By Kaveri Jain
Food is something that has always been central to my life. Cooking for family and friends is something I enjoy more than anything else. The warmth and love with which food is prepared and shared in our Indian culture is unparalleled.
Finding this common thread all the way in the Mediterranean is what made me fall completely in love with Greece. Added to that was the lively culture, awe-inspiring castles, temple ruins, history and a long unending coastline and beautiful enchanting islands – this country was proof of heaven!
While the bustling metropolis of Athens was surely a delight to visit, it was an extraordinary and unexpected experience in the Peloponnese that remains the highlight of my trip. We were on a visit to Gargalianoi, a quaint town located in the Messinia region, a three-hour drive from Athens.
While the views were striking – the balmy Aegean sea on the left, breathtaking hillscapes on the right, and the bright sun piercing through the green olive trees that lined the roads – little did I fathom what was in store for us next.
We stepped foot into the quaint, central square of Gargalianoi where an array of sea-facing restaurants beckoned. As we walked toward the sea, there stood a wizened old figure, dressed in baggy black pants and a bright blue top, waving at us with a wide smile on her face. This was our guide for the day, Christina, who was to take us to an olive farm and show us the process of olive cultivation and extraction.
The 73-year-old headed towards her car, a vintage Mercedes convertible, instructing us to follow her, and immediately zoomed off at great speed. We took a while longer, hesitantly manoeuvring our car through massive olive groves till we reached the right spot.
We found ourselves in the middle of a massive olive plantation, where hundreds of thousands of olive trees laden with countless olives surrounded us, and the only sound that could be heard was the rolling and crashing of ocean waves from two kilometres away.
The septuagenarian took centre-stage and began talking, telling us about the trees, their variety, their age, the amount of fruit they bear on an average, the way they are irrigated, how the fruit is harvested and finally all about olive oil extraction.
Though it wasn’t her own farm, her knowledge was extremely in-depth, and she left none of our many questioned unanswered. She told us about her own little farm where she produces her own organic olive oil. I was surprised to see how fast we warmed up to her, as we walked towards the lower end of the farm.
She stopped near a tree and plucked out a fruit. It was a fresh pale green fig, and didn’t look very appetizing to me. With childlike innocence, she insisted that I pull it apart and try it. I’m glad I did, because I can say without a doubt that it was the best fig I have eaten; soft, sweet, full of flavours that seemed to explode in my mouth.
Once the tour of the farm ended, we walked back to our cars, ready to depart. Yet, she was relentless, and refused to let us leave, inviting us to her home. Despite declining multiple times, due to our long journey ahead that afternoon, her charm was too much to resist, and we finally caved in, agreeing to come by “for a quick glass of water and nothing else”.
“Don’t worry, water is free!” she exclaimed, laughing. Walking into her tiny cottage made me feel like I was in a scene out of a children’s story book. A small garden lead to the main door, which opened up in to a gallery.
Towards the right there was a living room, the couches covered in sheets, a ladder leaning on the half painted front wall surrounding by a few tins of paint and brushes. We were all ready to have some water and depart, but before we could say a word, she was already in the kitchen, peeling a giant, foot-long cucumber!
“It will take me just two minutes, you all sit down,” she commanded, pulling out a large glass bowl and throwing in the thickly cut slices. From a basket, she picked up a round robust red tomato, which was grown in her own backyard. Then she added red onions.
“I am feeling terrible that I don’t have good bread at home. The thing is, I am on a diet so I only eat multi-grain regular sliced bread these days,” she lamented while sliding the sliced bread into the oven to heat.
I couldn’t take my eyes off her: there was something uncannily familiar about her tiny hands multi-tasking, peeling, chopping, washing, searching her fridge in the hope to find something more to serve, tirelessly running around, in and out of the kitchen to the vegetable garden right behind it. She topped the salad with some fresh olives, but was visibly upset about having to replace the classic Feta cheese with Ricotta, the only one she had at home. The final touch, however, was the most special, as she drizzled fresh extra-virgin olive oil from her very own farm all over the dish – not a drizzle as much as a flood of olive oil.
“Finally some oregano, salt, and it’s ready, come on now,” Christina smiled. Despite this, I could see that her eyes look unsure. She wasn’t finished yet, deliberating on what to add to the table to ‘make up’ for the missing items. She offered homemade peppers dipped in olive oil, and even lamented about this not being the ‘perfect’ Greek salad.
Yet, for us, it was probably the most exquisite gesture and fresh spread, and we couldn’t have asked for anything more. So we asked her to sit down and just enjoy the food with us!
All of us ate to our hearts’ content; the bread, salad, cheese and bell peppers all vanished from the table in a matter of minutes. We listened to Christina talk about her daughter and grandkids. None of us in our wildest dreams had ever imagined that we would be literally breaking bread in a tiny corner of the world far away from home with a stranger whose unexpected warmth made us feel as if we were home.
Just when we thought we can’t be surprised any longer, she disappeared into her backyard, reappearing with multiple bottles of olive oil for us to take home. We bowed down to her hospitality, exchanged numbers and invited her to visit us in India.
I engulfed her in a long, warm hug and waved goodbye while getting in the car, all the way through till her distant figure vanished. I smiled to myself thinking of the warmth in her eyes, the love in her food and the strength in her voice – she was surely a glimpse of a 73-year-old me.
Photos: Kaveri Jain and Pixabay. First published in eShe’s December 2019 issue
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