Bulgarian Tennis Legend Champions Organic Food

Views on BG | August 10, 2012, Friday // 13:36|  views

Magdalena Maleevs rose to rank fourth in the world in 1996, at a time when Bulgarian sport was on something of a high. Photo by EPA/BGNES

By Andrew MacDowall

Financial Times

Bulgarians and many of those who have spent time in Bulgaria – including your correspondent – rave about the country's farm produce and its simple but delicious cuisine. It was enthusiasm for the fresh, flavourful products of her homeland and a heartfelt belief in organic farming that led Magdalena Maleeva, one of Bulgaria's greatest ever tennis players, to establish Bio Bulgaria in September 2006. The blossoming organic food company is becoming an established name in its home country and is now looking to build exports to take Bulgarian food to the world.

"For me, one of the best things about Bulgaria is the food," Maleeva told beyondbrics. "It's a very important part of the country."

Maleeva's professional career, from April 1989 to October 2005, included ten WTA singles titles and eleven other finals appearances. She rose to rank fourth in the world in 1996, at a time when Bulgarian sport was on something of a high. Two years earlier, the "Golden Generation" of the country's football team, featuring the brilliant but famously irascible Hristo Stoichkov, came fourth in the World Cup, having never even won a game in their previous appearances in the tournament. But the Maleevas are arguably just as celebrated: her mother, Yulia Berberyan, was the country's top female tennis player of the 1960 and her sisters Katerina and Manuela reacjed WTA rankings of sixth and fourth in the world, respectively.

When she stopped playing tennis Magdalena and her husband Lubomir Nokov settled in Bulgaria and, with a shared interest in food, began looking into organic farming. They found that some farmers were producing organic products – particularly yoghurt, a Bulgarian staple – and started helping them get their products onto supermarket shelves.

What began as a support project has grown into a small but expanding business, with a turnover of €1.3m last year. Bio Bulgaria markets, distributes and sells premium quality "traditional food products" from a network of farmers and producers, as well as its own yoghurt, made in Sofia.

Its best-known brand is Harmonica, "a brand for authentic regional products and recipes", according to Nokov. Harmonica's best selling products include yoghurt and eggs as well as Balkan specialities such as sirene (a white, feta-like cheese), kashkaval (yellow cheese), ayran (a yoghurt drink) and boza (very much an acquired taste: a fermented cereal-based drink resembling a thick milkshake). Harmonica also imports organic food from Austria, Hungary, Greece and the Czech Republic.

Bio Bulgaria sells through supermarket chains in Bulgaria's bigger cities and through organic food shops – it owns three of its own small stores in Sofia. The company is now looking towards exports. Having increased its production capacity, it recently entered France under the brand "Le petit bulgare". It is also eying exports of honey to Dubai, yoghurt to Singapore and cheese to Germany.

This is still a small enterprise. For Maleeva, the most important aspect is promoting "cleaner food" and Bulgarian farming, which she feels has been short-changed by the authorities, despite its strengths.

"We don't expect to become millionaires but we want a sustainable business," she says. "We're passionate about what we do, we believe in the business and we live it. Bulgaria has huge potential – the fruit and vegetables taste amazing and I've never been anywhere where they taste the same. But the government doesn't focus on farming, they're more interested in ski resorts."

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Tags: Magdalena Maleeva, Bulgaria, tennis, organic, food, farming


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