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Saturday, 12 April 2008

Bougatsa Iordanis (Η μπουγάτσα του Ιορδάνη)


Bougatsa Iordanis is the iconic symbol of local Hania cuisine when it comes to food. If you're a Hanioti (or Haniotissa, if you're a woman) living away from the island, when you arrive in Hania on the ferry in the early hours of the day (it docks in Souda Harbour at 6am), your first stop will probably be Iordanis bougatsadiko. The shop is full of travellers and locals every day from 6am up until 2pm when it closes. It has become a cult symbol - a visit to Hania is incomplete without a visit to Iordanis' bougatsadiko, kind of like eating at Bairaktaris in Athens, or Wong Kei in London.

The centrally located shops - Iordanis has a number outlets in Hania - sell bougatsa (μπουγάτσα - mpougatsa), and nothing else (apart from coffee, soft drinks and water). Bougatsa is a kind of pie made with crusty filo pastry and filled with creamy white cheese filling, cut up into small pieces, with sugar (and optionally, cinnamon) sprinkled all over it. It's said that the recipe is a secret - bougatsa Iordanis is NOT the same as the bougatsa custard sold in other parts of Greece. Another eccentric bit of trivia is that, although bougatsa Iordanis is presented on the plate (or wrapped up for a takeaway) as a serving, it's actually sold by the kilo; your serving is exactly 210g of bougatsa pie.

The pies are made in the outlet with the ovens - an old-looking non-descript building behind the town hall. On first looks, nothing special seems to be happening in this place. A few people in white aprons are pouring creamy white filling onto filo pastry, wrapping it up, plonking it onto oven trays, and shovelling trays of bougatsa in and out of the ovens, while a few young men strap the trays behind their motorbikes and deliver them to the other outlets. The atmosphere is monotonous, dull, old-fashioned: faded pictures on the wall, straw woven chairs, rickety tables. Only locals sit here; they come for the pie, not the decor! You can be guaranteed a serving of bougatsa here; you will actually see it coming out fresh from the oven. If you go to another outlet, you'll have to be patient until it arrives on the scooter if they've run out - and people do wait for it to come. The place to be is the fashionable mid-town store, the one all people visit, from politicians to celebrities, from foreign tourists wearing Birkenstocks to mums carting young children around and stopping for a healthy, fresh morning snack; bougatsa is served within the half-hour it is cooked.

Anyone who has been into Iordanis bougatsadiko will surely always remember the old woman at the counter. She serves up every single order of bougatsa. She is a frightful sight. Despite her perfect coiffure, her taste in clothes has not changed since the 1960s. Her fingers, wrists, ears and neck rattle with thick'n'chunky gold jewellery full of gold coins, while her extra-long, painted fingernails curl up at the ends. She never smiles or says 'Thank you' when the customer pays for their order. She is never away from the shop, and always sits looking high and mighty behind the till. As she metes out the bougatsa, she checks its weight on one of those old fashioned scales with hanging weights. If the piece is 10g overweight, she nips off a corner of pie with a pizza knife. If it's 10g underweight, she adds the 10g bit she cut off from a previous serving. On first impression, the customer will interpret this as an act of stinginess; however, you can feel rest assured that you will not be ripped off here. And if the lighting is too dim for you, just think how much energy (who said money?) the shop owners are saving for the environment... Just pretend you're at Wong Kei's in London, the rudest Chinese restaurant in the world, according to some reviews. It's never been out of business, either.

Lars has captured the mood of the "Queen" very well. He was obviously writing many years ago, as he mentions drachmas (phased out since 2002), but the essence of the atmosphere is all there:
We are heading for "Iordanis" to have bougatsa, which I believe is a speciality of Crete... Four ladies are running the place, no sorry one Queen and three ladies. The Queen handles the money and decides almost everything; her head is high and her eyes can be very black if something is not to her taste...
"Dio me sachari, parakalo; two with sugar, please". The lady behind the desk takes out a newly arrived piece (bougatsa is delivered almost every 30th minute by a boy on a motorbike) and cuts it into 3 cm square pieces and checks if the weight is ok. She adds a small piece and then adds some sugar on top and puts it on a plate. We are served two plates, two glasses of water and the bill is put under the ashtray. It is a very good and very tasty start of a new day...

bougatsa iordanis
The bill should say Drs 1.200 but say 1.600?? The Queen is of course very sorry for the mistake. We don't blame her because it is still early in the morning. Behind her back though the other ladies are smiling. "Den pirazi, geia sas, it doesn't matter, bye"
The "other ladies" are in fact always trying to make up for the Queen's shortcomings!

I can't tell you exactly how Iordanis makes his bougatsa: I only found one web photograph closest in its resemblance, but to make a similar bougatsa to Iordanis, you need:
500g mizithra (ricotta-type soft curd cheese, a local speciality of Crete)
75g fine semolina
1 egg (optional - not adding it will keep the bougatsa a white colour, which is the colour of Iordanis bougatsa)
grated zest of a lemon (let's make it more tangy at home; Iordanis serves his plain)
1/4 cup of sugar (this is optional - you're going to sprinkle sugar all over it anyway!)
1 cup of milk
500g of thin filo pastry
100g melted butter or olive oil (oil is healthier)
extra granular (NOT icing) sugar and cinnamon, to sprinkle over the hot pie

This bougatsa will serve 10 people; be prepared to halve the recipe if you're not going to eat it all in one night, because bougatsa is best served immediately on being cooked (although it does re-heat nicely in the microwave the next morning for breakfast). Iordanis serves his within the half hour after it is made. Mix all the filling ingredients together to blend them well together, forming a thick creamy mixture. To make 'envelope parcels' of bougatsa (the traditional shape), spread evenly, in a thin layer, some filling onto the middle of a sheet of pastry. Wrap up the single sheet of pastry into a rectangular parcel. Then roll it up again in another sheet of pastry. Place it onto a greased tray, and brush oil or butter all over it. Make as many parcels as the filling allows. I was left with four sheets of pastry from the 500g packet, but I could easily have used those up too, had I made thinner parcels with less filling. Cook the parcels in a moderate oven, till the pastry takes on a golden crusty colour (about 20 minutes).

When it is cooked, slide the bougatsa off the baking tin with a metal scraper, so as not to break the hot parcel. Cut it into small pieces and sprinkle sugar (and cinnamon) all over it - watch out for crusty bits of filo filling up your work top! Another way to cook it is in a spiral form - it cuts up more tidily, and it is easier to handle. The proof of a good recipe comes straight from the eaters' mouths: "NOW you've made real bougatsa Mum!" This dessert is usually eaten just hot enough so as not to burn your tongue! And it's served with a simple glass of water or a coffee.

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MORE PUDDINGS:
Apple pie
Brownies
Chocolate cake

Chocolate pancakes
Walnut cake
Tiropitakia
Halva
Fruit crumble
Sfakianes pites

CRETAN PRODUCE:
Soft mizithra cheese
Xinohondro (hondro)
Stamnagathi
Avronies (wild asparagus)
Dakos rusk salad
Orange juice
Lagos stifado
Sorrel
Silverbeet
Black mustard greens
Malotira
Olives tsakistes - pastes
Olive oil
Eating locally