On the first day of November, the Lasithi Plateau region of Crete reverts back into fishing and farming country. The tourist season abruptly ends. The last charter flight is on its way north, the roaring tour buses disappear, and 90% of the shops and tavernas are hastily locked up — windows decorated with a selection of old newspapers. The first few weeks of tranquillity for village residents is a comforting transition — we’re all so accustomed to the noise, traffic and stress — it’s as if we’ve moved to another place. The sheep descend from their cool high-mountain sanctuaries to warmer slopes — the distant sound of their bells a soothing lullaby, accompanied by the sweet chorus of birds who’ve returned to their winter home, the roosters communicating in code from every ridge, and the laughter of children who can once again freely roam the neighborhood.
With the first soft trickling of rain, the olive trees seem to reach for every drop, their agile branches swaying like cotton, blocking any path to the desert-dry earth below. Gradually, the rainy season will promise dramatic thunder storms and gusting winds, creating an eerie island isolation, yet rekindling our connection to the community and the land and its bounties. After months of stark sunny skies the soft shade of the clouds and nourishing rain softens the landscape — and its inhabitants’ nerves — the hotel uniforms are replaced with farming gear and harvest preparations begin.
The harvest and production process in the small villages is a communal event — the land, chores and finished products are often shared because few people have the capital or manpower to operate alone. In some cases, grapes and olives are grown to be sold, while other products are reserved for family use or local taverna owners. One devoted participant is Yiannis, a builder by trade and a farmer by lineage. His family has lived in a small mountain village in Lasithi for centuries. During the Ottoman occupation, it was the village-center in the area; today it’s a little sanctuary of traditional lifestyle and food ways where new technology is incorporated whenever logical (mobile phones, televisions and freezers). Yiannis and his family and their parents share the tasks of tending to their vineyards, livestock, and communal olive groves.
First on the harvest list are grapes in September from which they make a beautiful, rich rosé wine. The grape skins (must) from the wine making process are reserved to make the local fire water called tsiporo or raki, similar to the Italian grappa. Depending on the supply of grape must, the distilling process may take weeks. Small batches of grape must are placed in an ancient-looking copper vessel set over a smoldering wood fire and the steam travels through a pipeline into a tank. The raki trickles out of a spigot at the base of the tank and is monitored for quality and alcohol levels. This process would be quite boring without visitors popping in all day, to help test the results.
No doubt, Yiannis’s family is quite popular. Their “production plant” is set up in an 400-year old stone sheep barn. The scene is something out of a Chekhov play. Grandmother sits on a little stool at the raki tank monitoring the process commenting now and then while grandfather holds court with the visitors. He demonstrates the potency of the batch by splashing a bit on his finger and lighting it on fire — his deep brown eyes sparkling like a mischievous child. A long table lines one side of the room – facing the center-stage raki tank. Pomegranates, pears, grapes, walnuts, almonds, ember-baked potatoes and raki glasses are scattered along the pale-blue table cloth — the bright colors melding after a few samples — the sweet fruits and nuts perfectly complementing the sharp, viscous spirit. Aside from being a traditional libation, raki is still used for medicinal purposes — it certainly helps a sore throat, tooth ache, cough, insomnia, and bashfulness.
The grandchildren passed by on occasion to interrupt the heated discussions. Grandfather spoke of the plight of the farmer today, the unkept promises of governmental support and the illogical fixed pricing for their gorgeous golden green extra-virgin olive oil (about $2.00 per liter last year — retail value range is $6.00 in Greece, up to $30.00 in the U.S., with savvy marketing and up-scale placement). Someone out there is making big money at their expense, especially with the demand for traditional processing, which requires experienced laborers and many man hours. So the coop members have other day jobs, and make olive oil well into the night. They divide the finished product for the annual family supply and the remainder is sold in bulk. I’ve become so spoiled by my personal supply of Yiannis’ olive oil that I really miss it when I’m away from home and panic when my supply runs low before the next harvest.
Early spring marks the beginning of the cheesemaking season. I asked Yiannis if I could come and watch them make a batch cheese — not yet knowing the local rules of competition and secret recipes — it was quite an honor to be a trusted observer. I pictured his father-in-law, Manolis, hunched over a kettle in one of the tiny stone sheds, so when we arrived at the house I was pleasantly surprised. In a small pristine kitchen, the family huddled around a table packed with meze items — fried liver bits, steamed mountain snails, cured olives, grilled squid, boiled eggs, lettuce/scallion salad, dried bread, fresh cheese and, of course, raki to wash it all down.
Manolis sat in his chair like the old philosopher, his deep violet eyes monitoring a big cast iron pot resting over a propane burner — much easier than a bonfire — with the same results. Using an industrial size whisk to stir the sheep’s milk, which at this point looked like watery yogurt, he stirred the mixture slowly and asked his grandson take the helm now and then, who was very nervous and serious about his lessons. The process is almost like bread baking — stirring, kneading and resting the milk until it miraculously forms into a mold.
From this process, three types of dairy products can be made, depending how it’s handled. Manolis made a local type of medium-hard cheese, called graviera, which is like a mellow Romano cheese. The byproducts are malakos — which is a cottage cheese served hot like porridge straight from the pot, and mizithra, a soft fresh cheese similar to ricotta, which is used in sweet and savory pies or served straight with a little salt. Manolis’s grandchildren seem genuinely interested in carrying on the family tradition. Although they like their mobile telephones and portable radios, they have not mentioned an interest in computer programming and are perfectly content with village life. They may not have the material possessions of the characters they see on television, but they’re smart enough to know that they don’t need them, which makes Manolis a very happy man.
Nikki Rose is a pro chef and food writer living in Crete. The focus of her work is the preservation of traditional food ways.
Photo: a view of the Lasithi Plateau (http://www.ics.forth.gr/2EuroDL/lasithi.html)