Of Barrels and all that…..

Today, 6th November, the day after Guy Fawkes failed to blow up the British Houses of Parliament (in 1605) with barrels of gunpowder, dawned bright and clear. A Cretan late-summer like day with temperatures in the late 20`s - or early 30sC on our sun-trapped balcony. A day for all doors and windows open. Shorts sleeves; sunshine. Another day of easy, relaxed retirement as, a world away in England, the year 2000 November weather attempts yet again to turn that land into a major feature film called "Venice II" . So, just what did we do in the day today then……..?

We collected our barrel.

One of the things we had always wanted to achieve since the beginning of our retirement here was to own a barrel of wine. Chateau Burgess? Chateau Pamela? Made from our very own grapes? Trod with our very own feet ? In our very own grape press? The crowning glory of 6 years of doing nothing in the day whilst turning our ruined house here into what we believe is a re-inhabitable village house! A bottle of our own plonk!

Last year was our first chance. With most of the house finished and our vines sprouting with some little vigor on the Krevatina, we prepared to buy our first barrel. Before we did the entire grape crop in this area failed. No grapes – no wine. No wine – no barrel.

This year we were determined.  In the event, although our krevatina yielded a reasonable crop we needed enough to make 100 kilos of wine, which we didn't have. No matter, there is plenty of locally made wine and we decided, if we could, to buy from our one of our favourite taverna's in Kolimbari, Lefka's. Produced by the owner from his own grapes; trodden by his own feet in his own press, it is an outstanding red and very popular with his holiday making clientele . To say nothing of locals in the know. Chateau Lefka? Better than Chateau Tipota!! (Nothing). But Nikos might not want to sell 100 kilo's….

Last Friday, leaving Kastelli on the old road to Chania, we saw a traditional Cooper's workshop standing well back from the road and with no access from where we were.  Turning right for ……… and then right again towards Kastelli, avoiding pot-holes big enough to qualify as tank-traps we saw the sign for the Cooper's.  It looked like that anyway – it had no letters but seemed to point in the general direction I thought I had to go.  At the end of an unsurfaced track was indeed the Cooper's yard and workshop.

It was a dream come true. A real Cooper and his apprentice; in his own workshop; making those magical curved pieces of wood and then making them into barrels from which even water would not leak - either in or out.  My own experience of Coopers was as a very much younger person watching Blue Peter on TV!  Hypnotic…..  And here it was, Blue Peter for real!

'Kalimera – Milau Anglika?'  (Good morning - Do you speak English?").    'Ohi, mono Elleniki milau etho!'  (No, we speak only Greek here).  Should be good, neither Pam nor I had specialised in the study of Greek Language for the barrel buying public!  'Then pirazi – stin Ellatha milau Elleniki!!' (It doesn't matter – in Greece we speak Greek!!).  My sense of humour, better known as misdirected panic, took me deeply into the proverbial mire as, once again, it was assumed that I could speak fluent Greek…..  As it happened there was so much hammering of metal hoops on barrels in construction at that point that it probably wouldn't have mattered if we had been speaking Mandarin Chinese.  The cooper was very helpful – deciding that  no we didn't want 50 kilo barrels – 100 kilos is better – Cretan wine is very good!  There were two types of wood available - Greek chestnut, from Agia ……… north of Thessaloniki; and German Oak (Vris).  We settled, like all really (in)experienced buyers of anything, by listening to the hammer-drowned advice, given no doubt in fluent Greek and then picking the one we liked the look of.  Since there was no room in the car we arranged to return for it.

Today we returned to buy it…..

'To Mastora then einai etho' (The Cooper isn't here).  That's Greek we thought, and totally expected.  Our arrival had been heralded by an ominous absence of hammering from the empty, apart from the Cooper's wife, workshop.  Nothing, but nothing on Crete happens the English way.  Life follows it's own ebb and flow.  It is so normal, pressure free and soothing, so natural, that it is really nice.  Two chairs are produced; we are offered (and accept) Greek coffee's (Ellenikos Café) one sketo (no milk; no sugar) one metrio (medium sweet, no milk) and sit ourselves down amid the tools and and barrels in various stages of completion.   From Blue Peter to king of the Coopers Shop in three days, now that's progress!

The man himself, Pendeli returned within ten minutes of  the telephone call from his wife.

'Petros' he said, with a big smile and warm handshake, obviously pleased at remembering my name.  He reclaimed his long abandoned mug of coffee, sat himself on a stool by a bench festooned with tools, among the machinery and stacked pieces of barrel, and joined us for coffee.  Blue Peter eat your heart out!!  It might have taken me 35 years or so to get here, but here, together with Pam, we were.  Guests of the Mastora himself.  Sitting in the middle of a magic land surrounded by some of his creations - and the means to make them.  Talking shop….

Pendeli has been making Barrels for 43 years.  Since 1957.  Since he was seventeen years old.  How long did it take him to learn?  He gives a wan smile. "43 years".  We have arrived at the end of his working year – the middle of November.  In a week or so he will close his workshop until next January.  He has the easy, relaxed though alert manner which I suspect derives from confidence in his own skills.  He will tell about and show anything to do with his craft.  He is more than aware that my Greek does not yet include barrel-making language, and even if it did I am not even a novice and don't have 43 years to spare.  I have a mental picture of myself stood in the middle of chaos as I try to form a ring of staves around me in the shape of a barrel…  I am an impossible disaster, the staves eluding my desperate attempts to keep them together in a circle.  They are alive!  And what about the larger barrels?

Around the walls of the workshop standing on their ends, are new barrels.  On the right, on a platform about eight feet from the floor the smaller ones – 50 and 100 litres.  A little further down stand the 500 litres, about 5 feet tall.  It would take two grown men to link arms around them… On the opposite side stand even larger barrels.  750 and 1000 litres.  Six feet tall and three grown men.  At the back stand two 2000 litre barrels, taller than my 6` 1" .  Maybe 4 men.  These two are, as I feel sure Pendeli knows, perfection.  Beautiful and proud with their shiny steel hoops and superb grain of the chestnut from which they have been fashioned.  "How long does it take to make?"  "One day" he says.  He can see quite clearly my lack of comprehension.  "How long does it take to make a smaller one"?

'One day.'  He explains that he does not make a barrel all at once, but rather makes the different parts for a number en-masse.  It is the putting together that takes one day.  And even that is not the same day….  He reads my mind.  Maybe once 43 years ago, he stood where I am standing now…….. a bit lacking in comprehension.

'Come back in March' says Pendeli, 'when I start making the barrels again next year.  You can watch. Take photographs.  By June or July the workshop and yard will be full of barrels.'   These I see now are only a few left from this year.  We all sit and chat a bit more, then he gets our barrel down from it's perch on the raised platform and sets it down beside us.  No mention is made of payment of the agreed price.  Does he have something he needs to do , is he Ok for time?  Yes he is, there is no problem.  No matter, Pam and I decide that we have taken up enough of his time and pay up.  Pendeli instructs us how to test the barrel with water, (does he want him to do it now? No need we say) and if it is bad 'Kako' to take it back for tuning.  He puts it on the back seat of the car and I insist on taking the old road back to Kolimbari because, as I see it, a traditional barrel deserves a traditional road home – even if it does twist and turn and climb steeply away from Kastelli.  It is fitting!

We head for Kolimbari and Lefka's. Maybe Nikos will have enough of his wine to allow him to sell us 100 litres.

It turned out better than we had anticipated………..


Nikos was present in his well known and now closed for the season hotel and taverna.  'We have bought a barrel.'   Nikos' reaction was quite different to that we would have received in England.  'Ye e ees' he said, heading for Fred, our parked Nissan.  We open the rear doors to display our prize.  Where did we get it?  How much did we pay?  It looks very good!  'Ela' (come) says Nikos, heading rapidly back inside the hotel.  Three chairs are produced, followed closely by a tray with nuts.  Followed closely by Nikos, another chair and three glasses of his own red a wine.  Although we have come to try buy some of this the initial conversation about the weather in England is followed immediately by an unexpected and detailed lesson in Barrel preparation…..
We were to put in two kilos of salt and fill the barrel with water and let it stand for 24 hours.  We were then to wash the barrel out with clean water and refill it with the wine – providing it did not leak of course.  However, the best way was to immerse the barrel in the sea for two days….  'ah', I said, grinning,  'So you want me to put my barrel in the sea and leave it for two days!  When I return the barrel will be gone!'   Niko's  indicates to Pam that maybe I don't trust him too much and reverts to his previous instructions.  We have another half glass of wine and take the matter in hand.  "Good, but we have no wine and would like to buy some of yours".

A slight gesture with his head and a serious 'nai' (yes), of course.......' 

We are relieved – to us 100 Kilos is a lot of wine and it is possible to buy a dud lot.  Had we not procured wine from Nikos we would have had to have gone hunting amongst a lot of "best wines".  We now have the one we know and like.  The price is very good.  We take it. Nikos offers 'Avrio?'  But I want a bit more time and suggest Wednesday or Thursday.  We agree to telephone and set off for Afrata, en-route home, to do another job.  To get our friend Roxanni to telephone our log man and direct him to take the winter fuel wanted by one of our friends from England to his house in Rodopos.  Our Greek might just, if we attempt to direct them ourselves, result in our friends wood keeping someone else warm.   Little did we suspect that the saga of the barrel had only just begun….

Talking with Roxanni – to say nothing of Allekos….

As we arrive outside Roxanni's Taverna in lower Afrata all is silent.  I spy some freshly cut logs on the now vacant outdoor dining area. Knowing that it is impossible to get away with, I reverse my car boot up to the logs, pick up a couple and am about to load them into my boot when the taverna door suddenly opens.  "Thief! Stealing our logs"!

Roxanni and Allekos are standing in the doorway shouting and waving their arms – and grinning like the Cheshire cats that they have probably never seen.  My admiration for these two magnificent people never changes.  Never wavers.  Never falters. Never since they let my party try to burn down the roof of the outdoor dining area on my 50th birthday, now a few years ago and showed only totally inappropriate good humour! They just knew I wouldn't let that happen….  In truth I was utterly convinced that it would, but that's another story.  Right now, we were all smiling and laughing and greeting each other as if…..  Hadn't we really seen them since last Thursday.  As long as that!

'Tskouthia?!'  Our brief sojourn at Lefka fresh in our minds we decline and ask for coffee.  Tsikouthia and wine?  Wine and tsikouthia.  Which ever way round it probably equates to two Mogadon.  Coffee in Crete, probably in the whole of Greece, is in any case usually excellent.  Coffee it is.  We arrange ourselves around a table in the Taverna.  After the usual pleasantries about health, wealth, welfare and, for Allekos and I, the (imagined) girls in Platanias.  Roxanni, natural teacher that she is, turns the conversation to a topic about which we all know something. Onassis!   His children and his grand-children.  I wonder if that great man (now in the sky) knew that his doings would one day become an important topic of conversation in Afrata?  Never a sit-stiller, especially at school, I announce  "We have bought a barrel".  Roxanni, not quite certain of my connection of a barrel with Onassis, hesitates.  Allekos, another non-sit-stiller, doesn't.  'Bravo!!' he cried.  'Pou inai'?  'Exo' (outside) I declare.  'Anoikto ta porta,' (open the doors) demands Allekos, reaching the car first.  Barrels are clearly important, even empty ones.  I unlock the doors, wondering what Onassis would think of being out-gunned by an empty barrel.  Being Greek he would most probably have approved.  Our purchase, after examination by both allekos and Roxanni and close questioning about its pedigree, source and price now became our common conversation.  Back around the table inside the taverna Allekos becomes the teacher.  Clearly this demands male expertise…

Have we got wine?  Yes, from Lefka's.  If we put bad wine in a new barrel it will never be any good we are cautioned.  How much are we paying?  That's not expensive - are we sure it's ok?  Yes, we have been drinking it all season and nothing has fallen off!  Ok. Allekos moves on to the barrel and, in small easy stages, outlines the stages in preparation already outlined by Nikos.  With one magic exception. '..kai ena boukalli coniak' (and a bottle of coniak).  I am suddenly awake!  All attention… 'yia mena – pino?' (For me – to drink?)  'Ohi' (no).  Allekos, well experienced in my lateral (distorted) way of thinking smiles indulgently, almost coaching me gently back to normality.  I am clearly a man after his own heart.  'Ohi yia senna.  Yia mesa to barrelia'  (Not for you, for inside the barrel).  He is almost apologetic, almost as if he feels that he should let me drink the coniack.  'Metaxa?' I ask.  'Nai, Metaxa?'  He confirms. It crosses my mind that Metaxa is also the name of the Greek prime minister who said "No" to Mussolini in WWII when the latter demanded passage for his forces through Greece.  I think that the Metaxa is for the barrel – but then I am assured of a share in the end!

And back to Astratigos…….  


We arrive home.  Our dog inspects the barrel.  We almost expect her to say that we should soak it in the sea for two days.  In our small (secure) courtyard we prop the barrel with wooden staves, dissolve our two kilo's of sea salt in water, put it into the barrel and fill it up with water from a hose-pipe.  It looks good.  Very good.  After only 15 minutes the few areas which seeped a little stop seeping, and although there are a few small damp areas they dry progressively so that after 48 hours our barrel is clearly tuned.  It is a good one.  And since we put it in our yard rather than the sea, we still have it!  We arrange the collection of our wine with Nikos for next day – at 11a.m. and after several changes of water to wash out the salt we add a whole litre of Metaxa 5 star Coniak.  Following the instructions of Allekos I don`t drink it, but swish it around inside the empty barrel while trying to calculate how much of the litre I will get back with each glass of wine.  In the event the barrel absorbs only about a half pint, so we reclaim most of the litre for future medicinal use, stand our barrel on its prepared stand and head for Lefka.


Yes, but which is `our` wine?

When we arrive at Lefka Nikos is standing outside with an empty wine glass and the news that the wine is in fact at his home, not at the taverna. The glass he gives to Pam for the testing.  Arriving at chateau Nikos, five minutes drive away, we are taken to a large cellar beneath the villa. There are, to our surprise twenty-four barrels, each of 300 litres, on racks around the walls.  At the end there are two 2,000 litre stainless steel fermenting vats.  Nikos draws a glass of wine from a barrel in the middle of a row.  This, he says is five years old, barreled about 18months ago.  Pam and I taste it.  It is very, very good.  Nikos is a magician!  Two more empty glasses appear from nowhere.  I haven't finished the first. Surely I spit it out now?  "Ohi, Pinei" (No, drink it!) says Nikos.  He take the empties and heads for another barrel.  I was never a great mathematician, but I can count to twenty-four and I don`t need to count to realise that twenty four tastings that you drink will put me over the legal driving limit; to sleep and probably to bed in the new nosokomeio (hospital) in Chania. Nikos conceedes.  We taste the new, the medium and the old.  The five year old is clearly the best.  We take it.  We have a celebration Tsikouthia, fill our containers, then accompany him upstairs where his wife serves us Greek coffee – after a celebration Tsikouthia!  Luckily my plea that I am driving has been heard.  My celebration tsikouthia is almost invisible!  But the coffee is good.

We leave with a gift of lemons picked from the trees as we walk to the gates.  Life is feels good if controlling it seems slightly out of reach. We head for Astratigos with fifty litres of wine in the boot and another fifty litres in a huge container occupying the front passenger floorspace.  I feel good, my ego pretending that I really am as large as life. Indeed, I don't buy wine like the masses, by the mere bottle, I buy it by the car-load direct from the chateau of the maker.  And then only after a conniseural wine tasting and debate on the merits of the various wines available. And even then I buy only the best!!  I, me, myself, Wilf Burgess, Petros, am a long, long way from Macclesfield 1943......

Thirty yards from the villa we had just left a car turns off the main road towards us.  It is Dieter, the Swiss friend from Afrata who has loaned us the large containers to collect our wine in.  Are we pleased with the wine?  Of course we are pleased (my ego is unleashed) and now we are equal again, for Dieter already had a barrel of wine.  Pam comments on several bales of hay he is towing on a small trailer…  I think that maybe he has a part-time job.  Is he working?  He certainly is, says he, bright eyes twinkling with a grin like a November Santa Claus over his busy beard.  He has to feed his sheep and goats…….  His sheep and his goats.  And our wine isn't even in out barrel yet.  He has sheep and goats, as well as wine? "Sheep-herd" I mutter to myself, moving off towards Astratigos. "Goat–herder"!!