I am a small town girl through and through. I love the calm and the fun characters of a small town, and I enjoy the way people come together to do good for their community. The Aegina pistachio festival is an annual event promoting the island’s famous nuts, and it is mainly run by volunteering citizens from around the island.
There is a street fair where you can sample and buy an amazing amount of pistachio products. There are food seminars and art exhibitions and concerts, and it draws a huge crowd from the mainland. The nuts are harvested at the end of August, when visitors to the island are just starting to plan their return to home, winter, and work. For us islanders, the festival – which takes place in the middle or end of September – extends the summer a bit, which is a blessing when September draws to an end and we will soon be on our own again.
This year’s festival opens tomorrow Thursday 15/9/2016, and ends on Sunday 18/9/2016. Find the whole program (in Greek) here.
Following is an interview with Nikos Mourtzis about the harvest and the Aegina pistachio I did last year for Toovia Magazine. The video was shot by Dimitris Drisas.
Mourtzis Artisan Pistachios – and the Island that went Nuts for Nuts
This article was written for Toovia Magazine and previously published on Toovia.com (site currently down).
The video in this post were shot by Dimitris Drisas for Toovia Magazine. Unfortunately, the images have been lost in transportation.
It is late August, and the sun has just risen on what is going to be another hot day in the Aegean. Visitors to the beach will soon be happy to find a sea that lies heavy and still as oil, because there is no wind today. Further up the hills on the island of Aegina, to the overwhelmingly loud singing of hundreds of cikadas, workers are stocking up with cold water.
It is the first day of the pistachio harvest.
The view is fantastic. Bright pink clusters of pistachios bedeck the deep green crowns of the trees in a valley surrounded by beige hills. It is a pool of life in the middle of a landscape where the natural vegetation has dried out. I arrive here as my first stop in researching the Aegina pistachio. Here to meet me is videographer Dimitris Drisas, and Nikos Mourtzis of Mourtzis Traditional Sweets and Pistachio; a fifty year old family business. Nikos is third generation, and we’re at one of the family’s many pistachio groves in Aegina. I’ve asked him to tell me all about the nut that has made this island famous, and what makes it so special. But first of all, he describes what we are seeing.
Hi. Thanks for having us. Can you describe the day of the harvest for us?
Well, the harvest goes on for about twenty days at the end of August and beginning of September. We get to the pistachio groves around 6 AM to avoid the worst heat, and then work until noon.
We harvest our pistachios the traditional way. While there are some motorized harvesting and gathering machines on the market today, we don’t use them. Just like my grandfather did, we gather the nuts by spreading out tarps underneath the trees and hitting the branches with sticks. When the pistachio is ripe, it will fall right off. The only thing slightly modern about our tools is that they’re covered with rubber at the end to protect the branches. In the old days we would wrap them in cloth.
The men work as a team, moving together from one tree to the next. They drag the tarps behind them, spread them out beneath the trees, circle them, and pick up their sticks. Harvesting a tree doesn’t take long, but the reward in the form of the pistachios in the tarp is big. It’s obvious they’ve done this many times. I snag a few handfuls of pistachios right off a tree, and eating them is an experience.
The fresh pistachio is covered in a soft outer shell that is easily removed when the nut is red and ripe. Under it is the slightly translucent inner shell which will be left on to harden and switch color during the drying and roasting process. The nut is crunchy even before processing, but the flavor is a lot more light and fresh; like a roasted pistachio mixed with an Armenian cucumber.
It’s almost hard to believe these nuts are the same ones they serve with your drink at the bars downtown.
Describe the cleaning and drying process.
We empty the tarps into sacs and take the pistachios for cleaning the same day as they are picked. The outer shell is removed and the nuts are rinsed in water in the shelling machine. Any nuts with inner shells that have not opened are discarded, as well as any empty shells. Our shelling machine combines a fast spin and water pressure and the pistachios come out ready for drying.
That’s another step we choose to handle in the traditional way. We spread all the pistachios out on the roofs of our houses to dry in the sun for three to four days, depending on weather and humidity. There are machines for this as well, but by letting them dry naturally and slowly in the sun like this, they keep all of the natural flavor their juices provide.
A careful observer will notice an architectural trait in the houses of Aegina that’s not compatible with the tile roof neoclassical buildings of the port. While the weather in the Aegean is usually too hot to sit outdoors in the sun in the summer, houses in Aegina traditionally feature an uncovered terrace, specifically used for the drying of the nuts.
Once the pistachios are dry, we either roast them or they go to our cold store. This is the processing stage in which we store our nuts all year, in order for them to keep their flavor.
We provide freshly roasted pistachios every day. We take the day’s portion of pistachios from our cold store, which are then soaked in water with salt, stirred until the salt has dissolved, and drained. Then we roast them. In the old days, this was a critical stage, as the pistachios were easily burnt or unevenly roasted in traditional tins and ovens. Thankfully, our modern ovens do the job beautifully.
How many trees do you have? How many workers are needed for the harvest?
We have about 1800 trees spread over a number of pistachio groves. It takes four people twenty days to harvest all of our nuts.
Was it a good harvest – How much pistachios were harvested today?
Fortunately, yes. It is a great year. These pistachios are large and taste great. Today alone we’ve harvested almost two tons of pistachios. It means about 700 kilos (1800 lb.). We had a hailstorm in June that could have possibly damaged the nuts, but luckily only a few trees were affected.
So bad weather can damage the nuts? What else are your biggest worries before the harvest?
Yes, lots of rain or hail can harm the trees if it’s close to harvest, but it’s on very rare occasions since it doesn’t usually rain much in the summer. We’re in a bigger risk of getting a bad harvest due to insect infestations.
Just like other trees, the pistachio tree has its enemies. Mainly plant lice and eurytoma flies. The latter can easily destroy up to 95% of the production by laying their eggs in the immature nuts. We therefor have to be extremely careful and cut and burn any infested cluster immediatly.
That sounds like a pain. Tell me something happier! What is your first/best pistachio memory?
My dearest memories are from harvest seasons when I was a child. The pistachio groves were my playgrounds then. Us kids would run around or lie in the mountains of pistachios under the trees as the grownups banged on those branches and worked themselves tired. We had the time of our lives, laughing, singing, and eating as much as we wanted.
There is this one scene from back then that has stuck with me. Me and my cousins were sitting on top of the piles of nuts on the flatbed of our old Datsun, and it was loaded so heavy it could hardly move. We didn’t care, we had so much fun!
As I leave the plantation and the workers get ready to take the nuts for cleaning, I keep thinking of Mourtzis’s childhood memory. It seems that everyone here has their own pistachio story. I once asked my grandfather, who grew up on Aegina, to tell me a memory that included the famous nuts, and he told me a story about friends throwing pistachio nuts at him from a boat passing through the Panama Canal.
As odd as it may seem, the pistachio somehow defines the people of Aegina; it’s part of their culture and something that has always been part of their everyday life, and they’re proud of it. Young kids jump around to a rap song by Dimitris Kotakis called “Fistiki” (or “Pistachio”), that mimics the sound of cicadas and talks about growing up in Aegina. Older residents can tell stories about times when even a single pistachio tree could save a family from poverty.
That’s actually true. Pistachio production has been steadily growing in Aegina for more than 120 years. The one break in the spread of pistachio groves was during World War II, when the island suffered from great poverty. Those who already owned trees would use them to trade nuts for staple foods. After the war, production exploded. Vineyards were turned into pistachio groves, and along with the trees, the island’s economy slowly grew stronger.
I meet with Mourtzis again, this time at his shop in the port of Aegina town. It’s a beautiful little store, recently renovated and well-visited. I stay, sampling the various sweet pistachio treats, until it’s time to close up, and we sit down for another talk. The shop has a rich range of spices, teas, dried fruit, and wine for sale in addition to nuts, but it’s the pistachios and pistachio-based products that stand out. Even the shelves are pistachio-colored.
How did you come to work with pistachios?
I studied to do something completely different, as did my brother, but we ended up doing this. My parents have invested a lot in this business and the Aegina pistachio, and honestly, the economic crisis brought us back here to produce and do our best to promote it.
What is your favorite part of the job?
Roasting the pistachios, because I can always sneak a taste! Haha.
But also being able to teach people about our pistachios. Because the Aegina pistachio is so special, people have been falsely using the island’s name to sell other nuts for many years. While Greece is only the number six producer of pistachios in the world, Aegina is known in all of Greece as the place where you can get the best pistachios in the world. The European Union has now established them as a protected designation of origin product, which means no one in Europe without a permit can name their nuts “Aegina Pistachios”.
Who are your customers?
Everybody loves pistachios. It has nothing to do with age or what kind of person you are, so we sell to locals and to tourists. Thankfully, the Aegina pistachio has become so well-known in Greece that everyone who visits the island wants to taste some and to bring some home.
What is your goal for Mourtzis Traditional Sweets and Pistachio?
To use our buisness as a tool for promoting the main product of our island. There are still some nuts on the market that are falsely labeled Aegina pistachios, and we want to put a stop to that.
Except for the nut itself, I also want to invest more in our various pistachio products, which are mostly traditional Aeginitian sweets. We sell our own pistachio marsipan, brittle, truffles, bisquits, and honey soaked pistachios, to name a few.
What separates the Aegina pistachio from the rest?
The calcareous soil on the island is great for the pistachio tree, because it doesn’t hold a lot of moisture, which is perfect. There are several things that make the nut special.
First of all the taste is different. It is very easy to tell the difference between one of our pistachios and other, mere generic, sweet and almost almond-flavored kinds. But you can also tell the difference immediately by the shape of it. Our nuts are less round and smaller than, let’s say an Iranian pistachio.
What is work like during the winter versus in the summer?
Some things are the same. Our shop is open year round and there is always some tourism in Aegina which means business for us.
The difference is in the fields. In the fall and winter the trees need to be trimmed, the remaining nut clusters burned, and the soil turned. In the summer we need to water, a lot, and constantly check on the production. At the end of September, along with the rest of the island, we prepare for and sell our products at the Fistiki Fest.
The so-called Fistiki Fest is the island’s annual pistachio festival, and is the epitome of Aegina’s pistachio production, where producers get a chance to show their products to thousands of people at one time. The Aegina pistachio is the draw that promotes the festival, and artists, musicians, and restaurateurs use it as an opportunity to reach out, as well.
I enjoy it immensely. The festival street fair offers everything pistachio related, from pistachio brittle, ice cream, and spreads, to soap, savory snacks and pistachio-shaped jewelry. I try an excellent pistachio liqueur from one stand, and whipped feta cheese with pistachio crumbles from another.
At night, the town bustles with life. Visitors have their pick of free concerts, food seminars, theater, and art exhibitions. Stars that visited or contributed to 2015’s festival included singer Elena Paparizou, installation artist Danae Stratou, and sculptor Costas Varotsos. The festival is one of the major high points for the the island’s tourism, and is run by volunteers. I marvel at the fact that everyone has come together to make this happen without any obvious personal gain, but maybe they do receive something in return. As Mourtzis puts it:
“Most people visiting Aegina already know about the island. It’s because we work hard on promoting the pistachio and it promotes us right back as a weekend destination.”
Aegina Island: is located just a one hour ferry ride away from the port of Pireaus. It was the first capital of modern Greece.
Mourtzis Traditional Sweets and Pistachio: is located next to the fish market in the port of Aegina. Open hours are 8.00 AM – 10.00 PM.
P.D.O: The Aegina pistachio has been declared a protected designation of origin product by the European Union. Using the name of the island to promote pistachios of other origins is forbidden.
Fistiki Fest: The pistachio festival in Aegina is an annual event hosted by the town ans run mainly by volunteers. It takes place during one weekend at the end of September, and features a street market, exhibitions, concerts, food seminars, and other events for people of all ages.