"a dessert called bougatsa made her believe in heaven."
Michelle de Kretser
Next week is book group week and I am currently reading the first of the two books - Scary Monsters by Michelle de Kretser. It's pretty good and I recommend it, but I won't go into it much here. No I just want to mention two tiny things from the book but which are slightly scary in that they are so coincidental for me. The book and I have been thinking about the same things. Creepy.
The first is this gorgeous looking Greek dessert and that tiny line from the book at the top of the page. This is bougatsa"
"arguably, one of Greece’s greatest gifts to the culinary world. Layers of buttered filo encase a sweet semolina custard which is baked into a golden flaky pie. Dusted with icing sugar and cinnamon, it’s the perfect accompaniment to, well, just about anything." SBS Food
It's a coincidence because a week or so ago this recipe - Vegan mushroom and caramelised onion bougatsa from Georgina Hayden appeared in the Guardian Newsletter. It looked wonderful, so I looked up bougatsa and, since the 'real' bougatsa does not involve, mushrooms, onions or marmite, I thought it might be worth a post. Indeed I started one and then abandoned it, thinking there was not much to say. So seeing that line in Scary Monsters was sort of creepy in that something I never think about turned up twice in completely different contexts in the space of a few days. I was being given a nudge.
So I have looked into bougatsa a little more.
It seems that it originated in Constantinople, back in the time before the Turks took it. However it was not until the 1920s when there was an influx of Greeks from Asia Minor into Greece, that it became hugely popular again. Today the main centres seem to be Thessaloniki - recently named a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, and nearby Serres. According to one website - these are two of Thessaloniki's best - so if you are ever in Thessaloniki - Bantis on the left and To Anoteron on the right:
And interestingly one of the most 'out there' variations I found, and one that has been an Instagram sensation is from a restaurant in Thessaloniki - it's a fusion thing - between a bougatsa and a croissant and with chocolate too. Bougatsa filling in a croissant shell I think, doused with chocolate. The chef in the restaurant has several other somewhat dire sounding fusion dishes on his menu too.
I've also seen Crete mentioned a few times here and there, most notably from Yotam Ottolenghi:
"I have to share a revelation I had while filming in Crete this summer: it's called bougatsa, and it's a slab of semolina custard baked inside thin pastry and drizzled with honey. It's the most delicious, inoffensive custard you'll ever face" Yotam Ottolenghi
I'm sure there are all sorts of local controversies about bougatsa - some of them a bit over the top - e.g.:
"The authentic Greek Bougatsa recipe calls for ‘galaktos’ butter made from cow’s milk, which gives a very rich flavour and amazing smell!" My Greek dish
Then is it a sort of cake, or individual pastries? I suspect the 'authentic' version is a cake, which may or may not be cut into pieces for sale. However it's obviously far too tempting to make small ones of varying shapes. Here are a few examples I found: Bougatsa/My Greek Dish - this was the first recipe I found, so I decided to include it; Bougatsa (Custard parcels) from Yianni Sourris on the Taste website; Sweet semolina custard pie (Bougatsa) from SBS Food; Greek bougatsa with honey and pistachios from Honest Cooking; Homemade sweet Greek bougatsa from Greek food Alchemist and a last, fancier one from our own George Calombaris - Bougatsa with roasted figs
Last controversy - or maybe it's just a confusion. There is also a pastry called Galaktoboureka which is fundamentally the same thing but doused with a syrup. So looking at those pictures it would seem that a couple are perhaps misnamed. This one is from a website called Real Greek Recipes. I checked out a whole lot of pictures for this particular pastry and I have to say that the syrup sometimes made them look disappointingly soggy. Which isn't, of course to say that they weren't very tasty.
A taste of heaven in fact.
Which brings me to my other coincidence - bougatsa - heaven - paradise - the Garden of Eden - Michelle de Kretser and Scary Monsters - Lucas Cranach and Eve about which and whom I wrote just the other day.
When I was looking for images of Eve for my post the most often offered to me on Google Images were by Lucas Cranach, who apparently painted several versions. Some were pictures of the entire scene and some were pairs of portraits of Adam and Eve. This is one of a pair and is in the Uffizi and the main character of the book spends time in the Uffizi searching for it. Eve, is a sort of theme of the book.
Not at all relevant to bougatsa really, but so coincidental in how it all linked together.
The fruit of the tree of knowledge is not a humanly manufactured dish but it's sort of the first food - in a symbolic sense anyway. A temptation and you can certainly say that of bougatsa. Which is why we are increasingly obese and not perfectly slim like Eve.
Maybe it just shows that everything is connected. More so than we realise.
Now where's my nearest Greek cake shop? Melissa's - here I come.