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.

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37 thoughts on “In the mountains of the Peloponnese, a cheesemaker crafts her own version of economic stability.

  1. greta article Lexy, a place to retreat so very far away from the fray! The memories, the visuals of these places, knowing they are steadily there, living that very life, keep me centered and full of hope,

  2. A simple yet full life. Reminds me of a summer spent in Volos with my grandmother’s family as a child. So in touch with the land.

  3. Lexy, I loved this post. It reminds us that eating locally and living sustainably is not so much a new trend or movement as it is a returning to the lives our forefathers and foremothers lived because that was how they were taught to live and eat and treat the earth. I’m so glad I found your blog; you are a beautiful writer.

  4. deborah on February 16, 2012 at 11:15 am said:
    Alexia mou ~ Thomae’s smile draws me into her world of hard work and contentment. Subsistence is certainly a way of life that the Greeks have known through cycles of strife and calm. Back now into strife, and yet living life remains the same in Vaskina…and Thomae’s smile says it all.

    What a concept of living life rather than life living as an after thought to our busyness focus. Does Thomae have women friends? I bet she loves having you come visit!

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  6. I read about Thomai a few months back in a magazine called Culture, it was a great story. It nice to read that she is still making her touloumitiri. However, the art of making her cheese is a dying art. It’s needs to be carried on for future generations.

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  8. Thank you for this lovely article. Many refugees (from the pashas) from Crete settled here on Milos and so the lovely cheeses we have are probably like Cretan cheese. My mother-in-law made UNBELIEVABLE cheese pies – and she generously shared her knowledge with me. I was very lucky. Greece is a still-living treasure!!

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  10. Alexis – How serendipitous to re-connect to Greece through your recent Globe article on Stockholm.
    Thank you for replying to my email and introducing me to your blog -http://theshepherdandtheolivetree.wordpress.com/ I have bookmarked it and look forward to reading what you have already written and look forward to receiving emails with additional blogs.
    Many thanks.
    Dan

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  15. Lexy, your writing glows with its tentative nostalgia, opening my sardonic eyes to the faintest possibilities of a route to the survival of our species; a tine branching from the sclerotic arterial motorway of a market-driven capitalism……

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