I dreamed of seeing Athens
one day with my own eyes ever since I first contemplated becoming an archaeologist.
This year I not only had the chance to visit, but also the honor of presenting a paper on the incorporation of experimental archaeology into the Food Evolutions project and the development at the Eastern Shore Food Lab at the conference, Experimental Archaeology Conference: Making, Understanding, Storytelling at the Irish Institute of Hellenic Studies.
This was an extremely short trip and with only half a day before the conference I wanted to take full advantage of our limited time, so I dragged my travel companion, Dr. Aidan O’Sullivan, out of our hotel to wander into the city, check out the food markets and, most importantly, to search for traditional Feta Cheese molds!
Cheese molds are containers in which the curds are placed in to drain their whey during the production of certain cheeses. Often the size and shape of the molds help define what sort of cheese is produced and are therefore specific to different cheese making traditions. In the past, cheese molds were often made from clay or woven from natural materials and these porous materials were perfectly suited for the job because they served two very important functions - 1) they wicked moisture away from the curds and 2) stored the beneficial bacteria, yeasts and molds responsible for the cheese production for subsequent cheese inoculation.
Even though they have been used in the successful production of cheese for thousands of years, these more porous, natural materials are unfortunately today considered a health hazard and are practically impossible to find. I was hoping that modern feta cheese production today in Greece would have “grandfathered” in the traditional use of molds made of natural materials and, that they may still be produced commercially.
Having a specific goal gave us focus and guided us around a several block area where shop owners repeatedly shot us dirty looks as we rummaged through their wares in search of cheese molds. I can only imagine what they were thinking!
To a passersby, our repeated unsuccessful attempts at communication consisting of a combination of fragmented English and Greek phrases interspersed with hand gestures describing the cheese making process when the language barrier proved too formidable must have seemed hilarious!
Shop after shop turned into block after block which eventually turned into mile after mile.
Finally, just when I thought Aidan was ready to strangle me in an effort to terminate the mission, we came across a shop owner who spoke a tiny bit of English. After realizing what we were looking for, he directed us to a little unmarked kitchen supply store tucked away off the beaten path. There, in a back room were stacks of plastic feta cheese molds! My initial excitement wore off quickly when I realized they were the same mass-produced feta cheese molds I already had back in America, but I still could not resist the opportunity to pick up a few more to bring back to the Eastern Shore Food Lab to help me relay the story about the trip to Greece every time I made feta with them. Aidan and I left the shop proud that we had accomplished our goal, but a little defeated that the “traditional” cheese molds in Athens were the same mass produced plastic molds we had back in America.
We walked a few blocks and there, across the street, was a small shop with its hand-made goods spilling into the street! We literally both ran into the shop and gazed longingly at the handmade butter churns and kneading boards and knew that there was absolutely no way that we could get any of it back on our return flight with Ryan Air! As we stood there, defeated, we spotted a stainless-steel feta cheese mold! Though hand-made, this is not a traditional material for feta cheese production. The shop owner informed us that this is the closest thing to traditional we were going to find because of modern food safety laws. It was gorgeous and I knew it was coming home with me!
With the infamous feta mold in hand - let the Conference begin!
The Greek-Irish Experimental Archaeology conference took place the next day. Just before it started we had the unique opportunity to meet the Irish ambassador to Greece, Orla O’Hanrahan and talk to her about experimental archaeology and the unique way in which we are applying experimental archaeological research to address issues of food, diet, health and sustainability. The conference, co-organized by the UCD Centre for Experimental Archaeology and Material Culture and Museum of Cycladic Art, was full of excellent presentations on exciting and innovative approaches to experimental archaeological research.
Aidan gave the keynote address, co-authored with Eileen Reilly and Brendan O’Neill, titled, Experimental Archaeology: Making, understanding, and storytelling about Prehistoric and Early Medieval Houses.
My paper, co-authored with Jason O’Brien and Aidan O’Sullivan was titled: Food evolutions: using anthropology, experimental archaeology, food sciences and culinary arts to fuse ancient and modern foodways.
The most meaningful part of the entire trip, however,
was watching my former student, Maggie Kobik,
present at her first professional international conference!
Maggie delivered a paper co-authored with Dr. Jo Day, titled, Reconstructing a Minoan pottery kiln from Priniatiko Pyrgos, Crete. Maggie, who graduated from Washington College in 2011 was one of my students when I first started teaching there almost a decade ago. Maggie recently graduated with her master’s degree from University College Dublin in Ireland, ironic since I am spending my sabbatical this year here in Ireland in collaboration with UCD.
I can honestly tell you that, as a professor, there is no better feeling than to see your students succeed. I was bursting with pride as I sat in the audience watching her command the room while she confidently and articulately presented her research to an international audience.
Great job, Maggie!
And in case you were curious . . .
I was able to make feta when I got back to Ireland!