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Eat: Thessaloniki

With a rich, multicultural past — stern Byzantine walls, Ottoman mosques and Turkish hamams — and the best fish in the country, what Thessaloniki lacks in physical beauty it more than makes up for with passion for food

Eat: Thessaloniki
White Tower of Thessaloniki. Image: Corbis

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The walls are lined with photos of movie bigwigs — Ken Loach, Harvey Keitel, Melina Mercouri — all posing with the restaurant’s gregarious Greek owner, Topsis Anastasios. These are faded mementoes of visits by stars to the Thessaloniki International Film Festival and a precursor, almost, to the selfie.

For the taverna Tasos, in the suburbs of this northern port city, is a place of pilgrimage for those who know about fish. Here Topsis’s wife, Koula, cooks in a tiny kitchen over barbecue coals, taking pride in simple, clear flavours that she makes dance in her hands. There’s smoky aubergine dip; a plate of cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage, beautifully al dente, dressed in a lemon and olive oil dressing; fat langoustine, dipped in flour and salt and fried. And a sweet fish called sinagrida. It’s the best Greek food I’ve ever eaten.

Bringing a bottle of Ktima Gerovassiliou viognier, Topsis joins my table and explains his philosophy. “I’ll do anything it takes to have the best-quality ingredients. Everyone tells me they can never forget the meals they have here.”

Then Koula sits down too. “I get so frustrated when I watch TV shows where the chefs mix up flavours,” she sighs. “It’s really important to have a clear taste. There’s a Greek word, meraki, that describes the passion you have when you do something with love. I’m having a life experience every time I’m cooking.”

Ask many a Greek and they’ll tell you that Thessaloniki — which skirts the Thermaikos Gulf — has the best fish in the country. It sparkles at you from the ice-packed stalls in the fish section of the Modiano and Kapani markets. Here vendors cry ‘ela, ela, ela’ (‘come on’) or simply bellow the name of their wares — ‘calamari’, ‘prawns’, ‘live snails’ — a cacophony of costermongery, competing with the bouzouki music that pours from tinny speakers and the thwack of meat cleavers as they hit thick wooden butchers’ blocks. I weave my way from stall to stall, the aroma changing from fishy to the acerbic tang of olives and feta cheese, through the woody smell of nuts to the pungent sesame waft over by the piles of halva.

“The main cuisine here is Turkish with Slav, Ottoman and Greek,” Yiannis Boutaris, mayor of Thessaloniki (and also a winemaker), tells me. “There’s a big influence from the refugees from Asia Minor who came in 1922. They call Thessaloniki ‘the Mother of Refugees’ and all of this comes together in the methods our kitchens use and the ingredients. There’s a mix of both butter and olive oil. We eat mainly seafood and it’s the only area in Greece where oysters are produced. Two rivers come down to the sea and they bring together salty water and sweet and our fish eat these amazing oysters.”

The mayor would have to admit that Thessaloniki is no beauty — fire, bombings and blind-sighted architecture have shown little mercy to its buildings. But turn a corner and you might find a vestige of its rich, multicultural past — stern Byzantine walls that mark the ancient city perimeter, Ottoman mosques and Turkish hamams, or the streets of Ano Poli, the upper town, with views of the sea and Mount Olympus.

What it lacks in beauty it makes up for with passion: Koula’s meraki. At Sebriko, a funky little restaurant, I find it hard to fathom that before 2012 none of the 12 ‘partners’ bustling around us had ever worked in a restaurant. The economic crisis that paralysed Greece prompted these young guns to look for a new way to make a living. And so now they produce plates of chargrilled Mastelo goat cheese from the Chios Mountains served with sweet fig jelly; a salad of beetroot, almonds and apaki (Cretan smoked pork); sfakiani pie, made from filo pastry stuffed with cheese; seared octopus piled on tzatziki. Vicky Giannakoulia tells me none of the 12 had any idea what they were letting themselves in for. “We try to have very low prices, but with the best ingredients from all over Greece,” she says.

And Thessaloniki also has pastry — it’s a city in love with the stuff. I seek out bugatsa, a famous flaky filo pile, unique to here, created from dough spun through the air by hand until it’s almost translucent. Local girl Dimitra Voziki guides me to Serraikon, where I love the feta cheese version, but Dimitra began eating the sweet cream version (dusted with cinnamon and icing sugar) when she was a child and is lost in Proustian reverie. She takes me to visit Trigona Elenides, where the filo is folded into cones, filled with crème pâtissière and glazed with honey. The hippest is Estrella, which also opened in the wake of the crisis, just opposite Hagia Sophia, one of the city’s oldest churches. Here, they sell croissants filled with an orange-scented, custardy, cream. “We’re trying to mix tradition with a new way,” owner Ioaniss Kapetanakis tells me.

Further up the hill from Estrella, in a hard-to-find side street, is Nea Folia, an old-school taverna run by more young guns. There’s a broken jukebox and sitting at the marble tables we recognise waiters from some of the places we’ve eaten in. Almost everyone we speak to recommends the steak, but it’s Lent so beef isn’t on the menu; instead we have pork ribs marinated in petimezi (grape juice) then smoked, as well as dolmadakia (rice-stuffed cabbage leaves) and Mastelo. Dinners in Thessaloniki are slow; plates left at the table to be picked at for hours. Dimitra laughs when she explains, “Here if there’s no extra food left, you haven’t ordered enough.” We’re in for a long night.

Butcher, Modiano Market. Image: Audrey Gillan

Butcher, Modiano Market. Image: Audrey Gillan

Five Thessaloniki food finds

Serraiko
This traditional bugatsa shop, established in 1952, serves both savoury and sweet versions of a pie made from thin, flaky pastry that’s thrown in the air till it becomes almost translucent. It’s filled with warm feta cheese or sweet cream. €1.70 (£1.35). T: 00 30 23430 43575.

Trigona Elenides
Prepared with precision at this local favourite are very thin layers of filo pastry, folded into triangles, filled to order with creme patissiere and glazed with honey (from €1.30/£1). Sticky pastry portions of Baklava, kataïfi and other Greek sweet goodies are available as well as ice cream. elenidis.gr

Vomvidia
Vomvidia serves four kebab-like sausages, chunks of tomato, onion, pickled pepper and bread for €5 (£4). Vasileos Irakliou 35. T: 00 30 2310 281939.

Modiano and Kapani markets
Wander between stalls selling seafood, snails, goat, and fruit and veg.

Street food
Try kouluri, sesame-covered bread rings that are sold on street carts for 50 cents (40p). Stalls on almost every street in the city sell cheap and tasty gyros (grilled pork in pita bread) and souvlaki (skewered meat in pita).

Prawns, Tasos Sea Taverna. Image: Audrey Gillan

Prawns, Tasos Sea Taverna. Image: Audrey Gillan

Four places for a taste of Thessaloniki

Sebriko
A beautiful space just by the Western Byzantine walls, kitted out like a grocery store of yore, where many of the ingredients that grace your plate are for sale on the shelves and in the fridges lining the walls. There’s chargrilled Mastelo goats’ cheese from the Chios mountains served with sweet fig jelly; a salad of beetroot, almonds and apaki (smoked pork from Crete); sfakiani pie, made from chiffony filo pastry stuffed with cheese; and seared octopus piled on tzatziki, all of it accompanied by chewy homemade bread.
How much: Three courses from €12 (£9.61) per person. T: 00 30 2310 557513.

Tasos
Head out along the coast to the suburbs to Tasos Sea Taverna, where Koula cooks in a tiny kitchen over barbecue coals, taking pride in simple, clear flavours using recipes she learned from her mother. There’s smoky aubergine dip; a plate of cauliflower, broccoli, beautifully al dente cabbage, dressed in a lemon and olive oil dressing; langoustine dipped in flour and salt and fried. And a sweet fish called sinagrida.
How much: Three courses from €20 (£16) per person but rising to €40 (£32) per person if you order a ‘big fish’. T: 00 30 2310 430523.

Nea Folia
This old-school taverna is now run by a group of young guns trying to carve a living in the wake of the financial crisis. A long-since-working jukebox adds to the time warp feel, but there’s a fresh take on Greek ingredients. Fat pork ribs are marinated in petimizei (sweet grape juice) then smoked, as well as dolmadakia (rice-stuffed cabbage leaves) and grilled Mastelo cheese. It’s the hangout of those who work in the food industry and are wise to its location in a hard-to-find side street.
How much: From €17 (£13.50) per person for three courses. T: 00 30 2310 960383.

Estrella
This funky little cafe also opened in the wake of the financial crisis in a site just opposite Hagia Sophia, one of the oldest churches in the city. Here, they’ve taken a croissant and filled it with an orange-scented, almost custardy, cream. Owner Ioaniss Kapetanakis says he is trying to “mix tradition with a new way”. Daily specials can include grilled halloumi with homemade wild fig jelly. A backing track of Indie music adds to the young and lively atmosphere where people pop in for full meals or just a coffee and cake.
How much: From €4 (£3) for a coffee and bugatsa (flaky filo pie). T: 00 30 2310 272045.


Published in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)