Wednesday 1 November 2023

Παγκόσμια Ημέρα Πατσά - World Tripe Day

It is not widely known that 24 October is World Tripe Day. This year, for the first time, as I will explain, I feel I can share in the joy of the celebrations. I regard it as a Day of Redemption.

I, who will generally eat anything and everything, go back a long way with patsas. To 1977, in fact, when I was living in Kypseli, Athens. On Fokionos Negri at the time there was a restaurant specialising in the food of Thessaloniki. Over a delicious plate of kokeretsi one night in down-town Athens, my parea had challenged me to try patsas.
I chewed over the idea for a few weeks - the challenge seemed to grow larger the more I thought about it. No way was I going to try patsas in company, so one evening, hungry after an evening teaching in the phrontisterio, I entered the patsas restaurant and ordered a bowl of their finest.
My unease must have communicated itself to the waiting staff, as I recall there were three or four white-shirted waiters gathered around me as I dipped my spoon into the steaming bowl before me. It was, I recall, much the same colour as the water left in the sink after washing-up a large and greasy meal. The smell was over-powering; I felt my stomach start to ‘turn’ in protest.
But I couldn’t just sit there, staring. The waiters were watching, their heads lowered towards me, closing in on me, adding to the tension. The tension further tightened my stomach. The spoon to bowl - spoon to mouth moment could be delayed no longer.
First sip: disgusting! The waiters smirked. I tried again - a proper spoonful this time. I gulped it down, by-passing contact with my mouth as far as possible, it hit the gullet then the stomach that clenched in protest, registering a powerful urge to send the patsas straight back up the way it had come down. I managed to resist it. To the waiters’ great amusement.
Instantly I knew, it was impossible to continue. My guts had delivered an emphatic message: any more of that will be expelled with force. To my shame, I had to stop. A sip and a spoonful only. The bowl was removed and I chose something bland from the menu.
August 2023: for the first time, we are spending a few days in Thessaloniki, not just passing through. I knew what I had to do. Down a bowl of patsas and redeem my shame. I was a man on a mission. And what if I failed again? Unthinkable.
All recommendations from locals in Thessaloniki pointed us towards Tsarouchas’ Patsas Restaurant, Olympou 78. ‘The best patsas in Greece’ TripAdvisor confirmed.
This was going to be a ‘now or never’ moment. Early evening Google Maps led us through the streets and I found myself tensing; I didn’t need to be doing this, there is free will and agency in choosing where to dine, this could be an almighty mistake and patsas might well be just as disgusting second-time around.
I came clean with our waitress, a calm middle-aged lady, and relayed the above history. She led us into the kitchen where the founder’s son was stirring a large vat of a gently bubbling broth, lighter in colour than I remembered it from, yes, 46 years ago. With a wooden ladle from the bottom of the pan, he lifted before our eyes a number of cows’ stomachs, white, intact and with a ribbed and rubbery texture. They generate their own ‘oil’, he explained.
To make the stock, he was boiling cows feet in a separate smaller pan. Before serving a bowl of the soup, if you like, he adds garlic and a few drops of sweet pepper which settles on the surface in orange rings.
The waitress advised he should flavour my helping ‘απ΄όλα και λεπτή΄. When the bowl arrived, filled to the brin and a little beyond, it was clear this instruction meant the stomach should be finely shredded: the bowl contained thousands of tiny shreds of it.
And now the moment of truth: the first sip. The waitress and chef gathered round to watch but in them I felt I had a sympathetic audience, wishing me to succeed, so different to the leering young waiters of all those years ago. My wife had her camera at the ready.
The first taste was unpleasant. But no protest from my own stomach. Two or three spoonfuls in I was able to come to a conclusion: this experience was not going to be particularly pleasant; I would not particularly enjoy this meal but I would hold it down. My eating gathered speed. And I would leave the restaurant soon enough with honour intact and my old shame redeemed.
Richard Devereux

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