East Balkan Mountain
Text: Marina Mihaylova
Photos: Ruslan Vakrilov
One July morning, loaded with photography gear, we set off with our cameraman Rus to Veliki Preslav. Our location is situated deep within the wild, in the Eastern Balkan Mountains, where linden is harvested for our Harmonica cordial. According to the map, we have a 5-hour drive ahead of us, and then a further 5 km of dense forest paths. The weather can be volatile and rainy in this area. It got so bad that two weeks before the trip, I was contacting our partners every day to plan the visit. We grew very worried as to whether there would even be any harvest this year.
Nevertheless, we make it to the forest. Funnily enough, it has nothing in common with my idea of a smoothly tarmacked road, with neatly arranged trees on both sides. The forest here is dense, barely passable and goes on for as long as our eyes can see. Here is the forest, where the linden trees are hidden.
Anton notices the worry in my eyes as I fail to imagine how we will be able to find these precious trees.
“The linden tree can be recognized from a distance! Do you see them – the leaves turned upside down? Well, these are the linden trees.” He exclaims. I still wonder how you’d see them if we were underneath.
“There are exactly 500. Smell the trees! Can you smell the aroma? The blossoms of the linden have nothing in common to the ones in the city, in fragrance, nor produce.”
Anton Kanchev is the manager of Viola Organic – our partners, from whom we take the linden blossom for our Harmonica cordial. He has been collecting wild herbs for more than 20 years now, and non-surprisingly he knows every single grass we pass. Anton tells us about the nature in the region and about the pureness of the untouched wilderness in Bulgaria. He explains the rarity of this as you no longer find so much raw nature around most parts of Europe. Everything elsewhere has sadly become cultivated, arranged and processed. Proudly, we are one of the last countries on the continent that still have wild forests left, Anton tells us.
Suddenly, we hear a loud noise and twigs crackling in the distance. Our eyes darting all over the place, I look up and see the reason for this alarming noise. Fifteen meters up in a linden tree, one of the pickers has just cut down a few branches. He climbs down from the tree so quickly, you could’ve blinked and missed it. Foraging in the roughage, he takes the twigs, arranges them in front of him and sits down to start picking the flowers.
But they are using а saw?! Isn’t it bad and for the tree?!
Anton smiles at my sheer amazement and begins to explain everything in detail. To collect the flowers from the branches, he says, they have to take from the spindly branches that face the sunlight. We can only take a branch up to 3 cm long and so next year, two branches will grow from each cut, multiplying the leaves.
Anton invites us to walk through the forest to meet their most experienced picker and herbalist, Arso.
They call me Tarzan!
After Arso finishes in the tree and climbs down, he introduces himself and admits his name is actually Suleyman. Suleyman shares that he’s been in the woods for 54 years already. As a descendant herbalist, he knows everything about every single flower and every single twig that is in the region. He admits that he doesn’t know their names in Latin because of his lack of academic knowledge. However, he has graduated from Nature’s “university” and is a craftsman, which is now a rare job. He tells us that he’s not afraid of heights and he’ll happily climb up 30-meter trees and luckily he has never fallen. He’s experimented with many safety methods, like attaching himself to the trunk of the tree to keep him safe.
I sit down next to him to watch precisely what he is doing. He collects the flowers so quickly, tucking them immediately into the sack, that I can’t even see his fingers. Suleyman hands me a twig and despite my ridiculous movements, without the slightest of mockery shows me what to do.
“You run your index finger here, behind the loose flowers and tear them off one by one. You hold as much as you can in your hand until it is completely full and then you toss them in the sack.” Suleyman laughs as he explains it’s a slow learning process.
In the forest, it’s shady and humid now. I start to feel slightly uncomfortable with the constant buzzing of the insects, especially the mosquitos, so I take out the insect repellent I’ve just remembered about. I offer it to my teacher, but Suleyman refuses.
Don’t you get bitten by the mosquitoes?
Don’t you get bitten by the mosquitoes, I ask. He does. But the repellent leaves chemical traces on the flowers. After collecting the flowers, he says, they are checked and tested to see if they meet the requirements of the organic certificate and they can’t test positive for pesticides. So, no repellent.
As we sit and pick the flowers, I dig deeper to learn more about his craft. I learn that 20 years ago there were many more pickers and herbalists – around 300 people working together! Now, this number has drastically fallen, and it is much more difficult to find people that are willing to do the job. To take from nature, you must also take care of it and protect it. But, in some parts of Bulgaria, there are cases of whole trees being cut because it’s deemed easier to pick the flowers. The linden trees can grow up to 1000 years, but by human hand, it can die just in a few minutes.
This fact resonates with me as I become increasingly glad that there are people like Anton and his pickers. They can walk miles into the woods, knowing every single tree and take care of them, protect them and treat nature and its gifts with respect.
When we begin to finish up finally, I get invited to come and pick linden flowers with them next time, as part of the team. Why not! I can try.