London Review of Souvlaki
Thessaloniki and Athens. Words by Jonathan Nunn
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Today’s newsletter is the third part of the Vittles Review of the Year and recounts a week spent eating in Thessaloniki and Athens in November. You can read part 1 of this guide here and part 2 here. There is a list of all dishes and restaurants at the end of the newsletter.
Vittles Review of the Year, part 3
Thessaloniki and Halkidiki
Thessaloniki is a nervy city, positioned strategically in the long quiff of northern Greece, with the Balkan countries to the north, Istanbul directly east by land or sea, the fertile land of Halkidiki to the south, and built around a port that once provided safe harbour to Sephardic Jews. Journalists love to describe it in terms like ‘crossroads’, ‘melting pot’ ‘confluence of empires’ – particularly when talking about its food culture. But Thessaloniki is ambivalent about these influences and paranoid about its geography. If you want to find this out for yourself, you can visit the childhood home of Ataturk, armed with as much security as an embassy, whose opening up to Turkish tourism led to the 2018 attack by a group of fascists on the city’s progressive then-mayor, Yiannis Boutaris. You can visit the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle, dedicated to the turn-of-the-century battle over the nationality of Macedonia between Greeks, Bulgarians and Serbs, and which still reverberates in the perpetual ill-will surrounding the naming of ‘North Macedonia’. You can visit the Jewish Museum, where you can see an exhibition about Sephardic food while also reading about the expulsion and genocide that turned Thessaloniki, in less than a century, from one of the only majority-Jewish cities in Europe to a place where there is almost no Jewish presence at all.
Or, you can eat.
One thing you might clock about the food in Thessaloniki, even when noticing that it is very good, is that it is insular. You can binge your way through gyros, souvlaki and soutzoukakia, and they will be the very best examples you will have had in your life, but after a while you might wonder: where are the other restaurants? Not the American chains (McDonald’s never managed to break a city already built around the fast consumption of meat) nor the cheap Chinese and Indian takeaways that form a dense lattice across most European suburbs, but the food of its neighbours. Where are the Turkish restaurants? The Sephardic restaurants? The Balkan restaurants? Where is the food of the people whose labour has kept, and still keeps Thessaloniki running?