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Pottery and Food
in the Old Aegina Village

Text by Souzana Raphael and pictures by Martyna Kulczycka

My interview with one of the last scions of the pottery-making families of Aegina - in the large spread-out inland village of Mesagros - began with a discussion about local agriculture and preparation of food. Thinking on this later, this seemed fitting to me, since ceramic wares have long been connected with food - with vessels for cooking, storing and serving of food and drink. "We had two windmills which powered the grinding of the local wheat and barley," Nektarios Garis told me, pointing to the hills behind his house. "And we had outdoor ovens - firebrick ovens heated with wood like the kamini (kiln) where bread was baked and food was cooked." His mother Katina, who was sitting at the table near me on the veranda, added to the story at this point by telling me that she had stopped using the outdoor oven only five years earlier.

Local people had generally stopped using these ovens around 1965-70 for two reasons, the first being the dying off of the older folks, with the new generation attracted to modern commodities. The other reason was more complicated - a local version of the global destruction of traditional, local agriculture by large, chemical-based commercial interests.

"We had very good local wheat and barley," Nektarios told me, and held up a stalk of wheat for illustration. "We saved seeds from our plants and the local grain was unique and well-adapted to the Aegina soil. It had very good flavor. Then these collectives came here and paid people to try their seeds, telling us to give our local grain to the livestock! Along with the new seeds came the chemical fertilizers. We had always used manure - nothing else. We all had animals. The new grain from these bought seeds wasn't suited to the local soil and were smaller and without the good flavor we were used to. So people stopped baking their own bread and bought it from the bakeries instead. But there has been a recent revival of outdoor ovens, which can now be bought ready-made."

I also learned during this preliminary discussion with Nektarios that the locals used to plant all their crops without watering them. "It rained now and then during the summers," he told me, "and it was good clean rain without all the modern poisons. Around 2:30 in the afternoon we had a breeze which brought moisture in the night. The plants dripped with dew in the early mornings. We called this breeze boukadoura or batis."

"We planted the grapestocks knee-deep and the vines were never watered, but the lemon trees needed water. There was no public water then - we all had wells. We had small, delicious watermelons, and the smell of fruit ripening on the trees had us boys going out to steal apricots, pears, apples…The fruit has no taste now." He picked up an apricot seed lying on a window sill nearby and opened it to give me the pit, telling me that they used to eat the pits as well, because they also had good flavor. This pit from an old local apricot wasn't bitter to my palate, although the seed was old and had lost its sweetness as well.

I asked why there were so few donkeys on the island, and he told me that the newer residents were annoyed by their braying, though certainly the disappearance of donkeys from Greece is also due to modern preference for the pickup truck. "For me it's a beautiful sound!" Nektarios said, and I agreed. One of the old holdouts in the area--Spyros Nonis—keeps a donkey not far from my house, and I too love the sound.

I suggested that we move on to the subject of pottery, and Nektarios brought out a rock from his workshop to show me. "This is the source of the local clay,"he told me. "It's called argilomaza, and is dug up from a depth of around 3-10 meters. You let it dry out, then break it, dissolve it in water without chemicals. This is what's been used here for 2,500 years. It's what the kolona (column) of Apollo was made of (at the Mycenean ruins just north of Aegina city). It was hauled by mules and horses in carts called soustas, and is unique in all of Greece."

And he went on about color changed in the glazes caused by its chemical makeup. "With the old kamini, fired by wood, you have to judge by the eye when the pottery is ready , unlike with the newer electric ones. This clay has the special property of keeping liquids stored in vessels made of it very cool."

There were many potters in the Mesagros area, and many with large families who worked in the trade together. Up until 1965, ceramics were exported via kaiki (caiques - small sailing vessels), all over Greece, loaded upon return with imported goods.

Nektarios showed me his workshop with its handmade molds (dolphins, butterflies, seagulls), its foot-powered wheel, the photo of his father, from whom he had learned his trade, the small woodstove for warming up cold hands on winter mornings, and all the unglazed pots on shelves all around. There were large round casserole pots with lids, pitchers for storing wine or oil, pitchers for the table, "banks" where people stored their coins for saving.

Outdoors, I was shown the thick dry pine branches use to start the kiln fire, and piles of brush and olive leaves used to bring up the heat. I looked into the bowels of the old kiln and was told that the fire-brick of which it was made had been used as well to build houses in Aegina town, and kept the houses cool. The factory was in Alones, in a valley beyond the forested hills to the east.

I spied a very large stone ruin of a house in the back parrt of the land and learned that this had been his grandfather's house and workshop. Here, six children had worked with their father. It had a huge storeroom and a wood-fired food oven that threw off heat that also dried the pots.

"The Greek Ministry of Culture wanted to restore it and turn it into a museum with summer production. I would have been guaranteed a good sum of money for producing pottery to be sold every August, which would go to museums as examples of our unique ceramics. But the relatives who had inherited it with me wouldn't agree."

"Why not?" I asked.

"Because I was a Communist, and they didn't want to see me thrive," he told me.

Later, in 1974-5, a Greek governmental organization fully equipped a school of ceramics in Aegina town, but, according to Nektarios, local politicians sold all of the equipment to fund a second mayoralty election.

I left for home with my mind teeming with what I had learned of my nearby Aegina surroundings and its history, and with two small deep blue handleless cups in my pack, gifts from Nektarios. I had admired some broken ones, loving his shades of blue and light turquoise, and he gave two new ones, wrapping them in paper for the road.

Nektarios is available for lessons/workshops for students with a serious interest in his craft. His telephone number is 22970 71396, but he knows only a few words of English. I can connect you with him and/or translate for lessons: Souzana, 22970 71126.

Show the pottery on a bigger map
Coming from Aegina town
Take the inland road to Agia Marina, pass by the Monastery of Agios Nektarios and drive through the village of Mesagros. Just 500 metres out of the village centre on the left you will find the workshop of Nektarios Garis.

A 45 minute documentary about the last traditional potters in Mesagros on Aegina island made by Dimitris Gouziotis. The documentary will be screened now on a film festival in Athens. But Dimitri can organize a public screening in a bar, gallery, hotel, local festival or schools etc. Please get in contact for more information.

Director: Dimitris Gouziotis
Editor: Dimitra Bessi
Music composer: Yiorgos Magoulas
Producer: Dimitra Bessi

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