Thursday, 22 September 2005


Slowly slowly Lesvos glides into the autumn. The thermometer stays below 30°C, sometimes we have rumbling clouds, a pissed off shower or some drizzling rain and for sure in the evenings it is time for a light jacket. Juicy green grass stems appear everywhere, the yellow crocus-like sternbergias come up very hesitatingly, as well as the purple cyclamen. That all means that it is time for walking.

This enchanting island is full of walking paths. We now go where we can find walnuts, blackberries and rose-hips. And that is nearly everywhere. I do not know why but I suddenly really long for the good old rose-hip marmalade. It is not definite that we will manage to produce a pot of it, because the rose-hips on the island are far smaller than they are in Holland. It is probably going to take a long time to pick them and cut them and prepare them for a marmalade.

Our latest walks go straight through the old village of Chalika (old Leptimnos), among heavy fig trees, we pass fat blue berries and still wonder about the gorgeous bunches of grapes floating high in the trees. We climb towards a country road that seems to go all the way to Vigla, the highest peak of Lepetimnos as well as the highest point of the island. A stiff climb that we still did not manage to bring to an end because the road is climbing and turning and climbing and turning and then we have to go back. I love to do walks but my condition is not that good that I will survive walks of more than two hours of just climbing up and up. On the way back my knees and calves are crying and I wish I were a hedgehog who can roll itself up into a ball and just roll down the mountain. So making these kinds of walks is hell for me. But we are just at the beginning of the walking season. Who knows, maybe one day I will reach the top of Lepetimnos...

The scenery on this walk however is one big party of stately views over the blue sea and Turkey, besides unbelievable thick and old plane trees which are bent over starting waterfalls, elegant chestnut trees full of light green prickling fruit, rampant ferns, music trees (flowering ivy that climb into the trees and give place to thousands of humming bees) and some trees we still have to identify. Like the one which is losing its rose red fruit at the moment. The fruit is smaller than prunes, bigger than cherries and nowhere in our modest collection of botanic books to be find.

The 'Chrysanthemum' tree, which I called it when I first saw one, we finally defined what it is. It is an oak tree which has soft yellow chrysanthemum-like flowers. Which actually is its' fruit bed from where an enormous acorn will emerge. That is the holly oak. I never knew that there were that many species of oaks.

For example you also have the 'Christmas oak'. This is a jolly fellow with shiny red and yellow balls, but he is pretty dangerous. Those Christmas ball look-alikes are gall apples or nests for the gall wasp. It seems that every oak can become a Christmas Oak because the gall wasp does not care if he is delivering his little ones in a holly oak, a cork oak or an American oak, although he seems to prefer the summer oak.

So, you meet some animals as well on the way (however the little wasps are hidden safe and sound in their Christmas balls). Besides birds the small game you meet on the island consists mainly of light- footed squirrels who hop and skip away when they spot you.

Maybe to compensate for those rare small game animals last week we got a special show from two tortoises. Thanks to the still hot weather they performed in a peepshow. To gather the public the small male with his shield rammed the bigger female and then took his position on her behind. He started miauling and sang his song. That he really gave everything he had you could see as his tongue hung far out of his mouth. And the further it went the more he had to gasp. Anyhow, my ears got red from hearing them. The peep of the show was difficult to see. I suppose that the male has a sting-like member that he has to put under the shield of the female. And what is there to be seen, I'm afraid, will always be kept hidden under the skirts of the mother.

Copyright © Smitaki 2005

Tuesday, 20 September 2005

Fish and snails with balls

Last week I wrote about the most popular fish you can find here in the restaurants. There is another fish that gets photographed a lot, but you will not find it in a regular restaurant; the rofos which is actually a grouper. This monster from the sea can grow far more than 1 metre and I really do hope you never catch it with a fishing-rod, otherwise you will have nothing left to fish with.

Swimmers who do not like fish do not have to be afraid of a confrontation with this fish because it likes to dwell over a muddy and deep sea floor. It is one of the favorites for game fishers, who dive from a boat into the water in the middle of the sea, armed with a harpoon. When you do some surfing on the internet in order to find out something about this big fellow, you will find triumphant photographs of fishermen posing proudly next to a rofos. Sometimes the fish is as big as the fisherman himself (a small fisherman can be as big as a large rofos).

Last weekend our neighbour Zina from Mytilini came with just such a whopper to Eftalou. It was a pretty one being more than half a metre. Her son Antonis, who is a game fisher, caught it and gave it to Zina to bring it to the lunch what is given each Sunday by Yannis and Marianthis. Normally all neighbours and their guests who are in Eftalou are invited.

Yannis and Marianthis have an old brick kiln here on the land. You light a fire in it, let it burn in order to heat the kiln, then you empty the kiln, put food in it and close it so that the food can cook. A stuffed lamb needs an entire night to cook there, the big grouper was more modest and needed only two hours to get ready. It was prepared with some herbs, tomatoes, a courgette and a smaller fish and I do not lie when I say that it was the best fish I ever tasted.

The Greeks, especially on the islands, eat what is around. Sometimes I miss my supermarket in Amsterdam, but mostly not. The food you get served here is fair and very fresh, and there are things you will never find in my Dutch supermarket. Because of this way of eating, some meals can be pretty surprising. So when there are snails around, a grouper and some sheep balls, they are all served together in one meal.

I know now that a lot of people start to shiver at the thought, but I started my lunch on Sunday with sheep balls, a delicacy for those who like organ meat. Just like a rofos you will not find those vital parts on any menu. When slaughtering a sheep the farmer mostly keeps the balls for himself. Just like the sweetbread. Sheep balls have a soft taste in between sweetbread and chicken meat. In Greece they are a beloved mezès, they have become one of my favorites as well.

Last Thursday night it rained a little and on Friday we got a heavy tropical rainfall what came pretty quick over the sea from Turkey. There were buckets of water emptied, many people were taken by surprise and got totally wet and also many a house did not keep dry. After 10 minutes the sky was as blue as it was before. We had to mop the water and find our way through the mud, otherwise you would have thought that nothing happened.

Rain in September means snails. They come out of hiding (not out of their houses!) where they have tried to survive the dry season. They feast upon the rain, like we in our turn feast upon the snails. The Greek kitchen has a different way from the French of preparing snails: for a few days they are put into flour where they clean themselves and then they are prepared with onions, quinces and some tomatoes. It is a very fine recipe and the French with their garlic snails really should try this way of preparation.

So that was my second dish of that Sunday lunch. Where after came the divine rofos. All these plates are wonderful with a glass of ouzo. I do not know how many I drunk, but I do know that I ate quite a lot. And that after this meal fit for a king I needed at least 2 hours of sleeping in my hammock to recover.

Copyright © Smitaki 2005

Monday, 12 September 2005

Here come the fishermen

Finally the big mass of tourists has gone. The island is recovering in the still warm weather, but at sea it gets busy. Medium sized fishing boats go back and forth and you ask yourself if there is anything left to fish because there are so many boats. Lesvos itself does not have a very large fishing-fleet. It is again the people from the cities that bring the turmoil: fishermen from Athens and Thessaloniki come here to fill their boats with palamidas which come in big shoals to the waters of Lesvos in this season.

In whichever restaurant you go to near the big fishing harbours like Plomari, Mytilini, Molyvos or Petra, you will find palamidas. In the months of July and August you can be sure to get sardines, of which the most famous are fished out of the Gulf of Kaloni. September seems to become the Month of the Palamida, although you still find some lost sardines, like my favourite dish sardelles pastès (salted sardines which taste a little like the famous Dutch Herring) which is a perfect side dish to eat with a palamida.

In Molyvos and Petra it is difficult to buy fish because there is no fish shop. You need to keep your ears open to hear where the mobile fish shop is and then you have to take a run to it because you never know if he will continue to drive because there are not enough customers. Or you have to keep your eyes open in order to see the fishing boats coming back into the harbours.

In Petra the fishermen stop at the little jetty in the centre where you can buy whatever they've caught. Then for sure there will be a disturbance with wild gesticulating Greeks and pushing women who all shout for the best fish. In Molyvos harbour you will find the same scene, but in the winter there also come big fishing boats at night which bring part of their catch to the very small fish auction where you can shop in a more relaxed way. The other part of their catch is driven to Mytilini at crazy speed to fill up the shops.

It is not easy to know all the names of the fish here. When you want to eat fish and the owner of the restaurant pulls you into his business in order to show you what he's got for that day, the fish will stare at you and seem to say: I've been already so stupid being caught, so it does not matter if you choose me. Most of the times I have no idea what fish they are. The man of the restaurant will help you by saying their names, but that is in Greek so you still do not have a clue.

The sardines (sardelles) do not need any explanation of how they look. The smaller fish are marides, small anchovies which get fried and are eaten with the head and tail. Gavros are other anchovies, but bigger than the sardines. They get a little red when fried. There are some kinds of bream which are silver, flat and of average size, but do not ask me their name, they have several. A popular fish is the barbouni what is a red mullet and that one is easy to recognize because of its red color. Mackerel (skumpri) are regularly found and sometimes you will even find swordfish (xiphios). And then there are palamidas.

It took some time to find out what palamidas are. But I found it: they are bonitos, which are part of the tuna family. They look a little bit like a mackerel, the same size, but they have juicy white flesh and they are a pure sensation, especially after two months of eating sardines.

The research however resulted in another interesting find. Palamides (one letter different from the fish) was a hero from the Trojan War. He was buried on the (nowadays) highest mountain in Lesvos, Lepetimnos. Troy is opposite the north of Lesvos, just around the corner in Turkey and according to the writing of Homer it was Achileas and Aeas who buried this Greek hero. When the beautiful Helena of Sparta, wife of Menaleus, got abducted by Paris of Troy he took her to his hometown and married her. All previous lovers of Helena were summoned to fight against Troy. Amidst them was Palamides, a son of Poseidon. He found out that Odysseus was pretending to be ill because he did not want to go to the war and that is about all the feat of arms I could discover about this Palamides. Except, according to some writings on the internet, that he might be the inventor of letters and numbers.

In the Iliad of Homer there is the extensive story of the Trojan War with all the Greek Gods and big heroes. A lot of people think that this Trojan war is one of the many mythical tales from Greek Antiquity. But recent archeological finds in nowadays Troy prove that in the times of Homer's Iliad there was an extended war going on and that around 1200 BC Troy was that big that it was worth a big war. So scientists now speculate that the Iliad of Homer is not just a fantasy tale but based on historical memory.

While eating a palamida, I can look over the sea and the Turkish coast where once Homers heroes went by. I look at a mountain where once there was a temple dedicated to Apollo, where the observatory of the astrologer Matriketas was and where a real hero got his grave. All ingredients for an even more divine taste to that fish...

Copyright © Smitaki 2005