ORESHAK, Bulgaria (Reuters) - In a dimly lit cellar festooned with cobwebs, Sando and Lilyana keep enough home-made food provisions to survive whatever may befall their mountain village, be it recession or cold.
Regardless of living standards and social status, there is hardly a Bulgarian family which does not store at least a jar of home-made pickles, personal favorites with late communist dictator Todor Zhivkov and present Prime Minister Boiko Borisov.
The 7.6 million people of the Balkan country, where food bills consume 40 percent of wages, produced some 208 million jars of various provisions or an average of 100 jars per household in 2008, data by independent pollster Mediana shows.
“Nothing compares to home-made food,” said Lilyana Trencheva, 60, opening a bottle of tomato juice and a jar of gherkins for reporters to sample.
“We only buy cheese, oil, sugar, bread and Coca Cola from the shop,” said her husband Sando, 60, cracking open a dusty bottle of home-made plum rakia brandy.
Winter provisioning — known in Bulgarian as “zimnina,” derived from the word for winter “zima” — is a centuries-old tradition entwining necessity, family bonding and a national passion that reigns over culinary tastes.
The practice helped people in eastern Europe survive decades of communist austerity, years of post-communist economic crises and hyperinflation in the 1990s.
For many Bulgarians, whose average monthly wages of 300 euros ($430) and pensions of 80 euros are the lowest in the European Union, it remains a lifeline particularly as recession puts an end to 12 years of growth.
“When you slaughter two pigs, stuff a barrel with pickled cabbage, make compotes, rakia and wine, you do survive,” said Georgi Georgiev, 52, who sells vegetables at Sofia’s biggest street market.
Winter provisioning had its peak under communism, when food shortages and shopping queues were common. Bulgarians invented a special electric pepper roaster, widely used on city balconies as families teamed up to stew huge quantities of a popular pepper-tomato spread, called “lyutenitsa,” on open fires.
“Preparing provisions for the winter was of key importance for the socialist economy,” said Nikolai Vukov of the Institute of Folklore at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.
“There was no such luxury as eating fruit (during the winter) unless it was preserved.”
The industrial manufacturing of canned food flourished.
Exports of preserved foods helped Bulgaria feed the Warsaw Pact armies and it sold 800,000 tonnes annually to the Soviet bloc, Germany and England. Several generations of Russians grew up on Bulgarian canned stewed vegetables.
Nowadays, exports are only 100,000 tonnes a year and are destined mainly to Germany, Australia and the United States to meet demand from large Bulgarian and Russian immigrant communities.
Production of zimnina at home, particularly in cities, has declined in the past decade as living standards rose.
The share of home-made jams, roasted peppers and eggplants, pickles and others in the total consumption of food fell to some 15 percent last year from 39 percent in 1998.
But even those who do not make zimnina themselves buy provisions labeled home-made in shops, or get them from rural relatives. People are used to recipes without preservatives.
“It is no longer just a question of budget and money — people want to eat what they used to eat,” said Asen Chaushev, a top chef during communism, who now teaches at Bulgaria’s most prestigious restaurateur college.
In Oreshak, tucked away in the Balkan Mountain Range in central Bulgaria, pensioners Sando and Lilyana say industrial products cannot begin to match home-made food’s quality.
“It is delicious ... and we like to be well-stocked because you never know what the weather will be like next year,” said Lilyana. She and Sando have laid dozens of kilos of salted bacon and sauerkraut in kegs to be ready in time for Christmas.
Many of the jars are destined to go abroad to family members who say that nothing else tastes like home.
“My daughter takes Bulgarian seeds to Spain to grow her own tomatoes and peppers,” said Anka Kaneva, 62, from Oreshak. “She does not like the Spanish ones.”
Zimnina for many is about homesickness and nostalgia.
“It might sound funny but 47 years ago I brought lyutenitsa with me when I left for Paris. Now I still keep taking parcels of roasted peppers and lyutenitsa,” said renowned Bulgarian artist Nikola Manev who lives in France.
“They have it there too and it’s less expensive ... But when I open the jar, it smells of childhood and Bulgaria. There is nothing more precious than this. You cannot buy it with money.”
Bulgarians’ love for food and drink prepared at home is so strong it even dictates state policy.
Last month and back in the 1980s, respective governments dropped plans to raise alcohol taxes after public anger that this would threaten the centuries-old ritual of making wine and rakia, a traditional grape or other fruit brandy, at home.
To thank new Prime Minister Boiko Borisov, whose center-right cabinet took over in July, for stopping parliament from raising taxes on alcohol, villagers named their rakia “Borisovka,” playing on his name.
“No matter what the system is called, capitalism, socialism or slavery, it will not change people’s tastes,” said Iliya Kafedzhiev, head of Bulgaria’s Canning Research Institute.
Editing by Sara Ledwith