Dimitris Kotsaris was more proselytizer than baker. Rather than a flour-dusted apron, this mild-mannered gentleman would wear elegant suits to meet with journalists, bearing two or three kilos of his famous whole-wheat bread as a gift. He was an ardent believer in the medicinal qualities of bread and preached widely that good bread promoted good health, once even taking his case to Harvard, where he delivered a talk about the role of well-made loaves in healthy diets.
In 1981 Kotsaris opened Pnyka, the pulpit from which he spread his yeasty gospel, and gave the bakery the Greek name for the hill downtown where, in the golden years of Ancient Greece, Athenians gathered for the general assemblies that played such a formative part in the creation of democracy. It is quite fitting then that the first Pnyka shop opened in Syntagma (“Constitution”) Square. The bakery has since added two more shops in the city, in Exarchia and in Pagrati, the headquarters of the operation, and its following is such that last year a third was established in Vienna. Kotsaris passed away last year but his vision lives on through his son George, who has taken over the business.
Pnyka sets itself apart from the chains that have taken over Athens in the last two years through its methods and its commitment to using quality ingredients. In fact, the Pagrati location houses a stone mill so that the bakery can grind its own flour. While most of the grain comes from farms in Greece, every year Dimitris Kotsaris would travel abroad in search of interesting new types to experiment with.
The bakery’s specialty is a big whole-wheat country loaf, made with a mixture of soft and hard wheat, barley and oats. Once mixed, the dough undergoes three risings over eight days and is then shaped and baked in a wood-fired oven. Remarkably nutty and earthy, with a compact crumb and a well-browned, crackling crust, this is a loaf of substance: just one slice keeps us satisfied for hours. One loaf could feed a family of four for a week. (Pnyka sells half and quarter loaves as well.) Kotsaris would give the bread as a gift with a jar of Kalamata olives – an especially delicious and fundamental combination that makes us nostalgic. It’s the taste of the Greek countryside, several generations ago. We especially like the bread with cheese, butter or olive oil, but it would work well with sweet accompaniments, too.
Besides that whole-wheat loaf, Pnyka sells many others, including whole wheat with semolina and a spelt and buckwheat loaf. The bakery also makes lagana, offered only once a year, for Lent Monday. Its version is so popular that the bakery opens at 9 p.m. the night before to sell the focaccia-like bread and stays open all night long. Those who wait until Monday to buy lagana end up waiting in a long line.
In addition to bread, Pnyka makes old-fashioned tyropita (cheese pie) and spanakopita (spinach pie) that taste of every Greek childhood. The cheese pie is made with real feta (many sold elsewhere are made with cheaper substitutes) and handmade phyllo. It’s the spinach pie, however, that holds a special place in our hearts. The pocket of fresh, aromatic spinach wrapped in delicate phyllo is the exemplar of spinach pies. Sometimes we just have to eat that first and save the bread for later.