City of Hosts

City of Hosts

Aylin Öney Tan -
City of Hosts

(L to R) Aylin Öney Tan, Yiannis Boutaris, Cem Erol

Hospitality is serious business. The hospitality industry is the backbone of many countries that rely greatly on tourism income. Greece is one country where hospitality is a major employment sector with 20 percent of the economy is dependent of tourism. Last week, Thessaloniki hosted an important event of the World Association of Chefs’ Societies (WACS), a major organization of hospitality businesses worldwide. Naturally, food and beverage management is one of the main fields in the hospitality industry, and chefs are stars of this field. I’m not a chef, but I’m in Thessaloniki for a presentation at the WACS conference, and together with Chef Cem Erol, we were invited as keynote speakers and presenters to represent MSA, the Culinary Arts Academy in Istanbul.

For both Cem and myself, it is our first time in Thessaloniki, our ancestral town, as both our grandfathers are from this city. It’s a city so close to us, but we both neglected to visit before for some reason. Maybe we wanted to be invited. I have mixed feelings. It is an often-repeated cliché, but the city really resembles İzmir.

At several times, I feel like turning around a corner and walking toward my mother’s street in Alsancak, İzmir, to the similar apartment flat as the same style of architecture is here, too. I bet even the plan of the apartment blocks, which are known as simply as “apartman” in Turkey, and “polikatikia” here, are similar. And there is this modern architecture we love to hate. Known once as “işhanı” in Turkey, these office/business buildings of the 1950s are still evident on the Kızılay-Ulus axis in Ankara, or in Sirkeci-Eminönü in Istanbul or on the way from Alsancak to Kemeraltı in İzmir; they are all over in Thessaloniki. I feel like I’m in a time-zone capsule. Wide avenues and parallel streets are the legacy of the devastating fire of 1917, when the city was totally renewed, but of course there are more path-changing incidences in the city’s past. The population exchange between Turkey and Greece, the Nazi occupation and the deportation of the Jews are embedded in the traumatic past of the city. Remnants of old Thessaloniki strike you within the modern texture of the city, sometimes with a Turkish bath, sometimes with an elaborate Jewish mansion, as tell-tale signs of the multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious past of the city. I cannot help but think of the colossal work of Mark Mazower, “Salonica: City of Ghosts.”

As we finish our presentation, we escape from the conference venue to explore the town. Our guide and host is Simos Karagiozoglou, the distributor of Yeni Rakı in Greece. I like to call Simos as Samsunlu Simos, as he has ancestry in Anatolia, particularly in the city of Samsun on the Black Sea. He shows us around the market, stopping at several food shops, especially the amazing “bakkal” just across from the City Hotel, and we eventually end the day dining in a typical “meyhane.” Cem and Simos start talking about their 5-year-old sons and about the difficulties of parenting. There are no borders between them; they share the same concerns while enjoying similar yet better mezes, and enjoy a wonderful western Thracian wine that is so similar to our eastern Thracian ones. I feel at home. 

On the last day of the conference, at the gala dinner of WACS, we are extremely exhausted, and I myself am a bit confused by the emotional impact the city had on me. All of a sudden, I realize that at the table next to us Yiannis Boutaris is seated, the legendary mayor of Thessaloniki. I act like a wild teenage groupie. I practically jump over to the table of Boutaris, dragging Cem along. He is genuine, warm and welcoming. He acts as a real host, stands up and holds my hand firmly, telling me, “You have a great cuisine!” I vaguely remember mumbling: It is yours too, we presented our “tarhana” which is exactly like your “trahana!”
During our brief visit in Thessaloniki, another book I keep remembering is the unmatched book of Nicholas Stavroulakis, “Cookbook of the Jews of Greece.” It is a treasure of traditions and recipes, every time I reach for the book; I find something to connect to instantly. Nicholas Stavroulakis, a native of the town born to a Jewish mother from Turkey and an Orthodox father from Crete, tells about the lost customs unique to the Jews of Greece. These customs live on only in the memories of older people, who still recall their grandmothers telling them their rituals on sacred days and festivals. One silent rite related to Rosh Hashanah struck me particularly: In the late evening of the last day of the year, they would draw fresh water from the well and set it in clay jars, sweetened with honey and set under the stars to receive the first silver rays of La Serena, the new moon of the New Year. 

I wonder if there will be ever a new “La Serena” touching the hearts of all people, all ethnicities, all cultures without borders in this split world of separated nations. Just back in Ankara from Thessaloniki, I’m deeply affected by Thessaloniki, thinking of our lost pasts, our ancestors uprooted from their hometowns. Though I’m not Jewish, for Rosh Hashanah, I did set a jar filled with tap water under the new moon yester-night, hoping the magic of the moon will turn it into the honey-kissed fresh water of these lands of ghosts we dwell on. For me, Thessaloniki is now a city of hosts that has welcomed me with warm hospitality driving away the ghosts of the past. 

Bite of the Week

Recipe of the Week: Our recipe is inevitably from the treasure of Nicholas Stavroulakis. “Pastel Verde” is a leek and lettuce pie from Salonika that is so fit for the spirit of Rosh Hashanah. The recipe is fit for an oven-sized deep tray to host crowds; you can split the quantities in half. Have 12 sheets of filo or yufka ready. Finely chop 1 kilos of spinach, 2 heads of Romaine lettuce, 4-5 spring onions and 2 leeks. Mix in 125 grams of crumbled feta cheese and a handful chopped fresh dill, a few tablespoons of olive oil, salt and pepper. Add 10 eggs and stir well. Brush a deep oven tray with melted butter, lay down 1 sheet of filo/yufka, brush with butter and proceed with 5 more. Pour the filling over this and cover with the remaining 6 sheets, buttering or oiling each. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and cut into squares or lozenges. Bake at a preheated 180ºC oven for about 40-45 minutes. It’ll host many!

Fork of the Week: Trigonas of course… They’re the cream-filled syrupy flaky triangular sweets mother sometimes dreamed of. She often told me about that the “trigona” her paternal grandmother prepared and reserved for the elder brother. I could not taste the Elenidis of Panorama but for those who has missed tasting it, the last opportunity is the airport branch of Terkenlis. 

Cork of the Week:
Not yet opened but I’ll cherish the Rapsani Reserve 2012 of Tsantali I grabbed at the airport and as I savor the blend of Xinomavro, Krassato and Stavroto varietals, I’ll cheer to Thessaloniki!