We are standing outside Plovdiv's oldest food market, the Thursday market (although it is now open every day), and our tour guide Daniel can barely contain his enthusiasm – for the produce we are about to try and the powerful place such markets hold in Bulgarian culture. This particular food market was founded in the 15th century, but, he says, going back even further, there are stories of 12th-century armies arriving in Plovdiv and "all being fed in one sitting", thanks to the fullness and richness of the produce in the city's markets.
Invading armies and abundant fresh produce are two recurring themes in Bulgaria's second city – from Thracians and ancient Macedons, to Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans and Soviets, occupying forces have marched in and marched out again, dining well and leaving behind an incredibly beguiling, richly historic place more than worthy of its title as 2019's European City of Culture. It is a crossing point for Ottoman-Turkish, Austro-Hungarian, Slavic, Greek, Roman-Italian, and numerous other culinary influences, a glorious mishmash of imported cultures and flavours, all supported by the incredibly fertile soils in the surrounding hills.
Inside the Thursday market, you can immediately see why the soldiers were so well-fed: black crates spill over with scarlet cherries, perfect apples, apricots, plums and pears; other stalls specialise in berries – gleaming piles of blackcurrants, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries – like nothing I've seen in supermarkets in London. And then there are the vegetables: vibrant scarlet tomatoes the size of a child's head, organic, pleasingly curly cucumbers, white and black aubergines, beautiful green peppers, and buoyant bundles of herbs, mostly dill, mint and parsley. Finally, there are jams made from the berries, local cheeses, honeys and rose oil, the "gold of Bulgaria".
It all looks, smells and tastes impeccable, but also humble and normal – a world away from the fancy, overpriced farmers' markets you find in many western cities. Just beautiful, local fresh fruit and vegetables, most of it drawn from the Rodopi mountains nearby. Outside the market, on unofficial stalls that amount to little more than upturned cardboard boxes, people sell garlic, herbs and okra grown on smallholdings or allotments. The city has long been this way, but it is newly embracing its role as the "bread basket of Bulgaria" and, in 2018, the Slow Food Plovdiv movement was founded, with the aim of supporting the work of artisan food producers, and trumpeting traditional dishes and specialist local products such as cheeses, breads, yogurts and preserves.
Elsewhere on the three-hour food walking tour – organised by Bulgarian Food and Culture Tours – we are introduced to many of these specialities. Foremost, perhaps, is the yoghurt – of vital importance to the Plovdiv diet, not least because the local variant is unique: there is a specific bacteria that thrives in the atmospheric conditions in the hills around the city, which has been credited with being nothing less than an elixir of long life. At the turn of the 20th century, we are told, there were more people per capita living to the age of 100 in the Rodopi Mountains than anywhere else in the world – thanks to the local yoghurt and its healthy bacteria. It has a deeper and stronger flavour than bog-standard supermarket yoghurt (it's rich, thick and sour) and on a hot day in July, after two hours walking, it is certainly restorative.
We are taken to try banichka – the snacky savoury pastry livened with a white, brined cow cheese, sirene; sold in street-side stalls across the city, and usually eaten with ayran. It is chewy and browned on the outside, and pleasingly soft and flaky inside, similar to Turkish borek, and probably originates in the Ottoman Empire, something Daniel is quick to point out – the city’s multicultural history is understood to be central to its appeal.
We then taste local tea blends from a tiny specialist tea house, including a refreshing, clean and crisp herbal combination, mursala tea, made with mint, linden, nettle, camomile and the local herb mursala, "the Bulgarian ginseng", grown in the Rodopi Mountains – according to legend, on the spot where the tears of Orpheus fell, when he was looking for Eurydice.
With all this rich history and fresh produce to draw on, the city's restaurants are thriving – at their best, balancing the need to push the boundaries a little, and show some modern flourishes, while still proudly showcasing local dishes that are little known outside Bulgaria. At trendy Smokini, for example, a traditional fluffy milk polenta dish is subtly flavoured with smoked cheese, and served with baked beef tongue – a rich and hearty starter – while another ubiquitous local dish, grilled trout fillet, is much more refined, served with asparagus, a rich tomato salsa, and Jerusalem artichoke puree.
What is immediately striking about all the menus, compared to other parts of Europe, is that each one begins, before the appetisers, with a hefty section devoted to salads. And in the case of the city's standout restaurant Pavaj, we are not talking about limp lettuce leaves, or even just Bulgaria's famous shopska salad, as great as that is – it usually comprises tomatoes, cucumbers, parsley, green peppers and sirene. No, Pavaj's salads are full of eye-popping ingredients, such as duck jerky, quail's eggs, fried capers, caramelised walnuts and pickled courgette, as well as copious herbs and cheeses, and in almost every case, rich, flavourful pink tomatoes.
Having seen the produce in the Thursday market, it's clear why salads are such a star of the show in Plovdiv – but nothing can quite prepare you for the moment they are served: they are huge, colourful bountiful bowls; not a side-dish, but a triumph of freshness. After finishing one of the restaurant's magnificent salads, and a bowl of another local speciality, tarator – a cold yoghurt soup with dill, garlic, cucumber and walnuts, with some wonderful bread rolls, home-baked in butter – our main courses suddenly seem like a reckless overindulgence. But we proceed, and the meatballs are worth it – especially as they are served with another local favourite, lyutenitsa, a sweet, roasted red pepper relish, usually made at the end of the summer, with tomatoes, garlic, sugar and miscellaneous leftover vegetables.
Beyond its food markets and its dining rooms – or indeed its outdoor tables, positioned prettily if precariously on medieval cobblestones – Plovdiv is a relaxed, easy- to-navigate place, perfect for a city-break. The tourist infrastructure has clearly seen significant investment in recent years, as the European Capital of Culture year approached, and numerous new restaurants, cafes and arts and craft shops have appeared in the increasingly trendy Kapana district. And yet, for all that the city seems more than ready for a tourist influx, it was almost eerily quiet at times. On no fewer than three occasions, my friend and I found ourselves the only visitors to one of the city’s central historic museums – in the middle of the day, in the middle of July.
Upon arriving at a museum exhibiting the greatest works of the sublime local 20th century painter Tsanko Lavrenov, an attendant had to scurry out from a back office to take our £2 (Dh9.5) admission fee, and then find the keys to open the gallery for us, and turn on the lights. As we left, I asked if it was possible to buy prints of Lavrenov’s work anywhere – dynamic, eye-popping and affectionate portraits of a city and its people, positively humming with colour, like the city itself – and she said no, sorry. Plovdiv boasts an embarrassment of riches, both on and off the plate.