Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Patatnik in the Rhodopes

Along the vast green undulations of the Rhodope Mountains, shepherds rely on fearsome Karakachan dogs to guard their flocks against wolves, and farmers use oxen to plow the fields. Rural life here is simple, satisfying, and healthy, and the cuisine reflects this lifestyle, with a series of delicious, wholesome dishes such as patatnik, a golden-crusted potato pie.

Straddling Greece and Bulgaria, the thickly forested Rhodopes spread over more than 4,000 square miles (10,000 km²), and they are dotted with picturesque villages where life has changed little for centuries. Home to an abundance of wildlife, the mountains are renowned for their stunning limestone gorges, deep caverns, and pristine lakes. Hikers can follow a wealth of well-marked trails linked by simple mountain huts, and skiers fill the snow-covered slopes at Pamporovo, one of Bulgaria’s premier ski resorts. A good base for touring is Smolyan, a town near Pamporovo that’s also close to the Smolyan Lakes and the towering Orpheus Rocks. The legendary Orpheus is said to have been born in the Rhodopes, later entering the underworld to search for his wife at the breathtaking gorge of “The Devil’s Throat” near Trigrad. In Zlatograd, a bit farther south, there’s a chance to see – and stay in – perfectly preserved traditional houses and workshops, now protected as part of an ethnographic complex.

The region has been populated for millennia, but it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that potatoes were introduced here. Initially rejected as “devil’s apples” by superstitious elders, potatoes eventually proved successful as they thrived at high altitude in the rich Rhodopean soil. Canny villagers were quick to recognize their potential and, having boiled, baked, roasted, and fried the hardy new vegetable, began to experiment with a potato version of banitsa, a traditional Bulgarian pastry. This ultimately evolved into patatnik, a subtle blend of grated potato, white cheese, egg, onion, and mint cooked slowly in a pan over a wood stove.

During the economic upheaval that followed the collapse of Socialism in the 1990s, the then prime minister Ivan Kostov famously exhorted Rhodopeans to profit from their potato expertise and “Make patatnik!” Locals took heed and started to promote the dish as a culinary tourist attraction to be eaten in cozy traditional pubs (mehanas). Today patatnik is firmly established as the region’s classic dish, and every mehana serves its own version – some add tomatoes and red pepper, while others bake it in an oven rather than cook it on a stove, but all use a few crushed mint leaves to enhance the distinctive patatnik flavor. The hour-plus cooking time isn’t really a problem, because it’s easily spent beside a crackling log fire in a hospitable mehana, sampling some freshly baked bread and nursing a fine glass of rakia, a spirit distilled from mountain plums.
Three Days in the Rhodope Mountains
The best way to experience the Rhodopes is to spend weeks walking through them, but if time is short, you can easily experience the highlights on a driving tour.
 Though blighted by some unappealing Socialist-era buildings, Smolyan’s mountainous setting is still wondrously dramatic. Visit the Historical Museum, then head for the tiny nearby village of Momchilovtsi, high in the mountains. 
Visit Zlatograd, a small ex-mining town 35 miles (55 km) southeast of Smolyan. This has a wonderful Museum Quarter where you can watch artisans at work, sip coffee in a 19th-century café, sample Rhodopean delights in a traditional mehana, and even stay – it offers atmospheric accommodations in period mansions.
 Travel northwest past the well-developed ski resort of Pamporovo to Shiroka Luka, a delightful village of old stone houses tucked away in the mountains. Lunch at the excellent Pri Slavchev mehana before continuing west to the spectacular Trigrad Gorge, where you can visit the Devil’s Throat cavern.
Fly to Sofia Airport, from which it’s a five-hour bus journey to Smolyan.
Trite Eli (inexpensive) in Smolyan has spotless rooms and hiking information. +359 3018 1028 Pachilovska Kushta (moderate) in the Museum Quarter at Zlatograd is bursting with period charm. Arena di Serdica (expensive) in Sofia offers five-star comforts.
 Smolyan: Mladeshki Dom; Zlatograd:
 What Else to Eat
 The scrumptious banitsa (pastry) known as klin is a Rhodopean staple that’s cooked slowly on both sides, in much the same way as patatnik. The filling is made from rice, eggs, white cheese, and butter, and flavored with nettles or spinach. It’s delicious served hot with a dollop of yogurt. Another favorite, bob chorba, is a thick, hearty soup that is popular throughout Bulgaria. It contains beans, peppers, tomatoes, celery, and carrots, flavored with mint or parsley. Traditionally prepared in a large earthenware pot, the Rhodopean version is made with white beans from Smolyan. For dessert, try marudnik, a kind of pancake with gently cooked wild berries. Buy some strawberry honey to take home.

 Above : The cheesy onion and potato patatnik evolved from the banitsa, a Bulgarian savory filled pastry

Above : The village of Shiroka Luka has been declared an Architectural Reserve, with many authentic Rhodopean buildings dating back to the early 19th century

Above : Away from the cities, up in the mountains, many people still travel simply with a donkey and cart.

 The Best Places to Eat Patatnik
 Alexandrovi Kushti inexpensive
 Located in Zlatograd’s old Museum Quarter, Alexandrovi Kushti occupies a wonderfully restored 19th-century building with a wood-paneled interior featuring ornate carvings by local craftsmen. As you’d expect from a restaurant that has published its own cookbook of regional delights, the patatnik here is superb – cooked slowly over a stove and turned midway through, as the crust develops, according to the traditional recipe. Bulgarian cuisine is renowned for its broad variety of salads and this is also a great place to sample a classic shopska salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, and white cheese accompanied by a complimentary glass of rakia. Carnivores can choose from a staggering array of meat dishes that range from fried chicken hearts to a whole baked lamb; vegetarians are equally well catered to, with enticing options such as chushky burek (stuffed peppers) and sarmi (vine leaves filled with rice). Save room for a dessert of sticky baklava or sweet banitsa filled with Turkish delight and sit back to enjoy a live performance of Bulgarian folk music. Museum Quarter, Zlatograd; open for lunch and dinner daily; +359 3071 4166
 Also in the Rhodope Mountains
 Patatnik, klin, roast lamb, and sweet banitsa are among the specialties served up at Mehana Pri Slavchev (+359 3030 675; inexpensive). This traditional mehana is in Shiroka Luka, a pretty village of sturdy stone houses famous for its annual bagpipe festival. In Smolyan, Trite Eli (+359 301 81028; inexpensive), also known as Three Fir-Tree House, is run by a wonderfully hospitable English-speaking tour guide. This small pension has a tiny dining room where guests are served a mind-boggling array of mouthwatering Rhodopean dishes, cooked by the owner using the freshest of ingredients.
 Also in Bulgaria 
 Hidden deep within Sofia’s densely forested Borisova Garden, Veselo Selo (www.; moderate) is one of the few places that serves patatnik in Sofia. The enchanting restaurant complex resembles a country mehana – once inside, it’s easy to forget that you’re close to the heart of the capital. Around the World 
One of several Bulgarian restaurants in London, Arda 2 (+44 20 7263 5902; moderate) serves all manner of traditional dishes and, although it doesn’t specialize in Rhodopean cuisine, the chef will accept advance orders for patatnik. Live folk performances add extra flavor.

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