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Rediscovering Europe and national Cuisine

How EU integration is shaping food tastes

in Sofia and Belgrade in the 21st century

ABSTRACT

This article researches the Europeanisation of the restaurant scenes in Sofia and Belgrade, capitals of an actual EU member-state and an aspiring one. By comparing the representations of foreign cuisines in aspects such as presumed depth and breadth of customers’ knowledge, incorporation of culinary terms, use of authentic ingredients and presence of native chefs, the research establishes similarities between tastes and lifestyle aspirations in the two cities, but also differences in their realisation. This comparison outlines the structural advantages provided by EU membership with its facilitation of the movement of goods and people.

Considering the researched material within the debate over European integration endangering local identities, the article contradicts this and demonstrates how the influx of foreign cuisines creates pressures to modernize and reassert national cuisines, integrating them within their culinary region

Keywords

Europeanisation; Food history; Cultural history; Serbia; Bulgaria; European union

Scene 1

Cinecittà is an Italian restaurant in Sofia. Opened in 2012, it is run by a Bulgarian-speaking Italian. As the name suggests, it is situated near the “Cinema Centre” - the former communist state studios in the outskirts of the city where in the last 12 years over 300 international films have been produced, including Conan the Barbarian and The Black Dalia.

Its menu also has a cinematic quality and reads as if it were taken out of mouths of world-renowned chefs such as those featured in the documentary Chef's Table: “Velouté of Hokkaido pumpkin with porcini and truffles”; “Chocolate ravioli with confit de canard and foie gras with pesto made from pistachios and cream of chestnut”, “Succulent Iberico pork, cooked for 24 h at a low temperature of 63°, with caramelized shallots and pureed Borlotti beans”. Even the Italian-standard Caprese salad is given a baroque description: “Fresh mozzarella without added preservatives, produced by a small dairy farm (Gioie d’Italia) in Puglia, pink tomatoes, pesto”.

Written in Bulgarian and in Italian, Cinecittà’s menu opens with the restaurant's concept: Serving a modernised version of “classical” Italian dishes in which top-quality ingredients are minimally processed in order to highlight their natural flavours. It informs diners that staples such as olive oil, flour, cheeses and cured meats are imported from Italy. A list of organic and biodiverse Bulgarian farms is reported to deliver the rest of the ingredients.

One might think that the menu was designed to address the expectations of visiting Hollywood stars, who can, indeed, be seen around; however, the osteria mainly caters to locals. In fact, dozens of restaurants in Sofia feature similar menus, overwhelming their customers with the names of refined or exotic ingredients and references to their remote or exclusive origin, offering somewhat excessively complex and imaginative cuisine. To first-class restaurants, and increasingly so to less flamboyant ones too, the elaborateness of dishes and their descriptions have come to be seen as a standard.

Sofia's restaurant scene may still lack consistency in the quality of food and service, and the food that is served may often fail to meet the ambitious claims of the menus. Yet anyone who remembers the grey, suffocating bore communist Sofia's restaurants were two and a half decades ago, with their plain food and often malicious treatment, would be startled to see their transformation. For according to any standard, places like Cinecittà, which number just a few dozen in Sofia, speak of developed professional cooking and high customer expectations.

Scene 2

Not far from the port of Belgrade on the Danube, squeezed between a local supermarket and a print shop, surrounded by residential blocks, is Homa. If interpreted as being written in Cyrillic, the sign with the name reads Noma, the same as the famous Copenhagen venue often described as the best restaurant in the world. The pun is intended, and Homa profiles itself as a fine dining establishment.

A New York Times article described it as “a white haute-cuisine temple with soaring glass windows and a pleasant patio” (Sherwood, 2016). Indeed, the menu is imaginative. The dishes combine things like foie gras with blackberry on carob and sunflower butter, or venison fillet and black truffle carpaccio with juniper and Pinot Noir dressing served with mustard ice cream.

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