The economic crisis troubling Greece might threaten the living of a cheese merchant, but not the position cheese has in the Greek culture.
The role of cheese in Greek culture has some real passion in it. Cheese is served whether it is breakfast, lunch or dinner and is eaten with a passion and happiness that not many nation can align with.
In the outskirts of Athens, right next to where ships of the biggest passenger port in Europe are waiting for their turn to sail the Mediterranean sea one beside the other, there’s a small cheese shop with a reputation much larger than its size. The Widow has been selling cheese for three generations now and shows us a piece of the passion that lies between the Greek and cheese.
When her husband died in 1936, Vilia Salvation was only 25. After suddenly coming face to face with the truth of needing to earn the living for her family alone, she decided to continue in her husband’s footsteps as a cheese merchant. Using her small 13-square metre apartment not only as a home but also as a place to make and sell cheese paid off, and like a flash the word about the delicious cheese made by ‘the widow’ started to spread.
“It wasn’t her but the customers that named the store like this”, tells Vilia’s grandchild Thomas Salvation today.
The third generation shop owner shares the same passion for cheese than his father and grandmother did. He runs the store with the help of a couple of employees, the shop’s history being strongly present.
As the standards for cheese making have tightened over decades, the Salvation’s have decided to give up their own production.
Today The Widow only focuses on selling cheese, but the quality of the small family-run businesses can still be seen in the way the products are selected. Salvation wants to support small companies and Greek producers, however the quality of the cheese is still the primary criteria. He wants to honour the matter his grandmother once became so famous for.
“Also the financial situation of Greece needs some help. I want to give all kinds of businesses, whether they were big or small, an opportunity as we are all under the same pressure,” Salvation adds.
The history of Greek cheeses goes far further than the history of The Widow. According to the Greek mythology stories, the gods themselves sent the son of Apollo to teach the Greeks the secrets of cheese making. Records of feta production can be found since at least the ancient times.
In 2002 Greece finally got what it had been longing for years when European Union made the name of feta cheese sacred only to the Greek. The regulations now specify that only the feta produced in a certain way in Greece can be called feta, meanwhile producers making feta-like cheese elsewhere have to be content with using other terms.
The decision makers saw that even most of the packaging of feta-like cheeses produced outside Greece had references to Greek culture making it even clearer of which country the cheese was a vital part of. While Greece owns only less than 30% of the feta export market, over 85% of feta consumed inside EU is in Greece. Most of the 115,000 tons of feta produced in the country goes only for the domestic use.
Salvation says that in The Widow, feta is still the most sold cheese. The cheese needs to be made from either pure sheep’s milk or a mixture including maximum 30% of goat’s milk. And the shop owner takes the cheese seriously: all the different types on feta are produced, transported and conserved in barrels in the ancient, original way.
Salvation has a fice-year-old daughter who could some day continue the triumphant cheese selling tradition of the family. The father, however, hesitates.
“If she will have an option, I would advice her to choose the way she is more interested in. Because of the bailout situation all kinds of small companies in Greece are in a big danger”, Salvation explains with a grave expression on his face and repeats:
“I wouldn’t suggest her to continue in this store.”
Seeing the situation ‘going worse and worse’ has made Salvation consider even leaving the country and setting up a cheese store somewhere else. The fact that the number of products sold in The Widow has doubled from what is was some few years ago may sound like a normal growth of a businesses. There is, however, one paradox in it.
“The income was double back then”, Salvation says with a hint of sadness and irony in his voice.
“We need to find solutions for the situation because we still need to feed our families.”
The history of The Widow is not only visible in the photograph of the first shop hung on the wall of the current one. The building in which the family’s very first store was set up before Salvation’s grandmother died can today be seen from the window of The Widow. The run-down building has not been in use for several years.
If the economical situation in Greece was not as bad as it is today, Salvation wouldn’t consider any other option than honouring the tradition of the family by expanding the business. Cheese is not a trifle for Greek culture, and it is not that for Salvation either.
“Furthermore that I like cheese a lot, it is also the way of life”, he says.