When I am in Poulithra, not many days in a row pass before friends and I are drawn to make the 20-minute (or so) drive into the mountains above the village. In winter and early spring, we go to forage for wild edibles–greens, mostly, but also wild asparagus and onions–or to spend long evenings by the warmth of a fireplace or woodstove in one of our favorite mountain tavernas. In summer, we go to check the grapes (nearly every family in the village has a small vineyard up-country), to search for mountain oregano, or—again—to eat, usually under the stars in the courtyard of a taverna or at a friend’s summer cottage.
During these trips, we rarely pass Amygdalia, a tiny mountain village eight miles from Poulithra, without stopping. Comprised of humble stone cottages, a school (now closed), two churches, a restaurant and a coffeeshop (both open only in summer or on occasional weekends), Amygdalia is the village to which the residents of Poulithra have historically migrated each spring. There, they spend the hottest months of the year and, as in Poulithra, live off nature’s plenty, cultivating grapes for wine, growing summer gardens, pasturing their goats and sheep, and tending bees as well as pears, figs, walnuts and the almonds after which the village is named. “If you live in Poulithra, you live in Amygdalia,” says my friend Lakis, who was born in Poulithra and, like most denizens of the village, shares–with his family–a house and a small vineyard in Amygdalia. “They’re basically the same place.” Today, despite the money to be made catering to summer visitors to coastal Poulithra, some villagers still make their annual migration to Amygdalia; others shuttle back and forth between the two villages, maintaining their lives and work in Poulithra, but drawn to the mountains anyway–by family, by tradition, and by the culinary riches of their gardens and fields.
This migration my friends and neighbors engage in has a technical name. It’s “transhumance”—from the Latin trans for “across” and humus for “earth”—and it is defined as “the seasonal movement of people and their livestock from fixed summer and winter pastures, typically to lowlands in winter and highlands in summer.” For centuries, transhumance was a way of life throughout much of rural Greece (indeed, it’s occurred throughout the inhabited world, according to Wikipedia) and centuries-old stone-paved footpaths, called monopatia in Greek, snake through the Greek countryside to prove it. These monopatia form an ancient network of sorts, one that linked the people and villages of each region well before the advent of the car, the phone and the Internet. Merchants traveled them to sell their wares from village to village, a father might walk a path from his community to the next to check out a potential husband for his daughter, a woman to visit her sister, and so on. And for hundreds of years the residents of Poulithra walked the steep path to Amygdalia every spring, carrying their possessions on their backs or on horse or muleback, usually with a herd of goats and sheep trailing behind them. At 55 years old, Lakis recalls making trek as a child and as a young man. “It took the better part of a day for my family and I to move from one village to the other. But as I got older, sometimes I’d walk down to Poulithra to fish and return to Amygdalia by evening with my catch,” he told me. “We walked everywhere, all the time, then. It was just the way things were.”
This flow of people and animals from Poulithra to Amygdalia and back again was so engrained in the culture that it carried with it the village priest and the school teacher. The latter would pack up the Poulithra school in spring and walk to Amygdalia, where he would set up shop to complete the academic year and, come September, begin the next, only to pack up again in October to return to Poulithra. Most of my peers in Poulithra attended school in both communities.
The trek between Poulithra and Amygdalia was long and steep (the footpath connecting the two villages ran about 13 kilometers). For Lakis and his family, typical trailside sustenance included olives, cheese, and his mother’s paximadia, twice-baked rusks made with a combination of barley and wheat flour.
Traditional paximadia are hard and dry and, because they are easily portable, were baked in preparation for those twice-yearly journeys. They were also (and still are) often found in the shepherd’s trovas, or shoulderbag (and, more commonly today, stashed for roadside picnics in the trunk of many a Greek’s car). This kind of paximadia we re-hydrate with a little water, wine or oil before eating in place of bread with salad, soup or stew, or as a snack with a little touloumotiri (the mother of feta cheese), a sliced tomato, a handful of olives, and a bit of wine.
Greeks have eaten paximadia since antiquity. Today, the rusks are experiencing a resurgence of sorts and come in all shapes, flavors and sizes. Some are made with barley, others with ground chick pea, rye or wheat, or a combination of those flours. Some are sweet and crumbly, others are savory. Some are flavored with orange or lemon, others with anise, sesame, even chocolate; still others are seasoned with sea salt and herbs.
This weekend I will post a recipe for paximadia similar to the rusks my neighbors in Poulithra baked for their seasonal treks into and out of the mountains, and I will take a brief but delicious departure from all things Peloponnesian to post a recipe for a scrumptious bread salad from the island of Crete called Dakos, in which paximadia is an ingredient. In the days to follow, we will explore other variations on the paximadia theme.