Monday, 25 September 2006

Huisje, boompje, beestje (In the usual way)

Finally! On Saturday night for the first time since summer heavy rain fell on the island. And Lesvos clearly freshened up. The showers which mainly fell early on Sunday morning, accompanied by heavy thunderstorms, did not cause too many problems, thanks to the early hour. A lot of people wouldn't have even noticed that from 5.00 to 7.00 there was a power cut.

I had to get out of bed in the middle of the night to unplug my computer and the telephone. And then I couldn't get back to sleep because of the loud thunder and blinding lightning. So I got a book to read and later on I had to get some candles in order to be able to carry on reading. Thunderstorms are not my favourite weather.

The island however welcomed the rain. Last week on Samos there were still more hectares of woodland destroyed by fire. Lesvos did reasonably well this summer. Except for a large area south of Mytilini there was not too much damage done by fires. The worst fire this summer was a few weeks ago in Halkidiki at Cassandra where two people lost their life, thousands of hectares of beautiful wood were consumed by fire, houses and businesses were destroyed, tourists had to be evacuated and a lot of farm land was lost. As well as many olive trees, the Greek honey industry was badly affected.

However most fires occur around Athens. This is for a reason. It's not because they are particularly careless with fire, but because there are unscrupulous people who are always looking for building land. The easiest way to get some land cleared of vegetation is to set fire to it. After that you only have to bribe somebody in the municipality and you can proclaim yourself the proud owner of a new piece of land.

The papers are always writing about these wicked deals. A wood that is not a wood anymore, because of a fire, should become a wood again according to development plans. But members of the municipality and of the government quickly forget that burned places were once a wood. Only a small piece is reforested, the rest is bargained away to property speculators.

In Cassandra it seems they do things differently. A few weeks after the fires, hundreds of people went to replant and fortify the land, so that the winter rains would not wash away the soil containing seeds for new vegetation. In Asia they use elephants to do the hard work in the woods. In Cassandra they were aided by some 300 donkeys which are trained to transport wood and put tree trunks in the right places.

Lesvos still has plenty of land to build on. Here they do not need arsonists. But they build everywhere. So many people want a summerhouse here on the island that small builders merchants are as numerous as new houses. These are plots of land full of wood, stones, cement and other building materials. It is only because the plot of land is fenced, that you can see that it is not an illegal tip. But it is a blot on the landscape.

Just as we finally got rid of all the old wrecked cars littering the island, we now have these small businesses creating an eyesore.

Number one of these eyesores is the business that should probably be the appetizer for the village of Argenos, which is on the way to Sykaminia. Befoer this village there is a plot of land full of all kinds of building materials and you really have to look closely in order to realise that it is not a rubbish tip. It is unbelievable that this village is promoting itself in this way.

Greeks do not really understand what pollution is, especially landscape pollution, a term that if explained they will probably have a good laugh about. They already have enough problems getting rid of their rubbish. If the government does not show a strong hand in building plants to process waste, there never will be a solution to this problem. At least they never thought of renting a ship in order to transport rubbish to Africa. Good. Greeks do not like to export their waste, like some other members of the European Union.

So I have to accept that some enterprising Greeks rent plots of natural land to use as a storage depot. I will have to prepare myself for the southern wind they forecast for later in the week, which will bring the stink of burning rubbish. Because they expect more rain they have set fire to the dump. I should make a big sign with a huge skull and crossbones warning of the stink and toxic fumes. Maybe that will reduce land prices around here. They're getting pretty upsetting too.

Copyright © Smitaki 2006

Tuesday, 19 September 2006

As rich as Croesus

Anousheh Ansari paid nearly 16 million euros for a 9 day trip into space. This American/Iranian woman is the first woman space tourist. Will it also be the most expensive holiday ever, with an average of nearly 2 million a day? To compare: the Greeks collected 15 million euros for the victims of the Asian tsunami, although now it seems that only one third of the amount has been sent to the countries that needed it, because the Minister of Foreign Affairs was afraid that the money would end up in the hands of the wrong people. A very noble thought for a Minister of the country that ranks number one on the list of the most corrupt countries in Europe. Life in Greece is said to be even more corrupt than in countries like Egypt and Chile.

When you are as rich as Croesus, which Anousheh Ansari must be because she can afford such a holiday, she could easily pay the Greek government to be the first woman passenger on the legendary ship the Argos, which took the Argonauts through half of Europe when they went looking for the famous Golden Fleece.

With no gold to your name you can recapture the heroes of that time who would have accompanied her, like Jason, Orpheus, Heracles, Castor and Pollux. But for a large amount of money you can hire enough handsome and smart actors who can relive the old myths. The ship the Argo is there. It has been rebuilt according to the old ship building techniques and made of the same materials they used in ancient times. The ship was launched last Sunday at Karnagia, in the North East of Greece, and for the next year they want the ship to follow the route of the Argonauts.

This trip took only a little longer than 9 days. The Argonauts went to the Black Sea. Helped by ruses and Medea, the daughter of the King of Colchis, they found the Golden Fleece in Colchis (in present day Georgia). On their way back home these Greek heroes got lost. Scientists say they even sailed the Danube and the Rhone. They rounded Italy, went to the south of France, and then to Libya and Crete, before they found their homeland again.

To me that seems a pretty complicated journey for a millionaire, because of the tough security regulations for tourists nowadays. Maybe it would be better if the Argo only travels among some of the Greek islands. Although the closest the Argonauts came to Lesvos was Limnos, the island to the north, the Argo should also travel to Lesvos. It is on this island at Old Antissa that the head of one of the Argonauts, Orpheus, washed ashore. This place is an ideal spot for the Argo to dock. The unspoiled beach and the ruins of Old Antissa will immediately take you back in time. There would be story tellers who would tell the old myths, there would be musicians playing the old music of Orpheus and then Anousheh Ansari would not think she is a time traveller but one of the Argonauts.

On Lesvos they should rebuild old carriages and with these carriages drawn by beautifully dressed horses Anousheh Ansari and her company of would be Argonauts could visit the Monastery of Ypsilo, which has such great views over the desolate landscape of West Lesvos. The top of the mountain on which this monastery sits, is so high that you feel you are nearly in space, very close to the Gods. Then Anousheh definitely has to visit the Petrified Forest where she can touch the sequoias that once made Lesvos such a mythical place.

Maybe they should resurrect an ancient volcano so that The Argonauts can beat the Dragons of the Volcano and so rescue Lesvos from the path of the hot lava streams. Instead of floating needlessly through space Anousheh can have some real action here.

Such a journey back in time, with story tellers, actors and musicians would not have to cost that much money, certainly not 16 million euros. Anousheh Ansari could even go to a one week workshop with Sappho in Eresos who will teach her the art of poetry and the way the old Aeolians lived.

Anousheh's visit to Lesvos should end with a great open air concert in Molyvos castle. Maybe they should not play old music but invite the best modern Greek artists. Anousheh is a space traveller who should keep an open mind about the future. And while her veins fill with the Greek music and she looks up at the starry sky she will not only look at and long for her previous holiday destination, but she will also see the house of the Gods that once made Greece such a rich country. And maybe, maybe, then she will regret that instead of travelling through space, she did not come sooner to this divine island.

Copyright © Smitaki 2006

Monday, 4 September 2006

Fig fever

From the middle of July until the middle of August is quite a dull time. The island is as dry as a bone. Nothing flowers, it is too hot to do anything and the only place where you can enjoy yourself is in the sea. At the end of August however the first fruit will ripen: grapes and figs, the prelude to a rich autumn. Many grapes on this island are diseased. If you do not spray any insecticide, you can forget your grapes. But grapes love to play hide and seek. You will find them in all kinds of unexpected places where they secretly grow fantastic fruit.

Our bunches of grapes were wrinkled and dry. Until we looked on the roof of our outside terrace where the grape winds its branches. We were surprised to find many bunches blinking and healthy there, getting fat in the sun. We also found many grapes in the deserted village of Chalikas, where the grapes did not leave (the inhabitants did after a big landslide) and where they settled high in the walnut trees where they grow spectacular big bunches. They are only to look at, they are too high to pick.

Figs are not so playful. The mostly low trees are easy to empty. In the middle of August figs start to ripen and then it is time to feast on them.

A friend told us that figs are good for high blood pressure and good for cholesterol (figs do not contain any cholesterol) and that is why, although I did not check these healthy characteristics, each day I eat some figs. It will not hurt to eat figs and for sure it is no punishment to eat figs for your health. Figs do not have that many calories and they are full of vitamins A, B, and C and lots of minerals like calcium and magnesium. Figs amongst other things clean your blood and make it thin, they are good against coughs and colds. So for sure we needed the figs when last week the temperature suddenly dropped far below 30°C. It felt like winter was coming soon and I nearly lit the open fire in order to get warm.

Each year I really look forward to the fresh figs, but before you know it they are hanging in the trees like limp bags. You can stuff yourself with fresh figs for one month, but you risk getting annoyed. That is why people learned to preserve them. So that you can enjoy the taste of fresh fruit in the middle of the winter.

There are not that many recipes for preserving grapes. You can squeeze them and then you get... Yes, wine. Each year friends surprise us with home made wine and I must admit, I am never that happy with the home made wine and it is difficult to keep. You can also dry the grapes in order to get raisins. But as far as I could see on internet, making raisins is a complicated business. I'll leave making wine and raisins to the experts.

To preserve figs is much easier. You just lay them in the sun if you want dried figs. When they are nearly dried out you spice them by dipping them in spiced water, you fill them with a walnut or an almond and then finish the drying in the oven. You keep them between bay leaves, which will keep pests out.

Another form of preserving is boiling the figs into a syrup: vrasma or pettimessi. For this you cook many many figs on a wood fire outside and after a day of cooking you will get a delicious syrup which goes well with pancakes, but the Greeks mostly make delicious cakes with it.

However I think the easiest way to preserve fruit is just putting it in some juice and by juice I mean some alcohol. You put them in a pot with sugar and alcohol and you not only get some wonderful tasting fruit in the winter, but also an irresistible liqueur. Although with figs it is not that easy. You can hardly find recipes on the internet for fig liqueur. But we tried it. A large bowl filled with figs marinates in a good splash of alcohol in our cupboard, before we seal it all with sugar in a closed pot.

The nicest discovery of this fig season was the Eastern Fig Compote. You cut 1.5 kg figs in two or three pieces, you cook the figs with 5 cups of sugar, juice from 1 lemon and you add 1 tablespoon of pine nuts and 2 tablespoons of chopped walnuts, 1/2 a teaspoon of mastic and some chopped fennel seeds. You will be delighted to eat this, especially when you serve it with a piece of goat cheese and/or a slice of smoked ham and a glass of port. We are already hooked on it and we really have to take care not to eat all of our winter store.

Therefore I give you a tip for a quick fig snack: cut the fresh fig open, press some soft cheese into it and eat it. Delicious!

Copyright © Smitaki 2006