Goat herd grazes near Long Island Expressway Immigrant from Cyprus returns to pastoral roots in a surprising spot

January 20, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MANORVILLE, N.Y. - In the late 1950s, when Cristos Alexandrou was a teen-ager, he fled the family farm on the outskirts of Larnaca, a seaport in Cyprus. He worked at a gas station in Larnaca, became a businessman with a small fleet of taxis and rental cars, then moved to New York City in 1972, where he worked in parking garages, drove taxis and tow trucks and spent all his money in nightclubs in Astoria. "Whatever I made, I spent the same day," Alexandrou recalls.

Now, at age 56, Alexandrou has rejected the fast life and bright lights and returned to his pastoral roots, a few hundred yards from Exit 69 on the Long Island Expressway.

In this still-sleepy corner of Suffolk County, he tends a motley flock of 66 goats and 15 sheep, who graze near the expressway on- ramp, causing cars and trucks to slow and stop as drivers gawk at the unfamiliar sight of a goatherd on Long Island.

At night, instead of drinking and dancing in bars in Queens, Alexandrou dips his hands into an 8-gallon pot of goat's milk heating on a propane burner, waiting until it is as warm as a baby's bath, then adding the powdered enzymes that - along with hours of work - will transform it into halloumi, the salty, mint-flecked Cypriot cheese that his mother once made.

'My brain is so clear'

"Out here, my brain is so clear," Alexandrou says. "My friends are so surprised when they see me. Everybody talks: 'You'll see, he's going to come back in a few months.'"

Instead, over the past year, Alexandrou has moved all of his belongings out of Queens. "I don't like even to visit now," he says. "Here, I have found my life."

By calling in old debts, working in a Greek restaurant in the summer, and occasionally selling goats, lambs and rabbits - both for pets and for meat - he is finding ways to pay $400 a month in rent for a weathered barn that has previously been a farm produce stand and a church.

Inside, on a bare concrete floor, he has built a spartan apartment, which, he says, reminds him of the simplicity of the house he lived in as a child. Outside, there are pens for several dozen rabbits and some chickens and a shed for his goats and sheep, which range from a billy goat to a 4-day-old lamb.

Even in central Suffolk County, where farming endures, livestock is a rarity, and goats are even rarer. In its last farming census, in 1992, the New York state Department of Agriculture and Markets counted 57 goats in the county.

Renewing routines

Peter Gregg, a spokesman for the agriculture agency, says Alexandrou's flock is the only free-ranging goat herd he knows of on Long Island. "It's great to see that old-fashioned agriculture is still surviving," Gregg says.

Renewing the routines of his youth was not easy, Alexandrou says. Last year, he drove his old blue van to auctions in upstate New York to buy goats and sheep. First, he tried making yogurt with the 2 or 3 gallons of goats' milk he collected each day. But the milk would not congeal. A friend in Cyprus reminded him that goat milk does not form yogurt.

After two decades of city living, Alexandrou had also forgotten the lengthy procedure for making halloumi, a national dish of Cyprus that most Greek Americans can only get by buying costly imports at specialty shops in Astoria. So he started giving away or discarding the goats' milk.

But a few months ago, when a friend's elderly mother flew into New York City from Cyprus for a visit, Alexandrou invited her to Manorville to show him how to make halloumi. "When I watched, suddenly everything is coming back into my brain," Alexandrou says. "It's coming back like blood. I like to make something pure."

Sitting on a stool in a dark corner of the shed and warmed by the fermenting foot-thick layer of hay on the floor, he grabs one goat after the other by the back legs and empties each one's udder, sending sprays of milk into a blue bucket.

He carries the bucket into his living quarters and pours the foamy warm milk into an aluminum pot, adding 5 more gallons of milk that had been stored in the refrigerator in recycled family-size mayonnaise jars and milk jugs.

He lights a propane burner, smokes a cigarette and watches as two gray kittens wrestle. He stirs, dipping a pinky into the pot every few minutes to check the temperature. The cheese only forms correctly when the milk is around the goats' body temperature, he said.

After 30 minutes, he says, "That's it." Then he adds a dash of enzymes from a small vial, mixing the powder first with a cupful of milk, and sits back, waiting for the curds to form.

A friend, Andy Spitaleri, stops by to watch. He is a Sicilian-born retired butcher who got to know Alexandrou after spotting him and his flock while driving down Wading River Road one day. "My friends love to see him," Spitaleri said, referring to Alexandrou. "They think they're back in Italy."

Pub Date: 1/20/98

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