Plums, people and how not to lose our connection with nature

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 Ben Leyshon

The central area of Bulgaria has a rich cultural and natural heritage – here, these aspects are woven inextricably together throughout history and right up to the present day.

The connection of the people to their land can be seen in every aspect of daily life; in the food and drink, the crafts, festivals and traditions. Perhaps the most striking example of this close connection is through the Festival of Plums and Rakia in Troyan or the Pumpkin Festival in Sevlievo. These events celebrate, with imaginative exuberance, how the humble plum or pumpkin can be transformed into song, dance as well as an extraordinary array of foods, drinks and crafts. The Festival of Plums and Raki showcases culinary delights and crafts and many other aspects related to, or made from, plums. Similarly, the Pumpkin Festival is an exaltation of all things pumpkin – from giant pumpkin competitions to recipes (including scooping out the pumpkin and using it as a pot for baking savoury or sweet fillings) and for a range of pumpkin crafts.

Umbrellas in trees at the Festival of Plums and Raki in Troyan Biggest pumpkin, Pumpkin Festival, Sevlievo

Perhaps at the other extreme is the way that people forage – an elderly man hitting a walnut tree with a long stick to collect the fallen nuts, or a young girl walking down the street eating plums that she has collected on her walk home from school.

We met the ‘honey lady’ who let us taste the honey she had made that year; each sample different from the last, reflecting the seasonal feeding preferences of bees on the local herbs and flowers of the Devetaki Plateau. Each honey sample having different medicinal or culinary properties well known to the local people.

The ‘Honey Lady’, Bilkarkata Guest House

Herbs growing in abundance on the limestone plateau are collected to make tea to help digest meals and roses are gathered from the Stryama and Tundzha valleys (whilst still covered in dew) to make rose water for traditional dishes or perfumes.

Rakia, Bilkarskata Guest House Herb shop, Gorsko Slivovo

Rakia is offered regularly as a gift of friendship and it too reflects the local geography – plum, grape and apricot – often infused with local herbs to make each bottle unique. These foods, thoughtfully collected and put together create a long held traditional cuisine that is both delicious and linked to the local farms and gardens close by. Everyone seems to have a garden or allotment next to their home; full of peppers, tomatoes, dock, spinach, beans, and sorrel. The flavours seem so much richer because of this, compared to the foods that have been transported many miles from where they were harvested.

Food in the local market, Troyan Bulgarian salad, Troyan

The connection between people and nature is also seen in many other ways such as the wood piles outside houses, the carvings of wildlife on rocks and the traditions and folklore.

Bear calved on a rock in the Central Balkan National Park Martenitsi, Bilkarskata Guest House

We saw ‘Martenitsi’ still hanging in trees – small pieces of white and red cloth, often in the form of two dolls, a male and a female, left or worn from 1st March until the first stork, swallow, or blossoming tree appears to mark the arrival of spring.

The connection that people in rural Bulgaria have with their environment contrasts with the disconnect that many people in Scotland have with our environment. Perhaps in Scotland, with greater affluence, we have lost or weakened our links with nature? With that comes a loss of our appreciation of the land and how it enriches us and that in turn diminishes our desire to protect what we have which further impacts on our environment, and so on. David Attenborough said: No one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they have never experienced”. We need to reconnect!

In Scotland there is recognition of this. Our challenge is to continue to develop initiatives that connect people and nature, and there are already many examples. Scottish Natural Heritage’s slogan is just that: “Connecting People and Nature in Scotland”. Work is being done to build the links through green infrastructure, increasing access and enjoyment of the countryside, forest schools, green gyms and ‘Scotland’s Natural Larder’. All of these initiatives help, but they are often focussed on specific groups or locations. The ‘Living Landscapes’ work by the Wildlife Trusts aims to do this on a scale that works for individuals as well as societies and the environment as a whole. Everybody should be aware of and be able to enjoy their local green spaces and natural areas, whether they are wild or close to where we live. Everyone should be able to get earth on their hands from allotments or pick fruit from a tree in community orchard.

The challenge for the people that live in the small houses, farms, villages and towns within and around the Central Balkan National Park and on the Devetaki Plateau is to keep their connection with nature. To hang on to it whilst embarking on the journey to market and promote their diverse heritage. To enjoy it and allow others to do so as development and tourism in this fascinating country inevitably grows.

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