My mother and I have arrived on a small Greek island in the Myrtoan Sea, a place where the scent of warm pine needles and herbs growing wild on terraced hillsides mingles with fumes from the fishermen’s caïques and the stink of fishing nets drying in the sun. There are no cars here, so we walk the pathways that wind through the village, past whitewashed stone houses with walled gardens brimming with bougainvillea, beneath lemon trees and aromatic jasmine, past cafés where old men sit with worry beads and tiny cups of Greek coffee. It is 1977 and I am ten years old. We’ll stay on this island for the next year, or maybe forever. This is how our lives are—spontaneous, exhilarating, ever shifting.
On this bright blue morning in late summer, we’ve just come from the butcher’s shop where the skinned carcasses of goats, lambs, and fowl hang from hooks that dangle from the ceiling. Now we’re in a village market and I’m searching the shelves for something I know well, perhaps a reassuring box of cereal emblazoned with a smiling tiger’s face, or a slender carton of Kraft macaroni with its bright orange powdered cheese that, I am sure, when combined with the cooked pasta, milk, and melting butter, will become something familiar.
Instead, the jars and cans stacked neatly on the shelves are packed with pickled octopus, tiny fish, grape leaves, squid. In baskets that line the wall, I see mounds of lentils, yellow split peas, red onions, potatoes caked with dirt. Olives of various shapes, colors, and sizes float in barrels of dark, watery brine. A glass case holds massive rounds of cheese. The air smells musky, like a shadowy barn.
I look around and see something hanging from the ceiling behind the counter, a thing that I will eventually forget until, decades later, I remember it, in that startling, How-did-I-forget-this? sort of way. And from that point on, the thing will become an obsession. It’s the skin of an animal, one that’s been turned inside out, scrubbed clean and white, and packed so full with some substance that it looks bizarrely rotund, like a caricature of the carcasses hanging in the butcher’s shop. It’s both curious and grotesque and I can’t stop looking at it.
I often kept a copy of The Children’s Homer tucked into my backpack. I spent a lot of time alone, reading and daydreaming, and soon I began to believe the implausible: that Homer’s one-eyed, cheesemaking giant, Polyphemus, probably lived on our island. He was probably the maker of that repulsive, delicious-smelling cheese. Because, like, who else?
Some days later, we return to the market for fresh eggs and a few provisions to round out our new pantry. An elderly woman bustles in, leans against the counter, toothpick bobbing in her mouth, and places her order. The shopkeeper, Panayiotis, is tall, maybe my mother’s age, with warm chestnut eyes. He talks and laughs with the woman as he works, cutting into a round of cheese and removing a wedge that he weighs and then wraps in bright white paper. Since we arrived at the market, I’ve avoided looking at the strange inside-out creature in the corner. But when I see the shopkeeper stride to where it hangs, my eyes follow. He removes it from its hook, foists it onto the counter, and scoops out some of the stuff inside.
The author at a Greek wedding on the island, circa 1977
The contents are white, solid, creamy . . . and pungent. Even standing across the room I am hit full force by its odor, earthy and sharp. It is, I realize with disbelief, more than a little bit like the tangy scent of my beloved Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. But it can’t be. It just can’t. Because there is the repulsiveness of its white, fleshy, container once very much alive.
I sense that breakfast could easily rise in my throat, but here is my always inquisitive mother, standing at the counter beside Panayiotis and his customer, watching curiously. He offers her a slice of the stuff, which she tastes without hesitation. “Oh!” she exclaims, delightedly. And then, “It’s cheese!”
Panayiotis and his customer beam—thrilled that the beautiful foreigner likes the stuff that hangs in the bloated carcass. Then they all look at me, smiling with anticipation as Panayiotis cuts another slice and stretches out a hand, offering it to me. But I can’t taste it. I won’t. If I do, I am sure I will vomit. “But you will loff it,” I hear him call after me as I run out the door. Breakfast splatters on the cobblestone lane.
* * *
I was an anxious child, prone to counting my fingers and other behaviors to try to keep my small world orderly and predictable—to control something, anything, because what I could not control was boundless. I could not control my parents’ decision to divorce, for instance, and my father’s disappearance from the constellation of our family. I couldn’t control my mother’s boyfriend, who was by turns loving and raging. Later, after we left him, I could not control my mother’s delightful if at times unnerving impulsivity, which, among other things, moved us all the way to Greece.
But I could control what I chose to eat.
In those days, I often kept a copy of The Children’s Homer tucked into my backpack. I liked to imagine that Odysseus had sailed right by our island. I spent a lot of time alone, reading and daydreaming, and soon I began to believe the implausible: in this case, that Homer’s one-eyed, cheesemaking giant, Polyphemus, whose cave was filled with goats, sheep, and “vessels, bowls, and milk pails . . . swimming with whey” probably lived on our island. He was probably the maker of that repulsive, delicious-smelling cheese. Because, like, who else?
Draining the whey (Photo by James Foot)
Years later, I would read that in Homer’s time, shepherds—not Cyclopes—were the principal cheesemakers. Food historians say that they’d store and transport the milk from their flocks in cleaned and heavily salted skins of sheep or goats. There, the milk turned itself into cheese and the cheese ripened inside the skin. The contemporary name for the cheese, touloumotiri, comes from touloumi, modern vernacular Greek for something like “skin of the animal,” and tiri, which means “cheese.” In other words, it is “the cheese of the skin.”
* * *
It takes nearly a year of encouragement and learning how to “eat like a Greek” before I dare to taste touloumotiri. By then, I am eating olives by the dozen and have learned to sop up the island’s rich, green olive oil with a hunk of wood-fired whole-grain bread. I eat wild greens, called horta, boiled and topped with olive oil, lemon, and sea salt. I’ve learned to eat fish caught from the waters that surround us, panfried and drenched in lemon juice squeezed from fruit plucked through a kitchen window. I even eat fish eyes and fish heads and octopus and squid, pickled, fried, and grilled. I’ve developed a craving for the pungent oregano and thyme that grow wild on the island’s sun-drenched hillsides, and the honey-sweetened treats our widowed neighbor makes. Although sometimes I still daydream that a slender box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese will land mysteriously on our front stoop, it never does. But that’s mostly okay because gradually, the foods grown, gathered, and cooked on this island at the edge of the Myrtoan Sea are beginning to taste delicious. They’re beginning to taste familiar. Moreover, after a lifetime of moving from town to town each year, this island’s flavors are beginning to taste like a place I could call home.
Until we move again. Then, Greece becomes memory and longing and, from that point on, no matter where I live, I crave it, including in wild and beautiful Montana, where my mother and I move next. Greece is in the sun on my face. In the garlic Mom chops and mixes with the pale, dried oregano we buy from our small-town grocery store. It’s in the rind of a lemon and in the tapes of Greek folk music she plays on cold winter nights, the baglama drowning out the sound of sleet beating against the windowpanes. It’s even in the curious packets of shrink-wrapped cheese that appear on my lunch tray at the local high school.
* * *
It is springtime, 2009, and I am in Greece—separated from my husband and recovering from early-stage breast cancer, my two children by my side. I’m here to heal. As soon as we’re off the boat, I smell it—wild herbs warmed by the sun, diesel from the fishermen’s caïques, a whiff of smoke rising from a street vendor’s grill, skewers of spiced lamb sizzling over hot coals. I feel loved by it all, in love with it all, all over again. But the island has changed dramatically since my childhood. So, rather than stay here among the yachts and the boutiques that have replaced so many of the traditional shops, including our friend Panayiotis’s market, we will spend the next six weeks twenty nautical miles and a world away, on the remote southern Peloponnese peninsula, a place where traditions remain rich and strong. A place so fertile, so abundant, it is dizzying. Olive groves stretch from the sea until the land becomes too steep for cultivation. Gardens grow beneath trees budding with lemons, figs, oranges, pears, and nuts. Honeybees and clumsy, doting bumblebees browse wild garlic, oregano, and thyme.
Cheesemaking (Photo by Alexis Adams)
We return to Montana after this respite, but I’m working as a freelance journalist, writing more and more about Greece’s culinary customs and history, so the children and I spend summers in what becomes “our” village, that lush place on the southern Peloponnese. Sometimes I travel there on my own, too, for short, intense periods of research while the kids are in school. But I am not only driven to Greece to write; I’m driven by that old longing, which is more intense than ever. Because Greece is where I feel at my best, physically and emotionally, post-cancer and post-divorce. There, the anxiety that has long beset me dissipates.
One afternoon my children and I stop for a bite at a roadside taverna, sitting in the cool shade of a blooming arbor. I go inside to order lunch and see a dozen or so black-and-white photographs on a wall. In one shot, locals harvest grapes in a vineyard; in another, a black-robed priest draws water from a well. And then, there it is. An image of a man standing proudly, holding what appears to be a long, very full, fleshy bag. I know exactly what the bag is, know what’s inside it.
I learn that touloumotiri has “skin terroirs.” Not only does it taste of the plants growing in the meadow where the sheep grazed, but it also tastes of the meadow where the goat whose skin serves as the vessel grazed.
I ask the proprietor about the photograph. That was his father, he says, crossing himself. He was a shepherd, and a cheesemaker. Our host is delighted that an Amerikanida recognizes the touloumi and knows touloumotiri. “How could I forget the flavor?” I ask, shrugging. When I ask if he knows anyone who still makes it, he shakes his head, laughing. “No, no, kamari mou—my pride—no one uses the touloumi anymore.”
Later that summer, I travel to a farm in the mountains above our village to interview a cheesemaker for a story I’m writing for an American food magazine. When I arrive, she’s waiting for me. In her seventies, Thomae is dressed in a blue plaid dress, wool knee-highs, and a bright blue calico apron. Her arms look strong and she is quick to smile, however shyly. We walk the fifteen-acre farm, the place she has lived and worked most of her life with her husband, Theodoros, their ten children, and countless sheep and goats. Thomae shows me her garden and a small field of wheat, which she and Theodoros still harvest by hand with a scythe; she talks about the cheeses she makes from the milk of their flocks. Eventually, she takes me to her cheesemaking room, in a tiny outbuilding off the courtyard. When we walk in, I’m met by a familiar smell—the pungent whiff of goat’s and sheep’s milk, of Panayiotis’s market, of touloumotiri. She points to the wooden paddle she uses to stir the milk, which she heats in a knee-high copper colander over a propane burner on the floor. The paddle was her mother’s and her grandmother’s before her. The colander, now blackened by years of use, came with her dowry nearly fifty years ago. When she tells me that the name of the cheese she makes this time of year is touloumotiri, I’m thrilled. But then she leads me to her cellar and opens the door to rows of bright blue plastic barrels. I ask her about the touloumi—the skin—and, just like the taverna owner we met in the mountains, she laughs. “The touloumi left when electricity came to the farm, poulaki mou,” she answers, calling me her “little bird,” a common term of endearment, even if it implies a certain naivete. The electricity “came to the farm” about fifteen years ago.
To say that Thomae and I strike up a friendship would be an exaggeration. It would be more accurate to say that I develop a fascination with her and her traditional lifestyle and that she indulges me, welcoming the children and me to visit anytime. Whenever we do, her kitchen is filled with seasonal culinary projects: berries from her garden for preserves; chamomile blossoms for tea; homemade sheep’s milk butter on the counter. In a storage room beneath the house, balls of mizithra hang from the ceiling beside long strings of wild greens and herbs drying over barrels of walnuts, apples, and pears and bottles of wine she makes from grapes she and Theodoros grow.
Thomae talks about the seasons and how they determine how she and Theodoros live, when they plant, harvest, and forage, how they shepherd, when they make cheese, and how they influence the cheeses’ flavors. Thomae’s culinary and agricultural insights lead to stories about weather, wild grasses, flowers, and herbs. About her family and their traditions. These stories lead to others: about the difficult years during and after World War II, the heartbreak of the Greek Civil War, the births and deaths of people she loved. As she talks, I gain perspective—I am moved by the tranquility she possesses, the jokes she slyly cracks, despite the suffering she’s endured. Thomae’s stories are themselves sustenance.
When I was a child, it was easy to find touloumotiri in the touloumi. Today, cheesemakers like Thomae produce a cheese they call touloumotiri, but because they age it in barrels made of plastic or wood, not in animal skins, they’re not producing true touloumotiri.
Finding the real thing becomes my obsession. I talk to shopkeepers, cheesemakers, shepherds, neighbors and their friends and relatives, nearby and distant. I even travel to the island of Zakynthos off the opposite coast of the Peloponnese to interview a food historian about the cheese. Each time I return to Greece, I continue my search. In the process of searching, I hear people recount their memories of touloumotiri—of wedding feasts and saints’ days, of famine and funerals, of folding some into a bit of cloth for a long walk over the mountains to woo a beloved in a far-flung village.
I also learn that touloumotiri has “skin terroirs.” Not only does it taste of the plants growing in the meadow where the sheep grazed, but it also tastes of the meadow where the goat whose skin serves as the vessel grazed. Because the rennet to coagulate the milk comes from the stomach of a kid or lamb, you get the culture of that creature and its place too. The cheese’s complex flavors reflect unique moments in specific places that, in all their ecological complexity—convergences of plants, animals, soil, fog, rain, slope, and sunlight—will never be repeated. I begin to understand that my search isn’t just about touloumotiri, it’s about history and tradition, strength and courage, kindness, generosity, and love, and it’s about the more-than-human earth. It’s about the resilience that comes from diversity, in all its forms, including the culinary, cultural, and biological.
And, nearly every time we sit down to eat in this ancient and beautiful place, symbols of this diversity and resilience are right there, on our plates—in the dozens of traditional foods we have learned to love, and in the one we know is missing.
* * *
Dimitris is the only shepherd in this region who still follows the ancient practice of transhumance, migrating by foot with his flocks each spring from lower-altitude grazing lands to these mountain pastures, following centuries-old trails called monopatia. Sometimes alone, sometimes with his wife, Yianoula, and their children, he stays here in the high country until mid- to late October, allowing their goats and sheep to graze on still green grasses, living in a traditional stone hut, called a kalivi, foraging, gardening, and crafting cheese and other dairy products.
My friends and I have walked all morning to reach Dimitris and his family and, with them, we enjoy a good afternoon visiting over coffee, watching the cheesemaking process, feasting, and celebrating—for after three years of searching for touloumotiri from the touloumi, I have finally found it, thanks to these friends who have led me here.
Dimitris offers me a slice and it tastes just the way I remember it: piquant, like an aged cheddar, with mouthwatering hints of blue and a pungent earthiness. There are these flavors, yes, but there is a sense of homecoming, too. Suddenly it’s 1978 again. It is the high season for tourists and Panayiotis’s shop is bustling. I stand in line with my mother, waiting our turn to order at the counter. I watch Panayiotis retrieve the touloumi from its shadowy corner and hear a group of sunburned tourists titter when they see him scooping cheese from the carcass. “Disgusting,” one of them says. “How could anyone eat that?” Panayiotis’s face flushes. I feel my skin prickle with anger and, to my great surprise, I feel myself striding over to the counter. “Disgusting?” I say, “Oh, not at all! It’s delicious.” And I ask for a slice. He hands it to me, a question in his eyes: Are you sure? But I pop it in my mouth, even though I’m not at all sure. It’s my first taste of touloumotiri, at last, and I remain skeptical as I close my eyes and chew. Skeptical, that is, until I realize that it is mouthwatering and delicious—that, despite its container once very much alive, it is so much better than Kraft. I open my eyes to see a grin on Panayiotis’s face. Effaristo, poulaki mou, he says. “Thank you, my little bird. Congratulations! You finally did it.”
We leave the shop just as the tourists step up to the counter, asking to taste the touloumotiri. As we walk through the village, I feel a part of this place. And I feel anticipation: about slicing into the hunk of cheese that’s in the bag I am carrying home—a bag that contains meadows and forests, fog and rain, soil, slope, and sunlight, culture, resilience, and story. Yes, Panayiotis, I think to myself, yes. I do loff touloumotiri.