One thing that struck me as we toured through central Bulgaria on the study tour was the use of wild plants for flavourings and for tonics in drinks.
Culinary uses of plants are very popular, in salads and stews, for example, and herbal medicines have a strong tradition. The use of herbs as tonics and flavourings in drinks may fall between these two disciplines, or a link between the culinary and medicinal.
The first instance that we came across this was in the museum in Troyan, where we were informed of the monks of Troyan Monastery who produced a rakia in which were steeped a number of herbs. This secret recipe has passed down the generations and these herbal tonics part of a monkish tradition spanning not just centuries but geographically across Europe, where the herbalists in monasteries made tonic wines and spirits. One may presume that the alcohol was a good preservative of the essential oils of the plants.
Enquiries by museum staff to try to discover this secret recipe were given a boost when the monk in charge of Troyan Monastery a few years ago declared that the recipe wasn’t a secret and produced a list of herbal ingredients that were infused in the rakia to make this wondrous tonic.
The list runs to 45 species of wild plant. It also covers a wide range of different types of plant, from tall trees like Scot’s Pine Pinus sylvestris, through bushes like Dog Rose Rosa canina, to small delicate flowers like Sweet Violet Viola odorata.
The plants also cover the seasons from early blooming woodland plants, to plants of open grassland that flower in summer. And these plants will be found in a range of different types of habitat scattered about the locality.
This gives an idea of how connected folk were in the past with where plants grew, when they flowered, when they set seed, and what beneficial properties they reputedly had in days before mass-produced pharmaceuticals were available.
Fewer people have this knowledge nowadays, but some still do, as was evident in the hospitality of our hosts. On sitting in to the table at the EcoArt pottery workshop in Drashkova Polyana, we were offered a large pot of tea, with all manner of vegetation floating in it. Bramble leaves, linden blossom, mint, rosehips, and one curious one that turned out to be Ironwort Siderites sp, or Mountain Tea as it is known across the border in Greece.
Very refreshing and uplifting, many of these plants make an appearance in other herbal concoctions. At the Herbal House where we stayed in Gorsko Slivovo we were again greeted with a large pot of freshly brewed herbs, that once again included mint, linden, bramble, but also other local plants from the limestone plateau, not so available in the more wooded foothills of the Stara Planina.
At dinner we were invited to try the local rakia, which had herbs infusing in it, reminding me of the Troyan monks. This local batch was a traditional recipe consisting of only two plant species. So, after a few rakias and consulting a Bulgarian plant atlas we identified them as Roman Wormwood Artemisia pontica (also known as ‘little absinthe’) and Lemon Balm Melissa officinalis.
Traditional herbal lore points to them having benefits of aiding digestion, and soothing stomach and spleen in the case of Artemisia, and Melissa being anti-inflammatory and anti-septic, aiding the blood and brain.
On a trip next day to a limestone hill near Kramolin, A. pontica was spotted at the top of a cliff, growing locally to where the rakia was made by farmers.
With only two species of plant in the locally produced rakia being recognised for their tonic properties, one can only wonder at the effect of the monkish brew from Troyan. The local brew ingredients were widely known by the folk who lived in the villages and knew how to use them, but the head monk at Troyan was, I believe, astute enough to disclose his recipe, but retain the secret of the tonic. Given the range of plants it would be almost impossible to replicate the taste or whatever tonic effect of that rakia – is it the leaves of this, the blossom of that, the berries of another? Root or bark? The relative proportions of each? I think the monk’s secret recipe is still safe.