Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Grape must (Μούστος)

Must (μούστος in Greek) is what wine is called before it is turned into wine.

Harvesting the grapes from the vine, transporting them to the πατητήρι (pa-ti-TI-ri: the wine-making press that many old village houses have for the purpose of making wine), mashing them (by stomping on them with your legs, of course!), transferring the grape must to the various storage urns according to the use it is to be made, and then putting aside the στράφυλα (strafila: the skin, seeds and stalks of the grapes) for later use to make ρακί/τσικουδιά (raki/tsikoudia: Greek/Cretan fire-water) are time-old activities, forming a ritual that has been passed on from one generation to another.

A grape harvesting session is an integral part of the Mediterranean Diet in Greece, in the way that it exhibits the Mediterranean lifestyle. It involves a group of people - never one sole individual or even just one nuclear family - who all play their own role in ensuring that a seasonal procedure goes according to plan. From the soil to the plate (or from the farm to the table, if you prefer to see it that way), each stage is followed, and a stage cannot be omitted. Omitting any stage in the process can sometimes be the cause of misunderstanding. But slight deviations from it are acceptable - this is how traditions take on new forms and continue to exist in their newly edited versions in the modern world.

One patitiri may be owned by a number of individuals in the same extended family, so each family member takes turns to use it. In our case, our friend had harvested the grapes from his part of the inherited vineyards on Friday to be ready on Saturday to make the must. On that day, his brother was also in the village harvesting his share of the vineyard inheritance, which he intended to make must with on Sunday (he arrived at the patitiri to join us for the communal meal).
The reason why the brothers do not harvest their grapes and make must together is manifold. For a start, the volume and quality from their share may be different, depending on the work put into the vineyard by each respective owner. But just as importantly, the must-making session involves the stage of congregation - each brother invites his own friends and relatives (which include their wives' families, work colleagues, koumbari) to join in the gathering, which is nothing short of a celebration, since all such events finish with a communal meal cooked by the hosts.
These seasonal events take such a hold over the participants, that they shut off any other worries or thoughts that may be gnawing away in their minds at the time, and they focus on the task at hand. Throughout the must-making event, there will be a lot of laughing, cheering and joke-making.
That is, in fact, how the grape harvest we were invited to was played out. Only when it started raining did we remember the real world. The rain started falling while we were mid-way through our open-air meal. A λινάτσα was fastened under the grapevine that shaded us while we were eating, but that was placed there mainly to stop drying leaves, grape juices and insects from falling onto the table. When the rain came, it slowly seeped through the cloth, with the thick heavy droplets falling onto our plates and heads. The water gradually dampened our conviviality as we began to move the platters and glasses and wine (2x1.5L PET bottles, produced last year from the previous grape harvest) indoors.
But the rain had done more damage than just to spoil the open-air meal - it subdued both our hunger and our thirst. We sat indoors glumly, listening to the pipes draining, and hoping that it would end soon. Even when it did, we did not continue to eat. The moans and groans took hold: "It wasn't supposed to come now, not today!" The children became edgy: "When are we going home?" The women thought of their chores: "I left a load of washing out - I wonder if it's raining in Hania." The men remembered that the final phase of the grape harvest was not finished yet: "The barrel is open! Cover it so that the rain doesn't seep into the must!" There is always a Plan B for when things don't go to plan, so that the ritual's offering is not wasted.
The event finished a little earlier than had been hoped, but not before the job at the patitiri was finished. The continuation of the tradition took place in my house. I took home 3x4L plastic canisters of grape must and turned into seasonal offerings. Must has multiple uses before it is made into wine. Greeks use it to make a dessert with the addition of flour and nuts (moustalevria); they also make biscuits out of it (moustokouloura) and grape syrup (petimezi). The latter is considered a wonder cure for coughs and colds, and a preventive for winter ailments, as well as a vitamin supplement for the young, old and infirm. It can also be added to foods for flavour, to give them a sweet-sour taste. Grape must can also be used to make vinegar.
Fresh must doesn't keep long - it begins to ferment and may even cause an explosion. So I spent half the next day using it, turning it into moustalevria, moustokouloura and petimezi.

Most people in Greece no longer see a grape harvest, especially those living in the cities. Most of us will be lucky if we have seen one or two in our lifetime. The threat of the demise of such events is not based in the demise of the grapevines or the lack of people willing to continue this tradition; it is in the lack of appropriate education and training of the younger generations in how to maintain these traditions in a constantly changing world.
Local children taking part in a recent educational public session on the grape harvest in Souda. 
This is what UNESCO is trying to protect when it labels the Mediterranean Diet as Intangible Heritage: the traditions associated with a lifestyle that centres around the production of food from its source (nature) to the mouth of the eater.

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