James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

The Joy and Sadness of Completing a Food Odyssey Too Soon

The Joy and Sadness of Completing a Food Odyssey Too Soon

Bougatsa in Thessaloniki

I’d been living in Thessaloniki, Greece for three months when I embarked upon my epic quest: to eat at five bougatsa shops in one morning. Greek friends were both impressed and probably horrified that someone would want to eat that much bougatsa at once—but I’m American.

Bougatsa is from Serres, a town in northeastern Greece, it’s a popular breakfast in Thessaloniki. It’s similar to pita, but the filo is rolled by hand and shaped into a rectangular slab encasing cream (krema) cheese (tyri), spinach (spanaki) or ground meat (kimas). Each serving is cut from the slab and into bite-sized pieces. The cream version, krema, is the most common, served in a snowdrift of powdered sugar and cinnamon. But I prefer the cheese version, or tyri.

That morning, two friends and I set out for store farthest away from us, Bantis, in a grey drizzle. It takes us two buses and a walk along ancient walls, at least an hour of transit. We arrive out of breath and walk into the narrow galley of a shop and talk with the owner about what offerings are available today and about how they’ve been featured on the BBC. (On a return visit, we learn that they were also involved in making the world’s largest tiropita.) We order three kinds of bougatsa and two coffees.

The filo is handmade and crisp and golden, and the layers flake off like pieces of mica. The kimas is like ragú, and the krema isn’t too sweet, and the tyri is made with goat cheese. I alternate bites of tyri with bites of kimas, then a bite of krema, but that makes me want more of the salty-savory, and it continues until we’ve all used our forks to fight each other for the last bites. I hadn’t planned on finding my perfect bougatsa, or on being full after the first stop, but I have, and I am.

The three of us sit and watch the people coming into the shop to take bougatsa home to their families. Through the glass case where it’s displayed and kept warm, I can see the man and woman behind the counter cutting off portions and chopping them into squares with a mezzaluna.

At this point, I feel the quest has been fulfilled. But we forge ahead, and eat at least another two or three full portions of bougatsa each throughout the day. After that, I take a break from bougatsa for about a week or so. But those layers of filo and tyri at Bantis are like a siren call, luring me back again and again.

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