Sunday, 25 November 2007

Olive Blues

I am shattered. Two days of olive picking doesn't make you fit. But I won't complain. There are people who harvest olives for weeks on end in order to earn some money. I just helped some friends picking olives. And then doing the olives with friends is more like a party than like slave labour. Especially when the weather is as good as it was the last few days.

The olive tree is originally from the Mediterranean and it is said that already in 8,000 BC people gathered its fruit from wild olive trees. It's believed that the cultivation of olives started about 4,000 BC on Crete. But it's also said that around 6,000 BC the first oil was pressed from olives in Anatoly (modern day Turkey). And then two islands are fighting for the honour of having the eldest olive tree: Brioni in Istria, Croatia (1,600 years old) and Crete (2,000 years old). Well, let's not argue about years and just agree that for centuries now olives have been cultivated for oil and preserved olives.

In the Odyssey Homer writes about olive oil, calling it liquid gold. The Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankamun was buried with his golden treasures and an olive branch. In ancient times a winner in the Olympic Games was offered an olive branch, because the Greeks believed that the vitality of the sacred tree was transmitted to the recipient through the branch. According to the bible (Genesis) a dove was sent from Noahs Ark to find land. He came back with a branch of an olive tree, which meant that they were close to land. And Thomas Jefferson, third president of America, wrote that the olive tree was the best gift ever from heaven.

According to Greek mythology the olive tree was a gift from the goddess Athena. When Zeus devised a game for the name of the city of Athens, Athena presented an olive tree, which was preferred by the citizens of Athens to the horse Poseidon presented, or a salt water spring (it's not certain what Poseidon exactly brought into this game). This is how the capital of Greece got its name and how the Greeks got their olive tree. And they still enjoy it. Nowhere in the world is the consumption of olive oil higher than in Greece: 23.7 kilos per capita per annum against 13.62 kilos per capita in Italy.

During the olive harvest the men bat the olives out of the tree with long sticks, and the women, and in earlier times also the children, gather the olives under the trees. I wish it were only the olives that fell from the trees during the battering, but also a lot of leaves and little branches fly all over the place, far away from the net which is spread out under the tree to collect the olives. Then the branches have to be sorted out and the olives around the net have to be picked up. Sometimes, seeing such a big heap of leaves with only a few olives underneath it, I just sat down and wondered about how long this work I was doing had been around in the world. Only the nets would be a modern invention, although the Romans put clothes under the trees.

Although there are millions of trees on Lesvos, the harvest here is not that spectacular, because all families on the island have an olive grove somewhere that they harvest themselves. In the bigger groves Albanian, Bulgarian, Romanian or other cheap workers are hired. In countries such as Italy and Spain, who are the biggest exporters of olives, they use enormous machines that skim over the trees and pick, sort and gather the olives. They seem to me to be monsters of machines, that take all the romance out of the harvest. In Italy they use computer driven machines that shake the olives out of the trees and gather them in nets folded out from the machines.

The only machines you encounter here on the island are a stick with a battery that drills the olives out of the tree and a kind of vacuum cleaner that you put on you back so that you can pick up the olives without bending to the ground. But the nicest story is of two English ladies, who have on olive grove near Plomari, who do all the picking by hand from the tree, clean the fruits one by one and press the oil themselves. Then they sell this very exclusive oil to very exclusive people for a very exclusive high price. That's the way to make money!

Well, I have to tell you that picking olives from a tree is not as tiring as picking them up off the ground. But then you have to climb the tree in order to get all the olives. In Spain, where they use machines to race over the trees, they intentionally keep the trees as small as possible. But then you will never have those beautiful shaped trees that make the landscape here in Greece so attractive. A columnist for the English language paper Athens News once wrote about his ideal way of doing the olive harvest: saw off the branches and pick the olives!

No, here on the island the harvest is done like it's been done for centuries: batting the olives out of the trees and picking up the olives from the ground. It's a tiring job, but then you will have lots of oil for the whole family, even for the members who live in the big cities. In Europe it's thought that the Spanish and Italian oil is the best because those are the most exported. In 2005 Spain produced about 6 million tonnes of olive oil. Greece produced about 2.4 million tonnes. That doesn't make the Spanish oil better. The Greeks are just not good enough at marketing and then most of their oil is exported to Italy where it often ends up in bottles with an Italian label. On Lesvos the olives are not all picked by hand, like the two ladies close to Plomari do, but the oil is no bulk product that is produced by racing over trees or shaking all the olives loose. You feel it in all your limbs, oil here is a fair product.

Today at the end of the afternoon, when we looked at the grove, there were another 11 trees to be done tomorrow. However, the good news was that a neighbour was offering to come with some fish, so we organized a barbecue. And that's the good thing about a harvest here on Lesvos: food and working, drinking and picking, laughing and sweating, it all goes together.

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

Tuesday, 20 November 2007


Whenever my mother put a big salad on the table my father used to say: "Yuk, rabbit food!". My father didn't realise then that this 'rabbit food' was very healthy. It's part of the Mediterranean diet, which is known to be one of the healthiest in the world: a lot of fresh vegetables, fruit, beans, bread and olive oil.

Tourists know the choriatiki as a tomato salad with feta and some cucumber. In the winter you can also get a tomato salad, but the Greeks will not eat it: you eat whatever grows in your garden and now there are no tomatoes growing. So you have to do with green salads like lettuce, cabbage salad and grated carrots. The best is a mixture of these, anamichti, which is usually served with some green herbs and some spring onions.

Spring onion is the wrong name here in Greece for an onion that, as soon as summer is finished, is planted and harvested all winter long. And you don't find only 'winter' onions in the Greek winter fields. There are also leeks, beetroots, beans, cabbages, big onions, potatoes, celery and all kinds of green salads like rocket and radiccio.

Aubegines and courgettes are also a rarity for a Greek winter dish. In the winter they eat a lot of beans here: haricot beans, broad beans and those juicy butter beans. In Holland I would never order beans in a restaurant, but here they are a delicacy. Then you also have fava, a purée made of green peas (green fava) or chickpeas (yellow fava). The green fava can be compared to the Dutch speciality green peas soup and yellow fava is like the Arabian dip humus, fava being without cumin.

In Greece the beetroots you eat (panzaria) don't come in tins, but from the nearest field. They are cooked and served with their leaves, which taste a little like spinach. This dish is served with skordalia, a mashed potato cream with lots of garlic, which goes beautifully with the beetroots.

And then there is the famous chorta, wild vegetables, what my father would have called: "Weeds!". I have to admit that I eat chorta not because it tastes so nice, I eat it more because I know that it's so awfully healthy. Sometimes you will be served a chorta (or you are lucky with a good cook) that's not as bitter as usual and then of course you can enjoy the taste.

When you see so much healthy chorta served, you would think that the Greeks care about the quality of their food. However, a recent survey shows that more and more Greeks are abandoning the Mediterranean diet for fast food, like souvlaki from the local snack bar. Children are becoming too fat and don't eat so many vegetables anymore. So also here in Greece the modern food trends strike.

In the last years more and more 'Biologica' signs have appeared in the olive groves, which means that the Greeks have discovered organic food. They grow organic olives now, but how organic are they? The signs are not there because organic olives are healthier, it's because you get more money for organic olives. In the past they all used pesticides to keep away pests. They even used little planes to spray the whole of the island with toxic clouds. Nowadays they're not allowed to spray wherever there is the sign 'biologica'. Now they have to hang envelopes with the eggs of insects which have to fight those nasty flies. But are all 'biological' fields like this, that's the question. A Greek is fast in saying that something is organic. But for Greeks growing something organic just means that he's not using the strong pesticides (like DDT).

Fact is that the rains that have poored down for a month now and were last weekend pretty extreme and were causing floods and two dead people in the Northeast of Greece, came just in time to save the olive harvest. The small crinkled olives in a short time turned into healthy fat olives.

In Molyvos tension rose because the old olive press was dismantled and a new one was installed. Typical Greek the new one was ready just in time. Today the first sacks of olives arrived to get pressed into that green yellow gold. The farmers are laughing again because it's a saying that a very hot summer gives good quality olives.

I don't laugh that hard. On our land there are so many olives that the harvest will take two days instead of one. And also a while ago I promised friends to help them with their harvest, not knowing that the olives would make such an abundant comeback in such a short time...

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

Monday, 12 November 2007

Flee for your life

The Greek weather has been awful these last few days: storms, rain, thunderstorms and some earthquakes (although these aren't caused by the weather). In the 5 years we've lived here we've never seen such a wet and stormy autumn. It's like the January and February days when the sea produces angry white foamed waves. That's why we often say these days: today it's no refugee weather.

Although I do ask myself if there aren't bold people smugglers, who even though the foam is flying around your head, they just put the refugees in the rubber boats, cut the bottom and shout: "Flee for your life, to Greece!".

Because even after a stormy night it's common to see refugees sitting at the bus stop or near the Olive Press in Molyvos. Then you ask yourself what journey they must have been through. The same question that the English film director Michael Winterbottom has been asking himself.

A few years ago Winterbottom was struck by the news that some 58 Chinese were found in a container on a boat. They had suffocated to death by trying to reach England illegally. After an investigation amongst refugees in England, however, Winterbottom chose to film the escape route from Pakistan to England. This film 'In This World' was awarded the Golden Bear at the 2003 film festival in Berlin.

For the main characters Winterbottom found in Pakistan two boys from Afghanistan: Jamal, a refugee and Enayat, a son of Afghan parents. With a small film crew and a light camera they followed the escape route from Pakistan, through Iraq, Turkey, Italy to France, from where the way finally led to England.

The boys were at the mercy of several people traffickers. They travelled in small pick-ups, by bus, they crossed snowy borders on foot, they travelled in a container by ship and Jamal travelled by train and for his last journey he found a hiding place between the wheels of a truck.

The film gives a heart-rending idea of what the refugees that arrive in Lesvos must have been through. And then still Lesvos is not the promised land. First they have to go to Athens and from there the journey takes them further into western Europe. That's if they're not caught. When you see how many of them get caught here on Lesvos, because they entered Greece illegally, how many of them know to slip through the grasp of the police?

In 'In This World' the escape route went from Istanbul straight to Italy. But for a few years now the escape route also goes more and more over the northern mainland of Greece or through the Greek islands. Greece now complains a lot about the increased number of refugees that come from Turkey. They accuse Turkey of not fighting the people traffickers. On the other hand it's Turkey that accuses the Greek coastguard of sending refugees back to Turkey by making their boats unfit to go further. International refugee organizations say that Greece mistreats the refugees and the German magazine Der Spiegel even accused Greek coastguards of torturing refugees.

Well, I'm wondering if all these accusations about Greece are true. It's common knowledge that it's the smugglers who cut the rubber boats in order that the refugees go as quickly as possible to the Greek coast (and some of them drown). And for myself I do believe that the Turkish smugglers are not fought against much. How else can you explain the huge number of refugees that arrive on Lesvos? (Or do I now sound like a real Greek?). Anyhow, I see the refugees nearly every day, marching by on their way to Molyvos, to Athens, to a land of milk and honey. Afghans, Pakistanis, Iraqis, with just a plastic bag in their hands, trying as much as possible to be invisible on the now completely empty Eftalou Boulevard.

In the summer they were also easy to spot. Although they did their utmost to be looking at their Sunday best, in the heat it was easy to spot them, with their long trousers and the plastic bag in their hand, amongst all the international tourists who were cruising along by the sea.

It's a fact that the asylum centre on Samos, which was hot news a few months ago, was too small. But how can you know that in a few months time the number of refugees will triple? If today on Lesvos a boat with 275 refugees were to arrive, like happened in the Peloponessos last weekend (the Turkish boat was on its way to Italy when it ran into problems due to the bad weather), they certainly won't know how to handle so many people.

Anyhow it's sad that such a migration of nations takes place so close to us. You feel powerless, what can you do? If you watch the film 'In This World' you understand that the refugee business has become very big business, because especially in Greece the numbers of refugees is rocketing. And big business means that the cargo isn't always treated well. But even if you arrested all the people traffickers, the refugees would still keep on coming. They will keep on finding illegal transportation, they will keep on asking for help in order to reach the rich western countries.

In Molyvos they're not often bothered by the police too much, because there are simply not that many police here in the North of the island. The refugees walk, take the bus or a taxi to Mytilini and from there they try to get a ticket for a boat or a plane to Athens. These refugees show how leaky the European frontiers are. How else can you explain that you see more and more of these refugees on planes to Amsterdam?

After the film was made Jamal, one of the main characters in 'In This World', went back to Pakistan. But not for long. Soon he went back on the route he once travelled as a movie star, although this time he did it as a real refugee, to reach England in a few months and there ask for asylum.

The world is adrift and there's nothing we can do to stop the refugees. Big families are raising a lot of money to put the life of one of their members in danger, in order to give them a better future. Lesvos, or any other Greek island will be just a stopover on their long and dangerous journey. That doesn't mean that there are no immigrants on the island. Lesvos, like the rest of Greece, has a large number of legal and illegal Albanians, Rumanians, Russians and Bulgarians. They come in through the North of Greece, which is quite a different journey and quite a different story.

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

Sunday, 4 November 2007


Water finally fell on the island, it was about time. Nature relaxed in the wet days and the ouzo producers no longer have to worry about enough water for their production. Many of them boast of the quality of their ouzo thanks to the wonderful mineral water on Lesvos. If their plants are to work full time, then of course there needs to be water flowing from the mountains.

And by the way, it's not entirely true that all the ingredients for the ouzo come from Lesvos. The alcohol for the first distillation comes mainly from grape skins. And because in the middle of the last century phylloxera killed all the grapes on the island, for years there were not enough grapes to provide alcohol for ouzo production. So some have to be imported from elsewhere. But it's a fact that the Lesvorian ouzo is the best in Greece. In Plomari most of the ouzo producers use, for the second distillation, nearly 100% alcohol made from the so called ouzo yeast (according to Greek law you must use at least 20%). Last year the European Union declared ouzo to be a protected Greek product.

What else goes into ouzo besides alcohol? The main herbs are aniseed and fennel, but some also add cardamom, mastic, nutmeg, cinnamon or cloves. Yes, ouzo is a herbal drink. Especially one which has a fresh taste of licorice, tastes more like it than other brands. And on Lesvos there are many brands. In the cooperative shop in Molyvos I once counted at least 40 brands. The biggest producers are in Mytilini and Plomari. So you have people who drink Mytilini ouzo and those who drink Plomari ouzo. Small villages like Agia Paraskevi, Skalochori and Petra also make their own ouzo. This ouzo is only known locally.

Drinking ouzo is not only a matter of personal taste or just to have a glass of ouzo. Drinking ouzo is an art and a culinary joy. Because whenever you order ouzo, some little nibbles are served with it (mezèdes), such as little fish which are said to taste best with ouzo. By looking at the mezèdes you can also judge a taverna: when there are no mezèdes served with the ouzo the taverna is not a good one. And you can consider an invitation by a Greek for an ouzo as a dinner invitation.

So when I recently invited some friends over for an ouzo tasting, I spent hours in the kitchen making great food. For the occasion I got some 13 different brands of ouzo, nicely decorating the table: Matis, Ouzo Plomario, Pitsiladi, Smyrnio, Mini, Fimi, Samara, Tikkeli, Kefi, Varvayanni, Psaropoela, Petra en Yannatsi. The alcohol percentage varied between 39% (Matis) and 46% (Varvayanni). As a kind of dessert I found a bottle of Turkish raki (45%) to taste, in order to make a comparison with all those Lesvorian brands. And indeed this Turkish ouzo-like drink ended up being quite good.

Before we started a friend told me that we were probably going to get seriously ill. If not for the alcohol you consume, drinking ouzo can be very healthy, especially when you have stomach problems. However, drinking so many brands one after the other is asking for problems. But we behaved very sensibly. Just as in a wine tasting, we threw the ouzo we disliked into a huge glass. But for days afterwards we couldn't bear to look at a glass of ouzo.

There were many names we had to invent to give our verdict. Ouzo is never fruity or full, but can be perfumed or smelling like petrol. It's a mild one or a strong one, it burns or tastes chemical, it's not so bad or you can't drink it, it's okay or it's yuck!, it is or it isn't, it smells like medicine or licorice, it's fresh or it's like dishwater, it tastes heavenly or awful. I can tell you that tastes that night were varied. While some friends threw away their glass of Petra ouzo, I really liked to finish my glass. On a few brands we all agreed: Mini, Kefi and Pitsiladi became our favorites and ouzo Tikkeli was condemned, because everybody agreed about its bad flavour.

After 14 rounds of ouzo/raki we had no more energy to judge the design of the bottles. I started this whole ouzo tastery because of the new label for Mini ouzo. The merry girl from the Sixties has been replaced by a more modern looking young lady. She seems to be dancing like crazy, she's got a more swinging skirt, her shoes have come off and her legs have a healthy brown colour. However she doesn't look as happy as the sixties girl. But at least the contents of the bottle didn't change, unlike Malamatina, our favorite retsina brand, which last summer got a new bottle, but also new retsina in it. The new Malamatina doesn't taste as good as the old one. Last summer we made it our job, whenever we came upon a place that still had old bottles, to help them use up their old stock.

Since antiquity there have existed all kinds of aniseed drinks like tsipouri. Ouzo only appeared in the mid 19th century. In 1860 Efstathios J. Varvayannis arrived on Lesvos and made his home in Plomari. He had already learnt the art of distillation in Odessa (Russia) and he applied this art to the famous grapes of Lesvos, its delicious water and aniseed. The recipe is a family secret and is still used to make the Varvayannis ouzo. In the Varvayannis Museum in Plomari you can see how they used to make ouzo and what has changed in the making of ouzo.

When Greece was liberated from Turkey ouzo really became popular. Ouzo was once thought of as a replacement for the well known absinth, a drink that particular made the French and Vincent van Gogh crazy. Ouzo isn't a dangerous drink, although it's said that people from Plomari, who drink amongst others Varvayannis ouzo, which has the highest alcohol percentage, are crazy. There's even a local saying: never take a woman or a donkey from Plomari.

The only danger in drinking ouzo consists of the quantities you drink. One glass of ouzo leads to more. Two glasses of ouzo lead to far more, three glasses of ouzo lead to another bottle (in most restaurants ouzo is served in a small 200ml bottle), four glasses of ouzo makes for good company and when the fish still isn't finished you risk losing count of your glasses.

Well, Pitsiladi also comes from Plomari and I will never ever say again that all ouzo is good for me, unless it comes from Plomari. I also know some people from Plomari and they really are lovely people. Plomari has the right to call itself the ouzo capital of the island (and of Greece) because they do make really good ouzo. Most of them have a strong perfumed taste, which for a lot of people makes the good quality of the ouzo. The biggest ouzo producer of Mytilini, Mini, has for years been owned by the French company Pernod Ricard. Mini remains a local ouzo, with a foreign taste. The new Mini-girl keeps on dancing, but her face shows tiredness and seems to say: "Help, I'm falling!". Well, maybe it's time to change my favourite brand...

Copyright © Smitaki 2007