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The Throumbes of Thasos
Tasos of Thasos, whose olives we shall pick, has been drinking tsipouro at a wedding all night—until just hours ago, in other words—so when he greets us at the port we can see he's a cheerful disaster. The list of things Tasos Kouzis can do is daunting: with equal proficiency he manages to be a restaurateur, farmer, shepherd, octopus fisherman, rabbit hunter, traditional dancer, and wedding singer. The fact that he served in the Greek Special Forces means he has other skills he cannot disclose. He's also indisputably handsome—black hair, close-cropped beard, irrepressible smile—which helps him play his various roles with perfect sprezzatura.
"It hurts me to drive slowly," he tells us, "so put on your seatbelts." In spite of his hangover, he attacks each switchback. We zoom past the massive marble quarries, so huge that the cranes and bulldozers at the bottom look like toys; through the village of Panagia, where the competing, identical kafenia in the main square are opening simultaneously; past three deserted beach towns; and around two herds of errant sheep and one lost cow. Abruptly, as we round the southern shoulder of the island, the dense shag of pine and oak gives way to a barren forest of boulders that drops jaggedly down to the sea. Tasos pulls up next to the guardrail on the wrong side of the road so we can orient ourselves. The wind is blowing from the southeast, making visible what is usually obscured: Samothraki, the most haunted and pagan of all the Greek islands, which agitates the horizon like a purple gash. Beyond that we can see the faintly pulsating outline of Asia Minor and the low molars of Limnos, and after two more bends in the road we spy Mount Athos, sacred home of a thousand monks and hermits and not a single woman. (Legend has it no woman has set foot on the peninsula since the Virgin Mary herself).
It was just a few degrees above freezing on the mainland at Keramoti, where I waited for the ferry with my brother Aaron and my friend George Kaltsas two hours earlier. Even the seagulls seemed unwilling to budge from the sea wall. We huddled in a closet-sized kafenion on the fishing dock, its proprietor trying to light a little woodstove in the middle of the room. He boiled sweet mountain tea and Greek coffee for us.
George Kaltsas manages a hotel in Kavala, the largest port city in eastern Macedonia, just across the water from Thasos. The air of bureaucratic efficiency he gives off at the hotel belies his brooding, philosophical nature. "A Greek has no walls around him," Henry Miller has remarked, and while I'm sure that's not true about all Greeks, it's certainly true about George. Some years before, he welcomed me to the Hotel Oceanis with old-fashioned hospitality. After settling into my room, George invited me to join him for a bottle of local wine and a table full of mezedes, the tapas-like dishes that make up the bulk of Greek dining. Once I'd been fed, George interrogated me for an hour about subjects ranging from the structure of the American electoral system to my thoughts on Greek cheese.
Then I learned his story: on the verge of thirty, having discovered he had cancer, George abandoned chemotherapy, the job that was killing him, and his family. One morning he stripped off most of his clothes and swam from the mainland to Thasos, where he landed dripping saltwater and with nothing but a few drachmas. Inspired by a newly adopted Zorbatic philosophy (Nietzsche filtered through the novels of Nikos Kazantzakis), he lived a life of solitude, vegetarianism, and manual labor, all the while opening his senses to a routine of simple pleasures. For a year, he worked out the kinks in his existence on the island, then returned to his wife and children, his cancer in remission. He's a man of theories, passions, and compulsions and he lives, literally, for ideas and good wine.
Our conversation that first afternoon at the Hotel Oceanis was fascinating, and I found George such a curious and remarkable creature that I also accepted his next invitation: to share a feast of seafood that night on the port, in a seedy ouzeri adjacent to the shipbuilding yard. We've been friends ever since.
* * *
In order to fetch us at the port, Tasos left his parents behind in the olive grove. So we drop our bags at Pension Archontissa, where we'll be staying, and join them right away. "Don't worry, we came here to work," I remind Tasos. His parents, undistracted by the noisy fowl that surround them—peacocks, geese, ducks, and dozens of chickens—are just pouring the first coffee of the day and unloading a crate full of breakfast: bread, boiled eggs, tyropites (cheese pies), and freshly plucked oranges. Tasos's father, Stamatis, rises to greet me with a leathery handshake and two kisses. Though now sporting a harvest costume of flannel and denim, he's a fisherman and looks it: aquiline nose, sunburned skin, a shock of unruly hair. Tasos's mother, Evanthia (or Eva), has something of the Venus of Willendorf about her: she's utterly sturdy, working here all month beside the men, and yet she radiates maternal softness and grace, her voice a joyful lilt, her face always on the precipice of a smile. Both parents seem a little stunned that I've actually come; surely my vow to join their olive harvest, sworn after a long night of drinking the previous summer, was not in earnest. Yet here I am, with brother and George Kaltsas in tow, stocking-capped, combat-booted, and armored in canvas and fleece. Tasos is picking olives in his Armani jeans.
He hands us each a tsougrana, the only necessary implement: a little plastic rake mounted on a foot-long wooden broom handle. With the tsougrana, he demonstrates, you rake—or comb—the olive trees, using choppy downward strokes. We can feel the olives catch in the tines of the tsougrana, then fall, but surprisingly most of the leaves and branches remain intact. Beneath us are stretched enormous nylon green nets known as dychtia (the same word used for Stamatis's fishing nets), where the olives come to rest. The trees are fifteen feet tall and so dense with silver-green leaves and black olives that you can't see through them.
There is no pattern to our combing, no rule about moving clockwise, say, or keeping some distance from the next person. Where you see olives, you bring them down, shuffling your feet along the nets so as not to trample the booty. I gather three or four branches together at a time, arranging them into a braid before combing out its thousand knots. Just when you think you've stripped a whole tree side, you part the branches and find another layer in the low canopy, peppering the underside of each scraggly branch.
Meanwhile, above us, Tasos and Stamatis employ a different method entirely. The Italians have invented a mechanical tsougrana that runs on compressed air. Mounted at the end of telescoping aluminum wands are pairs of red and black mechanical fingers of varying lengths; when a trigger is pressed these fingers begin furiously clapping. Dragged along the upper branches, the fingers knock olives down about a hundred at a time, raining them upon the heads of those working below. At least once per day I look up to speak only to have an olive drop right into my mouth. Unfortunately, the gasoline-powered air compressor is horribly noisy, always rumbling and revving, its fingers clattering like rusty machine guns. There's no placid conversation, nor the traditional harvest songs I imagined we'd sing. Each of us sinks into an almost catatonic state, sweeping our combs to the racket of Italian technology.
In my first hour, I cover a lot of useless mental territory: reciting every Robert Frost poem I can recall, inventing the lines I don't remember; counting the strokes of my tsougrana, then losing count; thinking briefly about the relationship between Czeslaw Milosz and Robinson Jeffers, then, in an inexplicable segue, about the late albums of Bob Marley; wishing for cold beer, then revising that wish to a glass of tsipouro, a homemade firewater distilled, like grappa, from the byproducts of winemaking. It's ouzo's evil cousin. Out of such daydreams come beautifully mundane revelations, like this one: olive trees are remarkably clean. In a whole afternoon—and then in the whole week that follows—I don't encounter a single representative of vermin, or even a spiderweb. This strikes me as even more astounding when Tasos confirms that the trees have never been sprayed with anything but rain. At the end of the day, I feel some residue of the trees on my clothes and skin: the leaves wear a faint layer of pollen or dust that smells, not surprisingly, like powdered olive. Nothing is as rugged and stoical as an olive tree; nothing, as it turns out, is as pristine.
The olives themselves vary from black to violet to lime green and all are visibly swollen. Press one between your fingertips and it oozes milky oil. Though I know better, I can't restrain myself from tasting the raw olives I've flown so far to pick. They are bitter and tannic, inducing the worst kind of cotton mouth; after the initial flavor of bright, scratchy oil comes a flood of turpentine, beeswax, and rubber cement, bound together with a mouthful of cornstarch. The unpleasant flavor of the raw olive will not be washed away, and I find myself hawking and spitting for an hour. I'm amazed to see George occasionally stop his furious combing (who knew a hotel manager could work someone else's olives with such gleeful abandon?) and pop a raw olive into his mouth without any visible reaction.
For olives to become palatable, they are usually soaked in brine. Technically, throumbes are table olives that have been cured without brine, and they can be found all over Greece. But those produced on this island are of such high quality that one buys throumbes hoping that they will be from Thasos. At Titan Foods in the Greek neighborhood of Astoria, New York, for instance, you will find among the olive bins one labeled "Thasos," the island's name being synonymous with its famously wrinkled produce.
Here, a day's work is measured in telara, the ubiquitous and sturdy red plastic crates distributed by the local olive oil cooperative. Each telaro holds about twenty-five kilos of olives, which typically yield between one and three liters of oil, even more if the olives are particularly plump. To keep Tasos's restaurant supplied with oil for the busy summer, the family needs to gather between three and four thousand kilos of olives, or about one hundred fifty telara. When you have brought down all the olives from a tree, which takes nearly an hour with the very largest of the trees, two people gather the green nets together so as to funnel the olives into a single pile, where they can be quickly picked over—to remove the largest twigs and leaves—and then transferred into the telara. Today, five of us work an hour to fill two or three of these crates. If we were working for a wage, it would certainly be meager. But in fact there is no wage; we work for the oil, which has always been more valuable than money in countries like Greece. With the oil comes nutrition and fuel and light. This is why property is often apportioned according not to acreage but to the number of olive trees growing on it. In Greece one is lucky to inherit trees.
* * *
I first visited Thasos in the early 1990s, driving from Thessaloniki through the fertile Halkidiki peninsula on my motorcycle, past Kavala to nondescript Keramoti, where ferries churn across to Thasos. The highway runs along the Via Egnatia, the great Roman road from the Adriatic to Constantinople; here in Macedonia, it skirts the edge of the plain where the Battle of Phillipi was fought, in which the young Octavian and Mark Anthony crushed the armies of the assassin Brutus.
"Thasos stands here like the spine of a donkey, wreathed with unkempt forest.... It's not a beautiful or lovely place," Archilochus complains in one of his political fragments. I can't think of a more misguided, absurd ancient sentence. When I arrived there in 1992, the island's roads offered a feast of mountain air, pine sap, and wood smoke. A huge portion of the island had recently burned, as it does every decade or so. Even so, I found Thasos beautiful and lovely and green. It reminded me of the more rugged parts of Wisconsin, my home state, but with spring-fed streams and cliff-side beaches instead of pike-stuffed lakes.
My illegal camp on that first visit was at Alyki, a boot-shaped peninsula flanked by calm little swimming coves and bristling with spooky archeology. One can wander among the remains of a very early Christian basilica and the ruins of an ancient sanctuary of the Dioscuri. A dirt road led down to the single fish taverna, but the rest of the peninsula was accessible only by foot. I pitched my garish orange pup tent underneath an olive tree next to a black pit into which (according to local legend) temple priestesses would toss male virgins after deflowering them. As I stumbled back to my tent after late dinners at the lonely taverna, my flashlight awakened terrifying shadows in that gaping mouth—no wonder I woke every morning there in a cold sweat.
The highlight of the peninsula is the Roman marble quarry, acres of blinding marble excavated for several hundred years with ingenious systems of wooden winches, cranes, and rollers. What remains is a spectacular lunar surface of man-made tide pools, rectangular crevasses, and misshapen rock spines, the kind of place one could reasonably expect to encounter Princess Nausikaa and her maids doing the laundry.
* * *
"What do you call that mountain?" I ask during one of our coffee breaks on the second morning of olive picking. We have moved our equipment to the boulder-strewn grove where the Kouzis family grazes its twenty sheep. Riddled with caves and jutting ferociously into the low clouds, the crag above us is nearly barren, too steep to support any life but the most determined brambles. From that Cyclopean forehead, the shoulders of the valley drop to the sea, which I can actually hear, since today angry ten-foot waves are detonating below.
"Eineh vouno," Stamatis mutters with a dismissive wave of his hand: "It's a mountain."
"Well, but the old timers, if they want to be specific, call it 'Brachos tou Kleftoyanni,'" Eva interjects. "The Hill of Yannis the Thief."
"Who is Kleftoyannis?" I ask, "and what did he steal?"
But no one responds.
This morning we can see our breath, and a light drizzle has left us damp and cold. No one is in the mood for conversation. We pull our coffee cups up close to our faces, peel boiled eggs and oranges, and bash open walnuts with stones, staring at the forty or so olive trees we'll need to conquer here. "But as for me," Horace says in one of his odes, "my simple meal consists / of chicory and mallow from the garden / And olives from the little olive tree."
The sheep gather around us and bleat plaintively for handouts. The most persistent ewe has only one good eye (the other was put out by a stalk of bristle grass and is now grey as the yolk of an overboiled egg); she must be shooed away with curses and a stomping of boots. "Oh, my darling, my pretty," my brother says to her each time she approaches, and we are punchy enough to find his flirtations hilarious.
Each year the ewes will escort one or two lambs into this hardscrabble place, where they will drink mother's milk until their throats are cut for the Kouzis family restaurant. One would think that this would make the sheep wary of their human captors. On the contrary, they're tame and cheerful as dogs, though they lack the sympathetic behaviors—whimpering, piteous gazing, and so forth—that dogs use to manipulate us. The moment the sheep hear the idiosyncratic growl of Stamatis's pickup, they begin bleating, trotting off in the direction of the gate where their beloved master will soon arrive, his truck clattering and coughing from the climb. He brings plastic buckets of shell corn for them to gobble.
Now that we've made friends with the beasts, I feel the weight of guilt over the many plates of grilled lamb chops that I've devoured at Pension Archontissa. There they are flash-grilled ten to a plate, flooded with lemon and dusted at the last minute with salt, pepper, and dried oregano. Their flavor has a smoky wildness to it unlike any American lamb I've tasted; seeing now what their mountain grazing consists of—most of it looking about as palatable to me as a tossed salad of thumbtacks and toothpicks—I can understand why. I'm hoping the one-eyed ewe doesn't know how many of her offspring I've eaten, hot blood dripping from my chin. When I offer her the last perfect half of a walnut, she licks my fingers.
Excerpted from Honey, Olives, Octopus by Christopher Bakken, Mollie Katzen. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Christopher Bakken’s hybrid memoir, Honey, Olives, Octopus: Adventures At the Greek Table, which combines travel writing and food writing, closely inspects one of the last remaining European pastoral cultures under threat by the industrial food machine. An outsider to Greek culture, Bakken’s chapters “trac[e] the circuitous route of the goat path” in order to discover not only the inherent (and subversive) values embedded in the Greek culinary tradition, but also in the very pleasures of the Greek table, in which the author revels indulgently. Bakken’s cast of characters, who were instrumental in his education into Greek culture and Greek food ways, not only teach him about the traditions of the table, but also unveil the essence of life in Greece.
Though his chapters are not rhetorically driven, Bakken’s claim is that the history of Greece “is written in the elements of its cuisine: olives, bread, fish, and cheese. Meat, beans, wine, and honey.” And to this end, each of his chapters explores one particular foundational food. These chapters pack an immense amount of information, from the chemistry of wild bread yeast, to the caramelization of onions in an island chickpea dish called revithia (because who doesn’t love a chickpea!), to the viscosity of thyme honey. Interspersed between the main chapters are little recipe vignettes that are more narrative than how-to-guides offering glimpses into the ways traditional recipes reflect the agricultural values he sketches in each chapter.
In one moment, on the island of Thasos, Bakken finds himself “wiping the flavor of the island from [his] chin, savoring the combination of tsipouro anise, squid juice, charcoal, and olive oil that triggers on [his] tongue the idea of Thasos.” One of the ways that such food writing accesses the territory regularly navigated by ecological thinkers is through the concept of terroir. Usually considered a wine connoisseur term, in Bakken’s book it is used to embody the particular characteristic qualities of a place discerned through the food he eats. Bakken searches for the ways that a local environment comes alive in each bite of local cuisine, and in each elements of the Greek table. For Bakken, both history and ecology are components of terroir, and it seems that one cannot appreciate a Naxian cheese, or a pasta dish on the island of Chios, without a full consciousness of what went into that food item’s preparation and tradition.
In A Sand Country Almanac, Aldo Leopold says: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Bakken seems to subscribe to this idea in his book and he works to create a rich sense of place, thanks to his vivid explorations of landscape and local history. For Bakken, Greece’s layered history, with its ancient roots, offer lessons in the complicated interactions between the human and natural worlds; beyond the food, he uncovers layers of human history, cultural history, geographical history, and geological history. This layering, he implies, must be understood. Such local knowledge encourages sustainability, because to truly communicate the connection between the people and the natural world is the only way to protect the place, its culture, and the future. One example of such inscription is developed in the niche specialization of Maria Mavrianou and the pasta of Chios. When questioning Maria about the name of the makaronia he helps to shape, Bakken receives an explanation for why the four pastas made on Chios, are village specific: “the only one that actually bears the imprint of one’s hand…[is] ‘hand pasta.’” Another moment that speaks to the connection between place and people appears in the chapter on honey, where Bakken recounts a dinner of locally grown zucchini, potatoes, and bread in Kythira with some local farmers, Michalis and Katarina. He finds himself awed by the simple, subversive simplicity of “a meal consisting almost entirely of plants dressed in olive oil, with just a garnish of dairy protein and some bread” and invokes Michal Pollan’s ideas of culinary balance as a “key to human longevity, not to mention environmental sustainability.”
Aligning his memoir with the slow food movement and with sustainable approaches to food in Greece, Bakken’s message, though ultimately political, is subtle in its approach. It is a book that like any good meal allows the flavors to show themselves without needless commentary from the chef. The result is an experience that is bigger than food preparation or the individual dishes he describes. It is also clearly bigger than the author himself, not to mention the rather larger-than-life Greek characters he introduces to us. The book ultimately portrays eating in Greece as an intimate experience, one which emphasizes the connection between humans, animals, and plants. The singular pleasure of eating consciously, with an awareness of local terroir, offers a gently subversive counterpoint to the American food system.