Olive oil, honey, and wine
These are the products you see written on hand-painted signs as you travel along small country roads of the Greek Peloponnese. Small-market stands emerge beside ancient groves of olives and sloping hills of vines. Everything sold in these open-air markets has usually been grown within a few feet and by the same person who greets you smiling as you pull to the side of the road. In late September, when Maria and I arrived, pomegranates, figs, grapes, the last days of watermelon, and the first days of oranges, all appeared in bright pallets of color alongside overflowing baskets of fresh vegetables. Even the greetings of farmers and shop-owners are often so unreservedly familiar that in my first days here, I paused and looked around to make certain I was the object of this expressive friendliness. The Greeks are so welcoming to strangers that one feels welcomed home like an old friend after a long journey.
Everything sold in these small market stands belongs both to this season and this place. It is not so much a way of commerce as a way of life. There is a rich appreciation of belonging, not just of what’s grown, but also a way of living. There’s a limiting of one’s choices to what belongs, here and now. The fresh hens’ eggs are limited to what the hens produce each day. The same principle is true for fresh preserves, tomato sauces, and sun-dried fruits. Every few weeks the fruits and vegetables change slightly depending on their season. Grapes and figs are replaced by an abundance of lemons, oranges, grapefruits, chestnuts, walnuts, and persimmons. The modern notion of consumer demand is replaced by the principle of what is naturally produced. And in most cases, these same fruits grow in such abundance that almost every family orchard produces their own. The only products that are not sold seasonally are those that can be preserved all year long, olive oil, honey, and wine. These are not only staples in every Greek household and market stand, they are images of a way of life. They connect each person that lives here to some of the most ancient traditions of continuously caring for and being cared for by the land. One of the oldest olives trees in Greece is more than four thousand years old and it still produces olives each year. Wine has been continuously produced here for just as long, and of course honey, even longer. But it is not simply that these ancient traditions contribute sustenance, fellowship, and sweetness to a Greek culinary tradition. They provide a rootedness that shapes Greek life both daily and seasonally. And this rootedness provides the basis for the living experience that nature is a gift, that living in the world is a gift, and that human life and culture are given meaning by participating in this gift.
At the same time, the incredible natural beauty of the Peloponnese landscape is punctuated by a humility and simplicity of buildings and the economic poverty of many residents. In many cases, older homes are built with a combination of natural brick, stone, and manure. Newer homes are often simple concrete structures, adequate to the needs of the residents, but practical and inexpensive. The vast majority of cars and tractors are twenty to thirty years old. Cars are not a symbol of status but of economy and common sense. It’s counterintuitive to encounter so much generosity here because most residents are poor. From a traveler’s perspective it might be frustrating that the wifi is slow or that Amazon packages don’t arrive because the streets have no addresses. But from another perspective if you need a street number to find your neighbor then that is indicative of something else.
Greece is not a country without its own problems. Political corruption is rampant and the system of taxation is perverse, verging on the despotic. The monthly minimum wage for working fulltime is approximately six hundred dollars. Foreign countries own most of the major industries. China owns the ports. Italy owns the railways. Germany’s Deutchebank recently took over the largest Greek banks.
But the small-town, rural Greek family has found solutions even to this. Of course, small families can’t change the systems of global consumerism but in Greece these systems sometimes seem almost superfluous or unnecessary. Shopping in the local supermarket one finds everything from hundred-gallon containers for olive oil, to welder’s masks and rubber boots. These stores are small, perhaps a tenth the size of our average North American grocery store. And much of what is sold is produced locally, not only vegetables but also wheats and grains, meats and cheese, and traditional sweets. And what is not produced locally is often sold at cost. I realized this a couple of weeks ago when I purchased a roll of tape for fifteen cents and a six-foot HDMI cord for one euro. Providing such goods is considered a service to the community and no profit is made.
There is an ancient appreciation for life in this beautiful Greek landscape that predates the systems of the modern world. I experienced this again the other evening when a friend invited me to visit a local olive press in an ancient little village called the Annunciation.
‘Almost every town,’ my friend explained, ‘has their own family run olive mill.’ The pungent smell of fresh crushed olives filled the twilight air as we walked towards the factory. ‘Look here,’ he said, pointing to a pair of ancient millstones sitting above a slowly rusting engine. ‘This is a steam engine mill, used to heat and crush the olives. In ancient times it was very similar. They used to heat the stones to increase oil production and animals would turn the millstones.”We then toured the mill and as we finished my friend explained that in most years the whole town will celebrate the olive harvest by gathering together at the mill. ‘Everyone brings wine and traditionally we eat bread and meats roasted over the fire and soaked in fresh olive oil and lemon juice.’ Hardly had he finished explaining this tradition to me when the owner of the mill appeared with glasses in her hands and invited us to come inside to a meal of fresh olive oil, bread, roasted meats, and wine. She apologized for keeping her distance as she served us and explained that these were special circumstances, in a normal year things would be different.As I sat drinking wine and feasting on these beautiful gifts I felt so humbled that I wanted to cry and laugh at the same time. I realized, suddenly, this is what a feast day is supposed to be, this is where our tradition of holy-days comes from. It’s the experience that the world is a gift and the beauty of sharing that gift with others. Greece is beautiful because the world is beautiful. And the Greek people are beautiful because to be human is to be beautiful.