Monday, 3 September 2007

Invisible grief

We've just had the fourth heat wave of the year and again Lesvos came out of it without any fires. In some places in the country they're still fighting the flames. Although the weather forecast predicted that we should have some showers, none of them came to the island, they just stayed in the north of the country, in Evia and some of them in the Peloponnese, where the burnt and barren landscape was already threatened with another disaster: floods.

It is harvest time now: the almonds fall off the trees, the figs have already been ripe for some weeks and the grapes hang in clusters ready to be picked. Soon the walnuts will be ripe and the quinces will follow. Then, if the weather gods love us, there will be some rain and the snails will creep out into the open and mushrooms will peep above the ground. Then it will be time for the olive harvest. In October the nets have to be laid out under the trees.

Lesvos is a farmers land. They have a small export of sardines, ouzo and olive oil and most people have many olive trees, some fruit trees, pieces of land where they grow vegetables and have sheep and goats from whom they get milk to make cheese. Around Agia Paraskevi there are many cows. So the island can be seen as self-supporting.

The people of the island live a lot off their own produce. Most of them are not rich and life in Greece can be very expensive. Vegetables and fruit from the garden, almonds and walnuts to make sweets, grapes to make wine, all these products help to make life easier. In the autumn many people go picking chestnuts around Agiasos (there are also some chestnut trees in Argenos), in autumn and winter masses of people are gathering mushrooms and in the winter and in spring they look on the fields for wild greens (chorta and wild asparagus). In most villages there are womens co-operatives that produce jams, sweet fruit (spoon sweets or koutalia gliko), tomato sauce, cookies and marzipan cakes.

And then there are the olives that are to be preserved and to be pressed for oil. Greeks use about 35 litres per person per year. Olives are not only used for consumption. On Lesvos the soap industry has livened up a little thanks to all the tourists. Most people on Lesvos have their own oil that they distribute amongst their family, even if they live in Athens. And when they need money they can sell some oil through the co-operatives.

It was not easy to learn how to make jam or how to preserve the olives. We got to know that quinces make a good basis for liqueur. I have endlessly cracked almonds and pine nuts for marzipan, pesto, cakes or roasted almonds to be served with a drink. For weeks I had dirty brown hands because I forgot to put on gloves when peeling walnuts. I have skinned hundreds of tomatoes. I have picked kilos of strawberries, taken stones out of thousands of cherries, cooked I do not know how many apricots. I have pricked myself so many times during the picking of blackberries because I love blackberry liqueur. I have baked dozens of apple pies. I have learnt to look for wild asparagus and to know which mushrooms to pick. I'm starting to learning what wild greens you can eat and I learned to make syrup in a big kettle with figs (pettimessi).

I still don't know how to make cheese, because we have no goats or sheep. I am good at finding snails, but I've never prepared them for dinner. I love to eat them, especially when they are cooked according to a local recipe with quinces, but I still have problems preparing the snails to be cooked.

Especially if as a city dweller you come to live on such a green island, you go crazy about all the fruit and vegetables that grow in abundance. For centuries the Greeks knew how to preserve fruit and vegetables for the winter, although nowadays more and more people living in the city and modern mothers forget how to preserve.

Greeks who do not live in the big cities and are not farmers love to go to their gardens or plots of land after their regular jobs, in order to take care of their animals and their crops. When the tourists disappear at the end of the season, on Lesvos they all hurry to their olive trees in order to start the preparations for the olive harvest.

The victims of the huge fires on the Peloponnese and on Evia are going to have a very hard time. Most of them not only lost members of their family, friends or their house, they also lost a lot of gardens, where they worked so hard for so many years in order to get oil, fruit, vegetables, milk and meat. 3% of the national olive harvest is lost, 60,000 goats and sheep burnt alive. These numbers can hardly tell how the lives of these Greeks are disrupted. Their houses can be rebuilt or repaired, but they can no longer go to their land to prune the trees, to pick the fruit, to lay out the nets under the olive trees. They can no longer take care of their cattle or make feta. And even if they got new animals, what would they eat? It takes 8 to 10 years before an olive tree bears fruit. The 80 to 100 years old trees give the best and the most fruit. It will take years before the charred landscapes will produce grass and chorta again.

National as well as international millions were collected for the victims. These coming month they will still be the talk of the country. But when the Greeks go to their orchards to harvest the Greek gold, a lot of people will be forgotten. Those who stay seated at their kitchen tables because there is no harvest, those who ask themselves what in heaven they should do with their blackened plot of land...

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

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