It’s a hot summer’s afternoon and we are driving round in circles looking for a village on the eastern side of Lake Kournas in Crete. I am beginning to think it doesn’t exist, but there it is on the map. We’ve been through the same village square at least twice and are none the wiser. The last time we asked, I thought I had understood the shop owner’s directions in Greek, but clearly not.
We stop again for directions and as I jump out of the car to ask a local relaxing outside a cafe, another car pulls up behind us and a woman manages to get to him before I do. To his bemusement there is now a little queue waiting to speak to him. Although the woman is driving a car with a Swedish numberplate, she speaks to him in broken English. The local man speaks the odd English word and that coupled with gestures manages to bridge the great communication divide. The Swedish woman looks happy and returns to her car, apparently confident she knows where she’s going. Feeling brave again, I ask him for the village in Greek and this time I think I’ve got it.
Now we are alongside the lake, but the only right turn is not signed. As we carry on down the hill I see it in the sidemirror, only visible if you’re coming from the north. Doing a U-turn, we see that it’s the right turn to ‘Mouri’.
We are in search of a maker of katsounas. A katsouna is a Cretan shepherd’s crook. I know this odd word from reading Christopher Somerville’s book The Golden Step: A Walk Through the Heart of Crete in which he walked the length of the island from east to west, supported by his white figwood katsouna carved for him by a Cretan friend. This katsouna, in addition to its main function as a walking stick, attracts the admiration of the villagers he meets who have never seen anything like it.
I had never seen one at all until I noticed a strange twisted stick hanging from the curtain pole of our villa. At first I thought it was something to do with the curtains but when I unhooked it from the curtain pole I realised that it must be a katsouna. Stefanos, our host, confirmed it. Many shops sell them, but they are often sad excuses for a katsouna, churned out for the tourist market.
Then one day we were talking to someone who recalled that there was a maker of proper katsounas who lived near Lake Kournas. Hence this quest.
Mouri is hardly a village, just a few houses strung along a road and there is no sign of a katsouna maker. We turn round and stop outside a house with double green doors that might possibly be a cafe. An old man with white hair and bushy beard appears at the door. I tell him that we are looking for the man who makes katsounas. He disappears behind one half of the green doors and there is a rattling sound, as if he is gathering up an armful of hockey sticks and then he re-appears with about half a dozen of them.
He has been making these sticks for years. Once again I am frustrated that my Greek is so limited that I can’t ask him how he makes them. I would love to know what wood they are made from, how he chooses the right branches, how he makes the curved end of the crook, but I can’t make myself understood and I struggle to follow his mumbled Greek. Often these shepherds crooks are made from mulberry, but he doesn’t seem to think that the one I choose is. He produces his own katsouna for me to admire, a splendid split stemmed one that he has varnished.