Combining the best of memoir, travel literature, and food writing, Christopher Bakken delves into one of the most underappreciated cuisines in Europe in this rollicking celebration of the Greek table. He explores the traditions and history behind eight elements of Greek cuisine—olives, bread, fish, cheese, beans, wine, meat, and honey—and journeys through the country searching for the best examples of each. He picks olives on Thasos, bakes bread on Crete, eats thyme honey from Kythira with one of Greece’s greatest poets, and learns why Naxos is the best place for cheese in the Cyclades. Working with local cooks and artisans, he offers an intimate look at traditional village life, while honoring the conversations, friendships, and leisurely ceremonies of dining around which Hellenic culture has revolved for thousands of years. A hymn to slow food and to seasonal and sustainable cuisine, Honey, Olives, Octopus is a lyrical celebration of Greece, where such concepts have always been a simple part of living and eating well.
Honey, Olives, Octopus Adventures at the Greek Table
- by Christopher Bakken (Author), Mollie Katzen (Illustrator)
- March 2013
- First Edition
CoursesFood & Culture Food History
Rights: Available in NAmerica, US and Territories
Trim Size: 6 x 8
Illustrations: 18 b/w photographs, 8 line illustrations, 1 map
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.
Only one ram is currently in service to the flock and he will soon be replaced. "He's dangerous," Tasos warns us. "Don't turn your back on him." Indeed, about an hour later, from inside the mane of an olive tree I'm combing, I see-just a second too late to shout out a warning-the ram slam Stamatis in the back of the knees. Stamatis winces, buckles, but does not fall. He unleashes a string of beautiful curses, bent double in rage and pain. Recovering, he picks up a fallen branch, but Tasos and Eva keep him from braining the beast to death.
"What good will it do? That bastard won't learn a thing from being beaten," Tasos shouts.
"Put him in the stew pot," Eva suggests, "with some baby onions and bay leaves."
Stamatis sits on a boulder, fuming in silence. The ram, having had his fun, joins the ewes by the now empty corn troughs. "That fucker will get the knife soon," Tasos whispers down to me through the branches.
Touchingly, about five glasses of tsipouro in to the following evening, Tasos reveals to me that his father-who is about as salty and stoical a creature as I can imagine-is unwilling to butcher the lambs.
"My father feeds them, sings to them, even helps when a ewe has problems giving birth. He has Uncle Nikos do the killing."
"Does your father feel the same way about his fish?"
"No, no, no. Those he clubs across the skull."
We resume our labor. By contrast, yesterday's work was play. The trees were young, virile, and evenly spaced on flat ground. We stretched the nets and attacked. Those branches were heavy with swollen black fruit the size of fat almonds; each robust stroke unleashed a joyful pattering of olives upon nets. Each tree yielded a telaro, some considerably more than that. "Some years the larger trees will give ten full telara each," Tasos tells me. "This is nothing."
Today, beneath Kleftoyannis Brachos, Stamatis surveys his trees with the suspicious, resigned wince farmers everywhere from Attica to Alabama employ when faced with the sight of a lame harvest. Olive trees observe a cycle of fertility-two years on, one year off. Variations in rainfall and temperature also make a difference. This year's drought, which had much of southern Greece on fire, has taken its toll. "But the trees have olives," I say by way of encouragement, scraping my bright red tsougrana at the air with exaggerated enthusiasm. "Let's bring them down."
"They have a little ... no, they don't have shit," Stamatis retorts.
I see what he means. The trees here have drilled into bare rock. Everything green looks pinched, scratchy, and contorted. The outlines of terraces show where some long-dead soul once piled enough rocks for a wall. But the trees have worried themselves into any spot with a few inches of dusty soil, looking like "a time-gnarled / community of elders," as Amy Clampitt describes them in her poem. Today's work will be vertical instead of horizontal; only every third tree has enough to bother harvesting. Where yesterday we disappeared into bejeweled branches, these offer only a wispy sprig or two of produce.
Because olives are (just barely) round enough to roll, and since we'll be making them rain down from the trees onto the ground, we must anticipate how and where they'll fall, arranging nets beneath the trees accordingly. It often takes longer to do that than it does to strip the trees of their fruit. I learn how to situate fallen branches beneath the edges of nets to create hollows into which the olives can tumble and form black pools. Nets are stretched over tall shrubs and evil berry vines that rake our forearms. We perform an absurd, slow-motion dance: balancing on the outer edge of one boot sole while hanging onto a branch with one hand, leaning over jagged stone just to rake down twelve or thirteen olives. Or else we climb into the canopy, negotiating a labyrinth of branches, to wipe out one meager colony of black spots.
"What are you doing up there, Aaron?" Tasos calls out when the air compressor suspends its racket. "Leave those for the birds."
"But I'm mad at these ones," Aaron shouts back, his head just visible at the top of the tree. "I've been after them for five minutes."
"Let me," Tasos replies, stripping the little patch of fruit by standing on his toes and stretching out the mechanical fingers so they stutter along the topmost branches.
In the end, most trees yield little more than a single, sorry layer in the bottom of an empty telaro; then we must repeat the trigonometry of arranging the nets beneath the next contorted tree. We are cold and discouraged. Thankfully, the drizzle becomes a downpour. Stamatis cuts the power on the compressor for good and shouts, "We're not slaves. Let's behave like free men and quit before we drown."
A few nights later at the bar, we get a few titillating details about the hill of the elusive Kleftoyannis. We have just eaten a feast of ortykia, tiny local quail that Tasos's cousin, also named Tasos, has grilled with astonishing dexterity over the roaring flames of a fireplace in the corner. Every morsel of the quail is as rich and fatty as duck liver, with an added grassiness that must be the result of the birds' nesting in the marshes on the mainland. Even the men at our table know they are being treated to a delicacy, and they nod with reverential gratitude toward the man who shot the birds-a resident of Kavala famous even here, on an island across the water, for his ability to bring down these tiny wildfowl with his gun.
A steady supply of tsipouro has us pretty well on the way to inebriation. While drinking tsipouro, as with ouzo,one is supposed to eat mezedes to keep the demons inside the moonshine at bay. Tonight, only two mezedes are served: a bowl of freshly picked yigantes-gigantic white beans-oven-roasted with tomatoes, carrots, and parsley, and a slab of the undramatically named dopio tyri ("local cheese"), which turns out to be the richest cheese I've ever tasted on Thasos, its equal portions of goat's and sheep's milk held together by a tender membrane of rind. When I begin swooning over the cheese, pestering the men with inquiries, they point to a scarecrow sipping tsipouro in the corner. "That's the shepherd there," they tell me. He's busy watching a table of noisy men playing bilot, the Thasian card game that dominates the island. When we ask him about the cheese, he tastes a slice from his impossibly weathered fingertips. "It's not mine," he says. "This is some other man's cheese. There's too much goat in this one." With that, he nods and returns to his corner and his drink.
Tasos's uncle, Triandafilos, cuts an imposing figure: his enormous shoulders look even broader because he cradles one arm in a sling at the middle of his chest. A black raincoat has been slung across his shoulders like a cape. His features might betray a hint of foreign ancestry-his loose jaw, flat nose, and cheerful blue eyes are anomalous among the table of Thasian men gathered there, who all look related to one another (and who, it turns out, are). After dislocating his shoulder in a fall some years ago, Triandafilos refused proper treatment and now his right hand has all but seized up; the fingers that protrude from the end of his sling are as swollen as bratwurst, and he moves with the careful deliberation of one in pain. In spite of his injury, it's clear he's still ferociously strong. He's just muttered good night, his good hand raised in farewell, when Tasos implores him to tell us what he knows about Yannis the Thief.
"Who wants to know?" he asks.
"The writer. Mr. Professor Christopher. The American poet."
"During the years when the Turks were here," he explains while refusing a chair with a little lift of the chin, "the people lived off of nothing. They had olives and wild greens, maybe a mountain hare now and then for the stew pot if they had managed to keep a gun."
"No, that story takes place during the years of the Bulgarians," someone from behind us interjects.
"Po, po, po. What's the difference? The people were hungry both times," Triandafilos says, with the dramatic backward shrug the Greeks employ to indicate absurdity or exasperation. He continues:
This man Yannis lived alone, who knows why, and would keep himself alive by pinching a tomato or a watermelon here and there from the gardens of the shepherd's wives. Or he'd make off with a handful of their eggs. Never too much. Everyone understood that the man needed to eat, so out of charity no one reported him. These were human crimes. Anyway, they couldn't have caught him if they wanted to, since he followed paths up into the mountain that only the goats knew, and he kept his loot in a cave there that no one has ever found. The mountain was named for him.
In few landscapes is history as legible as in Greece, where all the place-names bear the weight of classical association: Sparta, Corinth, Thebes. It's difficult to think of them in realistic terms, as the rather destitute and depressing little towns they now are. So I find it refreshing, and somewhat touching, to learn that far more recent history-or mythology-has been inscribed here, on an obscure bluff in an obscure corner of a once famous little island. When Triandafilos leaves, I ask Tasos if all the hills have names, if all the old people have such history in their veins.
"No, people like my uncle are hard to find now. These details are being forgotten," Tasos says.
The famous bird killer of Kavala, depositing one last bit of quail carcass in the ashtray before him, concurs, then raises his glass while proclaiming a village proverb everyone else around the table seems to know: "If you don't have an old man in your family, then you should buy one."
To get to the olives each morning, we must park about halfway up the thief's mountain (above this point the ruts in the road become veritable trenches), then walk up the steep switchbacks, past a mountain stream that's cut its way into the island shale, and beyond a complex of brightly painted bee boxes arranged between some pine trees. Around the next turn, we come to an enormous purple field of flowering heather that today is a seizure of bees. At first their collective song is almost inaudible, but as soon as we stop walking for a moment and slow our noisy heartbeats, we realize that it is in fact deafening. "What note is that?" I ask my brother, who hums his way up the scale. "They are singing in B flat," he concludes. Then, after another moment's pause, he adds, "But once in a while some of them step up an interval to a harmonic note ... D sharp, I think."
Over dinner, our hosts insist that we put aside our hard labor for at least one morning. "Show the island to your brother," Eva implores me as she pours the last of the wine and simultaneously pushes another morsel of calamari onto my empty plate. "Don't worry, there will be plenty of olives to pick when you come back."
The winds of the previous day have gone as quickly as they came, and today the sun is blazing. Aaron and I have shed our insulated vests for T-shirts. Our little car purrs around the coastal road, which in the summer will be abuzz with mopeds and Fiats carrying those sightseers brave enough to venture beyond the port town and their hideous beach hotels for a glimpse of "the other Thasos," the fishing villages and mountain hamlets praised for their "authenticity" in every brochure. But today the road vibrates with the noise of pickup trucks, most of them heavy with crates of gleaming olives on the way to the local oil press, or else precariously loaded with harvest paraphernalia: heaped green nets and robotic forearms, whose compressor-driven clacking I now hear in my nightmares.
Everywhere, we see groups of islanders spreading nets and combing trees, sometimes barely visible underneath the endless olive groves that define those horizons not defined by the sea. In short, there's an urgency in the air that leaves me feeling neglectful, irresponsible-a thousand empty telara wait somewhere to be filled, and here we are setting off for a day of lazy exploration.
While we navigate the steep switchbacks along the coast, the shadow of Mount Athos is visible now and then in the distance to the west. Far below-causing instant vertigo when I, the driver, glance down at them-are silent, massive waves, working fruitlessly to erode the white marble of Thasos. Then suddenly the road turns inland and flattens out on a fertile plateau dominated entirely by olives. The air above the trees is alchemized by the silver light their leaves cast when they lift in the slight breeze. Here the work would be easy, we understand by now: with no trees growing at impossible angles, we'd be spared the constant adjustment of our drop nets, the awkward boulder ballet.
Behind the Thasos Oil filling station (the island boasts one productive rig off the southern coast), next to the rusting hulks of five dead semitrailers, two ancient Thasians are gathering olives from their little patch of trees. They must be over eighty, he sporting a felt fisherman's cap and denim vest, she the usual black dress and black cardigan all the old women here seem to wear. To our surprise, while the man steadies himself on the third rung of his wooden ladder (they have no machinery here), we watch as the old woman climbs up into the branches of the tree, her capped head just visible among the leaves. She begins bashing away with her bamboo cane, just as farmers did for thousands of years before the advent of air compressors and mechanical claws. Later, when the tree has been beaten to death, I know they'll kneel together and pick up by hand what has been brought down with persistence and brute force.
Tracing half the circumference of the island beyond the villages of Limenaria and Potos (where we will return later in the week to deliver a truckful of telara to the olive cooperative) takes only about a half hour. Again, on this side of the island, the kafenia are devoid of their armies of bead-flipping grandfathers, the minimarts are closed, and even the churches are deserted. Caϊques, the traditional fishing boats, are pitifully at rest upon stilts, forlorn in spite of their pastel paint jobs, pulled far up the beach until the olive harvest has ended.
Before long we pull into Thasos Town itself, past the first harbor (modern and ugly, it's dominated by the docks of the competing ferry companies), past about fifty comatose hotels and the papered-over windows of knick-knack shops, down to the sublime ancient harbor, a semicircle of crystalline seawater that's been put to use for at least three thousand years. We smell the bakery but cannot locate it-is there a secret door? We search in vain for a restaurant other than the deservedly deserted Zorba's, which still has a sun-bleached menu with revolting photographs of gelatinous moussaka hanging in the window from the previous summer. After several days of eating in Eva's kitchen, there's not a chance of surrendering to such barbarism.
The only other option is the opulent-looking Taverna Simi, which I'd normally avoid. On Greek islands, ironed white tablecloths and fancy décor usually mean inflated prices, too-attentive service by polyglot waiters, and a pretentious chef. Granted, the place is beautiful, with antique nautical bric-a-brac, black-and-white photographs of the local archeology, and cruciform windows opening out upon the harbor. We are the only customers, and for us to dine they have to turn on the lights.
To our delight, since we are somehow famished yet again, the food is immaculate and fresh: a plate of wilted horta, wild greens dressed in the new oil and lemon; a smear of chtipiti, mashed feta with hot peppers; a plump tentacle of grilled octopus, drizzled with simple red vinegar and a dash of oregano; and melitzana tiganiti, crispy fried eggplant slices, accompanied with tzatziki. And at last, I eat an olive-a bona fide throumba olive from Thasos. It is as wrinkled as anything ancient should be, a black eye made blind by salt. The flavor of the island is in this fruit. Let all the others give oil; this one has enough meat to stall every other need. Which is not to say we stop with the olives; we eat everything in sight with the focused rapacity of farmhands.
When the waiter comes around to refill our tin carafe of white wine, his curiosity gets the best of him. "So you live in Greece ... or are you just visiting? You know, we don't see many foreigners on Thasos this time of year."
When I tell him we've paid our own way here, merely to help harvest someone else's olives, he freezes in disbelief, eyeing us beneath a skeptically raised chin.
Later, when the waiter brings our bill, he glances at us devilishly and says, "You know, when you're done paying your friend to harvest his olives at Alyki, I'd be willing to let you pay me to harvest mine. I've got about two hundred trees down by Limenaria that are waiting to be picked."
When our work is done on the fourth day, Tasos insists that we go mushroom hunting. "We'll gather them along the way. ... We'll have a bag full in no time, I promise," he tells us while diving headfirst into a profusion of pine branches thick enough to render him invisible. After another day of working olives in the rain, the idea of mucking around the wet underbrush seems just plain dumb. When we hear Tasos holler a gleeful "Mama mia!" a few minutes later, however, we've got enough curiosity and appetite to bound into the trees ourselves. "Hell, we're already soaked," my brother points out.
We are gathering piperites, mushrooms that, like the bees, keep close company with the purple-flowering heather. Though half-covered by fallen pine needles, they're easy to find around the roots of each bush. They're the size and color of small portobellos, but with a delicacy lacking in their mass-produced supermarket counterparts, being slightly fluted at the edges of each cap. Once you locate one, you've located a hundred, since they seem to arrange themselves into little fungic city-states around the roots of the heather. Unfortunately, they're pretty much identical to another kind of mushroom that's entirely poisonous.
"If you see red underneath, throw it away," Tasos tells us. "Brown is OK, but you must crack open the stems to check for worms."
Sure enough, about every other mushroom is riddled with the excavations of disconcerting maggot-like creatures. When I show Tasos a handful of wormless mushrooms, asking him if they're what we want, he replies, "Well, we'll see," which I don't find very comforting.
With our bags full, we resume our descent down the mountain, but Tasos stops abruptly and hushes our conversation with a wave of his flattened palm. I expect he's heard some beast in the brush, am prepared to be charged by a wild boar or rabid billy goat. Instead, from high up on Kleftoyanni Brachos, I hear the echo of someone shouting. At first I can't make out what they're saying, but then Tasos points to a little column of smoke about half a mile away, beneath which, nearly invisible, I see a house, Uncle Nikos's place.
Thus begins one of the oddest conversations I've ever heard: Tasos shouting out greetings, echo, his uncle shouting back questions about the olives, echo, Tasos asking after his wife, echo, his uncle asking after Eva and Stamatis, echo, then some discussion of mushrooms, echo, where we've found them, echo, whether they are big enough to eat, echo, and finally, by way of signing off, a cheerful pair of Ya sous, echo, echo. When I ask Tasos what on earth that was all about, he smiles and says, "Christopher, that was a Thasian telephone."
Where I come from, occupation is the key to self-definition; we are what we do "for a living." Americans refer to a work "ethic" for a reason, because in our culture it's unethical to do anything but work-and working hard is the only option. By contrast, Greeks approach all work, from manual labor to bureaucratic paper pushing, with balanced skepticism. A frequently conquered people, they prize their autonomy, which entails the freedom to act as they see fit, to flout the dictates of the law and even of reason. Above all else, they answer to philotimo, a kind of self-pride that defines their individual sense of honor as well as their sense of Greekness. How many times have I waited at the post office or bank while the teller, exercising his or her own autonomy, finishes a cigarette or phone conversation before serving me and the line of people behind me?
Here on Thasos, there's no "workday" per se-Stamatis will work as long as he wants and rest when he wants. We will work and rest along with him, as we see fit. Most days, that means we stop our labor in the early afternoon and retire to the pension for a very civilized lunch: often just leftovers from the previous night, but always accompanied by something fresh from the garden, an arugula salad or a platter of beets and slivered garlic dressed with new oil. And we will have tsipouro if we want tsipouro, or beer if we want that. And we might take a siesta afterward. Because we can. This isn't to say the Greeks don't work hard. As a college professor no longer accustomed to long days of physical labor, I was astounded to learn just how much stamina is required to maintain a farm, to do the daily chores, not to mention picking the olives, making the wine, distilling the tsipouro, catching the fish, and running the restaurant. In spite of all that gets accomplished in a single day at Pension Archontissa, the urgency to live well trumps every other necessity and the pace is always relaxed.
In the evening, our task is to sort the olives that we've collected. We gather inside a little shed lined with straw bales, survey the telara brimming with olives, and take our seats before a kind of conveyor belt made of vibrating springs. The olives are dumped in a hopper at one end and make their way down the line, where the gap between the springs slowly widens so that the smallest olives drop first and the largest last, allowing us to sort them by size while we hastily remove twigs, leaves, and other foreign matter. This is as monotonous as any factory work, but it requires just enough speed and dexterity to feel slightly challenging; it helps that there's a little nook next to each spot on the belt where one can nestle a glass of tsipouro, to keep things jovial.
When we finish sorting, Tasos agrees to reveal to me the secret I've come here in part to discover: his recipe for throumbes. Only the very biggest olives, those that tumble off the end of the belt, those too large to fall between the springs at all, are destined to become throumbes. They must be free of blemish and obese with oil. Smooth-skinned Kalamata olives, often pitted and then exported everywhere, offer only two pleasures to the palate: brine and a spongy, uniform texture. Forgive me, Peloponnesians, but I've come to think of Kalamata olives as little more than a delivery system for salt. Throumbes, on the other hand, attack the palate with contrasting sensations: though shriveled, their flesh has an almost meaty texture; the flavor, at first nutty, gets swept up in dusky tannins, as with a good red wine, moving on toward notes of bay leaf and bitter thyme. The olive's farewell gesture is its finish: throumbes are salty, like most olives, but since they never touch a drop of liquid brine the salt comes at the last moment, with as much grace as salt can muster.
The recipe, which I'm sure must involve bay leaves and perhaps some sort of citrus or other curing agent, turns out to be moronically simple. Tasos leads me to the back of the shed, to a pile of what look like white plastic bricks.
"What's this?" I ask him.
"All you'll need to make your throumbes," he replies.
Clearly marked on each brick is "ΑΛΑΤΙ ΓΙΑ ΕΛΙΕΣ" (Salt for Olives). Nothing more, nothing less. No curing agent, no seasoning, no sulfites. Tasos fills a large plastic garbage bag with olives, dumps in a handful of the coarse salt, and then punctures the bottom of the bag with his pocketknife a few times so it can drain. He ties the bag shut with some twine, places a brick on top of it, and walks away.
"That's it?" I ask.
"Yes. They'll be ready in about ten days. You can taste them next summer when you come."
It isn't easy to work our last day on the island. The weather has turned summery, with the sun glaring down and the wind barely stirring the pomegranate tree outside our balcony. We are supposed to be tackling a little congregation of olives just across the road from the pension, on the edge of a massive cliff that looks over my favorite beach in all of Greece. I'm so distracted by the view that by ten I've already made it known that I'll be going swimming.
That said, the water is absolutely freezing, and we're back on the sun-blasted rocks within a minute, trembling inside our towels.
Late that night, having eaten ourselves into a stupor (octopus roasted in a foil packet over an open fire, potatoes swimming in olive oil, anchovies festooned with dill, roasted chestnuts, and Stamatis's new wine, a fruit-forward imiglyko), we make a valiant effort to remain conscious on the balcony of Pension Archontissa. On the table before us, there's a little carafe of tsipouro that will never be empty, because Tasos keeps filling it. There's also a plate of last year's throumbes and an ashtray for our pits. My brother has mummified himself in a blanket and is nodding off in his chair.
Tasos can't sit still. He's pacing beneath a canopy of decimated grapevines, surrounded by the cats who follow him everywhere he goes, and arguing with his girlfriend, Elpida, on his cell phone; she's on the mainland and he is here-enough to keep the young lovers close to their phones, in a state of agitation, all day long. It's better to avoid the long good-bye, the futile expressions of gratitude, the rehearsal of our friendship, and the many rounds of tsipouro that would require, so we leave Tasos to his conversation and drag ourselves to bed.
First thing tomorrow, George Kaltsas (who had to return to Kavala after only one day of olive picking) will meet Aaron and me at Keramoti, and we'll report to him on our labors here before flying back to Athens. Tonight, I'll lie awake in bed another hour and listen to the waves crashing on the rocks below, then drift into dreams through which a billion olives tumble.
Back in Athens, having delivered my brother to the airport, having spent the day talking poetry and politics over numerous coffees with all the expatriate writers and Greek literati I know, I go alone at eleven to my favorite taverna, O Karabitis, in Pangrati, a chic neighborhood down the hill from Kolonaki. The place is hideous on the outside, besmeared with filthy stucco and its windows filled with wire mesh, but inside is another matter. One steps down from street level as through a trapdoor into a dungeon, enters a narrow hall walled on one side with enormous wooden wine barrels stacked two or three high, and finds a fire crackling at one end of the room. Beside it, an old man plays a bouzouki and wails poetry put to music by Theodorakis.
I've eaten here five times now, always alone-a bizarre practice in Greece, where food should always be shared. All around me gorgeous couples are leaning close to whisper secrets across their wine; middle-aged men are clumped in satisfied groups, cracking jokes and screaming at one another about the politics of the moment; a quartet of heavily made-up professional women are getting goofy on ouzo; and by the fire, the old man sings Yorgos Seferis:
On the secret seashore,
white as a pigeon
we thirsted at noon:
but the water was brackish.
I come for a half-portion of lamb (which the owner's cousin raises outside Nafplio, reputedly), a plate of horta, a tin carafe of the taverna's exquisite light red wine from the Peloponnese, and their surprisingly good bread. I add a plate of olives to my order tonight, since it seems appropriate. Alas, they turn out to be the insipid Kalamata olives I can't seem to stomach after becoming so intimate with the throumbes of Thasos.
I come also to enjoy my privacy in a public place, my chance to observe the human circus vicariously while reading a good book and eating absentmindedly, just a forkful now and then-my last chance to do so for some time. Tonight I'm reading a delightful chapter from Patrick Leigh Fermor's Roumeli, the one where he attends a wedding feast hosted by Sarakatsan nomads; last time I was here I spilled olive oil on Seferis's poem "Stratis Thalassinos Among the Agapanthi"; the time before that it was Simone Weil (whose work, I found out, is not at all compatible with carnivorous gluttony). Without a dining companion, I must attend to my own thoughts, try to enjoy my own company, and try not to look too conspicuous.
That's going to take a bit of work. I've been living out of a duffel bag for a week and am downright gamey. My lower back is aching and my face is sunburned; my jeans are stained with oil and dirt; there's olive goop beneath my fingernails that won't wash away; and surely there's sheep dung wedged in the tread of my boots. I must look a bit insane.
Am I remembered by the waiters here because I eat alone-the odd foreigner in the corner with his book-or because the first time I was here I left without my brand-new and very expensive coat, which I had to come back to fetch the next day? Not that any of them have really spoken more than a sentence to me. Solitary diners are suspect enough to be left alone. But tonight, perhaps because I'm the last one left (by now even the drunkest of the guests have been graciously ushered out), or because I smell like a shepherd and, after a second carafe of wine, am speaking Greek with the gruff demotic speed of a hired hand, one of the waiters becomes curious enough to ask me where I'm from. Somehow he doesn't seem at all surprised to learn that I'm an American professor who usually comes here to translate Greek poetry written by a famous ex-communist who lives around the corner (this is a very sophisticated neighborhood, after all). But when I tell him I've come this time to pick olives on Thasos, he seems unsettled. He turns away without any response and walks back across the restaurant, to where his cigarette has been patiently smoking itself in an ashtray. I see him relay this information to his boss, who seems equally nonplussed.
When I stand to pay my bill at last, both men rise from their mountain of just-laundered napkins to see me off. "Don't forget your coat this time, Mr. Professor," the older man says, gesturing with an outstretched palm toward the door. "And by the way," he adds with a grin, as if it's just occurred to him, "if you still want to pick some more olives, I've got a beautiful little grove of trees up on Mount Hymmitos that's waiting to be harvested."
Thasian Octopus with Potatoes and Red Wine
As a boy, I'd often follow my father into the forests of Wisconsin in the summer, when he'd build blinds and tree stands and do reconnaissance in preparation for deer-hunting season. He'd often test me by pointing across a field at (what appeared to me to be) an unbroken wall of green foliage. "Where's the deer?" he'd ask me. I always failed to see the animals he found by hardly looking, and he'd have to guide my eyes to the exact spot before a tan profile and rack of antlers would come into focus. No wonder I never shot a deer.
My eyes haven't sharpened with age. In fact, I experience a similar blindness when out hunting octopus with Tasos of Thasos. "Where's the octopus?" he'll ask, pointing his speargun in the general direction of some submerged boulders I've just swum past. I know in theory how to find an octopus, sure. I know they'll be tucked into a small crevice or hole and will have made themselves almost invisible by altering the color and pattern of their bodies to match the background. I even know how to spot their gardens (built from the inedible garbage of previous meals). Still, Tasos locates and harpoons three for each one I find. He grew up here and sees into the landscape with a clarity I'll never achieve.
We took six octopuses during an hour of very cold diving one December morning last year, and Tasos taught me this recipe for preparing them. You need:
1 octopus (about 1 kilo)
1 bottle dry red wine
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into large pieces
1 large onion, sliced
2 green peppers, sliced
2 cloves garlic, sliced
2 bay leaves
2 allspice berries
Having harpooned a large octopus and removed its beak, as well as the organs and innards inside its hood, you must find a good flat stone to whack it against. Be sure there's no sand nearby or you'll likely end up with grit in your finished dish. Smash the octopus against the rock as hard as you can forty times. Then scrub it on the rock in vigorous circles, as if polishing metal; when the muscle begins to break down it will release some white foam. Continue until the foam disappears.
Then, Tasos explains, the octopus must take its "last walk" in the sea. Puncture a small hole in the hood and use a rope to tie it to a stone right where the waves break. The idea here is to let the waves rake the octopus back and forth across smooth stones for an hour, further tenderizing it.
At last, it's ready to cook.
Place the whole octopus, along with the wine, into a deep pot. Simmer while half-covered until the octopus is fork-tender, about 1 hour. Then use tongs to remove the octopus from the pan, reserving the wine in the pot. Cut the octopus into large pieces.
Meanwhile, in a separate pan, heat the olive oil and sauté the potatoes for a few minutes, then add the onion, green peppers, and garlic. Cook them until "they are dead" (Tasos's phrase), or about 5 minutes. Add the pieces of octopus, half of the braising wine, the bay leaves, and the allspice berries. Simmer until the sauce reduces and the potatoes become tender, about 20 minutes. You may add a dash of freshly ground black pepper at the end, but the dish won't want any salt: the octopus will have already delivered that. Serve immediately.