It was a fairly hot summer day in Crete, about 33 degrees and I packed the family into the car to wend our way through the mountains of Sfakia. Sfakia has a remarkable history, it has long been home to rebels, free-minded people, fiercely strong-willed. This strong-will has left many of the mountain villages abandoned as family and neighbourly feuds take their toll.
Nestled in harsh and bleak mountains, midway between the north and south coast lies many a plateau of abundance. Our destination is Kallikratis - it is here that you will find Wild Herbs of Crete. Just a few miles from the tourist destinations of Agriopolis, the journey is a hard climb on a thankfully new road, although each hairpin bend warns of danger around the next corner, steep drops one side and the mountain rocks falling into your path on the other. The journey from our house in Kalamitsi is 37km. It takes nearly an hour, the first 20km is easy, last 17km, well, at least the road is tarmac now. The car creeps up this mountain, straining between first and second gear, finally reaching the top.
At the junction (today two cars are resting with their bonnets up) turn left. I’m surprised to see a taverna. It’s two years since we made our way through this mountain road. The small road to Wild Herbs is longer than I remember and I long for each building to be our final destination. It’s not far now, just 200m. A small building, wooden, crafted. This was built by those who wanted it. There’s sheep out back and a beautiful shaded area to leave the car cool down; and one for us too.
We sigh with happiness. Here is soul. Homemade lemonades, peace, soft landscape after the rugged mountain. I venture to the shop. As I remember it’s small, no nonsense. There are a few precious essential oils, some hydrolats. Homemade soap, preserves and local honey.
I seek out oils for a dear friend then join my family for homemade lemonade. In a few moments Janina joins us. Smiling, knowing she sits and welcomes us “you were here last year!” “The year before” I say. She glances the list and says, I have everything except the mastic, that’s gone now. I explain, it’s a wish list for an aromatherapist. She’ll be thrilled everything else is there. I say how Jane finds these oils, especially the rosemary and thyme so different from others. Janina laughs. “Of course, it’s the land, here it is different. Crete is different, we are different.” She goes to her shop and brings out a bag of dried thyme, flowers evident. “We use the whole plant, see, you see the flowers” everything the plant has to offer. I speak as a herbalist”. Her eyes are deep, knowing, tempting you to dive into their knowledge.
I follow her to her shop. There are testers for each oil and I marvel at the softness. A rounded smell. There is truly the soul of the plant in each bottle. Note we have only opened the bottle, it’s like unplugging the cork and letting the genie out.
I see her hydrolats. “Phah, yes, they are nice for this and that. But they are a by-product. There is no soul, they are not the essential oil. They are useful, but not complete.”
“Do you have time? Come with me.” These are the words I had been hoping for. We go through the back of her shop, past the lady who prepared our lemonade and a gentleman, not Babis, a friend, a soul, whatever, they are both sat by a table hand plucking leaves from rosemary.
“Look at those” I’m told. There are four or five mesh sieves on legs, rounded. “You just need to see and remember them. It will be easier to know what I am saying.” Got it. No messing. I know when to take instruction. No bullshit here. Then we go into another shed. There are 2 large metal cylinders. She explains this is where it happens. A small amount of water is placed at the bottom of each cylinder. A mesh sieve over it, there’s a gap between the water and the sieve. Then the herbs come. She shows me a rope hanging from the ceiling. Maybe for a sales rep? Ha! They just want to make money. It’s ok, but is not the soul. There is no place in essential oils for monoculture and chemicals.”
The rope is to hold whilst you get into the cylinder to tread down the herbs. These are the old ways.
“Steam is lazy” she laughs. “It will find the easiest way through. You have to stop that. The process is slow. That is why the oil is different. It is full.” And yes. It is full. The distillation rooms smells of mint, a new herb for her. The spent herb lies outside, new herb lies inside to dry. We reach our heads down into the cylinders. There is no smell. I’m amazed, she laughs again. “The work has been done, there should never be a smell of the herb left in the cylinder.”
She goes through the process with me. The large cylinders, the 9m cooling cylinder. Oil and water separating on the glass bottle beneath the table, siphoning, patience, love, laughter. There are large bottles of the hydrolat by-product. They use this as the water for the steaming product too. “See how it will bring more? Each batch has something else.” A small drop of mint hangs from the end of the processing tube. She laughs again. Such joy. “Look, a gift.” She take it on her finger and offers it to me. It’s like picking the plant. The smell is full, I sense the plant in all it’s stages of life. It stays with me the whole day.
Nearby the drying racks are full. More mint to one side (with flowers) and bay the other. They dry the herbs out of the sun so they don’t burn. Crete’s warm dry air can work wonders. She explains how everything is hand picked. Each plant allowed to live another year, nothing taken that can’t be renewed. Every harvest has young and old plants. No monoculture, no harsh raping of the land. Let the old and the young be side by side to give the full essence of the life of the plant. The soul of the family of the herb. She is sad that the bay is the only plant where they use a machine to break the leaves. It’s dead of course by the time the machine sees them, she explains, but the sadness is there under her words.
Janina has been here for 28 years. A herbalist first, an aromatherapist, a being at peace with her surroundings. The true yogis I meant never say they are Yogis. “There is no difference. We are the same as these plants. We are beings of the earth. It is our mistake to separate ourselves from the earth, plants, people.” “We are the stuff the plants are” she says this pinching her skin repeatedly. To her it is obvious. Our essential nature brings us in line with our surroundings. Her surroundings are strong and soft: Sthira and Sukham - steadiness and lightness. She embodies it all.
Janina explains how 28 years ago, already a ‘mature student’ she embarked on a masters course on this island of Crete. “We were lucky. Only in France, Spain, Italy and here were we being taught. We had the best.” I am so involved with her words I miss the chance to find out who. The course is no longer in Crete. The focus here now is organic farming (I hope that many of the villagers will take heed, and also mourn the loss of somewhere I can encourage you all to learn more, in the land I love). The students she was with were there to learn, she was there to do. She was already doing. She explains how the tutors advised the best methods, the volume, the materials. How much help she received from students and tutors alike. Thrilled she was putting into practice her soul’s work. You couldn’t not help her of course. Her enthusiasm, her spirit. It is intoxicating.
As we leave the supermarket arrives. A white van, packed with all sorts of goods, the ’lemonade lady’ rejoicing able to refresh supplies. Crete is a marvel. You can live in a remote place and have everything you need. On the road back we pass the ACS van - the delivery service. Wild Herbs do have an online shop and I have experience that ACS are very reliable.
If you are in Crete, go, make the time. Or write to her (she doesn’t always respond, but she might if she has time and remembers). If you are there, if she has time, and if you are interested she will give you the tour. She doesn’t have much time. She’s searching, tending, loving this land 24/7. I was lucky. Ever grateful.
For more on the oils, the processing, how to buy see their website. http://wildherbsofcrete.blogspot.com/
Katie is a health & wellbeing coach, yoga therapist and essential oils therapist specialising is providing you with the foundations of wellbeing. Foundations is a year long journey to experience better health, to enable you to live your life with ease and flow using wisdom of yoga philosophy, science of Ayurveda together with modern habit research.
Katie @ Petalouda Yoga & Wellbeing
Katie is an holistic health coach. She combines yoga therapy, ayurvedic health & lifestyle advice, and the use of essential oils with her naturally intuitive healing gift to offer a rounded package of care to her clients.