Two sails and an October’s afternoon helped reveal in an unforgettable manner Aegean’s terroir … either it was pouring out from a glass of wine or taking up a spot on the accompanying platter.
A short break from the rainy weather in early October gave the opportunity for a short stroll at the edge of the Aegean and a more than enjoyable wandering in the gastronomic harmonies of the Archipelago. Seven labels of island wineries and six unique cheeses of the sea gave their credentials and revealed the deep relationship that is created between them by their common place of origin. The rich cheese diversity of the Greek islands seems inexhaustible, as every now and then new proposals pop up from small producers who came up with invisible cheese-making recipes from small or/and distant Greek islands. Skotyri, Melichloro, Chios Gravieraki, Sheep goat shepherd’s cheese, Gravieraki Skyriano and Buffalo Hard Cheese from Lipsi presented an opportunity for bold matches with wines from neighboring islands.
Of course, such efforts deserve special attention and could not be missing from the “hold” of a sailing ship whose purpose is to transport refined products by clean marine energy. It is years now that large tall ships and modern sailboats cross the Atlantic with ease, unloading organic coffee, rum, cocoa and other products in European ports. In London, many are keen to pay a price five or six times higher than what a conventionally transported product would cost. In the Greek seas, this rare phenomenon for the norms of the 21st century, serves Loucas Gourtsoyannis, a cosmopolitan who spends most weeks of the year at the helm of the sailboat, setting on routes that connect the islands of the Aegean reaching up to the marinas of Italy and France.
“Captain, will we definitely make it?” I asked Captain Lucas a few days before the meeting at the marina of Lavrio, while browsing on the internet about the expected unfavorable weather reports. Each day from a different island, first Lesvos and the next day from Skyros, the Captain assured me that the weather on Saturday will be great, despite the predictions. Indeed he was right and the clouds cleared out, only for a storm to find us on our way back to Athens.
Sailmed’s team, this is the corporate name of the wind transport project, was coming out of a demanding summer that exceeded expectations for that season, with orders that kept coming. Among these orders, there was a big, for their standards, shipping of a couple of hundred kilos of cheese for a big delicatessen shop in Athens.
Here we are, at the beginning of October where Oceanis Two dropped anchor in a small protected bay, just north of the Temple of Poseidon in Sounio, facing the ancient ovens where the Athenians smelted the ores from Lavrion, producing the silver that defeated the Persians and built colonies. Captain Loucas’s companion and determining factor of Sailmed, Rosabelle Tarnowska, took the cheeses out of the fridge and the Tyrokomos and Wine Trails teams started choosing between up and coming wine labels from the Aegean sea. Wines from Fokiano, Serifiotiko, Begleri, Aidani and of course Assyrtiko, single-origin and blend, stood out from the captain’s cellar without second thought. But the cheeses just stole the show as soon as the sea breeze began to stir their smells, spreading their aromas of sheep and goat milk in the air.
Captain Loucas had many stories to tell about the cheesemakers, as well as the winemakers of the islands. At first they were all a little hesitant concerning the operation, but now they are constantly booking routes for their products. Some of them he met in the ports of the islands, as he was unloading the few boxes he was circulating back in 2018, in order to carry them on his bike trailer to the shops which were waiting for him. By word of mouth, the fame reached all the islands of the Aegean, which in many cases do not have a direct line to serve the trade between them.
It did not take long for the Hermes of the Aegean to hear of the Italian Alessandro Baltissera in one of his voyages through Lipsi, who has been operating the Alpha Farm cheese factory since 2016, located at a five minutes walk distance from the port of Lipsi. The Italian businessman fell in love with the island when he was there for holidays and is now constantly coming and going to Lipsi, where he breeds, in addition to herding goats, buffaloes who run freely on a hill above the small farm he has set up, Mr. Gourtsoyannis tells us. The result is a hard buffalo cheese milk, which accidentally matched particularly well with the wine produced by another European expatriate in the Aegean, specifically in the island of Syros, the Scotsman Edward Maitland-Makgill-Crichton.
Following the line drawn by the sailboat of Captain Lucas, a Parian wine named Alisafi from the Aidani variety tied impressively with Skotyri, a cheese produced from small goats by the Haro family in the neighboring island of Ios, but also with the Chio’s Graviera cheese that Giannis Georgoulis has been making for a few years in the area of Lagada. Equally beautifully, these two cheeses highlighted the special Fokiano Blanc de Noir of Tsantiri Winery in Ikaria. Further north, in the village of Plaka on the northeast side of Lemnos, Costas Stafylis collects milk from local breeders grazing and raising animals near coastal areas. A package of his cheese Melichloro came to pair exemplary with an unfiltered Assyrtiko wine, refined in tanks of steel installed at the Ariousios winery, in the northwestern part of Chios.
One week after the meeting, Captain Loucas would embark for the long round he does every year, starting from the Aegean and reaching Monaco. This time, the Hermes of the Aegean would repeat the first trip he attempted for the transport of goods in 2016. One ton of olive oil was transported from Kalamata to a port just south of Ancona and from there with a Tesla in Switzerland. The first time, the route involved the gift of a grandmother from Kalamata to her newlywed granddaughter; one ton of olive oil. Wolfgang, her husband, unloaded it in Civitanova Marche in Italy. “Back then it took me a month from Kalamata to get there” narrates the now experienced sailor.
“The transport needs of the Aegean come up to many tons. We are now starting to open markets that did not exist in the past. After all, there is the problem that today if you want to send wines from Skyros to Patmos, for example, there is no conventional ship serving this route. We do the tour of the Aegean and every year the requests to transfer double” says the Captain of the project.
Our interviewee was introduced into this adventure of sail transports in 2016, by an American ex consultant of oil companies in the US, Jan Lundberg. Their friendship lasted until 2018, when the latter passed away on the island of Ikaria. Nevertheless, in only three years the two men, with the help of the always organized Rosabelle Tarnowska, managed to restore the commercial transport by sail in the Greek seas. Beyond the romantic side behind the project, Sailmed has a business plan which serves two aims. On the one hand, it is the first project in Greek waters for the development of a commercial transport network with almost zero carbon footprint. An effort that started a decade ago with the “exchange” of cocoa, coffee from the Caribbean and European wines now counts dozens of companies that serve the demand of the fine customers in the ocean shores. The other purpose focuses on the promotion of small producers in the Greek islands, who take great care of their products and their impact. By transporting their products by sail, there is added value to them and their uniqueness and rarity is brought to the spotlight.
The article was produced and published originally by Tyrokomos magazine.
Reporter: Petros Gogos – Tasting: Zisis Panagos – Photos: Georgia Karamali