Butter: The shepherds’ fat of choice (and a recipe for Tiropita, a savory cheese pie)

Photo credit: Alise Sjostrom

One of many dishes made in the village using touloumotiri, the cheese I described in my past two blog posts, is tiropita, or cheese pie. Since touloumotiri is difficult to find outside of Greece (and, indeed, authentic touloumotiri is difficult to find within Greece), feta makes for a good substitute. There are many varieties of pites (pies) in Greece, both savory and sweet, and many recipes for tiropites made with many different types of cheese. This recipe calls for several cheeses: feta as its base, ricotta or, preferably, the Greek cheese, anthotiro, and parmesan or kefalograviera to add sharpness and depth.

To make this pita, you may use store-bought phyllo dough. For a more rustic pie, try making your own phyllo. (This recipe, from an article I wrote for the magazine, AFAR, is delicious.)

The use of the other fat in this recipe—butter—may come as a surprise for anyone familiar with Greek cookery, for isn’t olive oil the predominant fat used in healthy Mediterranean cooking? Yes and no. Most of my neighbors in coastal Poulithra, where olive trees grow prolifically, use olive oil in their pies. But the shepherd families in the mountain villages above us use quite a lot of butter in their cooking because, for them, butter is more common than olive oil. Olive trees don’t generally grow well at high altitude and, of course, shepherds have access to quite a lot of milk, so butter tends to be one of their fats of choice. The cheesemaker I wrote about last week, Thomae, makes butter nearly every day using milk from her flocks of goats and sheep.

And so, a recipe for Tiropita:

Ingredients:

  • 1 (1 lb) package frozen phyllo dough or your own, handmade dough
  • 6 tablespoons butter
  • ½ cup flour
  • 1⁄3 cup milk
  • 6 eggs
  • ¾ lb feta cheese, crumbled
  • 1 cup grated parmesan or kefalograviera cheese
  • 2 cups ricotta (or anthotiro)
  • 8 ounces butter, melted

Directions:

  1. Thaw phyllo dough completely. Preheat oven to 375°F.
  2. Melt the 6 tablespoons butter in a large saucepan.
  3. Whisk in the flour and cook slightly (1-2 minutes).
  4. Slowly whisk in the milk. Over medium heat, whisk constantly, until sauce thickens. Remove from heat and allow to cool for 10 minutes.
  5. Whisk the eggs into the sauce one at a time and stir in the cheeses.
  6. Grease a 13 by 9 inch baking dish.
  7. One sheet at a time, layer 6 sheets of phyllo dough in the baking dish and brush the top layer generously with butter.
  8. Add 1/2 of cheese filling.
  9. Layer 3 more sheets of phyllo (brushing each one with butter) and then top with remaining cheese filling.
  10. Finally, layer 6 sheets of phyllo on top (brushing each one with butter) and fold the edges decoratively.
  11. Brush the top with remaining butter.
  12. Score the pie’s top carefully with the point of a sharp knife, just cutting through the pastry into the size of pieces you will want to serve. (Only cut through the top layers of pastry; do not cut all the way down to the bottom layer.)
  13. Bake for about 45 minutes to one hour, or until golden brown. Let cool to room temperature.

A visit to Thomae’s and my search for an ancient cheese

Thomae in her cheese room.

Tucked into an outbuilding on her farm outside the shepherd’s village of Vaskina, Thomae Kattei’s tiny cheese room is impeccably clean. Its walls are dark, blackened by nearly a century of woodsmoke. Permeated by the earthy smell of goat’s and sheep’s milk, it is a comforting place to be. As Thomae slowly stirs milk in an enormous copper kettle over a single propane burner on the floor, she lists off the dairy products she makes each milking season: yogurt and butter nearly every day, a winter’s supply of trahana (a dried blend of cracked wheat and sheep’s milk). For special occasions she makes kefalotiri — a hard, aged cheese used for grating or to make the popular appetizer saganaki, or pan-seared cheese. She crafts a whey cheese called mizithra, and she makes a cheese she calls touloumotiri.

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I am here today for the touloumotiri. The cheese shepherds tuck into their bags for long days of roaming the hillsides with their flocks, it is the cheese I taste most often in the dishes made by my neighbors and friends, and it has become a bit of an obsession of mine. A mystery, a grail of sorts, if you will.

To make touloumotiri, Thomae uses equal parts sheep’s and goat’s milk. Other cheesemakers use different ratios, or all one kind of milk or the other. Between the kind of milk used, the temperature to which it is heated, and the animals’ forage, the texture and flavor of touloumotiri varies widely from producer to producer, from region to region.When it is fresh, it is soft and moist and is used in salads, stews, and pites, or pies. Over time, the cheese dries and hardens, its flavor sharpens considerably, and it is grated over pasta and other dishes.

The root of the name, touloumitiri, is this: Since the days of Homer—and likely before—shepherds have been society’s principal cheesemakers. In Vaskina and throughout rural Greece, they still are, migrating with their flocks from lower-altitude grazing lands in winter to mountain pastures in summer, following ancient migratory trails called monopatia. Until the use of wooden barrels became common in the second half of the 19th century, shepherds poured milk from their flocks into the tanned and heavily salted skins of sheep or goats. There the milk turned itself into cheese and the cheese ripened inside the skin. Thus touloumotiri, from touloumi, modern vernacular Greek for the skin of the animal, and tiri, which means “cheese.” Many cheesemakers throughout Greece produce a cheese they call touloumotiri, but few use animal skins.

And neither does Thomae. When I ask her about storing the cheese in a goat’s or sheep’s skin instead of barrels, she laughs: “The touloumi left when electricity came to Vaskina.” That was only 15 years ago.

Since first meeting Thomae, I’ve become overwhelmingly curious about those few producers who still use the touloumi. Why do they? How do they do it? And what does the cheese taste like? I knew that at least one producer on the Peloponnese still crafted his cheese that way, and I suspected others did too, but finding those people was proving to be difficult. I had learned through my godmother that a shop on her island carried touloumotiri in the touloumi. When she asked the shopkeeper about the cheese, he replied that its producer lived “somewhere above Monemvasia.” When I called him for more details, he said that the cheesemaker lived “somewhere outside of Sparti.” After that, I tried to ignore the question of the touloumi, but every time I sat down to eat a salad or a pita, there it was, staring me in the face. I had to find touloumotiri in its native habitat, the touloumi.

Why all the fuss over cheese? In the process of my searching for touloumotiri in the touloumi, in the process of hearing people’s memories and stories of eating the cheese from the skin, of the foods they ate with it, of the occasions and meals that included it, and of the cheesemakers who crafted it, touloumotiri has gradually become a symbol of what I love about this region and the people who live here. It’s become a symbol of tradition, a symbol of a place where food is time-honored, steeped in history, myth and ritual, a place where food is still sacred and still absolutely central to people’s lives.

My search for touloumotiri in the touloumi has altered, subtly, my perspective when I am in Greece. When I see balls of mizithra–often made from the whey of touloumotiri—hanging in bright mesh bags under the rafters of some veranda, I peer over the whitewashed wall to see whether there is any sign of mizithra’s mother cheese. When I wander the streets of a village or city for the first time, I visit the cheese and butcher shops to see whether there is a tanned leather bag hanging from the ceiling or slumped upon the floor.

On that day in Vaskina, after Thomae left the cheese she was making to drain, we sat down in her one-room house (where she raised 10 children) over over diples (sweet ouzo-spiked fritters) and tiny cups of Greek coffee, and I asked her again about touloumotiri in the touloumi. She laughed at my persistence. “You must know of someone who still uses the skin,” I said. While she had an idea or two, she said, of some trelos (“crazy”) who might, she couldn’t be certain. A cousin, for example, a shepherd near the Laconian village of Kremasti, may still use the touloumi, but he was a confirmed bachelor and only had a cell phone, and, because he spent most of his time in the mountain meadows well beyond his village, his cell phone usually didn’t work, she explained. In the end, Thomae sent me on my way with a short list of names, a kiss on each cheek, and a hefty hunk of cheese.

Despite my leads from Thomae, I still haven’t found a cheesemaker who crafts touloumitiri in the touloumi. When I return to Greece this spring, I’ll continue my wanderings in search of the cheese of the skin.

I can almost taste it.

Thomae and her neighbors. Photo by Dimitris Maniatis (diemphoto.com).

In the mountains of the Peloponnese, a cheesemaker crafts her own version of economic stability.

In the mountains above Poulithra, wild oregano and thyme grow prolifically around remnants of once-thriving agrarian communities: threshing circles made of stone, terraced hillsides bolstered by crumbling rock walls, orchards of almond and chestnut trees, an occasional hilltop windmill. Among these communities is Vaskina. Once a thriving shepherds’ village known for its production of traditional mountain cheeses, today Vaskina is home to a dozen or so people, most of them elderly. Its square, set on a hill, enclosed by a few houses, a taverna and a church, looks down upon the village with its shuttered farmsteads and a dairy, now closed, its slate roof sagging heavily.

Like many of the mountain villages of Greece, Vaskina’s population plummeted in the past 20 years, its villagers leaving for opportunity in towns and cities along the coast, in Piraeus or Athens, or venturing even farther, to northern Europe, Australia and the United States. Some return to Vaskina faithfully, usually in summer when the harsh winter winds have stilled and the mountain meadows are filled with flowers; others return only in their dreams.

Those villagers who do remain hold fast to their traditions, speaking their native dialect, Tsakonian, derived from ancient Doric, maintaining the shepherd’s way of life, and crafting rich, earthy cheeses from the milk of their goats and sheep. One of these shepherd-cheesemakers is Thomae Kattei.

Thomae, with greens from her garden.

Nearly 70 and descended from a long line of shepherd-cheesemakers, Thomae is almost always smiling and quick to laugh. Usually dressed in a handmade shift with wool knee-highs and a bright calico apron, the small, dark-haired woman could have easily stepped from the pages of a mid-20th century story in National Geographic on Greece.

Every morning for fifty-some years, Thomae and her husband Theodoros have risen before sunrise to milk their ewes and does. Theodoros then leads the herd into the mountains to feed on wild grasses and herbs, and Thomae proceeds with her day according to the season: tending a prolific vegetable garden, making wine, keeping chickens for eggs and meat, baking bread and paximadia in her outdoor wood-fired oven using flour from the grain she grows, occasionally slaughtering a lamb or goat for a special meal.

In addition to all of this, every morning during the milking season—from early November until late spring—Thomae makes yogurt, trahana, butter and cheese. Some of the cheese she keeps for her family’s consumption; the rest she sells to people like me who think nothing of making the hour-long drive to her house to buy it, in part because the cheese tastes so good, but also because the warmth of her hospitality and kitchen are so fine.

And, because a trip to Thomae’s is an experience; it’s a trip back in time; it’s a sensory delight. And, in my eyes, it’s a lesson in sustainability. Thomae’s life and her farm, where electricity is a relative newcomer and cell phone service does not exist, is as removed as possible from the rest of the modern-day country with its dazzling tourist destinations and its economic woes. Every time I visit Thomae, her kitchen table is filled with seasonal culinary projects: berries to be made into preserves; wild greens, herbs or chamomile foraged from nearby meadows; walnuts and almonds from the trees in her yard; grapes from the arbor that shades her front stoop. Apart from the bag of coffee sitting on the kitchen counter, there is not a sign of packaged food to be seen in Thomae’s house.

Thomae is not a “locavore” bucking the trend of corporate, global foodways; she is one of thousands of people in the region who live this way, and always have. Likewise, eating locally isn’t a movement to be embraced here; it’s a way of life that was never left behind. Policy makers, travel writers and others describe the economy of this remote region of Greece as “peasant-based.” I prefer to call it “human-scale,” “rooted” and “durable,” for it is this very way of living—one that is based in tradition, one that is modest in scale, but rich in flavor and experience, one that is handmade, one that is truly local—that has allowed Thomae and our neighbors a certain sense of security and well-being, even as the country is starved by austerity, even as it teeters on the brink of default.

This week, as riots spread across Athens, as buildings burn (according to the news, at least ten are ablaze as I type these words), as policymakers debate even harsher austerity measures, I will place my focus on Thomae and her farm. Next time, a post about Thomae’s touloumitiri, the cheese that’s been my obsession for nearly two years now, and some recipes. Until then, a few images from Thomae’s corner of the world:

Making cheese. Photo by Dimitris Maniatis.

The road to Vaskina.

Icons. At Thomae’s.

A threshing circle.

Vaskina’s dairy. Overgrown, long closed.

Yesterday’s Storm

This morning, I was planning to write a post about Thomae Kattei, an extraordinary woman and a cheesemaker I met while writing an article for Culture magazine about traditional cheesemaking in our region. Since I made my first visit to her mountain farm near the shepherd village of Vaskina in the winter of 2010, Thomae has become if not a friend then certainly a mentor and a great source of information and stories about the traditional foodways of the Peloponnese.

But today I’m finding it difficult to concentrate on the subject of cheese (or much of anything). Not sure if it’s the second cup of extra-strong French-pressed coffee I’m drinking, a little bit of worry about Jasper, my son, who is home sick with the flu for the second time in two weeks, or news of yesterday’s severe weather in southern Greece…more than likely, it’s a combination of all of these things.

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The harbor at Plaka. February 6th, 2012. (From Leonidio.gr.)

The children and I are in Montana now, so we missed the storm, but the photos and reports from friends are impressive. Yesterday, severe weather swept through much of Greece, including our region of the Peloponnese, causing flooding and mud slides in the mountains and knocking down trees and damaging piers and harbors up and down the coast.

Also at Plaka.

There’s something about a storm at sea that I find incredibly exhilarating and, depending on the circumstances, occasionally frightening. Yesterday’s storm, I’m told, was some of both.

I’m not sure there’s a much better reminder of the power of nature than a storm at sea. OK, tornadoes are sound reminders, yes, as are avalanches, blizzards, but there’s something about the heaving grey waters, the winds whipping from all directions, the waves, the spray…I love standing at the edge of the water’s highpoint and feeling all of these forces at work together. It’s an orchestration of sorts. A wild and beautiful and, occasionally, frightening concert of the elements at their wildest.

The ferry dock, Spetses. By Mixalis Kokorakis.

The dock on Spetses. Where we sit to wait for the ferry or, especially in summer, people-watch. By Mixalis Kokorakis.

Today, in lieu of recipes or tales about our region’s foodways, I’ll post a few photos of yesterday’s storm.

The waterfront on the way to the Old Harbor, Spetses. By Mixalis Kokorakis.

The images from Plaka, the harbor for the town of Leonidio, which is the county seat for our district, are from an excellent website offering news and images from the area. The rest, from Spetses, the island that sits across the water from us and where Mom and I lived off and on in the 1970s and 80s, are by Mixalis Kokorakis. (Thanks, Mark Beer, for the links!)

Between the Dapia and the Old Harbor, Spetses. By Mixalis Kokorakis.

I’ll return to write about Thomae and her delicious cheese soon. In the meantime, batten down the hatches and enjoy winter’s tumult, and her wonders, wherever you may be.

After the storm. The Plaka pier.