Bulgarian Breakfast by Barbara Nadel

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There are breakfasts that can tempt you – full ‘English’ complete with egg, bacon, sausage, black pudding, fried tomatoes and fried bread for some people, maybe mountains of exotic fruit and fresh bread for others. There are also breakfasts that are, quite frankly, a chore. Muesli can be a bit of a mission and I defy anyone to see porridge as anything other than an instrument of masochism. However, not many breakfasts, good or bad, intrigue.

My travel writer friend, Pat, who lives in Turkey full-time has a good eye for the out of the way and the outré. I think we get along as well as we do because we’re both fascinated by the weird, the wonderful and the almost disappeared. And modern İstanbul, vibrant and thrusting as it is, rarely fails to disappoint in this respect. So when Pat invited my husband and me out for what she called a Bulgarian Breakfast one sunny morning, what could we possibly do but accept?

The nameless little eatery that we were headed for was located in the district of Beşiktaş on the European side of the Bosphorus. Famous for its ornate ferry stage, it’s football club and it’s proximity to the great rococo confection that is the Dolmabahçe Palace, Beşiktaş is also a district characterised by the ghostly remains of old Greek public buildings as well as by some very eclectic domestic accommodation. My next İkmen book, (A Noble Killing) due for publication in January 2011 is set in this extremely varied and vibrant quarter of the city.

As our bus took us nearer and nearer to our goal, I asked Pat what was so special about a Bulgarian Breakfast as opposed to, say, a Romanian or a Slovak early morning meal? As usual with all things İstanbul, her answer was what I had and had not expected.

‘Well, the breakfast itself isn’t actually from Bulgaria,’ she said. ‘It’s basically a plate of clotted cream with honey piled on top that you dip bread into. The man who sells it is Bulgarian, or rather he’s a Turk from Bulgaria. It’s one of their traditional dishes. You know!’

Luckily, I do and did. When the Ottoman Empire conquered Bulgaria in the 14th century a lot of Turks went to live in that country, mainly to provide support to the troops who occupied it. Their descendants are known as Bulgarian Turks to this day and many of them only left to return to Turkey as recently as 1989.

‘I don’t know when the owner of the breakfast place first came to İstanbul,’ Pat continued, ‘but he’s old now and the rumour is that he wants to retire. It’s said that his son isn’t interested in carrying on the business and so this place could close soon.’

I’d never heard of cream and honey for breakfast before and so I was keen to try it. Pat led us through some very lively and colourful streets until we came to a tiny little cubbyhole of a place painted a pale shade of blue. The owner, whose hands shook with age or possibly some palsy or illness came and ushered us inside. We told him we’d rather sit outside in the sunshine but he insisted that we first come in and look at his photographs which hung at the back of the little place on the wall. They were of several stout and rather handsome cows. These animals, he explained, where the source of the milk from which the kaymak, clotted cream, was made. They lived, he said, a most idyllic life in one of the more distant Bosphorus villages. He then showed us the kaymak, and the honey, and we ordered and then went to sit outside.

Clotted cream, honey and bread did not prove to be the most spectacular breakfast I have ever had. But it was intriguing. Who had thought of that first and why? It’s something that Bulgarian Turks eat and have probably always eaten and, don’t get me wrong, it works. But it isn’t an obvious combination of ingredients and we all thought that it had probably evolved in line with what just happened to be available to the people who originated it. That said, it was delicious. Telephone number calorie count and off the scale fat content aside, I could have shoved more than one portion into my mouth and indeed I did consider doing that. The only thing that stopped me was a memory of a clotted cream over-indulgent ‘incident’ I had once had as a child and which not even I would ever want to repeat.

I’m glad that I had the Bulgarian Breakfast and that, because I didn’t go mad with quantities, I will always have a good memory of it. Sadly this one outlet for kaymak, honey and bread will soon be gone and the lovely, stout cows out in the village will be redundant.

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