It’s been a very long time since I’ve posted on this blog, so it is only fitting that the comeback post is about something very dear to my heart, and stomach – the flaky, creamy, sweet deliciousness that is bougatsa (or boubou as my friends and I like to lovingly refer to it).
For those of you who are not familiar with bougatsa, it is a Greek phyllo-based pastry filled with custard-like cream (krema), cheese (tiri) or minced meat (kimas). You can find other variations, such as ones with chocolate filling, but the three I mentioned are the most common. My favorite is the cream-filled kind. I don’t think I can begin to explain just how delicious this it is, with its perfectly flaky phyllo layers and warm, custard filling that is neither to milky or eggy tasting. Then there’s the pièce de résistance – the sprinkling of powdered sugar and cinnamon on top. There is nothing like eating a cream bougatsa after it’s just come out of the oven. I just can’t get enough and when I’m in Greece try to have as much bougatsa as possible!
Now those of you who have traveled to Greece and partaken of the delicious baked goods the bakeries have to offer, know that there are numerous cream-filled pastries one can enjoy. For example, there is galaktoboureko (milk burek or pie) or trigonas (conical shaped phyllo filled with custard and soaked in honey) from Thessaloniki. I mention these two because I had them around the same time I tried cream bougatsa for the first time and they just could not measure up.
The first time I had bougatsa was in the summer of 2012 when I was working in northern Greece on an archaeological excavation. This wasn’t the first time I had been to Greece. I had spent about 4 days there in 1999 on a layover between my work on two other archaeological projects in Turkey and Jordan. I didn’t know at that time that bougatsa even existed. And I was probably too taken by the discovery of gyros to even notice (but more about that in another post).
Since I mentioned archaeology twice in that paragraph I should probably talk a little about what it is I do that has been taking me to Greece to enjoy all the delicious food there. When I am not stuffing my face with bougatsa, I work as an archaeological conservator and my job is to examine, study, and preserve archaeological objects. This work can be done on ancient materials in museums or other types of institutions with these collections or on archaeological projects. When I work in the field, I get to clean and reconstruct artifacts as they are excavated. The ultimate goal of the work is to aid in the interpretation of the site and answer research questions the archaeologists and other specialists have about the objects themselves and the people and cultures who made them, used them and/or left them behind. (If you’re interested in finding out more about archaeological conservation, you can read about it here).
In 2012 I found myself in the town of Makrygialos in the region of Pieria. A new archaeological project was beginning between UCLA’s Cotsen Institute of Archaeology and the Ephorate of Antiquities in Pieria (they oversee archaeology and cultural heritage in the region and are part of Greece’s Ministry of Culture) at the site of Ancient Methone. (this is the other Methoni, not the one in southwestern Greece with the castle that most people know). That summer I conserved metal artifacts that had been previously excavated by the Ephorate archaeologists.
That summer I was working in the Ephorate offices and whenever we would get a visitor who was coming to look at material in the apotheke (storage area) or to come to visit the Greek archaeologists or conservators working there, they would bring a dessert or some kind of snack. This is how I learned about trigonas and galaktoboureko. At about mid-morning we would have a break (or a second breakfast as it’s called on many projects) and always have some fresh baked goods from the bakery located in the center of town. This was how I, one fateful morning during second breakfast, got to taste the pastry that forever changed my life, cream bougatsa. After that morning, I was hoping each day that we’d get bougatsa for our break and was ecstatic when we did.
In the early years of the project, we got our bougatsa from the bakery but a few years ago a family-run cafe opened up near the center of town that specialized in bougatsa and other types of pies. And let me tell you that the Elena (aided by her mother and husband) made the best bougatsa I’ve had. In addition to the usual cream, cheese and minced meat ones, they made a chicken-filled (kotopoulo) bougatsa which I haven’t found made anywhere else. The chicken filling in this bougatsa was almost like the filling in chicken pot pie, just a little thicker and with fewer vegetables. As a huge fan of chicken pot pie, I found this bougatsa absolutely delicious. It was amazing! Needless to say this type of bougatsa became very popular very quickly with members of our field project and a staple of Saturday morning second breakfasts. Actually we loved all the ones made at the “bougatsa shop” and we would go there so often the owners got to know us all very well. The saddest moments were when we wouldn’t get to the cafe early enough and had to be told the bougatsas were sold out for the day.
Sadly I learned earlier this year that the cafe is now closed. So that means no more chicken bougatsa! Now it’s back to cream bougatsa from the bakery, which is not a bad consolation prize. I, and the rest of the team, also hope the family who owned the shop are doing o.k. and have moved on to bigger and better things.
Since I no longer will be able to eat at that cafe in Makrygialos, this means I’ve got to start my hunt for bougatsa that is as delicious or better, as well as find another place that makes the chicken-filled kind. I remember talking to Elena one morning while I was picking up our second breakfast order about how much I loved the bougatsa she made and how it was the best I had tasted. She told me that bougatsa originates from the town of Serres (north of where we were), and that is where I would actually find the best bougatsa. So I guess I know where I’m heading the next time I’m in northern Greece! I also learned that there is a bougatsa festival in Serres and the town is in the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest bougatsa ever baked so a pilgrimage is a must. Can we say bougatsa pilgrimage?
Until then, I will continue the difficult task of tracking down and trying all the bougatsas I can in an attempt to find ones as equally delicious. I also have considered trying to make my own bougatsa, but the thought of making phyllo from scratch is just too intimidating. Elena did gave me a pro-tip about that, saying it is better to make phyllo dough from scratch but if I can’t, I can use the pre-made phyllo. However it must be refrigerated phyllo and not to use the frozen kind. So now I’ll add hunting for refrigerated, phyllo dough to my list!
*Bougatsa is said to originate in Serres and that the tradition was brought over from people immigrating to northern Greece (to the area of Macedonia) from Turkey. Some sites say the recipes came over with refugees fleeing Turkey in 1922. Others talk about waves of refugees from Asia Minor bringing the tradition over during different periods in the early 20th century, with the popularity of bougatsa becoming widespread after 1922. Regardless of when it first arrived it was very popular in northern Greece, especially in Thessaloniki where in 1917, there was even a Guild of bougatsopoion established!