Saturday, December 03, 2011


When I was young, my grandfather would lead an annual pilgrimage to Mount Martha on the Mornington Peninsula, in avid and singular pursuit of his one thing needful: pine resin. My father would drive him up to the mountain and he would wander through the pines, touching their trunks, appraising them with the eye of a worldly connoisseur choosing which fish would be sacrificed to the demands of his palette in a Chinese restaurant and then move on.
Perched high above the breeze-ruffled bay, the air of Mount Martha would invariably be thick with tiny forest flies. My role in the solemn procession was to lunge at them maniacally with my hands in an quixotic attempt to swat them. Up above us, Bunya pines, quite distinct from the Aleppo Pines of my grandfather's homeland on the island of Samos, would swarm over the bright mountainside, greedy to drink the vaults of milky light above.
The task of pine resin extraction is easy enough for a sanguinary pursuit: First, find your tree, then make a small cut in the tree with a double-headed pick, then knock in a collecting tray just beneath the wound. Slowly, inexorably, the pierced tree will bled its sorrow and its collective memory of all its martyred brethren into said tray in the form of a colourless resin, only to heal within a fortnight. The resin in turn forms sticky white lumps in the warm air, reminiscent of cake icing. Should the perpetrators of this heinous violation require further resin, then they may return three weeks later, making a new cut just above the old one, and repeating the process. After a while, the tree looks like a laddered stocking, but it continues to grow regardless, in silent protest.
Retsina, is the by-product of the exquisite marriage of the fundamental essence of the pine tree with white wine. Small pieces of pine resin are added to the grape must during fermentation. The pieces stay mixed with the must, and elute an oily resin film on the liquid surface. When the wine is then siphoned off the lees, it is clarified and the solids and surface film are removed. The finished golden gleaming product, in our case, would then be reposited in vast oak barrels that loomed menacingly in my grandfather's gloomy garage, forming the background, and quite often the subject for some of my more vivid childhood nightmares.
On the whole, western wine sophisticates are meant to abjure retsina as a dull wine vulgarly adulterated. I, on the other hand revere it as Olympian nectar. After all, one can sometimes have a surfeit of sophistication, and a tumblerful (for it is heresy to imbibe retsina from a wineglass) of retsina is an unrivalled antidote to the dreary quest after ultra-refined superlatives and contrived nuance.
Retsina ventilates the digestive tract, settles the stomach and fumigates the spirits. No other beverage connects us quite as faithfully to dinner with Plutarch, Theophrastus and - who knows? - perhaps even wily old Homer himself, parched after an evening's firelit recitation, fighting over a flagon with my taciturn grandfather.
Not only is retsina most ancient in provenance, it is, in keeping with its gloriously acrid taste, an untameable, revolutionary wine, the first blow of resistance of a freedom-loving people against the unspeakably unutterable depredations of Western Imperialism, the tyranny of domestic bliss or any other type oppression one cares to mention.
My grandfather was a case in point. After dinner, my garrulous grandmother having ceased relating sundry snippets of news, he would often remove himself mysteriously from the table, without ever offering a hint as to his imminent destination. One time, I followed him secretly, down the back door steps and through the garden, into the garage. There he procured from a drawer a plastic siphon, which he attached to one of the barrels and seated upon a stool, he placed the other end of the tube between his lips and began to draw the liquid gold into his mouth with gusto. Though young, I instinctively knew that I had chanced upon a holy mystery of pleasure and that to impinge or otherwise disturb its proceedings would be tantamount to sacrilege, so I made myself scarce, only to return an hour later, worried that my grandfather had failed to emerge from his hermitage.
I found him on the floor, tube fallen from his mouth, stool overturned, clutching his head in his hands, weeping. Terrified, I ran back into the house yelling: "Γιαγιά, γιαγιά! Something has happened to παππού. He is sitting on the ground in the garage crying." "Hmph!" my grandmother snorted. "Don't fret. There is nothing wrong with him. He's probably drunk. This is what he always does. He goes down there, starts drinking, and then he remembers his father and his brothers, and only God knows what else and he starts bawling his eyes out. It's nothing. Pay him no mind." I did not know then what my shy and impenetrable grandfather had seen as a young boy during the Asia Minor catastrophe, nor the gruesome brutality of man that he experienced in the mountains of Northern Epirus during the Second World War. Nonetheless, I don't believe that I ever loved him more than I did at that moment, when I determined that retsina was the drink that defied the world and memory and would be my preferred beverage of resistance from that day hence.
While scholars agree that retsina was been made continuously for at least two thousand years, opinions differ as to why. Some would have us believe that it originated from the practice of sealing wine amphorae with Aleppo resin, in order to render them impermeable and thus not liable to spoil. I would rather render credible the stories that claim that the Roman sots who invaded Greece plundered the people's wine. The angry Greeks turned to infusing their wine with pine resin as a way of extending their stores and deterring their thirsty conquerors. That the Romans were turned off by such blatant acts of defiance can be evidenced by Columella, who in his work De Re Rustica, described the different types of resin that could be used in wine but recommended that the practice not be used for the best wines, as this created an unpleasant flavour. His contemporary, Pliny the Elder, having lived among the Greeks of Magna Graecia, however, did recommend the addition of resin to fermenting wine must, in his work Naturalis Historia.
On the whole, westerners did not embrace retsina and their prejudice against the retsina-sipping easterners of Byzantium even took centre stage in the writings of the historian Liutprand of Cremona, who in his Relatio de Legatione Constantinopolitana complained that, when sent in 968 to Constantinople to arrange a marriage between the daughter of Emperor Romanos and the future Holy Roman Emperor Otto II, he was treated rudely, because he was served goat and an "undrinkable" wine, mixed with resin and pitch. Yet the final anti-western credentials of the fluid are certainly proved by the fact that an excess of undiluted retsina is said to have proved mortal for the crusading kings Eric I of Denmark and Sigurd I of Norway.
A few years ago, I went to visit my grandfather's brother in law. Hearty and hale in his nineties, he immediately produced a bottle of retsina and bade me drink. To my everlasting shame, I confessed to him that for some years, whenever any form of alcohol would touch my lips, I would be afflicted with a debilitating migraine and would thus regrettably abstain. He shuddered: "Are you sure?" His brow, furrowed in perplexity, he remained silent for a long while. Then, summoning up his courage, he asked: "Pardon me for saying so, but could this be a psychological problem? It just isn't natural for you not to drink retsina. Your grandfather drank it, so does your father. Maybe you should seek help. It just doesn't make sense."
What does not make sense, is being denied communion in a beverage that constitutes the collective memory of an unbroken succession of all the male members of my grandfather's family. Nonetheless, completely dry and acerbic, I still relish the whisper of the pine tree in our wine, and cling to the memory of defiant Greeks seeking respite from the bitterness of existence and domination millenia ago, all with the same cooling draught.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 3 December 2011