Macedonia and Thrace, the northeastern part of mainland Greece (the areas officially became part of Greece in 1913), are home to a wonderful mosaic of people from various ethnic backgrounds and diverse culinary traditions.
In addition to the descendants of the transhumant Vlach shepherds, there is a Muslim, Turkish-speaking community in Thrace, and people of Slavic or Bulgarian origins throughout Macedonia. Pontians, Greeks who have lived in the Black Sea regions of the ex-Soviet Union, gradually made their way to Greece in large numbers from the early 19th century until the 1990s. They settled in many parts of the country, but mainly in the north. Although you won't find many restaurants serving Pontian dishes such as korkoto (buckwheat pilaf)
or a favorite sorvas (soup made with yogurt and coarse cornmeal or cracked wheat),
you will find Pontian cheeses, such as Pontiako tyri,
a mozzarella-like semisoft buffalo or cow's milk braid, and kapnisto,
the exquisite smoked version of the same cheese. The cheeses are produced in Macedonia and are distributed in small grocery stores all over Greece in neighborhoods where Pontians live. Unlike Athens, Salonica (also called Thessalonica)—Greece's second largest city, the capital of Macedonia, and one of the most important port cities of eastern Mediterranean—was always a destination, or at least a daydream, for food-loving people. Salonica: tasting mussels (the delicious plump golden fried mollusks had a crunchy exterior and soft juicy core and were served on a little plate, pinned with a toothpick and arranged in a circle around a dollop of spicy skordalia (garlic sauce).
These kinds of refined yet elementary mezes—small plates that are often called "Greek tapas"—are now fairly mainstream all over Greece but were then unknown in the southern mainland, and the trend began here, in Salonica. The numerous mezedopoleia and ouzerias (meze restaurants) in Macedonia and Thrace still serve a selection of well-executed little plates (the plural is mezes, mezzes, mezedes, or mezethes) with delicious morsels from the sea and land
—accompanied by a karafaki (small bottle) of Tsipouro or anise-flavored ouzo, strong alcoholic drinks distilled from wine residuals, including pits, seeds, and skins.
At the crossroads between the northern Balkans and the Middle East, Salonica was home to many different ethnicities throughout the Ottoman domination, of which the Sephardic Jewish community was probably the largest. The Jews who fled Spain and the Inquisition in the 15th century settled here en masse. Ladino, their language, as well as the wonderful sad-romantic Sephardic songs and some characteristic foods are still part of Salonica's multiethnic identity, although, tragically, the Nazi occupation of World War II almost eliminated the once-thriving Jewish community. Modiano, the captivating landmark Food Market at the center of Salonica, was built in the early 1920s by Eli Modiano, a wealthy Jewish merchant. The glass-covered market extends through a whole city square, and one can find vegetables, meat and fish, spices and cheeses, fresh and dried herbs, as well as flowers.
Some of the meze restaurants in the market are very popular, serving a mixed lunch crowd of tourists, fashion-conscious yuppies, and working-class people. DURING THE EXCHANGE OF POPULATIONS, AFTER GREECE'S DEFEAT IN THE LAST WAR WITH TURKEY, IN 1922, A VAST NUMBER OF GREEKS WHO LIVED FOR CENTURIES IN ASIA MINOR (THE AEGEAN PART OF TURKEY) CAME TO GREECE AS PROSFYGES (REFUGEES). MANY SETTLED IN MACEDONIA, BRINGING WONDERFUL CULINARY TRADITIONS. IN THE LATE '50S WEALTHY GREEKS, WHO HAD LIVED AND PROSPERED IN ISTANBUL, ALSO MOVED TO GREECE. THESE TWO GROUPS ARE LARGELY RESPONSIBLE FOR THE TOTALLY IRRESISTIBLE, SUMPTUOUS SWEETS OF MACEDONIA. ALTHOUGH MANY ARE CLEARLY TURKISH, LIKE MY FAVORITE KAZANDIPI,
A KIND OF SMOKY PANNA COTTA WITH AN INVERTED BURNED BOTTOM CRUST, THERE ARE ALSO SWEETS THAT MIX EUROPEAN AND EASTERN TRADITIONS, LIKE KARIOKES, RICH CHOCOLATE, CANDIED CITRUS, DRIED FRUIT, AND NUT COOKIES The coast of eastern Macedonia and Thrace, especially the Evros river delta, at the far eastern corner of Greece, is famous for its fish and seafood. In Kavala and Alexandroupolis taverns serve the best seafood one can get in Greece. Mussels are served fried, in mydopilafo (mussel risotto),
or braised briefly with white wine, scallions, and herbs, and served topped with crumbled Feta cheese in a dish called mydia saganaki.
There are some fish processing plants in the area, and lakerda, steaks of large mackerel or little tunny salted and preserved in olive oil, is a local delicacy. For history and culture buffs, The Ethnological Museum of Thrace in Alexandroupolis has exhibits of old cooking utensils and videos and demonstrations of almost-extinct handmade food preparations, including harvesting, pounding, and cooking sesame seeds for halvah and tahini, and making pasta, Turkish delight,
and hard candy. At the feet of Mount Vermio, in central Macedonia, the vast peach orchards yield
sumptuous white- and yellow-fleshed fruits in the summer. In Kozani, on the western side of Vermio, excellent saffron
is produced by a local cooperative that includes families from 37 villages of the area. Wines Wines/grapes native to this region: Brusco (made from Xinomavro grapes), Goumenissa (made from Xinomavro with the Negoska), Cotes de Meliton (from a combination of French Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Greek varieties). Note: Macedonia produces some of the most important Greek wines. The visionary Yannis Boutaris, a third-generation winemaker, organized the producers of the area, creating a program that propose five itineraries covering western, central and eastern Macedonia, Thrace, and the northern parts of Thessaly. In addition to wine tasting at the various wineries, restaurants offer authentic dishes that are ideally matched with the local wines.