Marcie Mayer

The future of Greece in a nutshell

Text by Seb Emina
Portraits by Bruno Staub
Issue nº 16, Autumn & Winter 2017

On a Cycladean island, an American has done a remarkable thing. Marcie Mayer, 53, has taken Kea’s mighty acorn from its little oak trees and turned it into gold, using old methods – tanning – and new ones – award-winning acorn cookies.

At a time when austerity measures have nobbled Greece, Marcie’s Red Tractor Farm brand and sustainable business model are heaven-sent, and she might have halted the destruction of her adoptive island’s ancient forests into the bargain. Now Keans have finally adopted Marcie, after 20 years’ residence. But that doesn’t mean they’ll let her win her annual heaviest-acorn contest without putting up a fight.

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Back in 2011, Marcie Mayer invited her fellow residents of Kea, an island in a shipwreck-strewn part of the Mediterranean near Athens, to a meeting about acorns. For a long time, Kea’s oak trees had been in decline. This had a lot to do with the islanders finding more value in the land on which the trees stood, which could be claimed for holiday homes, and their wood, which could be repurposed as a cheap source of fuel. The oak forests that contributed so much to Kea’s serene, verdant atmosphere were thinning out.

That said, there were still plenty of the trees, so each autumn, thousands of acorns would carpet the ground on farms and in back gardens, where they would just lie until they were cleared or simply merged with the ground. What else would you do with them, exactly? Well, Marcie had a few suggestions. For years she’d been researching the acorn’s potential as a source of food. She’d learned how to remove the bitterness one would experience if eating them straight off the ground, how to mill them into flour, how to use that flour in cooking. The meeting was to say: Let’s make Kea’s oak trees part of the island’s economy. Maybe that way we can save them. And by the way, what do you think of these acorn cookies? A hundred or so people attended. In a population of about 2,000 talkative people, that was more than enough. The island was informed. The harvests could begin.

Fast-forward five years. It’s autumn 2016, and Marcie is in Paris, at the biennial SIAL, the biggest wholesale food fair in the world. Thanks to a combination of hard work and support from fellow islanders – plus the occasional crowdfunding experiment – Marcie has used the acorns of Kea to create a cookie business, Oakmeal, which is working out rather well. I’ve taken the train out to the Parc des Expositions to meet her. She guides me through the show, a vast arena of Puglian courgette fries, Kosovan energy drinks and other national consumables. We arrive at the enormous, bustling Greek zone, then head to an area dedicated to the Oakmeal brand. “It’s like an airport,” Marcie says. SIAL is her first international exhibition, and she’s hoping to find a wholesaler for her cookies.

We take a seat. Marcie reaches into a plastic container filled with dried acorns and hands one over: it’s dark brown, hard and wrinkly. “All of this didn’t start with my desire to make a cookie company,” she says. “It started with my desire to save the forest.” There is a large pack of cookies on the table. “Try one.” I pull open the vacuum seal and am greeted by the homely aroma of chocolate and oats. The cookies have a thick, rough shape. I bite into one. It is delicious, and I’m relieved that I’m not just being polite when I tell her as much. Because they also contain chocolate chips, vanilla and oatmeal, the experience they offer is in many ways a familiar one, but the acorn flour does its part too, bringing a baritone woodiness into play. She will later enter her cookies into the Superior Taste Award competition in Belgium. Oakmeal will clock up the highest marks in the biscuits/cookies category.

Marcie, who is a slim 1.73 metres, is dressed in black except for two earrings resembling clocks (“I bought them on eBay”). She has high cheekbones, friendly, astute eyes and one of the catchiest laughs in the world. She is excited to be in Paris. There is a Magritte exhibition at the Centre Pompidou. She loves the Belgian surrealist, whose best-known painting, “The Son of Man”, is the one depicting a man in front of a cloud-dotted sky, his face obscured by a levitating apple. “Magritte even influenced the packaging design,” Marcie says. I look more closely at the bag, which on first glance I had dismissed as the usual bold commercial packaging that a budding cookie brand must have. Now I see it: a monochrome acorn hovering in front of a cloudy sky, though the clouds are fuller than the wisps in the Magritte: they’re the kind a Greek god stands on while taking aim with a lightning bolt.

Acorn cookies: the dream of a woman who dropped out of an art history degree in California and ran away to Greece. Marcie was born in 1963 and grew up in Los Altos, three miles from Palo Alto, the city at the heart of Silicon Valley. Her father made his fortune in weather-predicting technology; her mother stayed home. When Marcie was 10, a teacher named Mrs Morgan held a class dedicated to cooking with acorns, using “meal that we made ourselves” – a way of learning about California’s Native American tribes, such as the Yuruk, for whom acorns, ubiquitous on the North American continent, have always been a staple food source. Afterwards, Marcie tried using acorns from the oaks near her home to make more tasty snacks, and while she never really managed the “tasty” part, she also never forgot that these oval curiosities were more than squirrel food.

Καλωσορίστε στην Κέα! Marcie was photographed on her eight-acre farm in north-west Kea, Greece. As well as an orchard of oaks, the farm is home to a cannery, four small vineyards, four guesthouses and a defunct 70-year-old tractor.

Marcie made it into the University of California, Berkeley. Then in her final year, she took a holiday across Greece that, strictly speaking, has yet to finish. “That was 1984. It was supposed to be a two-week trip, but I never left.” Marcie joined the seasonal economy, serving food and drinks on the island of Mykonos through the summer, retreating to Athens in winter. Her father had died suddenly from a heart condition in 1981, when Marcie was 17, and in 1989 she put “the last $32,000 I had from my inheritance after college” into leasing a restaurant in the Greek capital, bringing Mexican food – “and the best margaritas in Athens” – to Psirri, now a popular nightspot but quite different back then. “People thought I was absolutely mad. It was very downtrodden, but it reminded me a lot of SoHo in New York.” The restaurant, called Blue Velvet, became a cult success, but it was tough going, Marcie says. “It was all done on a shoestring, and 16 hours a day.”

In 1995, Marcie gave birth to her only child, a daughter, Isidora, who she has raised singlehandedly since Isidora was eight months old. By 1997 she had two additional branches of Blue Velvet: a second in Athens and another on Mykonos. But the expansion didn’t go smoothly. “I ran into all kinds of financial problems,” Marcie says. “I got in way over my head. I decided to pull out completely. I started doing interior decorating and design for shops, residences, and especially restaurants. And that’s around the time that I went out and rented this little cottage on the island of Kea, right in the centre of the forest.” Located only an hour’s ferry ride from the port of Lavrio near Athens, Kea is a convenient weekend getaway for those who live in Greece’s ancient, densely populated capital.

She and Isidora ended up living in that same cottage for the better part of a decade. Marcie became fascinated by the modest-sized valonia oaks, the very Mediterranean Quercus ithaburensis subsp. macrolepis; they reminded her of Mrs Morgan’s cooking class. In 2005 she met a man named Kostis Maroulis, and within six months they were married. Kostis, whose family has owned land on Kea since the 19th century, had inherited a farm near the harbour town of Korissia, and in 2008 the couple turned the buildings dotted around the land into holiday apartments. They called the site Red Tractor Farm, after a retired 1940s tractor – given to the island through the Marshall Plan – that sits near the entrance. With its productive olive grove (mostly planted by Kostis and his father), small vineyard and easy access to hiking routes, the farm tends to attract online reviews that use turns of phrase such as “simply beautiful” and “secluded but interesting”. Marcie and Kostis’s relationship eventually “morphed into a business partnership,” she says. He has moved elsewhere on the island, while Marcie still runs things from the two-storey house next to the guest apartments, in a complex that now includes her ever-active cookie operation. I arrange to visit in a month’s time.

In the meantime, in London and Paris, curiosity takes me into four of the best-stocked health food stores I can find to see if they have acorn flour. They do not.

Kea is one of the Cyclades, a group of 220 or so islands located immediately south-east of Athens. It is both a lot like other Greek islands and completely unlike them. The surface familiarity (you will encounter delectable olive oil, melodramatic pop ballads and serene white churches filled with bright Orthodox paraphernalia) conceals a self-contained world dense with its own rituals, myths, secrets and rivalries. The island’s villages were once great city-states, its ramshackle footpaths highways. Goats and sheep graze on volcanic hills split into ancient tiers. Families that have been here for centuries cross paths with Athenian holiday-homers and international tourists drawn by tales of rugged countryside, unsullied beaches, and scuba-diving visits to the wreck of the Titanic’s sister ship, the Britannic, which went down nearby after an explosion in 1916.

When I arrive in Korissia, Marcie is waiting for me with her adolescent dog, Phoebe Bear, a black-haired newfypoo who leaps up and licks my face like we’re old friends. (Marcie’s older and calmer shepherd-collie mix, named Aise, has stayed home.)

We have dinner at Rolando’s, a restaurant in front of the harbour. Marcie is far more relaxed than she was at SIAL. It’s the ease of someone who is, right now at this moment, in an island paradise she chose for herself. Marcie speaks fluent Greek and has been a citizen since 2009. (“It’s a process I started in 1990. I had to get paperwork from all ends of the earth.”) I ask if anything came out of the SIAL trip, and she tells me she’s secured a Paris presence for the cookies in Galeries Lafayette.

“During the Second World War, many people on Kea did eat acorns. It was their greatest shame.”

Inevitably, we end up talking about “the crisis” – the combination of debt and refugees that has put Greece in the headlines for the past few years. On the economy, Marcie says, “It’s going to take at least a decade for the pendulum to swing back, but Kea is going through it in the best possible manner. Nobody’s getting rich, but everyone’s surviving.” As for the refugees who arrive constantly on the more southerly islands, she is in awe of the way the country has retained so much compassion. “There are still women who are cooking every day for hundreds of people.”

We talk about Isidora, Marcie’s daughter, who is 22 and studying psychology in the UK, in the Yorkshire city of Hull, and about how oaks were a mainstay of Kea’s economy until 1965, though not as a food. Acorn caps were used in leather tanning (the term comes from the fact that hides were soaked in tannins, naturally occurring chemicals found in oaks), but when the tanneries on the mainland suddenly switched to industrial methods involving chromium sulphate, the island was left with a huge stockpile of acorn caps, and a lot of trees were felled, more or less out of sheer frustration, Marcie says.

After dinner, we drive to the farm along a dark dirt road, the stars radiant, and I go to my room, which is actually a small self-contained house at the end of a path, through a grove of 200 trees.

The next morning, Marcie shows me around the farm. We walk up a slope past networks of grapevines and arrive at a long wooden structure covered in sheets of plastic in which three tonnes of acorns are sun-drying. It’s Marcie’s solar table. “I found plans on the Internet from Hohenheim university in Germany. I’m trying to use as little electricity as possible.” Acorns are picked across the island. A big tree can yield 200 kilograms, a medium one 60 to 100 kilograms. Compared to, say, the acorns found in a city park, by the way, the acorns of Kea are absolutely huge. Counterintuitively, this is because the drought conditions on Kea make for smaller trees, and “if a tree doesn’t give its energy to itself, it gives it to its fruit or nut,” Marcie says. Most of the picking is done by international volunteers. Every year Marcie offers 10 placements, for which she receives more than 1,000 applications.

Once dried, acorns can, in theory, be stored for decades. To create acorn flour, Marcie runs them through a machine that removes the shells, then soaks them to take out the bitter tannins, dries them, slices them, soaks them again, dries them once more, then mills them. The flour goes into the cookie mix, into smaller-run products such as acorn pasta, or to restaurants with particularly intrepid chefs.

The last doesn’t happen too often. Acorns are so far outside the culinary mainstream that there is an actual stigma attached to eating them. Soon after Marcie told the islanders about her plans, “Older people would come up to me very quietly and very privately and tell me their individual stories about how during the Second World War they did eat them,” she says. “Many people had figured out that if they put them in the fireplace and roasted them they’d be more palatable. Each person told me their story on the side, and they didn’t want anybody else to know. It was the greatest shame that they’d eaten them. So after the sixth or seventh person did this, I said, ‘You know, you really need to be speaking to each other because you’ve all eaten acorn.’ Now it’s kind of turned on its head, and people are saying, ‘Well, yeah, we’ve been eating acorns forever.’”

But why the taboo in the first place? Is it the squirrel thing? Or the pig thing (“acorn-fed Iberico ham” being a popular fixture in the world of high-end charcuterie)? There’s no similar taboo about most other foraged foods: no unease about blackberries, no blushes about mushrooms. Yet somehow the nut of the oak is seen as a food of last resort. After a talk Marcie gave on acorns was posted online, she was contacted by “end-timers”, gun-and-camo types obsessed with the end of the world. What did they want, exactly? “Just to know more information, so that when the end times come they’ll be ready.” Pre-Armageddon, has eating acorns always been beyond the pale? Not entirely. Korea’s favourite delicacies include dotorimuk, or acorn jelly, and dotori guksu, acorn noodles. Many in Turkey are partial to a hot acorn-and-vanilla drink called racahout. In Cadiz, Spain, you might be offered acorn oil in place of olive oil. Japan, Morocco, Kurdistan and Mexico all have their own acorn delicacies. Go back far enough and they were a staple right here in Greece.

Dabbous, the Michelin-starred restaurant in Fitzrovia, London, offers a rare example of an acorn cameo in a fine-dining setting. “We use them to add an adult flavour to a savoury praline that we serve with barbecued Ibérico pork,” the proprietor, Ollie Dabbous, says by email. He buys his acorn products online and values them for their nuttiness, which he says is “also great when making waffles”.

By all measures, acorns should be eaten more widely. Acorns are useful. They keep you full without leaving you bloated. They are also healthy, with potassium, magnesium, flavonoids and antioxidants all present in useful quantities. Acorn flour is gluten-free, though most recipes, including Oakmeal cookies, use a combination of acorn and wheat flour. “Acorns are found on all continents of the world,” Marcie says. “It could make a huge difference in world hunger if they were utilised.”

The fruit of the Quercus ithaburensis is truly a superfood, high in protein, potassium, magnesium, calcium and vitamin B6. Every October, acorn enthusiasts are invited to stay in one of the guesthouses on Marcie’s farm in exchange for 5–6 hours of acorn gathering per day.

Marcie’s home is in no way the kind of kitsch acorn wonderland you might fear. I do spot a copy of International Oaks: The Journal of the International Oak Society on a bookshelf, along with perhaps every book ever published on cooking with acorns (there aren’t many, though Marcie is writing her own, to be titled Oakmeal: Essential Acorn Knowledge and Skills). And gathered by the fireplace is a collection of acorn-themed artefacts. But most of the decor has nothing to do with acorns, and the place is really an expression of a healthy panoply of interests. Marcie is a devotee of reclaimed furniture, and almost everything in her home, including a Belgian carousel horse suspended above a door, was found and restored. “One of my regular customers at the restaurant ran up quite a bill and couldn’t pay, and he said I could take something from his salvage yard.” There’s an old loom, one of 10 she owns, at which she weaves “utilitarian things” like table mats and beach bags, mostly with Greek cotton, which she gives away as gifts and occasionally sells. She’ll teach weaving to anyone who asks.

We take a drive around the higher parts of the island, and she pulls over by a cluster of abandoned white goods, leaps out of the car, elegantly wrestles with a washing machine, and returns with the concave circle of glass from its door. “Fruit bowl,” she says, handing over what is now, ripped from context, a genuinely nice piece of kitchenware.At this time of year, the Mediterranean hill roads, with those blind corners that local drivers navigate with dodgem-like nerve, tend to be empty. Almost every time a truck or motorbike does go past, Marcie and the passing driver exchange a familiar nod or a word or two in Greek. You get the feeling it won’t take long for it to be known in the villages that Marcie was travelling along this particular road at this particular time with a man in the passenger seat wearing an unsuitably large coat given the mild weather. “It took me a while to learn that when you’re speaking to someone, you’re not speaking to one person, you’re speaking to a whole clan,” she says. “You have to imagine 30 or 40 people behind them.” In the case of Marcie, it’s not only that everybody knows everybody. It’s that this Californian in the community, an elected member of the Kea Business Association and a core member of the Kea Women’s Association, is taking everybody with her on her unique journey.

“Marcie has done a great good,” says professor Anastasia Pantera, a specialist in Greek agroforestry at the Technological Education Institute of Sterea Ellada, by email. “One way is the reintroduction of traditional uses of oaks that represent our natural heritage. Another is the fact that her work helped locals financially by enhancing their income through the trade of acorns, but also through rendering Kea as an excellent example of sustainable land use and, of course, a place to visit.”

Throughout her life, Marcie has experienced a string of physiological and psychological bombshells. Her father’s death was just the start of it. She has multiple sclerosis, and on two separate occasions it has rendered her blind, each time for two months. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009 and went through chemotherapy and a double mastectomy. That same year, her younger brother – and only sibling – died suddenly from the same condition that had killed her father. That her personality is nonetheless defined by lightheartedness, humour and boundless energy is quite extraordinary.

Every October, Marcie organises an acorn festival – this year’s will be the seventh – a highlight of which is a competition to find and present Kea’s heaviest acorn. The prize? A bottle of wine and the glow of victory, the latter of which most feasibly accounts for the genuine zeal with which triumph is pursued. Sometimes the island’s gossip network brings news of dirty tricks. “I have this friend who got the clever idea to put the acorn in the fridge so it wouldn’t lose weight before the competition,” Marcie recalls. “I heard indirectly, and I was a bit upset about it. We had the party. It came time to weigh the acorns. I was about to hand him the wine, and this little old lady comes out of the crowd and goes [old lady voice] ‘Excuse meee, I have another acorn.’ And she won! Yes!”

The mayor of Kea, Ioannis Evangelou, is aware of my presence on the island. It would seem churlish not to pay him a visit. We drive into Ioulis, the main village – and capital of Kea – which is a cascade of white houses on a hillside in the centre of the island (the wisest place to build your capital if pirates are a concern). We trudge up a footpath to Kea’s neoclassical, salmon-pink town hall. Marcie waits in reception while I meet Evangelou in his office. He is keen to increase tourism on Kea, but not if it disrupts what he calls the “tides of life”. “It’s remarkable, the fact that though Kea is just an hour away from the mainland, you still find people living in a very traditional way,” he says. “They meet every day at noontime to have lunch together, a lunch made from produce they grow themselves.” I ask him what he thinks of my host’s work. “Marcie is a pioneer,” he says and smiles. “Sometimes locals have their own style of living and are suspicious about accepting an American woman showing them something new. She succeeded, and I’m very happy for that.”

Pioneer: it’s an interesting word. If Marcie’s a pioneer, it’s not in the sense of inventing something new but of reclaiming something that should never have been lost. In 2009, while going through chemotherapy, she decided to while away the hours learning to build websites. A special focus was iloveacorns.com, a repository for her interest in a nut that seemed to have been following her around since childhood. It was thanks to that website that Kea’s acorns received their first spark of revived interest. An email from an interested intermediary in 2010 led to an order from a German leather tannery that still uses natural methods.

Now Marcie sells 30,000 packs of cookies per year, on the island and in mainland Europe, and employs a full-time assistant. She still acts as an unofficial broker for the acorn caps, which the German tannery still needs, and which are collected and weighed once a year. She doesn’t take a profit on this, and on an island where a normal day’s wage might be €40 per day, the 65 cents per kilogram one might receive for selling 2,000 kilos of acorns or caps is welcome. Recently, Marcie has also been encouraging negotiations between Kea’s farmers and a family-owned factory in Turkey that turns acorn caps into a tanning agent named valex. “They can process 100 tonnes a day,” she says. “It’s a fantastic opportunity.” The oaks are becoming part of the island’s identity again. Marcie has no doubt that this has slowed their destruction. If you drive inland from Red Tractor Farm, you’ll spot a shop sign advertising “Acorn Products”. The shopkeeper buys Marcie’s flour and makes pasta and energy bars out of it, she says.

Evangelou would like to see the Marcie Mayer model applied to Kea’s honey, figs and wine as well. In a world urgently looking for ways to be smarter with its resources, the inspiration it offers can surely go beyond the shores of one island.

The next morning, before I return to the mainland, we head into the countryside to pay a visit to the Lion of Kea, a large lichen-covered statue of a relaxing feline. It’s more than 2,000 years old, and its origins have baffled many, given the lack of lions in the region.

As we carefully tread along one of the rocky pathways that cut through the hills, Marcie explains the local uses of the plants we see. “You can pickle that one… The pale green one is used as a candle wick.” I ask her if she feels self-sufficient. “I’ve never had money, but I’ve also never really cared,” she replies. “I grew up in an upper-middle-class family, and I had a lot of opportunities, but since then? No. But there are few times when I’ve wanted for something. Rather than working too many hours to afford to buy organic vegetables, I just planted the bloody garden.”