By Christina Tzialla
Papaparaskevas is a mysterious and wondrous affair, filled with lovely contradictions. It is a strange blend – a traditional patisserie that still weighs in “okkas” (a former Turkish unit of weight) that boasts a modern, self-owned, large and well organized 1200-square-meter workshop that would be the envy of top French chef pâtissiers. It employs around 45 people, 27 of them in the workshop, in Petrohori, Xanthi, northeast Greece.
The numbers alone indicate this could be a huge chain, and yet there are only two shops: one in Xanthi, the other in Glyfada. Why do they need such a large workshop, and so many employees? Very simply, they make everything from scratch without scrimping on increased costs and work hours.
Five people work feverishly over hot baking trays, quickly rolling the thin wafers before they cool, in order to make the rolls that will then be filled and covered in chocolate. Making these small treats requires 12 people, working for at least four hours straight. Making “kariokes” (walnut-filled chocolates) involves just as many, and they take two days. Another person is assigned to the butter, which they make themselves, using sheep and goat cream. They crack the walnuts open on the spot and make their own icing sugar, the filo pastry they use to make “saragli” (rolled baklava) and other syrupy desserts is also homemade, much like the chocolate praline. While some bake, others pour the syrup, wrap the kariokes, score the “isli” (sweet syrupy treats), and so on.
This well-oiled team is led by Giorgos Arsenis, master pâtissier and one of the owners, with his nephew Stelios Polatidis as second-in-command following in his footsteps. This is how things have been working at Papaparaskevas for about three generations. One hands the baton to the next, and everyone faithfully follows what they have learned from the man who first founded the patisserie.
Born in 1905, Georgios Papaparaskevas was the son of a priest, the last of 14 children. In 1923, with the population exchange, they left their home – the town of Saranta Ekklisies in Eastern Thrace (now part of Turkey) – and settled in Xanthi. Despite being a poor family, most of the children completed their studies; some became teachers, while others became public servants. The youngest was destined for pastry making.
He got a job at Stogiannidis, at the time the best pastry shop in Xanthi, and, after learning the art of pastry making, opened his own café-pastry shop in 1926, initially in the Twelve Apostles neighborhood, and, a few years later, on the busy Kavalas Street. In 1935, they moved next door to what would become their permanent location, where the pastry shop still thrives today.
Hardworking and meticulous, Georgios began perfecting the art of making desserts, even the ones that were usually prepared at home, such as saragli, using only the finest ingredients. “He was known to throw out an entire batch if something was not to his liking,” says his daughter, Elli Papoutsoglou. Just like her sister Stavroula, she did not get involved with the family business because he wanted them to continue their studies. In fact, he would get upset whenever he would see them there. However Elli’s son, Giorgos Papoutsoglou, is actively involved and is the current manager of the Athens branch.
There are many legendary stories about his grandfather, such as when in 1946 he won the lottery, 1 million drachmas, and gave it away to buy sugar. Or when he came to Athens to meet his chocolate supplier and observe how the chocolate was made. In the factory he asked to have a taste; he made various additions, and created his own blend, just as he wanted it. Using the same recipe, to this day the chocolate factory prepares the same dark and milk chocolate exclusively for Papaparaskevas. Chocolate custom made!
He was also a deeply honest man and a good employer – “if anyone would be hung for legalities, it would be my dad!” says Elli. He also had a good instinct about choosing the right partners, and was surrounded by honest and hard working people. When he suddenly passed away in 1974, at the age of 69, it was those partners who helped his wife keep the business and also acquired shares. Today, their children have taken their place, and everyone works together, as a family.
With the same values and the same recipes, they continue moving forward to this day, building a world of their own. Like the house in the story Hansel and Gretel, the pastry shop is defiantly filled with unusual desserts, with an old-fashioned finesse and refined skills. Most desserts are made with butter cream, a cream with a butter and Italian meringue base, which is why many people feel it’s heavy. Yet their flavor is rich, unforgettable, made with the finest ingredients, with real chocolate and genuine butter.
There is so much to admire, where to begin? From the old fashioned and refined cakes, buttery kourabiedes, available all year around, or the scrumptious syrupy sweets? From the retro treats that are veritable works of art in their own right, or the crispy saragli, wrapped in paper, like individual desserts? What can we say about the kariokes, first created by Papaparaskevas from scratch, trademarking the recipe that made the shop, and all of Xanthi, famous? They accept orders for kariokes from all over Greece, while during the Christmas season they produce more than 1500 kilograms per week!
For the past four years, their desserts have been issued a European visa and can be found in Brussels, at the Cherry delicatessen. And there is so much more to admire. It is a sturdy business that supports many people and their families. “In Xanthi, if you get a job at Papaparaskevas, it is like getting a job in a bank,” says Ms. Papoutsoglou. “And this makes me particularly happy because, during my entire lifetime, I have not seen any difference in the business. My father added the yeast, and he managed to convey a sense of honesty to his partners.”
“We hire people, we are not firing. Actually, two months ago we increased our workforce. Thankfully, we are doing well,” Giorgos Arsenis tells us. Indeed, most employees have been working there for 20 or 30 years. In a time when the ready-made, fast and easy is on the rise, Papaparaskevas is the exception. If only it were the rule.
This article was previously published in Greek at gastronomos.gr.
Papaparaskevas was awarded at the Gastronomos magazine’s 15th Quality Awards in December 2022 – an evening in honor of the culinary heritage of Asia Minor, and the producers and businesses run by the children and grandchildren of Asia Minor refugees.