Breaking bread: on the trail of tradition in Thessaloniki

Thessaloniki is Greece’s gastronomic heart, a melting pot city that’s constantly evolving. But when it comes to Greek cooking, some things aren’t to be messed with — no matter how modern life gets.

By Jez Fredenburgh
photographs by David Charbit
Published 3 Apr 2020, 07:30 BST
White Tower of Thessaloniki.
White Tower of Thessaloniki.
Photograph by David Charbit

Thomas Douzis looks at me aghast across a table heaving with Greek yogurt, sesame koulouri bread and cheesy bougatsa pastries. I’ve suggested the unthinkable — that we have meat and fish for lunch. This, it turns out, is just not done. 

I’m sitting in the morning sun outside Ergon Agora, Thomas’s fashionable food emporium and restaurant in Thessaloniki, having been welcomed with a warm smile, a kiss on each cheek and half a dozen breakfast dishes. Inside the shop, cool white walls and concrete pillars oversee a central deli of cheeses, salamis and stuffed vine leaves. There are sacks of beans and barrels of wrinkly kalamata olives, shelves of oils, anchovies and mustards, and a wall of local Greek wines. 

Thomas has invited me to join him for lunch later, along with his wife Alexandra, daughter Sofia and a few friends. I know I’m in for a treat as, although he’s only 36, Thomas is a man of some reputation within the Greek food world. He and his brother George started Ergon 15 years ago, just two blocks from their grandfather’s deli. In the beginning, they were “just two kids selling olive oil”. But the brothers have since built a mini empire, with 15 Ergon delis across Europe supplied by an impressive network of artisan Greek food producers. 

However, as is often the case when dealing with those who really know their food, deciding what dish to cook — and therefore what ingredients to buy — is easier said than done. There are rules to be observed.

“We could have moussaka. We’ll definitely have Greek salad — when we talk about salad, it’s always Greek salad,” Thomas muses, a wry smile creasing his face. “Then there’s slow roast pork. We eat it on Sundays with our grandparents — ahh, but it’s not Sunday.” 

Lefteris Athanasopoulos, Thomas’s friend and Ergon’s executive chef, is drafted in from the kitchen. He suggests barbecuing a sea bass. Thomas, in turn, suggests a gemista, a family favourite of peppers and tomatoes stuffed with rice and herbs. This, however, would mean two main courses.

Sitting down to eat in the Douzis household.
Photograph by David Charbit

They could, it seems, swap the sea bass for sardines, which would count as a starter, but Thomas is keen to use minced beef in his gemista stuffing — and, as I now know, serving meat and fish is a no-go. So we’re back to square one.

Part of the problem is the sheer choice. Thessaloniki might be Greece’s second city, but it’s widely considered its culinary capital. Its location, in the far north of the country, has made it something of a gateway between two continents and, over millennia, migrants have added twists to the local cuisine. This can be seen in the many gyros bars, which spin a Greek version of the Turkish kebab, or in the delis selling slabs of halvah (a sweet made from sesame paste, originating from the city’s Jewish communities).

I ask Thomas what the city’s typical dish would be. “Ahh,” he replies, a twinkle in his eye. “The food of Thessaloniki. Is it Macedonian salad? Greek moussaka? Or is it Turkish imam bayildi?” 

Market time 

We could get all we need from Ergon’s plentiful shelves, but Thomas is keen to show me around his city. So, having finally decided on a lunch menu — a starter of grilled octopus followed by a meat-free gemista and smoky melitzanosalata (eggplant dip) — and stocked up on Thomas’s favourite wine and olive oil, we head to Kapani market in the old town. 

Markets play a central role in Thessaloniki’s food culture, and locals commonly barter for a good deal. I follow Thomas through Kapani’s labyrinth of cobbled streets, originally the Ottoman bazaar, where breeze blocks of Greek feta and mounds of olives sit alongside Asian spices and Macedonian saffron.

In the seafood aisles, as fishmongers in blue aprons shout over rows of iridescent skins, Thomas inspects a stall. A whole octopus is proudly produced from an ice box and a serious discussion in Greek follows, the fishmonger running his thick thumb over the creature, indicating where to cut first. 

Fishmonger holding an octopus at Kapani market.
Photograph by David Charbit

We have no time to linger though, and after buying a bag of ripe beef tomatoes from a colourful grocer’s stall (“We need big ones with thick skins for the gemista,” instructs Thomas), we head to a legendary maker of Greek yogurt, passing the ruins of a Roman market on our way. 

Dorkada, a traditional yogurt and pastry shop, looks lost in time on a street of busy balconies sporting washing and plant pots. “Traditional Greek yogurt is made with sheep’s milk, not cow’s milk like we mostly eat now,” explains Thomas as we head into the shop. The owner, Yanis, appears and sticks out a muscled arm to shake my hand. He invites us through a back door and pulls open a cabinet, revealing tubs of maturing yogurt. 

“We buy the milk from farmers in Kilkis, north of here,” he explains. “It arrives every day at 6am, and by 2pm the yogurt is ready. My family have been doing this since the 1960s.” He pushes a pot into my hands as a gift. 

Back down the hill, we pass bakeries, gyros bars and blacksmiths. Thomas points out the spot where, during the construction of the metro network, a trove of ancient treasures was unearthed, including gold wreaths and statues, plus thousands of tombs. As we walk, I ask about the city’s changing food scene. “I think Thessaloniki’s food is now probably 50:50 traditional and modern Greek,” he says. “But what is modern food, really? I prefer traditional.”

The last stop on our shopping trip is for trigona panoramatos (filo pastry cones dunked in syrup and filled with custard cream), which were invented at the family-run Elenidis cafe in 1960. “This is a mecca,” Thomas grins, pushing open Elenidis’ glass door to reveal swish grey walls and glass cabinets filled with cones. 

“You should always go to specific places for their specialities,” he adds, as our box of trigona is piped with cream. “I could get these in another shop, but it’s part of our culture to go to particular places. My family have always come here.”

Thomas preparing the meal.
Photograph by David Charbit

All eyes on the gemista

Thomas’s stylish open-plan apartment is on a street full of tall buildings painted cream and cornflower blue, a shade so distinctive of Greece. There’s a baklava shop downstairs, which he warns me is “very dangerous”, and a giggle-inducing lift that’s so tiny, we have to take it one at a time. 

Inside his home, we’re met by Lefteris, who’s joining us for lunch and has already begun chopping onions on a huge marble countertop. Sunshine pours in, illuminating a wall of books and family photos and revealing clues to Thomas’s and Alexandra’s former lives in London, Athens and New York. 

I sit at the counter and watch as Thomas contemplates the octopus; he wouldn’t normally buy it whole and clean it himself, but he’s doing so today in my honour. After gutting it, he drops the tentacles into a pan of all-spice and white wine, then adds a bay leaf. “This neutralises the fishy flavour,” he tells me. 

Next, he adds a splash of pomegranate balsamic, explaining that it was made by a farmer near Halkidiki, south west of the city.

I ask who usually cooks the family meal during the week. “Me!” Thomas chuckles. “Alex doesn’t even cook cold water.” 

Right on cue, the bell rings. “Ehhhh, yasaaaaas,” he sings, as Alexandra enters laden with shopping bags, Sofia shyly wrapped around her leg. She greets us brightly, giving me a hug and pouring us all red wine.

The couple’s long-time friends Elina Gkatzeli and her husband Evris Chrisovitsanos, who also work with Thomas, soon arrive with their two-year-old son Iasonas and a weighty box of galaktoboureko (filo pastry pie filled with cream, thickened with semolina). 

Bowls of Greek salad, feta, hummus and melitzanosalata.
Photograph by David Charbit

With everyone assembled, and glasses all topped up, there are cheers of “yamas” as attention turns to the all-important gemista. Tomatoes and peppers are scooped out, and a stuffing of rice, tomato juice and grated courgette is soon bubbling on the hob. A comforting aroma fills the apartment as Thomas clangs about, searching for the gemista pan. Lefteris is peeling potatoes, which are used to add stability to the dish.  “We’ll put them between the peppers and tomatoes and they’ll cook in all the juices,” he explains.

“Gemista is usually a competition between families,” he adds, now waving a bunch of mint. Few dishes are as deeply rooted in Greek family cooking as gemista, which is traditionally eaten in backyards during summer, when tomatoes are at their sweetest. Children fight over the tomatoes, while adults favour the peppers. At the end of the meal, Thomas tells me, there’s usually a scramble to mop up the juice, which is even better than Greek salad leftovers — something I can’t quite imagine. 

A good-humoured discussion breaks out about Thomas’s cooking. “He’s a very good cook,” says Elina. “He’s very precise. But sometimes that means it takes a long time.” 

Alexandra chips in, too. “He’s a perfectionist like my mum. She would practise making something, like pies, so we’d then eat pies every day. Maybe I chose him because of that,” she laughs.  

There’s an unhurried bout of activity. Thomas beckons me to the balcony, where he carefully rests the octopus on the barbecue and leaves me in charge. The tentacles curl and char, and a sweet, meaty aroma rises. Back indoors, roasted aubergines are split open and their creamy insides mashed with feta, garlic and parsley to make the smoky melitzanosalata — a Greek version of baba ghanoush, traditionally served as a mezze with pitta bread and a dollop of yoghurt. 

Octopus on the barbecue at the Douzis household.
Photograph by David Charbit

I notice the olive oil is glugged around liberally — this particular is one from Crete, and it’s the oil that started Thomas’s business. “I love it,” he says, drizzling some over a salad. “I remember going to meet the farmer — he’s a very good friend now.”

Gradually, dishes are brought to the table, pitta toasted, pink taramasalata retrieved from the fridge, children gathered and plates set. Thomas pokes seriously at the gemista, the tops of the peppers and tomatoes suitably puckered. He carries it to the table and sets it in pride of place. There’s silence for a few minutes as everyone digs in, our lunch having by now turned into dinner. 

I ask about their memories of eating together and eyebrows are raised amid murmurs of laughter. “It’s a constant memory — we eat constantly” says Thomas. “I’m with these guys all day. Our life is food; we talk about it, we cook, we eat.” 

Evris nods in agreement. “We even have a phone group where we share pictures of what we’re eating!”

The light is turning pink outside when the galaktoboureko pie finally makes its entrance. “It’s mostly butter,” I’m told, as Evris cuts me a huge, syrupy slab. “Butter, sugar and love.” 

Alexandra pushes the plate of trigona panoramatos towards me and tells me not to be shy. I take a bite; the pastry is deliciously crunchy yet sticky, the custard cream cool. Thomas watches me, his own cone in hand. “Now look me in the eye,” he says. “And tell me this isn’t the best dessert you’ve ever had.” 

Stuffed, we lean back in our chairs as Sofia swipes the last trigona. Eventually, the guests begin to leave in a blur of kisses and waves of thanks. The galaktoboureko is boxed up and pushed into Lefteris’s hands. “I must go to the gym tonight,” sighs Thomas. “It’s too much.” 

I bid him and Alexandra farewell, with promises to have dinner together again sometime — then it’s back into the tiny lift, and down into a city alive with the clinking noises of dinner.  

Trigona pastry cones at Elenidis.
Photograph by David Charbit

Four Thessaloniki favourites

1. Bougatsa
Wander around Thessaloniki in the morning and you’ll spot people sitting in the sun enjoying bougasta pastries with coffee. Stuffed with sweet or savoury fillings, they’re a Northern Greece speciality. Thessalonians most commonly go for thick vanilla custard cream, dusting their bougatsa at the cafe counter with icing sugar and cinnamon. Common savoury fillings include minced meat, and spinach and feta. 

2. Gyros
The ultimate Thessaloniki street food, gyros is the city’s answer to Turkish doner kebab. Like ‘doner’, ‘gyros’ means ‘to turn’, and the dish is thought to have originated in Anatolia. Slices of pork, beef or chicken are cooked on a rotating spit and then typically combined with  tomatoes, lettuce and tzatziki and served in a fluffy pitta bread stuffed with chips. It’s cheap, messy and very satisfying.

3. Trigona panoramatos 
No visit to the city is complete without trying these crunchy cones. They’re made by folding filo pastry into layers and cooking until golden, then dunking in syrup and filling with custard cream. Trigona are found in many bakeries around the city, but they were first made by the Elenidis family in 1960. Back then, the family shop was located in a suburb known as Panoramatos, which gave the trigona its name. The bakery still uses the same recipe but is now found in the city centre. 

4. Soutzoukakia 
Thomas and his family visit restaurant Diavasi once a week to eat soutzoukakia — handmade sausages served with red and yellow chill flakes. They’re traditionally made with cumin and cinnamon and cooked in tomato sauce. Beef is the typical meat, but Thomas tells me that some people add lamb, too. 

Lunch is served at Thomas’ apartment.
Photograph by David Charbit

How to do it

Aegean Airlines flies to Thessaloniki from several UK airports, via Athens. City Hotel has double rooms from £72 a night, B&B.

Published in issue 8 of National Geographic Traveller Food

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