Christos Mplantis, the Strawberry Man of Athens - Culinary Backstreets | Culinary Backstreets
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Christos Mplantis, a 37-year-old farmer based in Marathon, a region in northeastern Attica, has farming in his blood. His father, Alexandros, was a farmer too, and starting at the age of ten, Christos began joining his father at farmer’s markets, or laiki (λαϊκή), around Athens any time he was off school, particularly during the summers.

Although working the land and selling at markets became second nature to him, Christos didn’t immediately think to follow in his father’s steps. He went to technical school to become certified as a plumber but couldn’t find a decent job after graduating. So, around 17 years ago, he found himself in a familiar spot: working next to his father.

While he was no doubt fascinated by the growing cycles and seasons, Christos excelled at, and was invigorated by, interactions with clients. So father and son essentially split the duties, with Alexandros overseeing the farming work and Christos focusing on the markets and sales more generally. Gradually he took over the business, although his father, despite being officially retired, can’t keep away from the fields – he spends his days “keeping an eye on the crops,” says Christos.

“Farming becomes your life,” he adds, “and the crops are your babies – you really need to care about and love them, watch them grow, it’s just like raising a child. And of course you miss them when you’re away. It is hard to put boundaries on those emotions.”

Christos lives on the family’s 80-acre farm in Marathon – “a paradise” as he describes it – with his wife, Ritsa, and their 7-year-old daughter, Myrto. The farm is in practice organic and pesticide free, although he never bothered to get officially certified. In the past they used to grow more mainstream produce like leeks, lettuce, cabbage, beets, tomatoes and a variety of herbs – all depending on the season of course. But when Christos took over, he wanted to experiment and learn how to grow crops he wasn’t familiar with and that weren’t commonly found in farmer’s markets like fresh chia or fenugreek.

The schedule of a farmer is grueling, meaning that Christos has little time to spend with his family on the weekdays (although he tries to make up for it on the weekends). “Every job has its sacrifices,” he explains, but it’s worth it “as long as there’s love for [your work] and understanding from the surrounding environment!”

Every day he wakes up at 2 a.m., then showers and has his breakfast. Since strawberries are one of his main crops in spring, he prepares a smoothie with strawberries, banana, walnuts, almonds and bee pollen – this is what keeps him going through the day, he tells us. After packing some extra walnuts for a snack, he heads outside to load his van with his assistant Raul. Once everything is packed and ready, they set off to the market – Christos aims to arrive by 3:30 a.m. in order to be on time and have his “shop” set up and ready to sell by 5:30 a.m.

Most of his customers are regulars; many have become friends over the years. A lot of them, especially the younger ones who work during the day, make their orders over the phone and pick them up on their way to work. Christos prepares those orders first and puts them aside.

“Unfortunately farmer’s markets, which have for years been a big part of our culture, cannot be easily incorporated into the demands of modern life,” he tells us. Regular farmer’s markets strictly operate between 5:30 a.m. and 3 p.m., and those who keep selling after this hour usually get a fine. This makes it hard for working people to shop at the weekly markets, unless they live in a neighborhood where the laiki is hosted on Saturdays, like the one Christos goes to every Saturday in the northern suburb of Maroussi.

Between 5:30 and 6 a.m. the first customers arrive. These are usually the “fanatics,” as Christos calls them, who come to the market before work. Take Zisis, a regular customer at the Vrilissia market held on Fridays. Every week at 5:30 a.m. sharp, Zisis arrives in his shorts and trainers, always in a rush. A very fit man in his late fifties who runs marathons and climbs mountains in his free time, Zisis loves green smoothies made with Christos’ seasonal produce. After he buys his bag of “goodness” he sets off for his morning run, goes back home for a shower and then straight to his corporate office.

Christos has this type of close bond with customers at every market he goes to. He knows what time they shop, their tastes, preferences and more. Greeks love to chitchat at markets, especially older people who may not get out as much. He’s always recommending produce and how to best use it – he personally loves fresh salads and, as a result, is an expert on herbs from parsley to lemongrass. A few years ago he started selling ready-made salads – 10 different kinds of leafy greens and herbs freshly picked on the day and mixed in a carton box – and they were an instant hit.

“Farming becomes your life,” he adds, “and the crops are your babies.”

Serving as this important link between customers and the food he grows is what makes Christos fall in love with what he does, day in and day out. “Yes, it is magical to watch a seed grow, this cycle of nature is enchanting and magnificent, but at the same time what is really keeping me in this demanding job is the connection and communication with the people,” he says. “I love introducing them to new varieties and encouraging them to experiment in their cooking.”

At this time of year, his stall is overflowing with juicy red strawberries. He never really grew much fruit until his daughter fell in love with strawberries at the age of two, which inspired him to start growing them. “Strawberries are tough,” he says. “They cost more and then you need to plant them in October and wait until early April to pick the first ones.” They have a short season, about two and a half months depending on the weather, and are incredibly fragile. This year’s heavy spring rains have been disastrous for strawberries – they ruined a lot of ripened fruit, just when farmers were ready to harvest.

His strawberries are really fantastic: sweet, fragrant and full of flavor. When we ask his secret, he responds: “Over the years that I’ve been experimenting on the farm I’ve learned the importance of the soil itself. Outdoor fields and soil are much more powerful as they are weather ‘trained’ throughout the year. Cold winters are particularly good for the soil; the earth is strengthened, it moistens up with the rains and snow is the best fertilizer as it kills all germs and diseases and the ice helps the pores open up and allows the earth to breath. Greenhouses, on the other hand, have weak soil with less elements and nutrients that you need to boost, thus a weaker crop with less flavor.”

Yet as was demonstrated this spring, outdoor crops are subject to nature’s vagaries. While many of his outdoor strawberries were recently ruined by the bad weather, Christos – luckily enough – planted some in greenhouses.

When it comes to keeping the quality of greenhouse crops high, at least as far as flavor is concerned, Christos has this to say: “The positive thing about greenhouses, apart from the fact that they are more of a safe bet as far as sales are concerned – you know you’ll have a final product to sell no matter what – is that you can control the soil and the final product.” So again, it all comes back to the soil.

Christos starts packing up his stall at the market around 1:30-2:00 p.m. in order to be home by 3:30 p.m. He has a light snack and then goes out in the fields – during winter he’s out there for about an hour, as it gets dark quite early, but in the summer he’ll be there for much longer. Around 6 p.m. he goes to his Pilates class. “I need an hour of working out and clearing my head,” he says. “At 7:30, I go back home, enjoy my family dinner and by 9 p.m. I’m off to bed!”

Christos doesn’t sugarcoat the challenges of being a farmer. “If you are a small, natural producer like myself, the hardships of farming and the physical work and time you put into it never pay off,” he says. “However, it really is the best therapy to work with the earth. You become one with nature and you get to live in a serene environment like this rather than an apartment in the center of the city.”

Christos can be found every week at the following farmer’s markets in the northern suburbs of Athens:
Tuesdays in Maroussi (Sismanoglio)
Wednesdays in Kifisia
Thursdays in Chalandri (Toufa)
Fridays in Vrilissia
Saturdays in Maroussi (at the second market there)

Editor’s note: To celebrate the start of spring, we’re running a series entitled “Meet the Vendors,” where our correspondents introduce us to some of their favorite market vendors and their spring products.

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    We were strolling through the Dezerter’s Bazaar building when a little woman, about 5 […] Posted in Tbilisi
  • Meet the VendorsApril 26, 2019 Meet the Vendors (1)
    Surrounded by construction sites, Salı Pazarı – literally “Tuesday Market” – is a huge […] Posted in Istanbul
Manteau Stam

Published on May 01, 2019

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