Life in the Mani has always been hard. The land is very mountainous and rocky, cut off from the rest of the Peloponnese by deep gorges and high peaks. In the summer the sun scorches what little earth there is and in the winter the wind blows everything away. Despite the difficulties of this territory, it has been fought over by the Ottomans, the Venetians, the Turks and the Germans. Local clans also fought amongst themselves in Sicilian style vendettas resulting in fortified villages with tall towers, in addition to the Frankish castles which stand proud on the hilltops.
However, the local Maniots managed to live here, making the most of what the land and sea had to offer with enterprising agricultural schemes. I learn a lot from a marvellous exhibition in the north eastern town of Gythio where displays teach me about the various aspects of life in the Mani.
Salt – Down by the coast, the locals would carve salt pans into the rocks, filling them with sea water and allowing the summer sun to evaporate it until only the salt was left. This would then be placed in sacks and transported over the mountains to Kalamata or taken by boat from the small ports of Geromelinas, Mezapos or Kotronas. These days only a few people continue this tradition providing small quantities of the local sea salt for restaurants or tourists.
Quails – Each autumn quails migrate through the Peloponnese from the cold European countries to the warmer African climate. Gathering at Cape Tenaro before continuing on their southward journey, they were easy prey for the locals who set up nets to catch them. A lot of money could be made from the small game birds and most were exported to France where they were a popular dish. Today EU regulations prohibit the hunting of migrating birds.
Honey – The pine forests and rocky slopes covered with aromatic herbs, such as thyme, sage and lavender, are also a magnet for bees and the Maniots would fashion square chambers in the stone walls to entice these busy little insects and then collect the sweet honeycomb that they produced. Today, the locals still practice the art of apiary but tend to use the more common wooden hives. Honey is a key ingredient of a local sesame seed candy called pasteli.
Fish and Meat – Down on the coast, fresh fish is plentiful and nets need constant repairing to ensure a good catch. Higher in the mountains the Maniots kept goats, sheep and pigs. Sygline, popular on Christmas Eve, is pork which has been preserved by being placed in salt, smoked with sage and then stored in fat. Before eating it is usually boiled in orange water. As well as providing meat, the sheep and goats also provided milk, cheese and wool. However, these days it is rare to see anyone spinning the wool and knitting their own clothes.
Olives – The harsh rocky landscape of the Mani seems to be no obstacle in the growth of the olive. In fact these hardy trees thrive in such an environment. The small black fruits are harvested today in much the same way as they were hundreds of years ago. Large nets are spread on the ground in late autumn and the olives are knocked from the trees using long poles. They are collected in large hessian sacks and taken to the local olive press, once powered by mules, then steam but now electricity. Traditionally each village would have its own press but now the locals take their crop to a cooperative where the oil is produced and sold on.
Cereal crops – Terraces were carved into the hillsides to grow barley and corn to feed the villagers and their animals, but legumes, such as peas and lupin beans were easier to cultivate in the harsh conditions. The lupin beans look a lot like sweetcorn kernels but are not naturally sweet. They need to be left in salt water for about 8 days to reduce their bitterness. Then they are dried in the sun before being stored. Apparently they have very low gluten levels so are now filling the shelves of health food shops. A lot of the arable land now lies bare but I did see some jars of lupins and olives for sale on a table outside a local house beside the road.
Fruit – Oranges and lemons are easily cultivated in the Mediterranean climate but traditionally figs were the naturally occurring fruit trees of the region. Harvested between August and October, they are frequently sun dried to preserve them. The hot, dry weather is also perfect for prickly pears, named by 16th century European explorers. This strange fruit contains many antioxidants and is a great cure for constipation.
Soap – It is thought that 7th century Arabic chemists were the first to use olive oil in soap production. In Kardamili there is a disused olive oil soap factory, easily spotted by the tall chimney beside the sea. It was founded in the early 20th century by Palmolive and was possibly one of the largest olive soap factories in the Mediterranean. Artisanal soaps are still produced in the Mani and can be found in the souvenir shops.
Bread and cakes – There are some marvellous bakeries in the Mani producing fresh cakes and artisanal loaves, but traditionally the Maniots would carry paximadia. Like rusks, they could be reconstituted with water or dipped in wine or coffee. Other popular afternoon treats include tiganites (like pancakes) and lalangites which are fried in olive oil and resemble the Spanish churros. They are a popular choice during Christmas and Epiphany.