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Alborz Mountains, North Tehran, Iran
Little did I know what we were doing was illegal.
I was six years old then.
And unfamiliar with Prince Edward Island’s milk pasteurization laws.
And yet I was there. With my grandfather and my father. Three generations. Bandits all. Break the law.
My grandfather was born in 1911 on his family farm in Sangsar, Iran. At that time the village had a street, a roundabout, narrow streets and small, clay-colored houses, all with brown doors.
That the village even existed was a miracle.
Two hours north were the lush green valleys and rainforests of Mazandaran Province on the southern coast of the Caspian Sea. Ten minutes south were Darjazin’s pomegranate plantations, full of sweet and abundant fruits. And in between was Sangsar on the slopes of the Alborz Mountains. A dusty village whose name means both “on rock” – for the place where it was built – and “on rock” – for those who lived there.
If you were to travel from Semnan to Sangsar, as many did back then, to escape the summer heat, you would turn right at the roundabout, walk up the alley, and then climb a rocky incline along the river bank for about forty minutes before reaching the farm.
There you will find a robust company that specializes in wheat, sheep and goats. The land covered hundreds of acres, “from this mountain to this mountain,” with spring water from an underground reservoir. Robbers with guns on horseback visited us more than once and held workers hostage until payment was made. They once kidnapped my grandfather for several days until the wheat they asked for was given.
When my grandfather got older, he left Sangsar and got a job on the railroad as an administrator. In 1938 a new railway line began connecting Garmsar with Mashhad, and after the Semnan station was built, my grandfather moved there to become one of its first station masters.
And there my father grew up in Semnan, a large city about twenty minutes south of Sangsar. With my great-grandparents nearby, my grandparents put my father and uncle in a taxi and sent them to the farm to look over. Some visits were short, a few days here and there, but the summer visits were long and one or both brothers stayed on the farm for months.
And they loved it.
It was the mid-1950s, and the visits began when they were young – six and eight – the perfect age to explore.
On some days they hiked across the mountainside with the shepherd Busali.
Other days they would wipe my great-grandmother’s only salt container – the size of a sugar bowl and made of clay – and take refuge in the garden, where they sat in the dirt, plucking cucumbers and tomatoes from the vine and dipping them in salt, and then running away and playing as soon as their bellies were full and unscrewed, until my great-grandmother noticed that her only salt container was missing and started scolding the boys for bringing him back.
On other days, they would climb their favorite trees and pretend to drive them like cars, using aluminum plates as steering wheels and adjacent branches as accelerators and clutches – brake pedals that weren’t needed when driving a tree.
On lazy days they played in the fields, wheat bigger than their heads.
On ambitious days, they would go to the palm-sized pear tree and seek help from their older cousin – the only one with a limb, strong enough to reach the pears with a rock and accurate enough not to put out the pears in the process off – to knock down the fruits for their enjoyment.
“But the best days,” as my father says, “were the mulberries.”
The farm had a row of mulberry trees that could be traversed from one end of the property to the other, and when it was time for the harvest all of the cousins would climb the trees and shake the branches, creating the mulberries on the outstretched sheets raining that grandmother and aunts kept open below. The mulberries themselves were gigantic – each the size of your thumb – and the ones that weren’t fresh were boiled into syrup for the winter.
These were their days, spent wandering the country.
Then came their nights.
In the summer my father and my uncle moved their mattresses outside onto the clay roof of a building set into the mountainside in front of the farmhouse above. And here, about six thousand feet above sea level, surrounded by mountains, a hundred miles from city lights or pollution of any kind, the entire universe was theirs. Creation of a garden. Galaxies in full bloom.
And every morning, in front of this structure, on the roof of which they had slept because the air was cool and the mosquito nets reminded of camping, the process of making the farm’s dairy products began.
On top of a blazing fire, the workers set up a huge copper kettle about three feet wide and three feet deep. You’d fill it with two hundred gallons of raw, full-fat, unpasteurized milk from sheep or goats. And then, once cooked, they turned them into cheese, hard yogurt, or one of two local delicacies, arsheh or chikoo. Then everything was packed in sheepskin barrels, stored in a cool place and sold to shopkeepers.
And that was the origin of my father and grandfather’s love for hard yogurt – that farm in the mountains, half a world away – how it was prepared and then eaten fresh with vegetables and herbs from the garden.
That was her breakfast.
Hard yogurt on pita. Freshly picked spring onions. A handful of parsley.
Fast forward 30 years to the mid-1980s.
After surviving the revolution and being granted asylum, my parents and I lived in the suburbs of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and my grandparents settled a few hours away, just outside Charlottetown, on Prince Edward Island.
And although my parents welcomed city life, my grandfather wasn’t. He had a garden in his yard where he grew his own vegetables, and he hated milk from the store. He tried using store-bought milk to make hard yogurt, but it wasn’t the same – the homogenization and pasteurization processes that wrest milk of its nutrients, feel, and taste.
So he had two options.
The first was to use the milk sold in cartons. To be grateful and happy, he could even buy milk.
The second was to rebel – to find another solution. Refusing to take the hand that was given to him.
And that may come as a shock, but my grandfather – a man raised by parents who saw the rocks in the mountains and said, “There will be a farm here” – chose option two.
And the obstacle he faced was considerable: the law.
Selling raw milk was and is illegal on Prince Edward Island. So my grandfather’s search for raw milk was not without its dangers.
But somehow he and a dairy farmer came to an unfamiliar way … an agreement.
My grandfather would get someone to drive him to this dairy farmer’s farm, he would go back, let himself into the facility where the raw milk was stored, fill four to six one-gallon jugs with raw milk from the stainless steel tank, place the appropriate amount of cash in the glass next to the tank and then go with his bounty as quietly as he came.
Never speak to the farmer there.
This was so that, should my grandfather be caught, the farmer could honestly claim that he saw nothing, knew nothing, was watching TV, left the back door unlocked and had no idea how or why cash had turned up but was ready to accept it , independently of.
This took years – my grandfather got the raw milk he needed, and the farmer facilitated the exchange from a distance.
And I had no idea what was being done was illegal.
Until one day.
When me, my father and my grandfather were on the farm – the crime scene. Obtaining the milk. Fill the jugs. Nobody but cows in the field, the windmill behind us hummed a melody.
When the farmer suddenly appeared from the door to the left – without knowing that we were there, he closed his eyes with all of us.
My grandfather froze – let go of the spout, the milk stopped flowing.
We all stood still and made no noise.
For five seconds, ten seconds, twenty seconds, more …
Farmer and grandfather with identical thoughts: Now he’s a witness. Both are unsure of what to do.
Until my grandfather finally silently, without averting his eyes, slowly, deliberately …
… flicked his chin up …
… And nodded to the farmer.
The farmer looked at my grandfather, my father and me.
And then he replied.
He snapped his chin.
Before he retired, he came out.
No words exchanged. Instructions implied. The bolt clicked as it left the view.
Leave us in the barn. Together. Alone.
We waited a moment.
Windmill hums. Cows in the field.
And then, quietly, deliberately, with his eyes to the door, my grandfather pushed himself up. The spout clicked into place. The milk flow was resumed. And we did the deed.
The return journey by car felt different that day. The milk is extra hot. Extra raw. Extra frothy.
When we got to the house we immediately got to work – bringing the milk to a boil, then allowing it to cool, adding the culture, wrapping it tightly, leaving it to sit on the counter, and then refrigerating it. Once it was set, we put it in a cheesecloth, wringed out the water, added some salt, hung it up and let the moisture drain off.
The next morning the transformation was complete. Evidence cleared.
No more raw milk. Just a little hard yoghurt – very light smell, extremely full-bodied, spreadable like butter.
We went into the garden. Have vegetables and herbs. Someone made tea, black, Persian. We put out the bread. Sat at the table. Turned on the news. And then we had breakfast.
My grandfather, my father and me. Three generations. Bandits all. Breaking the law. The most wanted island.
We eat our price.
Hard yogurt on pita. Freshly picked spring onions. A handful of parsley.