Having spent his whole life working in kilns, mastro-Yiorgis Fradzeskos, “the old woman”, as the villagers used to call him, passed away five years ago, aged ninety-three. A farmer by trade, he dabbled a little bit in mastiha cultivation and olive harvest, maybe in a tad of gardening as well, but his main occupation was wood charcoal production; he toiled in that irksome and unsanitary work for years and carried on that traditional technique to a ripe old age, unwilling to abandon it. “That’s it, this craft is dying out too” he used to say. He was the last craftsman to make charcoals –karvouniaris, i.e. coalman– in Kalimassia village.
His specially adapted plot was situated at Vrahelno, found to the side of the national road as one drives up Poros hill on their way to Nehori village. Every winter he would set up the entire process with one, two or even three wood charcoal kilns, at a spot somehow less affected by the wind. This arduous, time-consuming and pesky job would require time, patience, mastery, knowledge, but above all, a good deal of zest.
Kostas would pay frequent visits to him so as to see the kilns from close up and take some pictures. It was the same story every year: heaps of soil and logs all around, barrels of water, fodder and haystacks, ladders, saws, shovels, rakes, wheelbarrows, everything surrounded in thick smoke. And amid this mess, Yiorgis would stand holding a shovel, covered in soot from top to bottom, with smoke, dust and fumes getting deep into his lungs.
He frequently cooperated with Yiorgis Kounis in this task. The first step was about pruning the trees and carrying logs; the preparatory and setting-up process would follow, with the logs being arranged in a circle so as to form a small mound (thicker logs would be placed on the inside and twigs on the outside); covering it and filling the gaps with hay would finish up this stage. At the bottom, they would construct a rock wall all around, while at the top, they would throw dust to prevent air from entering and building up the fire. An opening extending from top to bottom would allow them to start the fire so that the logs would burn gradually and from all around. The kiln smoldering for the first few days would call for them to stay vigilant and monitor the situation on a twenty-four-hour basis, keeping smoldering under control so as to ensure that the fire wouldn’t suddenly flare up and result in everything turning into ashes and their labor going down the drain. They also had to constantly block up holes using dust for the kiln to be sealed and remain devoid of oxygen, keeping the temperature stable, which would ultimately char the logs. On occasion, bad weather would force him to spend the night in the nearby shed. Soaking the kiln and leaving the blaze to die down completely would signal the end of the process; then, they would open it, put the charcoals in sacks and dispatch them to the market.
“In recent years, the largest part of the output had been intended for the lamb roasting custom in Easter” says Mitsos, his youngest son. He himself, despite following in his father’s farming footsteps, stayed away from this traditional craft: “Oh, sweet mother of God, that smoke was just unbearable, I couldn’t stay around, I was suffocating; even soaking it would bedevil me. How could mastro-Yiorgis handle this? I mean, the wind blowing from the south would barely allow someone to breathe, but what about the northern wind that sent the fumes all the way to the village? One could barely cross the road with all that smoke… Before the shed was erected, he had to fill the holes at nights so that the flame would let up and he could go to bed before coming back in the morning and light it up again; when he built the shed, he would spend all night there, keeping an eye on the flame”.
Times have changed and so have our needs. Back in the day, charcoal was the main heating source –used in braziers– while also serving household purposes; technological advancement, however, has rendered charcoal production fully industrialized nowadays.
Translated into English by Nikos Loutraris