In the mountains of Greece, a home cheesemaker continues an ancient tradition, crafting a cheese called touloumotiri.
The walls in Thomae Kattei's tiny cheesemaking room are damp and dark,blackened by nearly a century of wood smoke. Permeated by the earthy smell of goat’s and sheep’s milk, the place is impeccably clean. The small, dark-haired Thomae smiles shyly as she talks and stirs milk in an immense copper kettle perched over a single propane burner on the floor. Dressed in a blue-plaid shift dress, wool knee-highs, and a bright blue calico apron, the 67-year-old woman could have easily stepped from the pages of an early-twentieth-century chronicle on Greece. Her life on this mountain farm, where electricity is a relative newcomer and cell phone service still does not exist, is as removed as it can be from the rest of the modern-day country with its dazzling tourist destinations and its economic woes.
A Stable Staple
On the 15-acre farm, located on a cool plateau above the eastern coast of the Peloponnese Peninsula, Thomae crafts a traditional Greek cheese known as touloumotiri. Made from a combination of sheep’s and goat’s milk, touloumotiri has sustained shepherd families since the days of Homer. It is salty and tart and can be stored in its own brine without refrigeration. It is the cheese Greek shepherds tuck into their bags for long days of roaming the hillsides with their flocks, and it’s the cheese they find at home in pitas and savory pies, grated over pasta, and crumbled in salads. Touloumotiri pairs beautifully with a slice of tomato, a hunk of bread, and a sip of wine.
Raised in this place, Thomae has crafted the cheese since childhood, and her family—a long lineage of shepherds and cheesemakers—has made it for generations. “I grew up watching my mother make touloumotiri, and helping my father milk the goats and sheep. It’s in my blood,” she tells me during a recent visit. Indeed, the wooden paddle she uses to stir the milk was her mother’s and her grandmother’s before her. The copper colander, now blackened by years of use over a wood fire and, more recently, the propane burner, came with her dowry when she married her shepherd husband, Theodoros, nearly 50 years ago.
Thomae is one of dozens of inhabitants of these mountains who produce their own cheese. Some of it she keeps for her family’s consumption; the rest she sells to people like me who are motivated enough by its succulence to venture up the steep, mostly unpaved mountain road to her house. A raw-milk cheese, touloumotiri is relatively easy to produce. It doesn’t require long and careful aging, and because it has no rind, it doesn’t need to be rinsed.
In batches, Thomae uses about equal portions of sheep’s and goat’s milk. (Other local cheesemakers use different
ratios of the mixed milks.) Considering this, the choice of rennet, the forage for the animals, and the temperatures used during production, the texture and flavor of touloumotiri can vary widely from producer to producer. The cheese also evolves as it ages. When fresh, it is soft and moist with an earthy, pungent flavor. Over time, it hardens and its flavor sharpens.
According to noted Greek food historian Sotiris Kitrilakis, touloumotiri has existed since antiquity. “It is quite possibly one of the first cheeses ever made,” Kitrilakis explains. “In ancient times, the shepherds were the principal cheesemakers. They used animal skins as vessels in which to make and store cheese.” Thus the name “touloumotiri,” which, he points out, translates to “skin cheese.” Traditionally, touloumotiri was made and stored in the heavily salted skin of a goat or sheep; the use of wooden barrels didn’t come into play until the second half of the nineteenth century. Now in his seventies, Kitrilakis recalls eating touloumotiri from the skin.
“The flavor was very sharp,” he says. “Quite often, a blue mold would form inside the skin, which [locals] would knead into the cheese. It was deliciously pungent, thanks to the mold.” And, Kitrilakas adds, “I suspect the culture that evolved in the skin was a specific culture, an ambient culture. The natural rennet would add its own culture, and this mixture of cultures would survive even after the skin was used over and over.” While a few producers still store touloumotiri in goat or sheepskin, most, including Thomae, no longer do. She does, however, still use rennet she crafts from the stomach of the lambs and goat kids that she and Theodoros slaughter for their family’s consumption.
Thomae and Theodoros wake before sunrise to milk their ewes and does in the barn where the animals sleep. Shortly after milking, Theodoros leads the herd into the mountains, where they feed on wild grasses and herbs. The mountains surrounding the Kattei farm, Thomae says, have a wonderful effect on the flavor of her cheeses. “You can taste the grasses and herbs in the cheese,” she says. “And you can taste the seasons—the flavor of the cheese changes from week to week as the grasses and herbs change, coming in and out of season.”
According to Thomae, you can also taste the local soil. “We are blessed with the soil we have in these mountains,” she says. “It gives us a delicious harvest—the milk, the cheese, the grains with which we make our bread. They are tasty and wholesome because of the good soil we have here, and they are clean because we don’t use pesticides and fertilizers. Other cheeses—from factories or places where the soil isn't so good—taste like this.” Her smile is mischievous as she waves a paper napkin in the air.
Thomae also keeps a prolific garden as well as chickens for eggs and meat. Whenever I visit, her kitchen is filled with seasonal culinary projects: berries from her garden for preserves; wild chamomile flowers for tea; homemade butter in a jar on the counter. In a storage room beneath the house, balls of mizithra—a cheese Thomae crafts using whey from the production of touloumotiri—hang from the ceiling to age. There, she also stores and dries wild herbs and greens she has gathered from nearby meadows, plus barrels of walnuts, apples, and pears from the trees in her garden and wine she makes from the grapes she grows. In a wood-fired oven in her courtyard, she bakes bread and paximadia—twice-baked rusks that have been a staple in Greece since antiquity—with flour made from grain grown on the farm.
Thomae’s rich production of handcrafted, homemade food is not unusual in rural Greece. Born of necessity, much of this knowledge is common to women of her generation. That said, these skills are now in danger of extinction. Of Thomae’s nine children, none have chosen to remain on the farm. Instead, they have moved to urban areas throughout the region to work, run their own businesses, and raise their families.
After Thomae has left the day’s batch of touloumotiri to drain, we sit at the kitchen table in her one-room house with a couple of elderly neighbors who have stopped by for a visit. There, beneath a wall decorated with dozens of religious icons and family photographs, we drink tiny cups of Greek coffee, sip mastiha—the sweet, heady liqueur made from the sap of the mastic tree—and talk about the future of cheesemaking.
“My children have chosen to lead different lives,” Thomae says. “For them, making cheese takes too much time for the amount of money it provides. When my husband and I die, this”—she waves at a plate of touloumotiri on the table—“will also die.” Thomae is quick to point out that she understands why her children have chosen to move on. “We have lived through very hard times here in Greece: war, hunger, poverty. I raised nine children in a one-room house. They grew up sleeping on the floor. They woke to work before sunrise, walked six kilometers to school, and walked home only to work past sunset. We didn’t have electricity or phone service. We gathered water from the community sterna.” She smiles, looking down at her cup of coffee. “It wasn’t necessarily difficult,” she muses. “It was the way life was. We didn’t know anyone who lived any differently. But when you are raised that way and then you learn there are other opportunities in the world, to go back to the old way of life is taking a huge step backward.”
Still, Thomae says she would feel better knowing her grandchildren could survive without the modern amenities they’ve grown up with. “The old ways can help you make it through the hard times, and Greece continues to have hard times!” she exclaims with a laugh. “My grandchildren know how to turn on a computer, but they don’t know how to build a fire. If the electricity goes out, how will they cook? I am thankful that they know how to survive in today’s world, but still . . . .” She smiles and shrugs. “Times haven’t been easy, but I am grateful and happy for the life I have led, the work I have done.”
And with this, Thomae stands up and pulls a generous hunk of touloumotiri from a bowl on the counter, places it in a bag, and hands it to me as she plants a kiss on my cheek. Clearly, it is time to go. Thomae has work to do. c
Written by Alexis Adams
Photography by Dimitris Maniatis