From the pen of Turlough Ó Maoláin ...

The Chronicles of Bulgaria

Power to the People

17/01/2021

I was glad the other morning when Priyatelka returned from her foray into the forest to gather winter fuel because the blizzard had become quite intense and we were in a bit of a hurry for the wood. It was round about coffee time that Bulgaria’s favourite energy suppliers decided that they were having a day off. They took away our electricity (ток, in Bulgarian, and pronounced ‘tock’) at the most crucial time of the day and, like the winter sun, it took a long time to dawn on us that its speedy return was unlikely. The answer to our power outage was obviously to fire up our wood stove (печка, in Bulgarian, and pronounced ‘petchka’). It’s a Godin you know and, just like Priyatelka, it’s a hot little model from France. But unlike her it’s round about a hundred years old with an enamel finish and an external flue. I picked it up in an antique shop in town rather than in a wine bar.

After only twenty minutes of faffing around with firelighters and burning my fingers and at least one cat and leaving the outside door open to maximise the through draught as well as our frostbite, our little copper coffee pan (джезве, in Bulgarian, and pronounced ‘djezve’) was simmering away nicely. The unavailability of morning coffee is, of course, less of a problem in the Balkans than it is in the West because here they tend not to sell digestive biscuits in the shops. Consequently, we wouldn’t have needed to fret about not having a hot cuppa in which to dunk (потапяне, in Bulgarian, and pronounced ‘potapyaneh’) them because we didn’t have any in the first place. I suspect that a team of executives at the McVitie’s factory was taking the threat of interruptions to power supplies into account when he decided that such confectionery would not be marketed any further east than Hull. We had hoped that things might change at the end of the Cold War austerity but no, still no digestives!

Our adopted home may have the best natural yoghurt, the best traditional dance and the best alphabet in the world but, as long term residents of Bulgaria, Priyatelka and I have had to become accustomed to dealing with little inconveniences such as electricity outages, heavy snowfall, summer droughts, flesh-eating ladybirds, flesh-eating tourists from Western Europe, venomous reptiles, venomous squat toilets, an economy heavily reliant on homemade rakia and what I suppose could be described as food shortages as far as Chocolate Hobnobs are concerned. We can overcome most of these problems by using either our imagination or a big pointy stick, but in a house where we rely on electricity for heating, cooking and providing hot water, our petchka is a life saver. Though I’ll never forget the day I bought it when lifting it down the twenty-five irregular stone steps from the road to our door nearly killed me and my lovely assistant.

 

The Godin … my hot little French model.

The Godin … my hot little French model. 

 

Once the gravity of the situation had sunk in, freezing to death became more of a concern than going without our elevenses but our heavy metal friend, preloaded with logs from our barn and snotty tissues and cardboard tubes from toilet rolls that we’d been saving up since the spring to use as kindling, quickly warmed our kitchen and our bones as we relished several coffees. We even heated some delicious comestibles from our freezer, which didn’t take long because the power was off and the freezer wasn’t quite as freezing as you might expect a freezer to be, even on a freezing day.

The temperature outside was only just below zero, rather than the minus ten or twenty degrees that January sometimes throws at us, so we soon got to the stage where it was uncomfortably warm in our kitchen. Due to the holes in the knees and elbows of our underwear we were able to cool ourselves with a bit of ventilation but there is no temperature setting or thermostat on a petchka so my plan to prepare a spinach and Gruyère soufflé gave way to boiled eggs. Basic, I know, but we tend not to appreciate the special little things in life until we go back to the old, rustic ways and discover that an egg boiled on an antique cast-iron petchka tastes so much nicer than an egg boiled on something black and ceramic with Samsung written on it. Maybe it was something to do with how we prepare our kindling.

The biggest problem that we had failed to cater for in our winter survival plan was doing the washing up in the absence of a mains power supply. Archaeological finds have revealed that there has been sophisticated civilization in Bulgaria since around 5000 BC, but I have to wonder how they managed until relatively recently without dishwasher machines. Surely that must have been a greater priority than inventing the wheel or making arrowheads out of gravel. Had this particular cold day turned out to be the start of a new Ice Age and we had all perished for the want of a bit of tock, then I think any socio-cultural anthropologists excavating our house centuries into the future might have concluded from the mountain of dirty pots and pans piled up in our kitchen sink that we had lived and died before 5000 BC and, of course, from the lack of stone arrowheads in our stone arrowhead drawer.

 

From a traditional Bulgarian recipe … an old, rustic boiled egg.

From a traditional Bulgarian recipe … an old, rustic boiled egg.

 

Late in the afternoon we shouted ‘hurroo!’ as the electricity supply was restored. This came at round about the time that the people employed by Bulgaria’s favourite energy supplier would have been finishing work for the day and wanting a nice warm house to go to and something better than old, rustic boiled eggs for their tea. Despite not having added wood to the stove for a couple of hours there was no sign of the warmth that it emitted subsiding, thanks to the heat-retaining principle of the fire bricks contained within. We continued to take advantage of it for the rest of the day as, unlike the noisy big electric monster heating machine (or thermal pump, for the more technically minded) hidden away in our big dark cupboard, it provided us with heating and hot water free of charge. To improve matters even more we’re going to invest in a tin bath before next winter because I can’t say that following a personal hygiene routine in the casserole dish was without its problems. There was no soap dish and I’d had no idea that a stray bay leaf could cause such discomfort.

On the whole our day turned out to be quite an enjoyable one. I was so busy keeping the fire going and bringing more logs into the house that I hardly noticed the blizzard raging outside and it never crossed my mind for even a minute that the need to build a snowman might arise. The only real annoyance was the constant bleeping of our security machine to tell us that it didn’t have an electricity supply. Priyatelka and I didn’t have an electricity supply either but we didn’t make a big noise about it … well not much. For most of the day, for half a second out of every sixty, this irritating high-pitched electronic warning thing made us wonder if a bus was reversing through our kitchen. It was absolutely ridiculous and futile as who in their right mind would want to go out burgling houses in such awful weather anyway, and probably in the dark too?

As we enjoyed the cosiness, warmth and old, rustic boiled eggs that it provided, we reminded ourselves that a petchka isn’t just for Christmas or even for a single cold, dark day in January. For starters we needed it the very next day when the power went off again, but we also use it in the spring and autumn when we don’t need to switch on our noisy big electric monster heating machine during the warmer days but things tend to get a little chilly for a couple of hours in the evening.  And we never know when we might need to boil an old, rustic egg in a hurry.

 

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