This weekend I went to Rila Monastery, a UNESCO heritage site and a place that not only tops any must-see list in the Balkans but is held dearly in the Bulgarian national consciousness. It was built by an order led by Ivan Rilski, a 10th-century hermit, and became a sanctuary for Bulgarian culture through 500 years of Ottoman rule that lasted until the late 19th century. After having lived here for two years and somehow missing every opportunity to go visit the monastery with friends, I finally decided to just get on a bus and go down myself. (I paired the visit with a narrow-gauge rail journey through the Rila and Rhodope Mountains, which made for an altogether excellent weekend.)
The monastery is beautiful, 20 kilometers from the nearest town, and well worth more time than I had to see it. I was there for only a few hours, but plentiful hiking trails around the area and the ability to stay overnight in former monks’ cells could easily keep one occupied for a whole weekend. There are a few souvenir stalls around, but the line is constant at the bakery, where you can buy fresh bread (I’m still munching on the remains of the loaf I picked up) and sheep’s milk yogurt, which I had never had before. The yogurt is really tasty – it has more of a bite than cow or goat yogurt, but it’s not overwhelming, and everyone milling around the compound had a little container of the stuff that they were nursing.
On my way back home this morning, I wandered around the market at the bus station, still thinking about sheep’s milk and waiting for inspiration to strike, and it did as I saw some home-grown lettuce and local cherries for sale alongside bunches of red onions still on the stalk that I just couldn’t pass up. I grabbed a cucumber and a couple of bunches of herbs, then ran into the shop and got some sheep’s milk cheese and honey, and came home ready to make something gorgeous.
I’ve been making a real effort lately to use more fresh mint in my kitchen – I find that throwing some in halfway through cooking gives the most incredible flavor, and the way it brightens a salad just makes the day that much better. So I made sure to add a handful to the dressing, and I am very excited about what will happen to the rest of the bunch I bought. I think I’ll start by putting it in the pan with some roasting potatoes. But today, salad. A good balance, here, between sweet cherries, an earthy, full-bodied cheese, refreshing cucumbers, and a tangy, herby dressing. This would be nice, too, with some toasted walnuts.
Green Salad with Sheep’s Cheese and Cherries
For each serving, rip up a few leaves of lettuce into bite-sized pieces and put on a plate. Top with a few shavings of fresh sheep’s milk cheese, 4 or 5 halved pitted cherries, some very thinly sliced red onion, and cucumber. (You can either seed and chop the cucumber, or you can make little noodles out of it: make ribbons with a vegetable peeler, stopping when you get to the seed bed, then stack the ribbons and slice them lengthwise into very thin strips.) Top with a few spoonfuls of:
Minted Honey Vinaigrette
In a small jar combine about 1/4 cup red wine vinaigrette, a very-finely chopped clove of garlic, the zest and juice of a lemon, a finely-chopped sprig each of fresh parsley and fresh mint, and a tablespoon of honey. Add salt and ground black pepper to taste and about 1/4 cup sunflower oil, close the jar, and shake it up.