On the fourteenth of February each year in Bulgaria we celebrate a saint’s day. Our saint is called St Trifon Zarezan and he is the patron saint of vineyards. I doubt that he’s the saint that you were expecting, unless you’re from the Balkans.
According to Bulgarian legend and my dear friend who spends his days sitting in the bus shelter in the village square with a plastic bottle of grape-based refreshment, and who I always refer to as Alcoholic X to protect his good name, St Trifon was a common vine-grower. Apparently one day he went out to his vineyard to prune his vines and there he met the Virgin Mary and joked with her that she had an illegitimate child. She was a bit put out by this, as any half decent virgin would be, and decided to punish him, so she went to see his wife and told her that Trifon had cut his nose. In a huge panic, Mrs Trifon rushed towards the vineyard to help her husband but soon saw that he was fine. When she told him what had happened he said that it was impossible and he started to laugh, but while waving his hands around in his state of hilarity he really did cut his nose with his pruning knife. It was from this accident that he got his nickname ‘Zarezan’ which means ‘truncated’. My friend, Alcoholic X, must have broken his nose at least half a dozen times down the years as it is spread all over his face and similar in appearance to 200g of coarse liver pâté on a stale slice of toast. I often wonder if his love for strong drink, laughter and facial disfigurement and the fact that virgins stay well away from him could mean that he is a direct descendant of Trifon.
The real St Trifon died as a martyr during the Roman persecution of the Christians but people didn’t want to associate his name with sadness and pain, so they crowned him with the halo of wine making and rejoicing.
As a consequence of this folklore tale, the day of St Trifon Zarezan is seen as the cusp between the end of winter and the arrival of spring. It is considered to be the first day of the year on which it is safe to prune vines so, traditionally, Bulgarian village men wander off to the vineyards to perform this task while women stay at home to prepare food for a feast. At the end of a hard day’s pruning everyone gets together to eat the fine food, drink wine, sing songs and dance to celebrate Trifon’s life and the winter’s passing. The villager who has had the best harvest of grapes in the preceding year is appointed ‘King of the Harvest’ and a crown made from chopped off grapevine twigs is placed on his head as everyone gives him loads and loads of wine in the hope that they will be blessed for their generosity. It is thought that the more wine that is poured on this day, the more plentiful the next harvest will be. The fifteenth of February, incidentally, is the day of St Analgesia, on which we celebrate the life of the patron saint of headaches and vomiting.
Well that’s the tradition and it still goes on in many places in rural Bulgaria, but where I live in the village of Malki Chiflik we are only four kilometres from a small city so, being a bit more suburban than rural, most people here mark the occasion simply by going out to work during the day and sitting with their feet up in front of the telly to relax in the evening. They do, however, keep up the custom of having a glass of locally produced wine or rakia, and maybe even a packet of salt ‘n’ vinegar flavour crisps, the vinegar on which tends to be the undrinkable wine shipped in from a rival village nearby, according to legend.
Our neatly trimmed grapevines. As they have been trimmed so brutally there is very little to see so I included our house and a cat in the photograph to make it worthwhile.
This year we had a lot of snow on the fourteenth of February, which wasn’t unusual but just a bit inconvenient. Bulgarian friends told me that despite the sub-zero temperatures and the blizzard conditions and the risk of frostbitten fingers, it would still be perfectly fine to go outside to prune my vines. However, my non Bulgarian body told me that it would be far better to stay in the house with the monster heating machine turned up to hot and a good book clutched in my warm and totally intact fingers whilst working my little djezve (coffee pan) to within 2.54 centimetres of its life. I’m sure that under the circumstances Trifon would have done exactly the same.
It's interesting to note at this point that the Bulgarian friends who told me to brave the elements and venture outside to tend to my tendril bearing babies, all live in apartments with no gardens and no grapevines. Bulgarian people are extremely good at giving advice.
So today, ten days later than Bulgarian folklore dictates, I went outside in the warm February sunshine, brandishing my secateurs. I thought what a pity it had been that Trifon had only a knife to do his pruning with. If there had been a modern DIY shop or garden centre near to his village back in the days of the Roman persecution of the Christians, he would have had less dangerous equipment to work with and probably wouldn’t have cut his nose. But then I had to consider that without his accident he probably wouldn’t have been given the sainthood and we wouldn’t have had this wonderful day to celebrate. We could, I suppose, have instead had a day to celebrate the end of the Roman persecution of the Christians and the introduction in horticultural circles of German manufactured, weather resistant secateurs but that’s a lot of words to describe a saint’s day.
Within ten minutes of starting to chop off the unwanted bits of vine I was wishing that I had done it on the original day earlier in the month because as I was looking up to see what I was doing the bright sun was going in my eyes and blinding me, the first irritating little insects of the spring were irritating me in that flappy buzzy bitey manner that they all have and I was a bit too warm with all my winter gardening clothes on. Meanwhile, my Bulgarian friends in their apartments were wishing they had gardens with grapevines to truncate in a celebratory way.
I haven’t owned a television for many years so, in the absence of Crossroads, Ready Steady Go! and Skippy the Bush Kangaroo to watch, I resort to YouTube for my entertainment. I love all those handy little video clips they have on there and would go as far as to say that YouTube is my favourite television programme. So while people like Ant & Dec are brainwashing the masses into believing that they should embrace Western consumerism with absolute obedience and humility, they can’t catch me because I am spending my time absorbing video based tutoring in more worthwhile aspects of society such as how to service a 1960s East German manufactured pop-up toaster, how to unblock the anal gland of a small dog (I was wearing masks long before this Coviddy thing kicked off), how to insulate your roof space with leftover spinach and quinoa salad (of which I can imagine there is a lot in the world) and how to prune grapevines.
In all of these educational gems I learned that the trick is to work with confidence and brutality, but especially so with the vine cropping. It is important that the cuts are made in the correct places on the plant and definitely not on your own fingers and, with this in mind, I regret not having watched the YouTube video about do-it-yourself wound management. To cut a long story short, once the stitches had been removed, I cut back the canes to leave only the trunk and the cordons (technical stuff this, eh?) just as I imagined Trifon would have done following his own injury. I did exactly the same last year and we had a bumper harvest of juicy red grapes late in the summer. Quite honestly I was amazed that I wasn’t appointed ‘King of the Harvest’.
Some of last year’s crop.
And I did exactly the same with our fig tree last year but without any guidance from an online video. Although the tree looked much tidier when I had finished and the risk of it being blown over in a storm and crashing through our roof was greatly reduced, it seems that there are different rules for grapes and figs. In my ignorance I may have been over-brutal with the lopping and we didn’t have a bumper harvest of figs late in the summer, much to the annoyance of Priyatelka who loves to preserve them and cook with them. To cut a long story short, once the stitches had been removed, I went to our local Billa supermarket and cleared their shelves of fig jam, just as I imagined Trifon would have done following his own injury.
Another strange thing about figs is that each year they seem to grow in two batches. So the tree that we had deemed to be barren actually produced fruit late in the autumn. Unfortunately, the second wave (or in our case, the first wave) failed to ripen and following the season’s first frost the small pebble-like figs fell from the boughs to litter the path beneath. We couldn’t be bothered sweeping them up so instead we acquired some small cats from the street who took all of the small fruits into our house to play with. Now we find that if we ever fancy a fig or two all we have to do is look under the fridge or down the back of the settee to satiate our hunger. And those hidden fruits are no longer hard because the cats kicked them about and chewed them so much before losing them or losing interest in them.
We live in hope of another bountiful summer as last year, as a consequence of my secateurs-based regime of terror, we had our best yield ever. We no longer imbibe alcoholic beverages as we don’t want to become Alcoholic Y and Alcoholic Z spending our days sitting in the bus shelter in the village square with plastic bottles of grape-based refreshment, which means that there was little point using our harvest to produce homemade grape-based refreshments known locally as wine and rakia. Nevertheless, they weren’t wasted as we spent many a happy hour sitting on our terrace in the sun, squeezing and straining (the grapes, that is) to produce around twelve litres of juice which we froze for winter consumption rather than subjecting it to any of that fermenting and / or distilling monkey business. In the glass it looks like a full red wine but really it’s much more refreshing and tasty, and it’s easy to stop drinking it after just one or two glasses rather than after one or two litres as we used to do with the wine. Nowadays, when we wake up in the mornings we leap out of the bed with such energy and enthusiasm that we can’t imagine how we used to find the time to waste making promises about never touching another drop of alcohol again as long as we live and this time we really mean it and looking for a bucket.
Grape juice or a box of chocolates in the shape of a heart. Which would you prefer?
With or without the alcohol, grapes are a great thing to have around both at the growing stage and the consuming stage. Trifon has a lot to answer for and makes our fourteenths of February a bit special, much more so than in the bit of the developed world where I used to live where the saint of the day was a bloke called Valentine, rumoured to have been named after romantic Irish crooner Val Doonican. The tradition there seems to be that anybody who loves somebody in a carnal or semi-carnal sort of way sends the person that they love a bunch of freshly killed flowers or a box of chocolates in the shape of a heart and a greetings card on which a machine in a factory has printed a declaration of undying love, each of these items costing five times the price of what they would have done on the thirteenth or fifteenth of February. On this day there is so much more to the Eastern European tradition than there is to that in the West, so it’s important to remember that St Trifon Zarezan isn’t just for the fourteenth of February.