winemaking before taking the helm at Tsarev Brod Winery in 2013. Nina hesitates because it’s more expensive than the other two choices—which are both great wines, too.

“This is the last wine that Niki made at Santa Sarah,” I remind Nina. “It’s rare! We should celebrate Niki. I’ll buy the bottle,” I offer to take the cost out of the equation. We agree, and moments later, our server is decanting the bottle and pouring our glasses.

Nina suggests we order Rakia, the traditional distilled spirt popular throughout the Balkans. Like Brandy, it’s made from grapes, but also from plum, quince, peach, and other fruits. Here at Staria Chinar, they offer a unique tableside preparation. They boil the Rakia together with homemade honey and fresh-squeezed orange juice. I agree when in Bulgaria, I’ve got to do the “hot Rakia.”

The preparation is a bit of a show complete with fire and flame. It’s served in traditional Bulgarian ceramic cups. Yet, instead of downing the Rakia in one shot, as is typical in these parts, one must enjoy heated Rakia slowly. After the first taste, I can see how one could drink a lot of this and forget about its alcohol content—which is high, I’m told. Though I cannot taste it.

Our server explains this is popular in colder months in Varna, where they say the hot Rakia will cure all the ails you. So as a medicinal and natural cure, perhaps, but tonight it’s just to experience another Bulgarian tradition.

When the server drops five different dishes on our table, I only recognize two: roasted lamb and Bulgarian salad. There are two other meat dishes, it looks like. There’s also a dish with some yogurt and vegetables. Nina explains this is Katuk—a traditional Bulgarian specialty made by mixing soft cheese and yogurt with oil, garlic, salt, herbs, and spices. It’s rich and thick and flavorful.

Nina insists that I try the other two dishes before she explains what they are. They slow-cooked the first dish in a wood-fire one. It’s creamy textured and smooth with flavors like bacon fat, garlic, and onion seasoned with lemon and spices. It’s not offensive, and I cannot guess what it is.

The chef grilled the second dish on an open flame. It is more firm and chewy in texture and seasoned with garlic and spicy pepper or paprika. I give up. Nina finally tells me. The chewy dish is beef tongue, and the creamy dish is sheep’s brains.

I would never guess that, ever. Both are full of flavor and delicious. The biggest challenge in trying these dishes for most people—me included—is getting past what they are. We eat little tongue or brains in California or the United States. Nina was smart to hold off on revealing the dishes until I tried them. This is how we should always try new things. Too often, our preferences and judgments are deeply rooted and without real experience. The word “brains” will gross out most people. As for tongue? Perhaps tongue is more widely available, but even for many people, it’s a bridge too far.

The worse thing any of us can do when trying new food is to say we don’t want or don’t like it—even if we’ve never tried it.

Soon Marin joins us and helps us clean the plates. I love the lamb best, but that’s because it’s my favorite. As for the 2012 Santa Sarah Mavrud and Cabernet blend? One of the best wines I’ve tasted in Bulgaria. It’s also a pleasure to just drink the wine rather than taste and talk about it. This way, we just enjoy a glass or two with a great meal.

The next night is my last night in Varna—and my last in Bulgaria. It’s sad. But before I pack and take off, I have my last supper on the terrace at Sea Terrace. Both Nina and Marin work tonight and take turns serving me Bulgarian wine. At the same time, the friendly waiters bring me traditional Bulgarian food. I do a trio of white Bulgarian wines to start with my salad.

And for the main course of grilled Bulgarian meats and sausages, Marin recommends a Merlot from the south Black Sea Coast. In most cases, I would order a native or indigenous varietal, rather than Merlot. But Marin insists I should be open and recognize that while the traditional grapes make for a better story and authentic “Bulgarian” experience, I must be open to how Bulgaria and it’s climate and terroir will express more familiar and international varietals.

The 2013 Greus Merlot from the Tohun Winery is Merlot is medium-bodied, gorgeous with aromas of cherry, leather, and white pepper on the nose. On the palate, the wine is velvety smooth with just a hint of tannin and medium acidity. It unfolds flavors of ripe plum, blueberry jam, and spiced herbs with a long finish.

For my last night, I stick around again until Nina and Marin are off, and together we walk the promenade back to our respective homes. Marin suggests that we grab a beer and grab a seat on a bench and watch Varna walk by. Here in Bulgaria, you can have an open container—and nobody hassles you unless you bother somebody.

There is no hassle tonight as we sip the beer, share stories, and make promises to connect again someplace, sometime, somehow.

Thank you, Bulgaria, for the food, wine, and friendship! I’ll be back.


Mentioned In This Post

Diagonal Craft Beer Bar
Ul. Sofroniy Vrachanaki 22
Varna 9000, Bulgaria
+359 88 476 8498

Staria Chinar
ulitsa Preslav 11
Varna 9000, Bulgaria
+359 87 6520500

Sea Terrace
9000 Primorski
Varna, Bulgaria
+359 88 250 5050
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