Up in the Taygetos foothills, near the empty monastery of Agios Giorgos, where a stream bed passes under the road and ancient walnut trees grow, lives Giorgos, his wife Maria and their three hundred goats.
Herbert and I drive up the hairpins in our respective trucks from the coast to collect goat shit, siegenscheisse in German, fuski in Greek. The manure from goats is widely regarded in Greece as the fertiliser of choice.
At this time of year, Giorgo’s ramshackle goat pens which straggle up the stony hillside are deep in hard, trodden manure, and it takes us a couple of hours to load both trucks, under the sinister gaze of crowds of goats. Giorgo is always keen to get the fuski away before the autumn rains turn it to slurry.
He and his wife live up here through the summer in their tiny foursquare cement shack. There are chickens a in a pen made of old pallets, and a fournos stands a few yards off, by the wire gate.
The fournos, the dome shaped outside oven, is a powerful emblem in Greece, a symbol of all things domestic, traditional, secure.
It’s a straightforward construction of stone or cement, its internal diameter usually a little over a metre. What happens is that a fire is burned inside the dome, usually of thin olive prunings, until the whole mass of the oven is hot, when the ashes are scraped away and the bread, meat or whatever is placed inside, using something resembling a baker’s paddle. The small door is closed off, usually with a piece of tin. The residual heat in the fournos allows you to cook for several hours.
When we arrive, Maria is just taking out a batch of big flat loaves, and the aroma of newly baked bread comes to us across the hillside. Later, we see her loading up the cooling oven with chunks of stale bread from a previous batch. This will become paximadi, twice baked bread. It’s as hard as rock when it comes out, but it keeps forever, and you eat it by dipping it into water or some more interesting slop to soften it. Our neighbour Niko, who is seventy, remembers eating paximadi with cold water for his midday meal when he was a shepherd boy in these foothills.
Maria herself, with her black headscarf, bad teeth, shrill voice and cheerful, unthinking generosity, is the very type of the Greek village matron. When we have finished loading the trucks, she calls us over to share a plate of baked potatoes, aubergines and salty cheese, which we wash down with water and a little vinegary wine. As we leave she passes us big chunks of paximadi, enough to live on for a week.