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.
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.