George Vamvakitis and Jehny Koniditsioti, from Sparta in Greece, have the most lovely Etsy shop called The Spartan Table where they sell wild herbs, olive products and all sorts of other goodies that they either grow or forage from the local mountains near their home. Below, they talk about their move from corporate life to a simpler lifestyle doing what they love, the importance of their land and heritage and some of their favorite Greek recipes.
LO: Tell us a bit about yourselves.
G&J: I (Jehny) was born in Melbourne, Australia where my parents arrived from Greece a few years before. We moved back to Greece when I was 7-years-old. George was born here in Sparta. We got married in 2000 and we have two wonderful “small riots”- Billy (Vasilis) is 9-years-old and Panayota is 7-years-old. Both are going to the 2nd local elementary school.
LO: You have an Etsy shop called The Spartan Table. Tell us the story behind the name. What does it mean to you?
G&J: Our lives were much different a few years back than they are today. Our company was doing very well and things were fine until the economic crisis hit Greece with terrible consequences. After a couple of years struggling with endless stress, we decided to resign from our company. It was April of 2013. It was a hard decision, but every time we look back now, we feel that it was the right choice.
Photo: Shepherd’s tea
LO: What are some of the products you sell in your shop? Where do they come from? How involved are you in the process from the growing stages to the packaging and selling?
G&J: We have wild herbs from our two mountains near our home in Sparta (Taigetos and Parnonas), kalamon olives and extra virgin olive oil from our groves, wild herbs and honey from bee hives, sea salt from Mani’s rock and more.
The wild herbs are growing on the sides of the mountains, starting from a height of 600m (about 200ft). Most of them grow closer to 1,400m (4600ft). We have some olive groves which contain more than 700 trees. Some of them are more than 200 years old! A dear friend of ours brings bee hives to our groves every spring so we have honey from our land. We also have two very old family houses on the mountain. In their gardens, we cultivate our vegetables.
After the growing and gathering procedures, we dry the herbs in our warehouse in the village where we also keep our olives and olive oil. Everything is hand-picked, handmade and packed by us. Our kitchen is the laboratory for experiments and packaging. Thankfully, we have our parents and kids helping us. Especially when we have to crumble the herbs, we need a lot of helping hands.
LO: Tell us a story about picking olives and the process of making olive oil. Why is this so important to you and your region?
G&J: Olive trees are everywhere here in Lakonia, our region. This blessed tree was well-known from ancient times and it’s a part of our history and legacy. When we were kids, our parents used to take us every November during the harvest. Of course, the last thing we wanted back then was to leave games with our friends to gather olives. We were trying all the time to find excuses. George was even promising to study his lessons in order to avoid the harvest!
Photo: A variety of olive products
LO: What are some of your favourite recipes made from the products you sell in The Spartan Table? What is your most popular product? And your personal favourite?
G&J: It’s not easy to choose recipes as the olive oil, tomatoes, salt and herbs are the basis of many! Greek salad; chicken with dried tomatoes, oregano, olive oil and sea salt; and meatballs with peppermint, oregano, olive oil and sea salt are three of them. Wild oregano, shepherd’s tea and olive products are the most popular in our shop. My favourite one is the wild walnuts. George can’t choose between wild oregano and wild mint.
Photo: Wild mint
LO: What’s daily life like in Sparta? What do you do first when you wake up? What part of the day do you look forward to most? How do you end the day?
G&J: We enjoy a simple life. Every morning, the kids go to school, which is just few metres away. We have our morning coffee. Then we split up.
George is reading, writing or talking on the phone, in charge of most of our contact with the world. I’m working mostly on preparing our previous day’s orders and answering letters through Etsy. Later, George will go outside to the groves for few hours. He likes to explore every metre of the groves while he’s getting new ideas. Some of them are totally crazy, but if you could see him coming with a big smile ready to announce a new idea, you’d be smiling too.
Photo: Sun-dried tomatoes
After a family dinner, we enjoy some peace until midnight. This is when we talk and make our plans for the next day. I guess this is the part of the day which we look forward to most. We used to sleep late, especially George who is a night owl. He can’t leave his laptop, even in bed!
Photo: Wild Oregano
LO: One of the products in your shop is St. John’s Wort, which you label as “The Medicine of Ancient Spartans.” Would you say history plays a role in the way you approach your business? What are some other examples?
G&J: This unique traditional product came to mind one day a couple of years ago. Panayota had a skin problem and we got a small bottle from our parents. After putting some on her skin, we saw a huge improvement the next morning. The same happened days later when George had a similar problem.
We decided to research balsam oil (or sword oil as elders call it). We found out that this is one of the oldest medicines in the world. It was well-known in ancient Sparta when it was used to heal wounds from the battles (which is where the name “sword oil” comes from). Since ancient times, there wasn’t a house in Greece that didn’t have a small bottle of the balsam oil.
LO: How did it feel when you first started your Etsy shop? What were some of your influences?
G&J: Our shop is influenced by the choice to make our life simpler, find time for ourselves and family, eat and live healthily and do something we enjoy which came totally naturally from our hearts. After the very tough period of April 2013, we followed advice of our dear friend James Elsener from Switzerland who said: “Don’t push yourselves. Take all the time you need and let things flow.” This was a saviour for us because we didn’t allow pressure and stress of daily life to “intrude” on our routine. Starting to live again in a “new world of perspectives” kept the flame of our enthusiasm alive.
Photo: Sea salt from Mani’s rock
G&J: The first product that we created based on a traditional family recipe was olive paste. After days of experimenting with adding wild herbs into the paste from the olives which we smashed in our kitchen, we called some friends for a blind tasting. We tried this with our tomatoes too. We dug deep into our memories and visited relatives to discuss with them how to cultivate, pick and boil the tomatoes and how to preserve them as they and their grandparents did over the centuries so they stayed fresh and tasty. Every discussion was taking place around a full table of simple food (salad, olives, bread and red wine, accompanied by meatballs, which we love) and hearts full of love.
So we tried to repeat what we saw in the villages on the mountains. Thankfully, we had a big garden in George’s family house and then two gardens in the village houses on the mountains. We had only one simple rule: we won’t ever add any chemicals or fertilizers (except a bit of manure from local animals which we knew were feeding naturally) – just water from our well and the sky and nothing else.
Photo: Homemade olive paste
G&J: We are actually terrible farmers. After almost two years of cultivating our own vegetables, the production we get in relation with the land that we cultivate is very low. When we speak with professional farmers, the answer we get is “without fertilizers you won’t ever get a big crop”, but the products are more than enough for us.
Photo: Black raisins
G&J: Back in the dark years of civil war, 400,000 Greeks died in a winter due to lack of food. Our ancestors survived by collecting and eating wild herbs just boiled with water. They didn’t have even a spoonful of olive oil to cook with, yet they remained healthy and strong.
Photo: Honey from wild flowers and herbs
LO: If you could tell the world one thing about Greece or Greek life, what would that be? Why?
G&J: Greek life was always based on simplicity. Live for every day, laugh loudly, don’t be afraid to cry, work with no complaints, honour your parents and friends, take care of your children as long as you live, eat well – always with family and friends, help the helpless or the ones who are in need of you without waiting anything back. Do what you love, like you’re going to live forever, but be ready to die in any moment. If we could gather these words of advice into one, we’d use the word “light”. Greece is light, and you can’t hide anything in the light. The truth is light. Love is light. People are the light.
Photo: Dried wild lavender leaves and flowers
LO: What would make 2015 the most happy and successful for you?
G&J: Health for everybody. Follow our hearts, minds and instincts which give us the strength and enthusiasm to go on the journey of life. This is what we hope for everyone. We are so glad when we see people making progress in their lives.
We are looking for more walks in the mountains, more conversations around a full table of love and care and more meetings with new friends. Sometimes, when we close our eyes, we imagine friends from all over the world sitting under a full moon night sky with thousands of stars shining above our yard beside the garden on Taigetos mountain around a big table with the treasures of our land. And somehow this dream will come true. This year, friends will visit us here in Sparta; Emily, Pat, Monicka and Caroline along with their families will honor us with their presence. In our minds, we have already started to plan “The Spartan Table” for them. We’ll share love, laughter and stories. We’ll share moments in life.
Photo: In the olive groves
Thanks George & Jehny!