Rather than spending time alone in their kitchen in the mountain village of Vizitsa, Andromahi Karagiannopoulou and her friends prefer to cook together. The cheerful group of women has turned a tradition into a business model and has founded a women’s cooperative.
Greece’s fruit bowl and granary
The fertile lowlands of Thessaly are often called Greece’s granary. The port of Volos is ideal for national and international trade. Much like a bent index finger the Pelion peninsula encloses the Pagasetic Gulf. With Trikeri on its tip the peninsula is almost touching the “thumb” of the mainland on the opposite side. With its very moderate climate on the Gulf-facing side and abundant water resources coming from the 1610m high mountain range, the Pelion peninsula is a very profitable “fruit basket”, exporting large quantities of fruits and vegetables nationwide.
During the period of Ottoman rule Greek civilians came from all over the country to find protection in the wild and difficult to access mountain villages of the Pelion. The Ottomans granted this difficult to control region various privileges and allowed a certain autonomy. For agriculture, craftsmanship and trade at the time these were ideal conditions for a thriving economy. The range of products stretched from silk and textile productions to tanning of leather and oil- and winemaking.
We are on our way to the picturesque mountain village of Vizitsa. Passing through dense woods of oaks, sycamore and chestnut trees the roads are winding up to the remote mountain villages of the Pelion. The platia, village square, is empty this time of year, animated only by the rustle of the mighty sycamore trees. In mid-March, the weather is still rough, almost winterly. We have booked a room in the Karagiannopoulou Mansion, a guesthouse located in an old Pelion-style manor.
Karagiannopoulou Traditional Mansion
The architecture of the Pelion’s mountain village is a mix of Ottoman building style and practical defensive structures. The easily defendable tower constructions with a heavy stone base are only sparsely opened to the outside world on their lower levels. The somewhat overhanging upper floors however, with their elegant wooden constructions and circumferential window facades, offer living spaces flooded with light. With their built-in chaise longues and low tables these spaces are another proof of oriental influence. Andromahi Karagiannopoulou has inherited the magnificent house, built in 1791, from her father, who already ran it as a guesthouse. Andromahi has a talent to combine heirlooms with new handcrafted object. “The guesthouse is sort of a family tradition, I want it to continue, but I run it my own way. I attach great importance to local products and my guests should really have an authentic experience,” Andromahi says.
A generous breakfast table with fig and quince jam, fresh yoghurt and honey awaits us the next morning. In a small wicker basket she brings fresh bread and homemade cake. We are drinking Greek mountain tea. “Some years ago my friends and I have founded a cooperative. All of this is handmade by us.” Proudly she looks over the well-laid table and says: ”It was worth it, people appreciate our products.”
Kafedáki with Glikáki – a ritual of Greek hospitality
Glikó, sweets, play a key role in Greek everyday rituals. Whether spending time with family or neighbours, glikó is a symbol of Greek hospitality. A small bite with a cup of Greek coffee is enough to activate the taste buds with a delicate sweetness, rounding off the bitterness of the coffee. It is mostly women who invite each other for kafedáki and glikáki, men meet up in a kafenion, the Greek coffee house. Every hostess is proud of her selection of homemade candy.
„It’s like at home, we visit each other and have coffee together”
A heavy wooden table dominates the spacious kitchen. Having a sip of mocha once in a while, one of the women sticks labels onto jam jars and marks the date of production. Another one prepares the dough for spanakopitá, a savoury spinach pie, and a third woman stands by the gas stove and stirs in big bowls of orange peels in sugar syrup. Yet another one works on her calculator and entertains the others with economic matters. Only a small shelf separates sales area and kitchen. “Clients can watch us cooking. Sometimes they just pass to have a little chat, it’s like at home, we visit each other and have coffee together,” Andromahi says. The space is welcoming, almost cosy – a fire is crackling in the woodstove, it is comfortably warm.
Medicinal herbs and the mythological birthplace of European medicine
Be it mountain tea or other medicinal herbs, the Pelion peninsula is famous for its abundance of herbs. The centaur Chiron is the mythological origin and a proof that this region was already appreciated for its medicinal plants in ancient times. Half human, half horse, Chiron is, unlike his wild conspecifics, the academic teacher of several Greek heroes. Taught by Apollo in the field of medicine, Chiron unites nature’s healing power and human consciousness. He also introduced his stepson Asclepius, one of Apollo’s sons, to the secrets of medicine.
Tsisiravla and Tsípouro
The women’s cooperative also benefits from this flora. Especially in spring there is an abundance of wild herbs to gather. “Soon we’ll be able to harvest tsisiravla.” Briefly blanched and marinated in vinegar, the tips of the wild pistachio tree become a delicious mezé that is often served with homemade grape marc, tsípouro. The women boil down jam and glikó, make schnapps, bake sweet and savoury pies, prepare pasta and are very much in demand as a caterer in the area.
„Together it is so much more fun and the cooperative’s gains are a nice extra income for all of us”
The products are lovingly arranged in the pastel-mint-coloured shelves. It seems that the women are having fun, whether they are discussing the placement of labels, fixing prices or spending hours stirring kilos of fruits in sugar syrup with a wooden spoon. “Together it is so much more fun and the cooperative’s gains are a nice extra income for all of us.”