Peynir means cheese in Turkish and peinirli (derived from the Turkish word peynirli, meaning “with cheese”) is a delicacy adored by pretty much everyone in Greece that strongly resembles the Turkish pide. It is a boat-shaped bread that is high in yeast and butter, with a buttery, cheesy filling.
Peinirli can contain just about anything, from eggs to minced meat (in Greece, nine times out of 10 the meat used in mince is veal) to ham and peppers. But the main point here is the butter: peinirli has to contain a substantial amount of real, full-fat butter, otherwise it is not a proper peinirli.
The dish arrived in Greece in the 1920s, when Greeks emigrated from the Pontus, the Greek name for the Turkish shores of the Black Sea. Until 1923, when the Treaty of Lausanne imposed a population exchange between Greece and Turkey, that area was largely populated with Greek speakers. After the population exchange, some of the Pontus Greeks ended up in Drosia (the name means “dew”), an area about an hour’s drive from Athens. At the time, the area was countryside, and the Pontus Greeks opened restaurants and started making their local delicacy, peinirli. Nobody knows how much the recipe has changed in the years since, but Drosia – which is no longer a village, but is now considered a northern Athenian suburb – has remained a traditional weekend destination for peinirli.
Two of the best peinirli places in Drosia are Themis and Eleftheriadis. Both are usually packed at lunchtime on Sunday, which is when most Greek families go out for their weekly meal en masse. Families will be out and about with grandparents, kids, aunts and uncles, etc. Service can be patchy and the décor is not the best; these are places to come for the food, not the atmosphere.
Eleftheriadis has a nice courtyard where you can eat your peinirli under the pine trees. They also serve a fantastic fried zucchini dish and tzatziki (yogurt with cucumber, olive oil and garlic). But our personal favorite is Themis, a traditional peinirli place where you can actually see the peinirli being baked in a wooden oven through a glass partition in the kitchen. Themis’s peinirli is excellent and they also serve a mean saganaki (fried cheese made with any kind of Greek semi-hard cheese). Their other specialty is veal souvlaki. In fact, Themis is one of the very few places in Athens that makes souvlaki with veal as opposed to the traditional pork or chicken. Another added bonus is that instead of regular bread they offer guests a warm pita that is made with the same dough as the peinirli.
If you don’t want to travel halfway across Athens to eat peinirli, there is an excellent alternative on Panormou Street near the Ambelokipoi metro station: Peinirli Ionias. This take-away place also does spanakopita and all sorts of fabulous bread. The owner learned the recipe for peinirli from his grandfather and bakes it in a wooden oven. There is a constant line here and once you taste the peinirli, you know why. It is served with different fillings, one of which is sutzuki, a cold cut made with veal and lamb meat, black pepper and cumin. But be careful; though tasty, sutzuki is quite a heavy treat. The same is true for peinirli: you need to be extra hungry to be able to finish one, so consider yourself warned!
Note: If you decide to go to Drosia for peinirli, we recommend going in a private vehicle, as there is very limited public transport in the area. In order to avoid the taxi fare to Drosia, take the train or the bus to Kifisia and then take a taxi from there. Drosia is a 15-20 minute drive from Kifisia.
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