If I asked you to name your favourite sport, there is a good chance that your answer won’t be weightlifting. The statistics certainly don’t think so. Weightlifting is ranked an undistinguished 36 in a list of the 100 most popular sports. Even when the list is narrowed down to the 39 Summer Olympic sports, the barbells grunt upwards to a middling 24.
If I asked the same question in Bulgaria, I am likely to get a more enthusiastic answer. Weightlifting is a stronghold of Bulgarian sport, the nation’s trophy cases stuffed with loot snatched and jerked by its league of strongmen. But the greatest of them, both in talent and controversy, was Naim Süleymanoğlu. An ethnic Turk born in Bulgaria, he showed mythical talent at an early age. The medals soon began to arrive. In 1986, he defected to Turkey. Both countries battled to have him wear their flags at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Turkey ultimately securing him for a payment of over a million dollars to Bulgaria. Süleymanoğlu proved a worthy return on investment, winning the first of his many Olympic golds.
Another Turkish-Bulgarian metaphorical battle is fought on more delicate ground – phyllo pastry. Both countries have their own takes on phyllo dough stuffed with crumbled cheese. Throw in adaptations from other countries in the region, and you have a Balkan war of a different kind. In the Bulgarian corner is banitsa, the phyllo stuffed with a concoction of eggs, sirene cheese and yoghurt.
The Bulgarian Food Shop was just a click online. The brick-and-mortar version was 35 clicks away from home, in Tottenham. We took the longer route to the shop. After an hour’s drive through all manner of North London neighbourhoods, we ended up in a desolate industrial area. The shop was on a side road. The Bulgarian couple running the place looked somewhat taken aback when I enquired what kind of cheese and yoghurt were best for banitsa. I assumed we were a change from their usual brand of customer, Bulgarians working or living nearby. Once we’d got the cheese, yoghurt and the phyllo pastry sheet, we browsed more leisurely and our hands inevitably strayed. Walnut biscuits, sunflower seeds and a pizza flavoured fried snack were spontaneous additions to the grocery list. It was time to leave.
The shop was on the edge of the Lea River canal. We walked along the river by the canal boats moored along the sides, and stopped to watch a boat or two navigate through the lock. I was surprised by the substantial number of boats in this short, narrow stretch of water, all parallel-parked bow to stern on both sides of the canal. It reminded me of an article I had read some time ago that soaring house prices in London had led to a surge in canal boats as an affordable city-living option. A cup of coffee at a riverside café, then we headed back.
I whisked 350g of crumbled cheese into 5 eggs, a cup of yoghurt, half a cup of sunflower oil and a glug of water. Then, the phyllo sheets were laid out on the kitchen counter, having already defrosted at room temperature for about 2 hours. I splattered a few spoonfuls of the cheese mix on the top sheet, leaving some uncovered areas. Then, I rolled up the sheet and fitted it to line up with a circular, 9-inch greased cake pan. I repeated this exercise on a loop, until the cake pan was filled with a spiral layer of rolled sheets. A light brushing of oil on the top, about 45 minutes in a medium oven followed by a 15-minute cooldown, and the banitsa was ready to eat.
The crunch of the phyllo quickly dissipated and made way for a softer chew of the cooked cheese mixture. I had seen some recipes for banitsa saying that feta can be used interchangeably with sirene, but I’m not sure I agree. Sirene is much denser, saltier and generally a more complex cheese, and the bedrock of the banitsa. The dish can be quite filling though, and after an ill-advised third helping, my initial joy turned to mild regret. The Bulgarians don’t appear too fazed, and serve banitsa for breakfast. Nyama nachin!