Bougatsa from Scratch

A no-fail recipe for the emblematic Thessaloniki street food, in a city that takes its food very, very seriously.


Arrive in Thessaloniki. Proceed with itinerary: meetings, sightseeing, shopping and life as planned. At the end of the day, do not go to bed. Spend the best part of the night out – for optimum results spend the entire night out, until about 90 minutes before sunrise. Moderate to significant alcohol consumption is optional. A good time, good music, some dancing and venue-hopping are of the essence. Get out into the fresh air, famished to the verge of fainting. Ignore all signs advertising “BOUGATSA” unless 100 percent positive they make it by hand, with no filo machines involved or frozen fillings in sight (culinary sacrilege alert).

Cooking time: 8-12 mins. For guaranteed results, visit Chatzis on Mitropoleos Street off Aristotelous Square or Chryso at Navarino Square. Peek into the preparation area and watch the baker perform a ballet/acrobatic/dervish-like mystical dance, as flour, salt, water and olive oil are kneaded, spun in the air, shrunk, respun and expanded into a gossamer-thin, tablecloth size, transparent filo. Brace yourself for the ensuing multiple folding-in of said filo around a scoop of velvety, foamy semolina custard: not too sweet, not too creamy, not too thin. Try not to physically attack the baker or jump the queue as you watch the whole batch disappear into the oven. Practice no-thought meditation for about eight minutes, or until your pie is ready. Alternatively, engage in a heated argument about the local soccer team (you must pick a team), laced with equally heated predictions about the score next Sunday. When you reach the point of almost getting involved in a fist fight, cool down and melt in front of the steaming, mouth-watering marvel that is presented to you.

Serving: Let the waiter sprinkle your oven-hot, crunchy, custard-filled filo with icing sugar and cinnamon. When a very big, very sharp knife descends across your pie with the ominous thump of a double guillotine, this is your cue to start eating. Test the result for perfection by two standards: The sound of 10,000 newborn crickets chirping between your teeth as you bite deep enough into the filo until said sound is completely drowned by the mini-tsunami of custard exploding in your mouth.

Ingredients:

 

Tickets to Thessaloniki (two or more)

Accommodation: Preferably in the city center for optimum accessibility

Price: Approx. 2 euros/serving

Preparation time: From 12 hours to roughly a lifetime

Extras: Extend your bougatsa adventure into a mid-morning snack (savor the cheese bougatsa served with melted myzithra in lieu of custard with just a dash of sugar sprinkled on top, hold the cinnamon) at Chatzis on Mitropoleos Street. Or make a delicious lunch of it by ordering bougatsa filled with aromatic minced meat at Paradosiakon (Aristotelous Square): a meal so substantial it will fill you till dinnertime.

Timing: Never order a bougatsa after 1 p.m. Decent bougatsa-makers used to close shop after that time. This is strictly breakfast food, midday snack or/and a worker’s lunch. After that, the chef has gone home and the product is cold, stale or prepared by a non-expert. This delicacy, fit for an emperor, is reduced to fool’s fodder.

Friendly warning: Do not attempt to re-create the authentic northern Greek bougatsa at home. Gracefully accept the fact that you will never match the masters. Come back for more and endorse the few remaining establishments that still honor the centuries-old Byzantine tradition. Handmade bougatsa – and especially the dancing filo-making – is, sadly, a dying art.


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