The Path to an Ancient Cheese

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We began our trek up the mountainside at a quarter to six in the morning, the sun rising over the Myrtoan Sea, the cicadas just beginning their song. It was late July on the southeastern Peloponnesos and, despite the early hour, it was already hot. We were on our way to a story. One about cheese, ostensibly, but also about a family whose lives remain inextricably linked to the land, to the rhythm of the seasons, and to an ancient past.

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Cheesemaker’s tools.

In the days of Homer, shepherds were society’s principal cheesemakers and on the rural Peloponnese Peninsula, they still are. In ancient times, shepherds poured milk from their flocks into the tanned and heavily salted skins of sheep or goats. There the milk turned itself into cheese, the cheese ripened, and the shepherds stored and transported it, conveniently packaged in and protected by the skin. While the process of making the cheese evolved, the name–touloumotiri, from touloumi, modern vernacular Greek for the skin of the animal, and tiri, which means “cheese”–stuck. Until a few decades ago, it was easy to find touloumotiri in the touloumi throughout our region of Greece. One could purchase it directly from the cheesemaker or at the butcher’s or corner market. Today, many cheesemakers produce a cheese they call touloumotiri, but few use animal skins. Or, as one friend says, few make touloumitiri.

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A touloumi awaiting use.

With my dear friend James Foot, a fellow Grecophile and a longtime resident of the Peloponnesos, and Gareth, a friend of James’ from Scotland, I was on my way to a remote mountain settlement to visit the Hiotis family. Like most Greek shepherd-cheesemakers, Dimitris and Yianoula Hiotis, along with their son Andreas, craft touloumotiri. Unlike most, they store and age it in the touloumi. Our guide that early morning was our friend and Dimitris’ first-cousin, Eleni. Those of you who have kept up with this blog know that I have a bit of an obsession with toulomotiri. After several years of searching for the real thing, I was–thanks to Eleni and James–on my way to watch it being made.

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Our friend and guide, Eleni.

Why all the fuss over cheese? After writing an article for the American food magazine, Culture, about Thomae Kattei, a cheesemaker who produces barrel-aged touloumitiri on her farm outside of the Arcadian village of Vaskina, I became 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? In the process of talking to cheesemakers, shepherds, shopkeepers, and others, I heard again and again about authentic touloumotiri’s outstanding flavor, about the blue mold that would form between the cheese and the skin, which the cheesemaker or shopkeeper would, from time to time, knead into the cheese. “Touloumotiri had the skin terroirs,” joked one friend, Sotiris Kitrilakis, who grew up in Athens in the 1940s. “It was delicious.”

Above all, though, in the process of searching for authentic touloumotiri, of hearing people’s memories of eating the cheese from the skin, of the foods they ate with it, of the artisans who made it, touloumotiri, to me, gradually became a symbol of the traditional ways and cultural vitality of a place I love, and a bigger story emerged.

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Aristaeus, mythological inventor of cheese.

It seems fitting that in Greek mythology, Aristaeus, a god raised on nectar and ambrosia, schooled by myrtle-nymphs in the arts of taming wild bees and coaxing the wild oleaster into producing olives, should also be credited with the invention of cheese. Although archaeological evidence disputes this, suggesting the first cheeses were made in the Middle East or Central Asia, it is easy mythology to swallow in the southeastern Peloponnesian region I call home part of each year: a place so fertile, so abundant, it is dizzying; one where small-scale subsistence farming is not the exception, but the rule.  Here, olive groves stretch from the sea until the landscape becomes too steep for cultivation. Squash vines wind their way around the trunks of orange, lemon and fig trees. Winter greens grow in profusion. Honey bees and clumsy, doting bumble bees browse spring heather, arbutus and pine. Throughout the long, hot summer days that stretch through September, wild oregano and thyme release their scent into the dusty afternoon air.

Food is at the heart and soul of this place, and the passage of time is measured and marked less by clocks and calendars than by what’s available to harvest or gather: walnuts, figs and almonds in the fall, as well as grapes that are transformed by hand into wine; olives in November, yielding kilos of rich, green oil; wild greens to forage from mountain meadows throughout winter; and, all year long, bread from local wheat baked in wood-fired outdoor ovens, meat, milk and cheese from the flocks of goats and sheep that roam the hillsides, fish fresh from the sea.

Here, the past doesn’t just live on in books and museums. It is a part of the present.

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Cheesemaker Thomae Kattei on her farm outside the mountain village of Vaskina.

In this region, some shepherds still follow another ancient practice: migrating with their flocks each spring from lower-altitude grazing lands to mountain pastures and settlements, following centuries-old trails called monopatia. They stay in the high-country until mid to late October, allowing their goats and sheep to graze on the still-green grasses, living in primitive stone huts called kalivia, and crafting cheese and other dairy products. On that hot July morning, my friends and I were following one of those ancient paths, on our way from the seaside village of Kyparissi to the settlement to which the Hiotis family migrates each spring. Called Babbala, it is accessible only by footpath. Once upon a time, Babbala was a summer home for dozens of Kyparissi families. Today, the Hiotis family is the settlement’s only residents.

After a two-hour climb, we found ourselves at an enormous wooden gate. “Welcome to Babbala,” Eleni said, swinging the gate open.

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James and Eleni.

Making our way through a narrow corridor that wound between immense limestone outcroppings, we entered the settlement. In the shade of carob, mulberry and plane trees, stone kalivia were scattered across a meadow crisscrossed by cobblestone walls which once enclosed vineyards and gardens. At the top of a gentle slope stood a small white church.

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A Babbala kalivi.

A Babbala kalivi.

When we arrived at the Hiotis’ kalivi, we were greeted with shouts and warm handshakes. “Thank you for having us today,” I said. “Thank you for your company,” Dimitris laughed, “we’re not much used to it here.” While we had come to watch the family make touloumitiri, this is Greece, where hospitality and food go hand-in-hand, thus first we had to drink and eat something. Settling in the Hiotis’ small kitchen, we sipped cups of strong Greek coffee, ate koulourakia (traditional Greek biscuits), and discussed the economic crisis, cheesemaking and the family’s life on the plateau.

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Andreas and Yianoula Hiotis.

After our break, we made our way to another stone building where the family crafts cheese. There we found Andreas already at work stirring goat’s milk in an immense kettle perched above a wood fire on the dirt floor. Testing the temperature of the milk with the touch of a finger, Yianoula added rennet, made from the stomach of a kid the family had recently slaughtered. After the milk set, Dimitris cut the curd into a cross-hatch pattern, which Yianoula then lifted and stirred, eventually scooping into cheesecloth to drain.

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A raw-milk cheese, touloumotiri is traditionally made with goat’s milk, sheep’s milk, or a combination of the two. The texture and flavor of touloumotiri can vary widely from producer to producer based upon the type of milk, the temperatures during the cheese production, and the animals’ forage. The cheese also changes as it ages. When it is fresh, it is soft and moist with an earthy, pungent flavor. Over time, it hardens and its flavor sharpens. When touloumotiri is aged in the touloumi, that blue mold I mentioned earlier forms within the skin, which is periodically kneaded into the cheese. The mold gives it a pungent and peppery flavor. Because salt is used as a preservative, there is a saltiness that accentuates the sharpness of the cheese.

While the cheese drained, we took yet another break, this time to eat a lunch of pasta with a savory red sauce topped with grated toulomotiri, a salad of the Hiotis’ garden-grown tomatoes and cucumbers dressed with the family’s olive oil (hauled to the settlement in springtime on the back of a sure-footed mule), and a rustic loaf of sourdough bread served with a delicious cultured butter spread.

After lunch, the moment I had been waiting for arrived: It was time to prepare the touloumi to hold the tiri. To soften the skin (from a goat Dimitris had slaughtered in the springtime), Yianoula had soaked it in water all morning and then hung it from the clothesline to dry. There was a hole in each end where the head and anus had been and the legs were tightly knotted shut. The hooves had been removed.  Taking the touloumi from the line, Dimitris found a shady spot in the garden in which to commence his work. Using a large pair of shears, he trimmed the goat hair to approximately a quarter-inch long. (I was surprised to learn that, in the end, he would turn the goatskin hide-side-out, storing the cheese within the side with hair.) When he was done, he tied one end of the touloumi shut with a long strand of twine. Into the other end he blew, inflating the skin like a balloon, which he carefully inspected for holes. Then, he and Yianoula worked together to wash the skin again and again until the hair was gleaming. Once again, Dimitris inflated it, hanging it like a balloon from the clothesline to dry. In a while, it was my turn to help, turning the skin inside-out so that the hair side was within and the skin side out. Finally, we commenced to stuffing it with the cheese made that day and for several days preceding our visit. Once the vessel was full, Dimitris cinched the top shut and carried it to yet another stone outbuilding where he hung it from a rafter beside bunches of wild oregano Andreas had gathered from nearby meadows. There the cheese would age for three to six months.

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Dimitri prepares the touloumi.

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Knotting it shut.

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The inflated goatskin.

After a day shared, our group was no longer strangers, but friends, and so we lingered as long as possible in the Hiotis family’s company. When the sun began to set and it was clearly time to leave, Dimitris and Yianoula made certain we did not return home empty handed. Laden with gifts–bundles of oregano, a jar of that delicious cultured butter and, of course, touloumitiri—we wandered down the mountainside in the golden light of evening, bees browsing the purple blossoms of thyme, goat bells ringing in the distance.

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Eleni and Gareth, winding their way home through Babbala’s limestone outcroppings.

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15 thoughts on “The Path to an Ancient Cheese

  1. Fascinating, Lexy! I am trying to imagine living in such a remote place for several months and making the cheese with such primitive tools. Wow! Was I surprised to learn that the cheese is stored next to the hide. Now I really understand what touloumi and tiri mean. Thank you for explaining it so simply. Looking forward to the next episode.
    Eileen

  2. “Here, the past doesn’t just live on in books and museums. It is a part of the present”.
    I just love it.
    Missed you for a while.
    Like Eileen Roemmich: Looking forward to the next episode.

  3. Pingback: The Shepherd and the Olive Tree

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  5. Pingback: Cheese-stuffed peppers / Πιπεριές με τυρί | The Shepherd and the Olive Tree

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