Kukeri is a winter tradition that takes place from January to March all around the country, breaking the silence with the loud jingling of hundreds of heavy bells. The ritual requires all participants to be dressed up like furry monsters in order to scare the evil spirits away and help spring arrive on time. Usually, the participants craft their own masks or use the masks of their fathers and grandfathers, but you can also find some spectacular ornamented pieces in the souvenir shops or wood-carving ateliers.
If there is a taste that says home, for Bulgarians the sharena sol makes the top-ten list. It is a mix of local herbs typical for many Bulgarian dishes – savory (a herb similar to thyme), fenugreek, red pepper, and salt. In the tourist areas, you can find small jars of sharena sol where all the ingredients (different in color) are arranged in figures, perfect for a gift.
Bulgaria is one of the major world’s rose oil producers and exporters. If you visit the country in June, go to the Rose Valley near the town of Kazanlak to take part of the traditional Rose Festival. As the oil rose is a symbol of Bulgaria, you can buy almost everything with the sweet scent – from cosmetics to jam.
Guveche is a small clay pot with a lid used for cooking in the oven. All the ingredients are put inside raw, usually meat, vegetables, and cheese, and every dinner guest is served their own gyuveche. You can buy a set of gyuveches at souvenir shops, local markets, or kitchenware shops.
Almost every Bulgarian family has this weird appliance at home – a chuskopek, literally translated as a pepper-baker. A few years ago, there was a huge nationwide vote for the Bulgarian invention of the 20th century, and even though the computer invented by John Atanasoff took part in the contest, the winner was actually the chushkopek. Bulgarians bake peppers in it and then use them for the winter supplies (in jars or frozen).
Lyutenitsa is one of the traditional Bulgarian culinary delights you should try and take back home. It’s a spiced tomato and pepper spread usually sold in jars and served as a side dish to grilled meat, or spread on a slice of bread. You can find long shelves of lyutenitsa in every supermarket in Bulgaria.
Bring the sound of the traditional Bulgarian music back home by taking a CD with folklore music. Otherwise, a few bands like Oratnitsa, Bulgara, Eva Quartet, or The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices, who mix traditional melodies with dubstep, jazz, rock, or simply sing a capella (which is so other-worldly that it will give you the goosebumps).
It’s been many years since Bulgarians have stopped wearing their national costumes in everyday life, and now the old-time clothes have turned into a valuable possession. Many Bulgarians visit small villages and buy costumes to create their own collections. If you want one, you’ll have to put extra effort to find someone selling them, or simply buy a new embroidered shirt (usually found at the souvenir shops). If you want to keep it light, there’s a design studio that creates scarves with stylized traditional ornaments called Shevitza.
Bulgaria is a heaven for cheese lovers, whether it be hard yellow cheese fans or crumbly white feta cheese aficionados. Head to any supermarket, and make your choice from its cheese window.
Bulgaria is a wine-lover’s heaven with its local and international varietals and internationally acknowledged wines winning more and more prizes from the world expos. If it has to be unique, choose a wine from local varietal like Mavrud, Dimyat, Misket, Shiroka Melnishka (Broad-Leaf Melnik), or Gamza. For professional advice and a great choice of wines produced only by Bulgarian wineries, visit Vino Orenda Shop in Sofia.
Rakia is the national strong alcoholic drink that can be distilled from grapes, pears, apricots, quince, cherries… Try the different flavors, and choose your favorite to take back home.
If you arrive in Bulgaria in March, you will be given many martenitsas – white-and-red threads that Bulgarians exchange to celebrate the beginning of spring. In case your journey coincides with the month of martenitsa, choose a handful of these for your friends back home. Remember to tell them that every martenitsa is said to make a wish come true.