In the Strandzha mountains, on the border between Bulgaria and Turkey, proud, obstinate producers carry on making “kiselo mlyako” (sour milk), a thousand-year-old tradition
Love for their homeland, pride in their produce and obstinacy to the point of madness are the qualities smallholders and dairy farmers need in Bulgaria today to chance the uncertain future. Especially when we talk about “kisela mlyako” (sour milk or yoghurt) whose origin in this land is proven by the name of one of the microorganisms – lactobacillus bulgaricus (the other is streptococcus thermophilus) – which is responsible for the magical fermentation.
There is no better place to see this than in the wooded hills of the Strandzha, a remote strip of Bulgaria, tightly enclosed between the waters of the Black Sea and the Turkish border. A magical place, where the arcane, mysterious and inimitable tradition of the nestinari, the dancers on burning coals, is preserved; but today it's squeezed between isolation, economic crisis and a devastating depopulation which could put an end to ancient traditions, unique products and precious biodiversity.
The Bulgarian buffalo
Stoyan Iliev arrived in the Strandzha fifteen years ago, following his passion for fishing along the tortuous course of the river Veleka. A passion which, over the years, became his life's work, now shared with his wife and four children. At Kovach, in the heart of the natural park covering a large part of the region, Stoyan has patiently and tenaciously built up a business which combines the two great potentials of the Strandzha – alternative tourism and organic farming.
Besides the simple but warm hospitality of their farm-stay, Stoyan and his family cultivate mint and organic tea, but, most of all, they keep over 120 buffalo for milk. We watch them grazing in their primeval landscape scorched by the summer heat, black dots which would hardly be noticed amid the low, thick dark vegetation, were it not for the rhythmic swing of their tails tirelessly swotting clouds of flies.
“In Bulgaria buffalo are an age-old tradition, but the ability and knowledge needed to rear them are becoming more and more rare,” relates Stoyan as he lights another cigarette. “Just as it's increasingly difficult to find people who can turn their thick, aromatic milk into 'kiselo mlyako' and our traditional pickled (sirene) cheese”. Stoyan's light blue eyes and calm, deep voice do not seem resigned, but belong rather to one looking for solutions to a difficult situation.
The main problem is the pure and simple lack of man power. The whole of the Bulgarian countryside has been impoverished by emigration, but in the Strandzha this has reached dramatic proportions.
Man, an endangered species in the Strandzha
“In this area the most endangered species is man”, Stefan Blatarov, formerly director and now deputy director of the natural park, summarizes bitterly as we meet in the only bar in the town of Malko Tarnovo, where the administrative offices are. This loss is due to a long series of factors – geographic isolation, economic crisis, the discontinued mining industry, which was central during the years of the communist regime, and the lack of infrastructures. The road leading in from the sea, for example, is a catalogue of pot-holes, patched only here and there over the years.
For the time being, Stoyan has someone capable of performing the alchemy of fermentation – Todor, a character with an enigmatic gaze and cryptic answers. The kitchen is his undisputed kingdom where he takes us through every step of the “kiselo mlyako” procedure: after pasteurizing the fresh milk, it is cooled to 47 degrees in a great tin caldron. Then the milk enzymes are added and it's all covered with a heavy blanket to keep it at a constant temperature for at least three hours. “It seems simple enough, but it's the experience and the details that make the difference between a passable product and an exceptional one”, says Todor with his sly smile.
“For small-scale producers like us, entry into the European Union in theory created new possibilities. Unfortunately, though, these possibilities rarely turn into reality”, explains Stoyan. The direct contributions are, of course, welcome, but not decisive. The main problems have been created by the Bulgarian state applying the European norms rigidly. Criticism centres on “Decree 26” which regulates the direct sale by the producer to the consumer. Neither did this norm, introduced in 2010, reduce the bureaucratic obstacles which are often insuperable for small farmers. The lack of flexibility, as applied, for example, to hygienic requirements, involves insupportable costs for many.
“The result is that today the small farmers are not competitive, and furthermore, the norms make collaboration between farmers, which could reduce costs, both difficult and complicated. There remain just two options: give over our production of the raw material to industrial-sized businesses, or sell directly in an unregulated or 'illegal' way”, concludes Stoyan. That “Decree 26” has hardly been efficacious, is demonstrated in the statistics recently collected by Slow Food Bulgaria: only 464 farmers (that is 0.5% of those officially registered) applied to sell directly in the way outlined in the decree; among these just 79 offer milk and dairy products.
For a confirmation we cross the park on deserted roads to Yasna Polyana, a village of 600 people not far from the coast. On the banks of a quiet, shallow stream, not at first sight justifying its name “river of the Devil”, a herd of multi-coloured goats is grazing, their young shepherd, Mihal Grudov, with an ancient face framed by a red-tinted beard.
Like Stoyan, Mihal's eyes express a determination to stay, to struggle on here for himself and his children. His “kiselo mlyako” is typically of goats' milk, lighter and less thick with an unmistakable sour, fragrant aroma. He takes us to try it in the shade of the dense pergola surrounding his two-floored house in the middle of the village, visibly happy with the many compliments he's getting for his produce.
“The pasture is clean, the goats belong to the region's traditional breed, the Byala balgarska, the “kiselo mlyako”, the sirene and fresh milk are made in the centuries old tradition inherited from my family. And yet, paradoxically, I'm forced to offer it almost under the counter, almost illegally”, recounts Mihal not without a trace of anger.
To support his family Mihal has to work on several jobs at the same time - the “kiselo mlyako” and sirene he only manages to make at late at night, after shepherding and milking his thirty five goats. A hard task, day after day, especially when the outcome is not always the one hoped for.
“I'm not deluding myself – things are unlikely to change soon. Unfortunately, above and beyond the inefficient bureaucracy, direct sales of a quality product like mine annoys the big businesses and the distributers”, Mihal continues. “It suits the industrial producers to obtain our milk at rock-bottom prices. The distribution chains then don't want to see better products than theirs sold on the market at the same price”.
I ask Mihal if he's ever thought of giving it all up, going into town or abroad to look for better opportunities. A bright light shines in his eyes, proudly, almost a flash of lightning. To understand his answer, I don't have to wait for it.
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