Our guide Eleni and I decided that it would be more comfortable (and much more fun) to be standing up in the back of the truck rather than sweltering inside the cramped cabin with the other passengers. Our driver whose name was Adonis (yes really) snaked the 4×4 down Mt. Psiloritis, edging us close to the drop on what seemed like 100 hairpin bends. We had the wind in our hair and a grandstand view of the trail winding down the tallest mountain in Crete.
A group of us from Friends of Amari had spent the day visiting a Cretan shepherd family. For six months of the year they live with their flocks of sheep and goats on their traditional pastures, about 2,000 metres above sea level. They’ve got mobile phones, they’ve hidden their guns, and they’ve replaced their donkeys with trucks but those are about the only things that have changed since their great-grandparents’ day.
As we watched, Yorgi – the indestructible pater familias – stirred a cauldron of fresh sheep’s milk as it heated over a wood fire. In the course of an hour, an age-old alchemy transformed the liquid into cheese: first the Graviera which matures in 50 days to the consistency of Gruyere, and then the Ricotta-like Myzithra, served warm with honey.
We joined the family for lunch. Yorgi, his son-in-law Costis who didn’t move from his chair during our whole stay, Irene who cooked and served and didn’t sit down once, and their teenage daughter Asteroula who – when she wasn’t helping in the kitchen – spent her time playing with an 8 week old baby goat.
The food was never-ending: fat-soaked chips; salad drenched in olive oil; cheese of every variety; and meat, meat, meat. Fried lamb, lamb barbecued over an open fire, lamb stew, and pork sausages. For the vegetarians in the party, they served two-inch-thick slabs of potato omelette. Actually, I don’t think there is a Greek word for vegetarian. I’m absolutely certain that there isn’t one for “I’ve had enough, thank you.”
And then came a visit to the holy of holies: a dry-stone pyramid secured by a thick steel door behind which were locked the aging cheeses. I crawled on my hands and knees along the low entrance tunnel to select a specimen from the serried ranks of cheeses on parade in the dark.
Strictly speaking, the shepherds were not allowed to sell their produce because it’s not made in conformity to an EU food safety standard designed for industrial scale production. Ironic really, since the shepherds and their forbears have been making and eating it without causing any harm to anyone for centuries.
Cheese-making for this family was not so much a way of making a living, it was a way of life. A way that they wanted to preserve; a way that unthinking bureaucrats in Athens and Brussels, with the best of intentions are steadily destroying. Instead of being encouraged to develop a market for their premium-grade artisan cheeses, they are bribed to over-graze the land by EU subsidies that literally get eaten up in excessive bills for animal feed.
Because of this back-to-front logic, there’s not a shepherd on the mountain who isn’t 1000s of Euros in debt to the banks. Now, some kind of eco-friendly tourism may be their only hope.
The shepherds’ way of life – close to the earth – is one that we can learn from. It’s worth preserving (though not without change). Perhaps the best of the old might combine with the best of the new: Costis might stir from his seat; Irene might not feel obliged to adopt a subservient position; Asteroula might go on-line to study for her university entrance exams; and the flocks still be cared for and the cheese still be made in the traditional way.
At it’s best – as a friend said to me this week – tradition is not about preserving the ashes of the past but about passing the fire on to future generations.
In any event, I thank the shepherds for an experience of the mountains I shall treasure and for a day I shall long remember. Their quiet dignity and limitless hospitality stole my heart and I wish them well.
To quote Monty Python in Life of Brian, “blessed are the cheesemakers.”