December 6th is St. Nicholas Day in Bulgaria. Not the day that jolly St. Nick brings presents to little kids, but the day to celebrate stuffed fish! Specifically, carp, which legend says is what St. Nicholas stuffed into the hole of a ship to save it from sinking.
Bulgarians all over the country honor Orthodox Saint Nicholas as the patron saint of sailors, traders, and fisherman. There is a celebratory dinner centered around stuffed carp, and we’ve heard that in normal times there are festivals and even Fish Fiestas. COVID of course changed that this year, but Mike has been immersed in Bulgarian language lessons and didn’t think we should miss out on the fish stuffing. So he sauteed up a sofrito, invited over the neighbors, and packed our dinner to the gills.
The best thing about the Embassy in Sofia is that everyone seems to love living here. Bulgarian culture is enthusiastically embraced, so there was a lot of help getting the food ready. We ended up combining the traditions of St. Nicholas Day and Christmas Eve just to make sure we didn’t miss anything. The traditional dinner is meatless on both of these holidays, except the fish, and the rule is that there should be an odd number of dishes on the table. There should also be as many things as possible for good luck. Marinated vegetables, cheese, roasted peppers, walnuts, dried fruits, shopska salad, banitsa, pickles, cucumbers, yogurt, fried quince, cherry compote…. it was all really quite beautiful.
In addition to fish, an important part of the St. Nicholas and Christmas Eve dinners is the “Ritual Bread Loaf.” These loaves of bread are decorative labors of love, and are usually made at home. We were lucky to have a creative and adventurous friend who made us this particularly awesome one, filled with cheese and magnificently baked into a blooming cluster, like warm, cheesy cinnamon rolls.
He also made a loaf shaped like a sunflower. The tradition is to bake a coin inside one of the petals, and whoever gets the piece with the coin also gets a year of good luck.
We also dipped into our House Wine for the first time, which is surprisingly drinkable after a few months fermenting in the garage. The Georgian wine jug we bought years ago finally has a purpose!
And our home, with guests around the table, is finally starting to feel like Home. In true Bulgarian fashion, we lit up the fireplace from a cord of wood piled up in the garage. There is a constant layer of smog over Sofia in winter because Bulgarians burn wood to heat their homes, but despite the smog, the sound of crackling fires and the smell of burning wood is beautiful. It also makes nice fire pits that are fun to hopscotch around.
The final touch to the fish stuffing was to wrap it up in puff pastry dough and bake until flakey and golden. We were unsure about the heads and the tails, but in the end left them on because they looked kind of pretty that way.
Mike mastered Beef Wellington years ago when he made me a steak wrapped in puff pastry for Valentine’s Day, and it’s nice to see this skill transitions well to other, less fleshy animals. Fish Wellington is an excellent skill to have in the culinary toolbox.
After dinner, the Christmas Eve tradition is to leave all the food and dishes on the table, unwashed, for hungry deceased ancestors that will come for a visit during the night. That seemed super gross to me, so we washed the dishes. Our own traditions are not so distant though, and while I would not leave leftover fish on the table for dead ancestors, it seems perfectly fine to leave out a plate of milk and cookies for Santa.
This year we made gingerbread, cranberry white chocolate chip, almond roca, lemon almond crinkles, peppermint brownies, soft molasses, snowballs, peanut butter cups, almond bars, kringle, gingerbread cake, and an apple pecan cake. Like our fish, we were merrily stuffed with cookies, but at Christmastime far from family and friends, maybe that is the best way to be.