The Gate to Bambala
It was late July on the southeastern Peloponnese Peninsula in Greece, and despite the early hour it was already hot. With three friends I was on my way to visit Dimitris and Yianoula Hiotis and their son, Andreas. Shepherds and cheesemakers, the Hiotis family is among a handful of people in the region who still craft a rare and ancient cheese called touloumotiri. After two years of searching for the real thing and finding only two examples of it, I was finally on my way to watch it being made. In the days of Homer, shepherds were society’s principal cheesemakers, and throughout much of rural Greece, they still are. In ancient times shepherds stored and transported the cheese from the milk of their flocks in the cleaned and heavily salted skins of sheep or goats. Thus came touloumotiri, from touloumi, modern vernacular Greek for the skin of the animal, and tiro, which means “cheese.” Until a few decades ago, it was easy to find real touloumotiri throughout Greece. One could purchase it directly from the cheesemaker or at the butcher’s or corner market. Today, many cheesemakers produce a cheese they call touloumotiri, but few use animal skins to make it. Dimitris and his family, however, do.
To me touloumotiri had become a symbol of the traditional ways and cultural vitality of a place I loved. Moreover, as I researched the cheese, I heard again and again about its outstanding flavor. Even cheesemakers who had relinquished the touloumi in favor of a storage barrel, spoke wistfully about the blue mold that would form between the cheese and the skin, which the cheesemaker or shopkeeper would, from time to time, knead into the cheese.
“Touloumotiri had the skin terroir,” joked one friend, Sotiris Kitrilakis, founder of Peloponnese Foods in the United States. “It was delicious.”
ON HIGHER GROUND
In this region some shepherds still follow another ancient practice: migrating with their flocks each spring from lower-altitude grazing lands to mountain pastures and settlements, following centuries-old trails called monopatia. There, they stay until mid- to late October, allowing their goats and sheep to graze on the still-green grasses, living in primitive stone huts called kalivia, and crafting cheese and other dairy products. On that hot July morning, we were on our way to the settlement to which the Hiotis family migrates each spring. Called Bambala, it is accessible only by footpath. The last of the shepherd families to make this annual migration, Dimitris, Yianoula, and Andreas are Bambala’s only residents.
The touloumotiri drains in the cool of the cheesemaking room.
After a two-hour climb, we found ourselves at an enormous wooden gate. “Welcome to Bambala,” said Eleni Traiforos, our guide on our trek up the mountainside and first cousin to Dimitris Hiotis. Swinging the gate open, we made our way through a narrow corridor that wound between immense limestone outcroppings to the settlement. In the shade of carob, mulberry, and plane trees, stone kalivia were scattered across a meadow crisscrossed by cobblestone walls that once enclosed vineyards and gardens. At the top of a gentle slope stood a small white church. When we arrived at the Hiotises’ kalivi, we were greeted with shouts and warm handshakes.
“Thank you for having us today,” I said.
“Thank you for your company,” Dimitris laughed; “we’re not much used to it here.”
Although we had come specifically to watch the family make touloumotiri, this is Greece, where hospitality and food go hand in hand; first we had to drink and eat something. Settling in the Hiotises’ small kitchen, we sipped cups of strong Greek coffee, ate koulourakia (traditional Greek biscuits), and discussed the family’s life on the plateau. After this introduction we made our way to another stone building where the family crafts cheese. There we found Andreas already at work stirring goat’s milk in an immense kettle perched above a wood fire on the dirt floor. Testing the temperature of the milk with the touch of a finger, Yianoula added the rennet. After the milk set, Dimitris cut the curd into a crosshatch pattern, which Yianoula then lifted and stirred, eventually scooping into cheesecloth to drain.
Using timeless cheesemaking tools, the Hiotises warm their goat milk slowly in a kettle perched over a fire on the dirt floor.
A raw-milk cheese, touloumotiri is traditionally made with goat’s milk, sheep’s milk, or a combination of the two. The texture and flavor of touloumotiri can vary widely from producer to producer based on the type of milk, the temperatures during the cheese production, and the animals’ forage. When it is fresh, it is soft and moist with a sharp, acidic flavor. Over time, it hardens and its flavor sharpens. Yianoula uses the fresh cheese on salads and in savory pies. The aged cheese she grates over pastas and other dishes. Like most small-scale cheesemakers in the region, the Hiotis family uses rennet from the stomach of a kid they slaughter each month.
While the cheese drained, we took yet another break, this time to eat a lunch of pasta with a savory red sauce topped with grated touloumotiri; a salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, and olive oil; and a rustic loaf of sourdough bread served with a delicious cultured butter spread. Tasting the aged touloumotiri by itself, I understood what Kitrilakis meant by its unique terroir; the animal skin gave it a musky flavor like no other cheese I’ve ever had.
At last, the moment I’d been waiting for arrived: It was time to prepare the skin, or touloumi, to hold the touloumotiri. From a goat the family butchered in the spring, the skin had soaked in water all morning to soften and was hanging on a clothesline to dry. Dimitris removed it from the line and, with a large pair of shears in hand, found a shady spot in the garden in which to commence his work, trimming the hair on the skin to approximately a quarter inch long. I was surprised to learn that he would turn the goatskin hide side out, storing the cheese within the rough, hair-covered side.
Dimitris tie one leg of the touloumi shut.
When he was done, he tied one end of the touloumi shut with a long strand of twine. Into the other end he blew air, inflating the skin like a balloon to ensure there were no holes. Yianoula and he then worked together to wash the skin again and again until the hair was gleaming. Once again, Dimitris inflated it, hanging it like a balloon from the clothesline to dry. In a while, it was my turn to help, turning the skin inside out so that the hair side was within and the skin side out. Finally, we commenced stuffing it with the cheese finished that day (finished by Yianoula while Dimitris trimmed the touloumi). Once the skin was filled with touloumotiri, Dimitris tied the top shut and carried it to another stone outbuilding, where he hung it from a rafter beside bunches of wild oregano. The cheese would age for three to six months before being eaten by the Hiotis family or sold to customers in nearby villages.
When the sun began to set and it was clearly time to leave, Dimitris and Yianoula made certain we did not go home empty handed. Laden with gifts—bundles of oregano, a jar of that delicious cultured butter, and, of course, touloumotiri—we wandered slowly down the mountainside in the golden light of evening, the sound of goat bells in the distance, in no hurry to return to modernity.Written and Photographed by Alexis Marie Adams