Meeting the Locals

There are certain things we've come to expect from seaside towns.  There are the old men with skin that looks more like the product of a tannery than a suntan.  There are colorful boats and piles of tangled nets.  More than anything, there is our sudden urge to consume as much fish as humanly possible.  Our success has varied, simply because we're talking about living creatures here.  And you can't always count on all your guests to show up for dinner.  In Greece, we were faced with the depressing truth that the water all around us had been drastically depleted of its fish.  On Lake Ohrid in Macedonia, we had to play a game of dodging the famous Ohrid trout, whose own survival in the world is facing some serious struggle against the human appetite.  So, really, we didn't know what to expect in Balchik, a small town in the north of Bulgaria's Black Sea Coast.  What would the local fish be and would we get a chance to meet them?
The answer is yes.  A chalkboard at the very first place we stopped displayed the list of available fish.  We could make out the Cyrillic, but the names were still mostly a mystery to us.  Goby, shad, garfish, scad?  Every body of water in the world has its own residents, just like on land.  It's not going to be lobster and salmon everywhere (even if the menu says so).  But we were still taken aback by this list of strangers.  We went to the fish market for some insight, to put some faces to names.  There were just a handful of people with buckets and trays, set up near a parking lot.  Without any signage, it was difficult to really use their offerings as a reference, but we could at least see that it was mostly small fish along the lines of sardines and the small bluefish pictured (grilled) above.  Okay, I won't be ordering too much dourade or tiger shrimp, then.  We wondered about the barbecued octopus and squid we'd already had.  The octopus had been skewered with sliced pickle (more amazing than you'd think) and the squid had been sauteed and then sprinkled with toasted bread crumbs - deconstructed fried calamari. 
Next to the market was a lunch joint, basically a food truck without wheels.  Lunchers filled the picnic tables set outside and the posted chalkboard left absolutely no room for miscommunication.  There were only five fish listed and just two had prices filled in next to them.  We'll have one of each, please!  A попчета (popcheta) and a сафрид (safrad).  The silvery fish are the safrad, also known as scad or, more familiarly, horse mackerel.  They had none of the bitterness of sardines or the density of sprats.  They were so lightly floured, just an opaque coating like sea salt on a car that's been parked near the water.  The larger, golden ones are the popcheta, translated to round goby.  It's a bottom dweller, so its fins have that paddle look and its mouth resembles the front of a Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa.  Both plates tasted like the fish had been alive that morning, the oil had been poured and heated just for us and the man who worked the fryer had the touch of a great pool player.  They were out of this world.
Speaking of the world, we were actually helping it out eating those round gobies.  They are an invasive species, an aggressive fish that comes in and takes over.  Their one ecological benefit is that they happen to really like eating zebra mussels, which are even more invasive and have succeeded at completely wiping out the Black Sea's scallops.  We saw this man separating a net full of small, black and white zebra mussels.  They are too tiny to be worth eating (and many people strongly advise against it anyway), so I wasn't sure what his mission was.  Now I think that maybe he was really in the goby game.  Just sorting out his bait?
Luckily, the big, plump, all black, edible mussels are also here in the Black Sea.  Signs around town tout them as "100% organic Black Sea Shells."  We can see what look to be mussel farms out in the water.  They look a lot like trampolines submerged in water, a ring with a netted fence.  Restaurants serve mussel salad, mussels with rice, mussel saganaki (with melted cheese), mussels au natural.  At a vaguely Greek (but not really at all) restaurant named Mikado, we ordered "the Captain's mussels," which I hoped wouldn't be similar to the chef's salad and come with slices of ham.  You never do know in the Balkans.  They came brothless with a sweet tomato sauce and soft, julienned carrots.  The Captain has good taste.
Balchik is historically a fishing village.  That doesn't mean that there are boats lining the harbor or that early morning mass exodus of lone fishermen.  This is no Marsaxlokk.  Most of the business seems to center around tourism.  Still, Balchik's fishing tradition has instilled a real love of seafood into their cuisine.  I could eat grilled fish every day, but I've really been appreciating the variety of methods and approaches here in Balchik.  Menus have it smoked, marinated, stewed, fried, steamed, grilled, skewered and tartar'd.  They even have it all wrapped up in rice and seaweed with a wedge of avocado and diced cucumber - at least at the restaurant below The White House Hotel.  It's not too often that you can sit by the water and have four pieces of a sushi roll before your order of perfectly charred sea bream arrives.
And when it arrives, it's hard to compete with.  The char tastes like barbecue and the flesh like the sea.  It tastes even better than that bit of salmon, because it's local.  It is a product of the time and the place, the here and the now.  And we're here by the Black Sea!  And it's summer!  You want more proof?  There's sand between my toes right now.   Balchik has treated us well.
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