After the collapse of Communism, Mariya’s family received a small plot of land called a niva near their home. They grew everything, raising turkeys, pigs, goats, and making their own cheese. They learned how to farm from the older generation that was alive before Communism.
Mariya remembers having to purchase very little, relying instead on the small farm. Now you can still see the planting rows, a picket fence, and a small shed used for drying alfalfa. She hopes to one day replant the niva.
A small skeletal shack used for drying alfalfa sits across the gully from where Mariya grew up, empty for nearly twenty years.
Mariya’s Mom, Panka, still lives in her childhood home along with two dogs and several cats. The oldest part of the house is around 100 years old, with additions and renovations expanding it throughout the twentieth century. Panka has a small garden with vegetables, flowers, and grapes. One day Mariya wants to move from Sofia back to the village and expand the garden, growing more fruit and vegetables like when she was a child.
Mariya and her parents on her birthday as a child during Communism. Mariya remembers how her mother would invent special treats for celebrations because the access to purchased goods was so limited. The cakes came from the village store and were the same every year. She preferred her mother’s cookies.
Panka had only a few different cookbooks during Communism and most dealt with foraging, canning, and self-sufficiency. It was more common that the knowledge of how to cook was passed orally from person to person, with only the implicit knowledge learned from time and experience. Neighbors would collaborate, trading recipes they thought were particularly tasty.
Communism brought the destruction of centuries old smallholder farming. Mechanized agriculture emphasized quantity over quality and many heritage vegetables disappeared. In 1989 the infrastructure to support large farm collectives evaporated, breaking up plots of land into tiny pieces split between the grand children of the original owners. In Popintsi, a collective greenhouse sits shattered and empty.
Velko has been growing grapes for decades in a small plot of land on the hillside above Popintsi. He has a wide range of grapes, ranging from imported Merlot to ancient Bulgarian varietals like Pamid.
Velko does not drink, but enjoys the tradition of making wine and rakia, a grappa like liquor. On Saint Tryphon’s Day, February 14, he pours a bottle of last year’s wine into the soil to bring luck to the harvest before pruning the vines.
Much of the land around Popintsi has gone fallow with neglect. As more people move from the village to the city there are less to work the old family nivas.
Many villages in Bulgaria have their own communal distillery. The leftovers from the winemaking process are brought to a shared facility where rakia brandy is made. Rakia can be made from any fruit. Plum, apricot, and quince liquors are also relatively common. Popintsi’s distillery sits beneath the town’s cemetery.
Doicho has lived in Popintsi his whole life and used to teach people how to drive tractors. He reminisces about the ranches that used to be seen outside the village. Now there are only ruins shaded by patches of trees
Doicho gazes west over a ravine near Popintsi and points out where the collectives used to grow grapes and what farmers now grow wheat.
A house on the edge of Popintsi sits in ruins. The plot has likely not been occupied since during Communism. Now it is common to see empty houses, inherited by children no longer living in the village.
A dance troop rehearses in what was once the village’s restaurant during Communism. A large group of local youth learns traditions from the village elders, performing in festivals and on holidays.
Tutmanik is a regional pastry that is made during special holidays. It is effectively a pastry with a pastry, with dough and cheese folded in upon itself in many layers not unlike a matryoshka doll.
Members of Popintsi’s dance troop learn to make tutmanik on Saint Tryphon’s Day. It is uncommon to see tutmanik in stores because the process is labor intensive, relying upon those knowledgeable to pass down the recipe.
The Popintsi dance troop performs the horo before descending to the village square for the Sirnitsa celebrations in preparation for Lenten fasting. The village will nearly double in size, with people traveling from cities to visit aging relatives and participate in the festivities.
A kuker stands ready to begin the festivities of Sirnitsa, the first day of Lent. He guards a jumal, a puppet animal raucously operated by two people inside.
Kukeri mummers perform simulated sword fights in Popintsi for Sirnitsa. One person inevitably is vanquished and falls dramatically on the ground, followed by the victor somersaulting over them. The kukeri dress as bears to chase away evil spirits.
A Kuker takes the opportunity to lift his mask for fresh air while leading a donkey during Sirnitsa celebrations.
In Poptinsi, people finish the Saint Tryphon’s Day celebration by eating the tutmanik prepared earlier in the day, drinking wine, and dancing the horo. The celebration was not intended for tourists, but rather to teach the village’s young people old traditions that are still enjoyed, preserving for the sake of pleasure.