As well as many fantastic traditional dishes, Mitko showed us some pretty impressive, trendy restaurants too, so here's a selection:
This Bulgarian pastry was everywhere, usually stuffed with Bulgarian Feta and spinach and topped with sesame seeds. I can see why it's so popular.
The traditional salami of Bulgaria - we got the chance to try this at almost every winery we visited, and I couldn't get enough of it. Spicy, and often peppery with a sort of curried flavour, it's apparently made differently from region to region.
We found these almost everywhere we went, and they're well worth trying! Basically an almighty mound of fresh cucumber and tomatoes, plus zingy red onion, smothered in a Bulgarian version of Feta and drizzled with lovely thick olive oil. So refreshing on a warm day!
Apparently common at truck stops, we enjoyed this thin, breaded steak alongside some spicy, curry-flavoured beans, minted potatoes and salad. Super comfort food!
At almost every meal, there was a bowl of green peppers. Although I tried one (and it was lovely!) we tended to avoid these throughout the trip, as Mitko explained some of them were salty, some were sweetly spicy, and some were immensely hot, and there was no way of telling before you bit into one!
Pulneni chushki (stuffed peppers)
Stuffed with mince and rice, these peppers are another traditional dish, and they made a really hearty lunch at a Bulgarian diner in-between tastings.
Lozovi Sarmi (stuffed vine leaves)
Another traditional dish which Mitko made sure we tried, and one of my favourite foodie discoveries from the trip, these were also stuffed with minced meat and were served in a creamy sauce.
Apparently, pumpkin is a popular dessert in various forms in Bulgaria, from in pastries to pies, and after lunch one day Mitko insisted we shared a pumpkin pudding. I'm glad we did - it was gooey, flavoursome and went beautifully with the honey and sour cream they served it with.
The traditional Bulgarian spirit, which was very strong and intensely flavoured! It's the sort of thing we'd probably serve as a digestif, however it's apparently traditional to drink it at the start of the meal, and particularly with the shopska salad.
I couldn't fail to mention Happy, the Bulgarian chain of family restaurants, which is well worth a visit if you'd like to experience a Bulgarian institution. We went late one night after a long trip back to Sofia, and it really lives up to the name - even at half ten at night, it was packed, and had a really busy, friendly atmosphere. There's an absolutely enormous menu of things to try (including a dish called 'Happy Bits'!) but if you're after big portions of comfort food, you'll be Happy indeed. I can recommend the cheese-stuffed breaded chicken sticks with stilton sauce...
If you're looking for the up-and-coming in the Bulgarian restaurant scene, try these:
Arguably, Cosmos is the best restaurant in Sofia, and some might say the best in Bulgaria. This incredibly designed, contemporary, space-age venue had an impressive menu to match, and Mitko insisted we get a flavour of Bulgaria's finest food by sampling the six-course tasting menu. From trout with fennel and melted butter sauce to duck hearts with marinated cherries, it was one of the best nights of food in my life, and a big part of why I'd love to return to Sofia some day. A highlight (not on the menu) was a dessert called Bulgarian Rose, a sort of posh baked Alaska with a filling infused with one of Bulgaria's most famous exports, rose oil. This is a real show-stopper, which is brought to the table and then set on fire.
Monkey Burgers, Plovdiv
In the heart of Plovdiv's trendy dining quarter, this burger joint had only been open two weeks when we visited in October 2018. Its stylish, understated interior is matched by a fashionably short menu. We all opted for the American classic burger with onion rings and parmesan fries and, despite the immense size of them, we polished off the lot, so that's a fairly good indication of how delicious it all was. I also highly recommend ordering a G&T, as not only is a standard 'single' measure in Bulgaria a hearty 50ml (!), it's also served in the tallest glass I've ever seen.
Vino Culture, Plovdiv
If you're looking for an utterly gorgeous wine bar in Plovdiv, seek out Vino Culture. Down some steps, this tiny basement bar is very popular (there were groups of people spilling into the street and enjoying their wine outside, despite the fullness of the bar) and with good reason. The barman helped choose Freddy and I a glass of Bulgarian rosé each and clearly knew his stuff, because the grenache rosé I had was a divine end to the night.
Not only does he know all about Bulgarian wine and food, Mitko was supremely skilled at showing us brilliant spots to stay throughout Bulgaria, from the charming and comfortable to some of Bulgaria's fantastic boutique hotel finds.
Rosslyn Thracia Hotel
A fantastic central spot to stay in Sofia, right by the trendy food quarter, with incredibly comfortable rooms and great service. You can also get a great view out over the city with the mountains in the distance.
All Seasons Residence
On the flipside, this is very much not central, but it is right up in the mountains! This beautiful boutique hotel is relatively new, only opening in 2017, and is a great spot to stay if you want peace and quiet or to hike up the mountains. It's also only about a ten-minute drive from the city centre.
Ramada by Wyndham
Okay, so this isn't the most luxurious hotel (although the rooms do have remarkably high ceilings) and the rooms are along the 'okay to stay for a night' lines, but if you want to feel like you've stepped back into 1950s Hollywood glamour, it's worth a visit. The lobby and dining areas are very grand, all chandeliers, red carpets, marble and wood panelling (the corridors to the room were more like The Shining, though!) but… well, it's adjoined to a huge casino. It's right in the city centre facing a huge square and is lit up beautifully at night, though…
Zornitza Family Estate
Mitko couldn't resist taking us on a visit to look around this luxurious boutique winery spa hotel, which had only recently opened, and was honestly its own little corner of paradise!
Everywhere you look, the view of the vineyards is spectacular, and as well as a big spa hotel with a lovely restaurant, you can also stay in huge villas, where you'll wake up to a breathtaking view across the vines from the huge windows in the bedrooms. Rooms were around 230 euros per night which for Bulgaria is eyewateringly expensive but actually great value for the level of luxury you get!
They also grow their own food, including producing their own cheese, and the spa is very impressive with room after room of pampering luxury, plus, being a wine estate, the cellar is very impressive. Of course, we didn't stay here, but it's top of my list if I ever return.