Pestil is a cooked fruit product similar to a fruit “cheese” or fruit leathers. It is prepared with local plum varieties (usually Karadzeyki and Majarkini) in the central Stara Planina Mountain region, particularly the districts of Gabrovo and Lovetch. It is deep red or brown in color with a chewy, elastic consistency and a sweet and sour taste. It is also nicknamed “Gabrovo chocolate.” Pestil contains only plums, without any added sugar or other preservatives. Production is seasonal, from September to December. About three kilograms of plums are needed for the production of one kilogram of pestil. It has a dry matter content of about 65%, and high quality, well-dried pestil could be stored for several years.
The precise production method varies according to location. According to the technique in Troyan, the plums are not boiled. They are washed, pits are removed, the fruits are cut into halves or diced and left to dry. In Gabrovo, the plums (with or without pits) are boiled over an open fire in large copper pans called “caravans.” The paste then is rubbed through a sieve (called a darmon) to remove the fruit skin and pits. Boiling continues until the mixture is slightly less thick than marmalade. Then the pestil is layered a few centimeters thick onto smooth, narrow, wooden boards or in large tins. When the pestil is sun-dried, it should be flipped upside down until fully dried. Drying can also be done in ovens as well. Pestil is usually rolled-up and then stored in cool rooms. Aged pestil rolls are naturally covered by a gray-white wax similar to that which occurs on the outside of the plum fruits. A modification of the recipe involves adding chopped walnuts to the mixture.
Pestil-making was traditional craft for many local artisans in the area, and until the 1990s over 40 producers were still processing the local plum harvest into pestil and dried prunes. The production is exclusively handmade, and so even in Communist times (when private work was prohibited) pestil making was carried out in artisan shops and then returned back to the state retailers. Presently there are very few active pestil producers making and selling this product in artisanal and tourist shops and practicing the Bulgarian craft of shekerdzijstvo – production of handmade, traditional sugar confections including not only pestil, but also halva, lokum, nebet-sheker and other sweets. Pestil can be purchased at the annual Bulgarian Plum Festival in Troyan as well. Usually, it is only available in limited quantities in late summer or early autumn. The local plum varieties are increasingly difficult to find, and often they are cultivated just by the elderly. Much of the local plum harvest goes into production of other products like plum brandies (slivova rakiya).
Image: Marco del Comune & Oliver Migliore