Strudelhaus Poushe â€“ Eastern European Pastry Promotes New Perspectives
On the sidewalk in front of the cafÃ©, a young woman is energetically cleaning a table. Some luckless harbingers of spring in the form of pollen had found their way to the tabletops to bask in the morning sun. Yet, as soon as Vassilena Naydenova realizes that her latest arrivals have not just come to eat a strudel, she throws down the cloth and, directing a laughing "Aah!" at us in recognition, darts into the small shop, only to reappear immediately with fresh lemonade and coffee. Inside, her mother, Ivanka, stands behind the counter deftly kneading dough and Vania, her youngest sister, adjusts something on the enormous coffee machine. We're on the early side, so I suggest that I take a few notes until they are ready for us. Vassilena calls out something in Bulgarian into the back room then straight away cheerfully starts answering all kinds of unasked questions. She will continue to do so for the next two hours, and my writing pad remains pristine throughout.
Before we're really aware of it, Vassilena conjures an intricate tapestry of words that take us on a journey some 30-odd years into the past. Something about a car, a reckless drive over bumpy roads, and recollections of her mother's then traditional garb flapping in the wind. A narrative that is laced with anecdotes about luxury, Cyprus, traditional dances imbued with too-modern elements for those days, a young mother with auburn hair. All of this is stirred together into a convoluted tale whose many side shoots branch out to our table and that is served up with fresh, hot strudels: a savory strudel with feta for the photographer and a sweet one for me. At this point, Vania joins in the conversation, and the momentum steps up even more. Until finally their mother speaks up from behind a sheet of dough she's twirling skillfully through the air: "Vassilena, please. Leave these people some room to use their own imaginations!" The middle daughter grins at her affectionately and stops talking. Vania tells us that she's a trained barista and makes us some more coffee.
All we need is a few basic ingredients and our imaginations. That's what our business is based on.
The short lull doesn't give us enough time to get a really good look at the varied selection in this outlet on the outskirts of the city. However, one thing becomes immediately clear: every single thing is homemade, from the typical Bulgarian specialties like plum strudel flavored with cinnamon and chunks of walnut, the yogurt strudel, up to a strudel with fromage blanc dusted with crunchy poppy seeds. A bright, colorful buffet stacked with oriental-like salads, eggplants, and cold lentil dishes also looks extremely inviting. "Our strudels are made according to time-honored recipes that haven't changed," Ivanka tells us. "My mother taught me how to make many of these strudels when I was a child. She made a strudel for my father every morning which he would wash down with a brandy." She nods, as if to herself, and adds: "He lived to be 87 all the same." And she continues: "A strudel is easy to prepare and makes a big impact. All we need is a few basic ingredients and our imaginations. That's what our business is based on." And Vania adds. "Sometimes we add a splash of milk, but basically the dough is made with flour, salt and water. Instead of butter we now use vegetable oil, so that we can offer strudels that contain no animal products." That was Violeta's idea, the third sister. She was also the one who suggested that it would be best if they focused solely on one product. Violeta has just come through the door; slightly out of breath, she grabs a plate and continues the discussion where we've left off, as if she'd been sitting with us at the table all along. In between a taking a bite of strudel and telling her mother how good it is, she tells us: "We use only local produce. One core product, local ingredients, those are the attributes that set us apart." She looks a bit tired. Like the others she wears no make-up, but the minute she starts talking, her face lights up.
The walls in the shop feature images of saints that were painted by Vassilena. "Our heroes", Ivanka says. St. Vassili, better known in English as St. Basil â€“ "He was the only one in Eastern Europe to question the Church, and we share his view that religion is something that should be celebrated on the inside, for oneself," Vassilena explains. Other religious figures that look down on us are: St. Helena and St. Constantine And also St. Barbara â€“ "Her father was king," Vania tells us, "but she opposed him and gave financial aid to the opposition in the name of justice. And she was only 17!" This young saint who had the courage of her convictions was chosen as the model for the Strudelhaus's insignia. Vassilena, who created the logo, says: "Somebody who tells the truth and fights for it will always symbolize art to me. And that's what I admire most in my mother. She will defend her beliefs, no matter what. Be it how she goes through life, or just how she goes about preparing eggplants. She makes them with conviction. And that's why they taste exactly the way they should."
A picture is the artistâ€™s statement, their interpretation of the world. The thoughts and ideas of a cook are mirrored in their dishes.
Not just the food and the images on the walls are made by the three women: much of the furniture has been restored by them as well. "Here, everybody contributes what she does best," Vassilena says. And Vania adds: "Our most important insight is to stop focusing on what goes wrong and then spending a lot of effort improving it. Now we concentrate on the positive aspects instead; we look at the strengths each of us has and promote them." Vania, who sounds wise enough to be the eldest and not the youngest of the sisters, is in charge of the operative management, the menu, and dealing with suppliers. Violeta takes care of the finances, Vassilena is responsible for the creative side. And Ivanka is in charge of production, "not only, but mainly â€“ and that goes for everyone and everything," Vania tells us. And Violeta adds, something that has been obvious all along and doesn't really need saying: "We're a family. We share the same values, and we have the same goals. Everything we do is based on trust, but you have to keep talking to each other so that things continue to run smoothly." This, however, is not always possible during the day, so now the four women even live under the same roof again.
We all contribute to the overall result. That strengthens our motivation.
"Living together makes it easier to communicate," Violeta adds. Vania laughs: "That does sound strange: Working together and living together. But we come as a total package." And Vassilena calls out: "We even go on holidays together!" Now, they all hoot with laughter. Then, after everybody has calmed down again, Vassilena explains: "Seriously, it seems strange to us to spend the entire working day together, solve problems jointly, and then spend our leisure time with somebody else." Ivanka disappears briefly only to come back with a bottle of Prosecco, saying: "When youâ€™re tired, Prosecco always helps." But first, the photos need to be shot. Continuing to chat in in their easy-going manner, these four women from the Strudelhaus submit to being photographed. It doesn't occur to any of them to start primping or even brush their hair. Violeta laughs and says: "Things are the way they are â€“ or as my mother puts it: If you put a donkey in front of the camera, you'll end up with a picture of a donkey. There's no point in pretending to be something else." And Vassilena says with a smile: "As I said before, to me the truth is an art of its own. And we are what we are â€“ maybe even a little bit of art.
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