Interview: George & Jehny from The Spartan Table

Jehny at the grovesPhoto: Jehny working in the olive groves

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.

Jehny and my Mother Trisevgeni - but we call Her “Soula” on an ancient rock near our groves at the Ancient theater. Sparta and Taigetos are at the backPhoto: Jehny with George’s mother Trisevgeni (they call her “Soula”) on an ancient rock near the groves at the ancient theater. Sparta and Taigetos are at the back.

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.

I’m a sociologist with a degree from Athens University. I was teaching for several years. George had his own company specializing in computers. About 10 years ago, we created another company with retail stores and entered into corporate life.
I  love cooking and creating things such as jewellery. I also love to create decorations for weddings, baptisms and parties. George loves computers, reading and the mountains; when he isn’t reading several books at his computer, he’s looking for ways to escape to the mountains.

taken a couple of days before Christmas in our groves.Me, Jehny, Vasilis and Panayota , Jehny’s Parents and my Mother..Photo: This was taken a couple of days before Christmas in the olive groves. It’s George and Jehny with their children Vasilis and Panayota as well as Jehny’s parents and george’s mother.

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.

One Sunday morning, a couple of months after our resignation, (we remember as if it was just few hours ago), we discovered Etsy. After surfing for a few minutes, we felt a need to participate. So far, we didn’t have anything ready. We had a plan to make some products of our own though. We originally named our Etsy store “Jehny’s kitchen”. George took some simple photos and we listed our four products: wild oregano, rosemary, bay leaves and shepherd’s tea. Late that night, our store was ready and running.

Photo: Shepherd’s tea
Several weeks passed and nothing happened. We started taking care of our olive groves. Cleaning the trees and watering them was our priority. We were often going into the mountains, searching for more secret places with wild herbs. By Autumn 2013, we had almost forgotten about Etsy; we were too busy with the groves and the wild herbs and we weren’t at home most of the time.
One rainy day in October, we got a letter from Caroline Henkelius, a photographer from Sweden asking for the shepherd’s tea. We became friends with Caroline. She took our store under her creative wings. We sent her our products and she took wonderful photos.
In our web conversations, we decided to re-name our store “The Spartan Table”, guided by our desire to share the humble treasures of our land. Soon, “The Spartan Table” started absorbing a lot of our time. Today, it is our life. It’s not just a store anymore; it’s our trip through the world where we meet friends from many places.

olive grovesPhoto: The olive grove, February 2015

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.

Kalamon Olives  with extra virgin olive oil and herbsPhoto: Kalamon olives with extra virgin olive oil and herbs

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!

But the memories we have from back in early the ‘80s with our grandmothers, parents and workers, laughing and singing under the trees, is something that can’t be described with words. Later, as we finished school and left for further studies, the olive harvest was a child’s memory.
Groves we hope to revive with our Tree Adoption Program through Etsy andCrowdfunding Project. Taken end of March 2014 - Snowny Taigetos at the back (2407 meters height). This is where we gather most of our herbsPhoto: Groves that George and Jehny hope to revive with a “Tree Adoption Program” through Etsy and Crowdfunding. This was taken at the end of March 2014 with a Snowny Taigetos at the back (2,407 m). This is where they gather most of their herbs.
In the mid-90s, many immigrants came to Greece. Most Greeks, especially young people, abandoned their family heritage and groves, but the trees were always there. It was just the working hands that were changing as elders started passing away and more expats were getting involved with the farms.
These silent giants, the old olive trees, were giving their gifts generously: olive oil and olives. The local economy was still based on these. You know, Lakonia is only producing extra virgin olive oil and kalamon olives, which are both considered to be amongst the best in the world. Unfortunately, most people don’t know it because of wrong commercial strategy over the past decades. So in the mind of the average consumer, olive oil means Italy and in terms of Greece – Crete and Kalamata.

Photo: Olives
This issue became a part of our mission. We’d love to show our friends that our land is the cradle of olive products. Today, more than any time in the past, as the Greek economy is still sinking for seven years in a row, the cultivation of olives is vital for our local economy. Thankfully, many young and well-educated people have abandoned big cities and returned to their family groves or have bought their own from elders. Lakonia (and Greece generally) is trying to stand on its feet again with dignity and pride as our ancestors once did.

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 the kids return from school, we have our lunch together. This is what we were missing most during our old corporate life. We were seeing our kids for only a few minutes in the morning, a few in the evening and we would hardly catch them before bed time, as our working hours were 9am-9pm every day. Now, I’m helping Bill and Panayota with their lessons which sometimes can take hours, mostly because Bill has his mind on football and games instead of school.
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.

St’ Johns Wort Oil-Balsam Oil  - The Medicine of Ancient SpartansPhoto: The medicine of ancient Spartans

While gathering herbs and our local products, we started visiting and talking with people in the mountains. Most of them are very old and they have amazing stories to tell. As Greece has suffered from many wars, there is barely any old Greek person who doesn’t have a sad story. But those stories carry a strong philosophy and reveal to us the real meaning of life which is simplicity, with love and care for people and for nature.
Another product we discovered is one of the best that exists for inflammation – propolis. Now we are preparing our first propolis tincture, with 50% propolis. We got the traditional recipe, gathered some propolis from the hives with help from Vasilis and we hope that by the end of March we can present this to our friends. This tincture is almost a panacea for many symptoms and diseases.
During this wonderful journey with “The Spartan Table”, we are rediscovering our heritage and land. And it’s really awesome.

Handmade Traditional soaps with extra virgin olive oil, aloe  and more such as calendula, lemon, orangePhoto: Handmade traditional soaps with extra virgin olive oil, aloe, calendula, lemon, orange and more.

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.

Everything around us is new and waiting to be explored or seen with “new eyes”. Don’t laugh, but the first thing we “saw around” was the sun. And then we turned our eyes down to the ground. We saw nature and everything that is included in her. We started observing the world around us with an endless longing to re-learn the principles of life. We understood that so far, in our first four decades of life, we actually knew nothing. We’d been misguided by the way of life we had before. That’s why we weren’t happy; we had lost the “small enjoyments of life”. Believe us; a few years ago, we had forgotten even how to smile.

Photo: Sea salt from Mani’s rock
After the first observation, the need to eat came to surface. Infants have their mothers to feed them. Maybe our hearts and minds were in such a “stage” again, but our bodies remained in an adult form and with a family too. Thankfully, it was late in the Spring and the gardens and fields had been already full of treasures. We are sure that we were a funny sight to the people around us. Trying to gather vegetables isn’t so simple as it seems. Many times, we ended up laying on a couch or a bed for days after just few hours of work in the gardens!
This basic instinct led us a few months later to add the traditional products to our shop. We had to eat. We didn’t have any choice but to take the food from our land. We found out that this food revived our body (and minds) and was also very tasty. As we started cooking again with the basics (not fancy stuff from supermarkets) we discovered the forgotten tastes and recipes.
LO: Do you use traditional family recipes? How about traditional ways of cultivating your products? 
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
LO: Do you cultivate the land year round?  
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.
We are lucky to live in a land with more than 300 sunny days per year and very good temperatures (from 15C/59F) for more than seven months every year.
At the time of this interview, our gardens full of broccoli, cabbage, spinach and lettuce are growing already. In two weeks from now, we’ll continue with tomatoes and peppers. Every two weeks, we’ll continue with more vegetables until the end of December in order to start again next February. Even in December and January we are collecting wild herbs, a lesson from our family.

Photo: Black raisins
LO: How has working the land been important throughout history? What has history taught you that you carry over into your own relationship with the land?
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.
The wild herbs like oregano are incredible treasures growing in secret high places away from human touch and greed. As our ancestors did, we try to carefully gather a few of them in order to let them reproduce sufficiently for the next year and use them in our daily cooking and nutrition.
We re-discovered the usefulness of the humble shepherd’s tea for cold treatments and as a wonderful drink companion on relaxing evenings and nights. After finding St. John’s Wort in the high places, we created our own balsam oil and felt so proud when we held the first small bottle in our hands. The feeling when we offer relief to our kids and friends by using our balsam oil is invaluable.

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.

When we open our eyes again, we are heading to our olive groves. This year, we will try to revive an old farm with more than 600 trees. For this reason, we’ll soon launch a “Tree Adoption Project” through a crowdfunding campaign. We want to make a strong bond between people and our land and leave “a guidance light” for future generations.

Photo: In the olive groves

Thanks George & Jehny!

Visit George & Jehny’s shop, The Spartan Table on Etsy.
Product photos throughout by Caroline Henkelius.

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  • Reply
    Diana Mieczan
    February 25, 2015 at 2:35 pm

    Their shop and their life makes me swoon…I love the story and the way they spend their days:) Wish you all an amazing day. xoxo

    • Reply
      February 26, 2015 at 9:15 am

      I know, me too. I love the idea of a simpler life, growing your own food, surrounded by mountains. They’re lovely people as well 🙂

  • Reply
    February 26, 2015 at 3:54 pm

    This is a wonderful and informative feature!

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