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.
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: