Sunday, 30 March 2008

To sin during Lent

Since Lent has started the summer weather has slowly died away. Lower temperatures, some rain and some occassional storms are somewhat more normal for the time of year. Which you cannot say of nature, that did its best to bring plants into flower as quickly as possible and made all the greenery grow to great heights.

Seeing the fields with all the bright flowers you think it's May: besides the proud daffodils there are yellow chrysanthemums, white daisies, blue lupins, purple geraniums, pink carnations and lots of other flowers. Orchids peep out of the earth and thorny brooms colour the mountain slopes with their yellow flowers, as do the white blossom of the wild apple and pear trees.

The leaves of the wild vegetables (chorta) and herbs give the landscape a fresh green colour. It is spring and it is Lent (the Dutch name for spring: lente).

Nowadays there are not so many Greeks that follow all the rules of the 40 days of Lent. Not all of them abstain from meat, milk products, eggs, fish and vegetable oil, like olive oil. So many days of such a meagre diet of only vegetables and seafood would be dull for the modern Greek. Many Greeks nowadays live according to a less strict Lent: they fast just on special days like at the start of Lent on Clean Monday or in the Holy Week, the last week of Lent, one week before Easter. (I suppose that most people know that in Greece Orthodox Easter is celebrated, which this year is on the 27th of April).

Lent or not, the succulent young leaves of chorta ask to be picked. I already mentioned once that I often eat chorta, not because of its taste, but because I know that it's healthy. I now discovered a sweet chorta, the taste of which reminds me of spinach: the Normal sow-thistle (zóchos). When you cook this thistle a little, cut it in small pieces and add some mayonnaise mixed with some yoghurt, you will have a wonderful and healthy dip sauce.

But my favourite free product from nature remains wild asparagus. You can even become obsessed with looking for them. See it as a search for Easter eggs. You have to learn to really look hard for the small stems, which often come out of the earth centimetres away from its thorny bush. And when you get into the game, it will be difficult not to stop at the next bush. When you go for a walk, this way you will never go far. But you will come home with a bunch of asparagus.

Greeks cook them and use them in an omelette. My favorite recipe remains to use them in a béchamel sauce, to accompany gambas, or small shrimps put into the sauce as well, to stir over pasta.

Greeks also use eggs to serve pastourma. It might not be the right subject to write about during Lent, but I rediscovered this dried meat during my recent stay on Rhodes. There a restaurant served a tasty omelette spiced with this meat.

Pastourma is a dish (actually it's a recipe for how to preserve meat), that comes from the Ottoman/Armenian kitchen, but it remained popular amongst the Greeks and is well known in the cuisine of the Middle East. It is said that it was even known in the Byzantine world.

It is also said that pastourma is made from camel meat. I used to wonder where the Greeks got camels from... But pastourma is just the name for air dried meat spiced with amongst other things cumin, spicy paprika, garlic and fenugreek. In Greece it is mostly, but also sheep, goat or pork can be dried this way.

The principle of drying is to remove all the water. First the meat is pressed, then covered with all the spices and dried in wind and air. I read a story about horsemen in Central Europe that used to have pieces of meat hanging in their saddle bags and while they were riding the horses, they pressed the meat with their legs.

However it is made nowadays, pastourma is a spicy piece of meat that you serve in thin slices as mezès, or you use it to spice other dishes. It gives a dish a typical pastourma flavour, like sweet spicy game meat.

Last week I tried two different dishes made with it: fresh beans with pastourma and roasted paprika, and quick fried dried figs, filled with soft white cheese, enveloped in a slice of pastourma and a sage leaf. Especially this last one was like an angel on your tongue: heavenly!

For all people that do not take Lent that seriously here are the recipes:

Fresh beans with roasted paprika and pastourma:
(amounts of ingredients to taste). Cook the beans and peel the roasted paprikas. Fry some thin slices of pastourma in some butter, add the beans and the paprika in pieces and add salt and pepper to taste. A lovely dish to serve with asparagus.

Fried dried figs with pastourma:
For 1 fig: cut the stem with a little sharp knife, make a small cut so that you can make a hollow. Fill this up with 1/3 of a tea spoon soft white cheese. Cover the opening with a slice of pastourma and cover the meat with a sage leaf. Fasten everything with a wooden tooth pick. Fry the fig quickly with the meat under in a little bit of oil until the meat is crispy.

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Monday, 24 March 2008


The best way to better appreciate the island where you live is to go to another island. Last week we went to Rhodes. Again I fell in love with the Old Town, but I was glad to come home today and rediscover the mountains, the flowers and the trees of Lesvos.

Rhodes is a magnificent town. Especially its Old Town, which in the 14th century was rebuilt by the crusaders on an even older city and which later was restored by the Italians, who ruled the island from 1912 until 1943. Since 1988 the Old Town of Rhodes has been on the UNESCO list of protected world heritage sites.

March is a very good month to visit the city of Rhodes. Most of the day the medieval streets are empty, so you can fully enjoy the narrow streets where people still live, beautiful arches that span the streets, colourful doors and pretty inner courtyards with mosaic floors, surprising squares and grave streets where the knights used to have their quarters, partially restored mosques and stout towers at the entrances in the city walls and the Palace of the Grand Mason.

You will meet the city walls everywhere you go, towering high above the houses. There are even two walls surrounding the city, except for on the coast. Between these city walls a lush green park now stretches, from where the impressive view of this medieval city shows how big it is. Also a walk on a jetty of the harbour can offer you a splendid view over the long walls where palm trees try to grow as high as the old watchtowers and the minarets. The Old Town doesn't look like a Greek city, more like a Moorish city, where the narrow streets promise cool shades, where the minarets point to God and where the leaves of the palm trees whisper in the warm wind.

These days the tranquility is only disrupted when a cruise ship sails into the harbour. Then the Old Town shakes itself awake, because they have to open shops, bars and restaurants for the lightly dressed tourists that invade the little streets. This makes the streets more lively and colourful in March nnd maybe also still in April. But I can imagine that visiting the Old Town of Rhodes on a high summer day will be a crime, because thousands of visitors will surely take away the magic of this beautifully restored city.

Rhodes is one of the oldest Greek tourist islands. As long as 25 years ago many huge hotels were there to accommodate the tourists. The increasing numbers of bars and restaurants in the Old Town prove that still more and more tourists come to Rhodes. This is even more apparent from the crazy pace of building new hotels, holiday villages and villa parks elsewhere on the island.

It was 25 years ago that I last visited Rhodes. I knew that it had changed in the intervening years, but I was really shocked by how much it had changed: all of the coast, where the famous city of Lindos is, has been fully built up. Small charming villages like Kouskinou have disappeared into new villa complexes; Faliraki, once such a lovely family beach village, has now been transformed into a huge amusement park like holiday village without any Walt Disney creatures.

Even the Baths at Kalithea are restored into such a glossy building that it's difficult to imagine that this famous spa was built in 1928 by the famous Italian architect Pietro Lombardi.

Lindos didn't seem to have changed. But when you know Molyvos, even Lindos loses some of its charm. Lindos maybe famous, but seeing the whitewashed village on the mountain under the medieval castle where some columns of an old Greek temple tower to the sky, I was not that enchanted anymore. Maybe because I was already a little sick of seeing all those tourist developments on the way to Lindos, I wondered is this Rhodes second biggest attraction?

I grumble about the new buildings here around Molyvos. But when I now compare this to Rhodes, you may even think that there is nothing new built in Molyvos. Now that I have seen how you can sell your island to the tourists or to investment companies that only go for the money, my love for Lesvos gets bigger and bigger. Here tourism still integrates into Greek life, on Rhodes it's the other way round.

When I told a Greek on Rhodes that I lived on Lesvos he said: 'Yeah, the island where life is 50 years behind'. However I heard that Rhodes has similar problems as Lesvos like with the rubbish and the increasing power demands. Driving through the mountains of Rhodes, you will see rubbish everywhere and just as on Lesvos, Rhodes also has big disputes about the site for a new electricity plant.

Today while we drove home from the airport, the landscape seemed so much richer. A green countryside with lots of different trees, beautiful traditional stone houses, sheep cots, steep mountain slopes and a coast full of secret bays. It may seem that life on Lesvos hasn't modernised, but time didn't stop here. It's just that here modern times don't make the people crazy. And they build here with more respect for the landscape. Even though Lesvos doesn't have such an impressive Old Town, nor such sweet white washed houses, nor such a beautiful aquamarine coloured sea, Lesvos still has its traditional villages, its unspoilt coast and so many quiet beaches, even in high season. The whole of the island still feels Greek and life isn't dominated by tourism. You may wonder why the whole island of Lesvos isn't yet on the UNESCO world heritage list. This would give the island more power to fight against such money makers as Savvaides (Rhodes) or that crazy English company that plan to ruin 2600 ha on Crete for a holiday resort with 5 holiday villages, 3 huge hotels and 2 golf courses. For sure you will be happy when you live on such an island!

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Monday, 10 March 2008

Clean Monday

The advantage of Lesvos is that it's a long way from Athens. This means it never shares the chaos of the capital. Athens and the greater part of Greece were crippled by strikes last week. This was the cause of daily blackouts. And the banks joined the electricity guys, so when you wanted money, there wasn't any. Even when you tried to cash your invested money, you couldn't. For days Greece was a black spooky hole on the international exchange market.

Here on the island not for one second was the power cut (except for in our house where we have this bad electricity supply, so that we always have to think about which machine we put on, in order not to have the fuses flying out). So in the capital strikes disrupted daily life, as well as some damage by trains (two weeks ago a train in Pireas crashed through the wall of the station killing a homeless man on the street, and the day before yesterday a train derailed, injuring some 28 people).

On Lesvos we only have calamities at sea. The two boats that embraced each other in a rather hard way close to Sigri were sailed to the north. The badly damaged Georgian Ship is in Petra harbour and the Turkish boat is just outside Molyvos harbour. Since Saturday night Eftalou has had its own rusty vessel to look at. There a Russian ship got stranded in the notorious place where rocks break the surface.

Not that the inhabitants of Molyvos lie awake because of all these stranded ships. They were all into the Carnival and into Clean Monday (Kathara Defteri), the last day when people can stuff themselves with food before the start of Lent. The blowouts (and the carnival) already took some two weeks. If you were really traditional, last week you ate a lot of cheese in the Cheese Week (tirofagou) and the week therefore was the Meat Week (kreatini) that started this year on the 28th of February, Fat Thursday (tsiknopemti) when everybody cooked a lot of meat on the barbecue.

Clean Monday is known for eating shellfish and taramasalata (fish egg paste). Not that there is a Fish day amiss, but on Clean Monday you're supposed not to eat the meat of animals with blood vessels. So if you don't want to eat only vegetables, you can eat plenty of shellfish.

Lesvos is blessed with two big gulfs, where a lot of shellfish live. Though this winter it was forbidden to collect them. These poor creatures were given a year off to increase their population. However, there were plenty of people still collecting them. Last week a friend showed up with very fat and lovely oysters. And to be sure most of the shellfish on the plates of the overcrowded restaurants on this Clean Monday will be local.

Another Greek tradition on Clean Monday is flying kites. Greece is the only country in Europe that has such a tradition. In the fields and from the hilltops, in Molyvos at the castle, you will see everywhere kites flying high in the sky. However here it is not such a rough game as in some Asian countries like Afghanistan, described so well by Khaled Hosseini in his bestseller 'The Kite Runner'. In Greece kite flying is done to entertain the children and not to cut each others flyers in the sky.

Although it nearly became rather a rough day on which we could rerun the experiment of Benjamin Franklin (in 1752 Benjamin Franklin proved that lightning was a kind of electricity; during a thunderstorm he caught the lightning on the rope of a kite, stopping it with a piece of metal: a lightning conductor). For weeks we could be lunching and picnicing outside because of the spring feeling like summer, and especially on this traditional day of picnic and kite flying, black clouds gathered in the east of the island. And when the Carnival parade started, thunder started rumbling in a nasty way.

But Molyvos is not so easily disturbed. Not by stranded boats, nor by menacing black clouds. It had the sun on its side which chased all the clouds over to Turkey.

Many floats in the parade seemed to have known about the stranded ships, because they had as a theme the sea: a whale boat, followed by half of the children of the village dressed as fish, asking for action for a clean sea and our very old Princess Carnival, who does everything to stay young (and manages!), who takes a daily beauty bath in the sea, now transformed into a glittering mermaid. And there was humour as well, such as the bunch of wild men with money all over them, a handkerchief on their heads, following a shovel with an ATM (the bunch of scroundels from the Cretan village of Zoniani!)

I never saw so many people in the village: you could not turn, not even your car. They came from afar and not without reason: the carnival in Molyvos gets better each year.

Later I studied the principles of flying a kite, although I never got one into the sky (I remember it was much easier when I was younger). Finally some men in our party got three kites in the air. They shone like the star of Bethlehem bright in a very blue sky. The days of abundance are gone. But in forty days it will be Easter. Then there will be other days of celebration and the lambs will be roasted over the fires. I wouldn't be surprised if the stranded ships are still there to see how the village celebrates again.

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Dangerous Island

"Do not make the stories of your island too good, so that it will remain a nice place. Friendly greetings Marius."

I got this e-mail from a reader of this column, and he's not the first person to say this. There are other people who tell me that I should not try to make the island so popular. Because then it might become as crowded with tourists as Crete, Corfu or Rhodes.

Well, I'm not so afraid that masses of tourists will ever invade this island. For example Lesvos doesn't have such big sandy beaches as the popular destinations like Kos, Rhodes or Crete. In the north of Lesvos beaches have nasty pebbles and near Molyvos there's even a beach with depressing black stones. Before you've made yourself comfortable, the day will be finished. Those stones don't make it easy getting into the sea. Where there are stones there are sea-urchins. Those spiny balls are very dangerous. You can hurt your feet badly stepping on them and if you don't see a doctor you risk infections and if you don't tend them well, it will be the end of your holiday.

Sea-urchins are a delicacy, but most tourists are too afraid to eat them. Good, because otherwise it would become too crowded here by sea with sea-urchin collectors.

The sea is anyhow a dangerous place. Refugees drown in the waves and last week two ships collided at sea, not far from Lesvos. You wonder how it's possible for the Georgian ship 'Lady Olga' and the Turkish ship 'Ravanda' to find each other to collide in such vast expanses of sea. It was good that there was no serious damage and neither of the boats sank. That was different with the Georgian ship JoJo-A that last week sunk between Turkish Dat?a and the Greek island of Kos. From the sunken ship dangerous and polluting liquids now spill into the sea.

Not good when you just booked a vacation on an island and you can't go to the beach because a tanker just sunk. On the land it can also be dangerous. The wild fires of last year at the end August are proof of that. Lesvos escaped the big fires, but all those thousands of trees and bushes here on the island form a great danger. You'd better go to barren islands like Mykonos or Ios. There you have less fire risk.

The climate changes are also not good news for the island and all of the area. Everything will be hotter and thus dryer, so even more fire risk. According to the Turkish Daily News the region of Izmir, which is across the sea not far from Lesvos, didn't get enough rain this winter. If in the next two months there will be no more rain than in the past months, which was just like on Lesvos a few spots here and a drop there, Izmir will be facing problems this summer, just like Lesvos.

Geographically Lesvos belongs to the Asian shelf. Recently 25 million year old bones have been found in Anatolia from a rhinoceros (pre- historic animal that could weigh up to 20 tons!). Scientists see this as proof that once the European shelf, like the Arabian shelf were attached to the Asian shelf. So it used to be one big land mass with many scary animals roaming around.

The big shelf broke millions of years ago, the shelves drifted apart and those scary animals became extinct. The problem however is that those shelves secretly try to get together again, which means that we live in an area with a high risk of earthquakes. Every day the papers mention a new quake here or another there. The closest recently occurred yesterday at Samos, with a force of 4.7 on the Richter scale.

And then there live thousands of goats, sheep and donkeys on the island. They pose a danger on the roads. Well, of course in the first place it's the Greeks themselves that don't understand traffic regulations. When you round a corner you not only risk collision with a donkey in the road, but also with a Greek who has stopped his car in the middle of the road because he is chatting with some acquaintance he has seen at the other end of the road. Or you bump into a Greek who was taught that the best place to overtake another car is on a blind corner where you can play Russian roulette with the oncoming traffic.

Then there is the Lesvorian countryside which is full of plastics and other dangerous rubbish. Never let your children or pets play in the countryside here on the island. Besides rat poison many other dangerous things can be found here.

In Athens in April they hope that plastic bags will disappear from the streets. Supermarkets and other shops may only use bags that can be recycled. But Athens is far away from Lesvos and it will take many years before this rule can be applied here. And it will take some hundred years before all plastic will be gone from the Lesvorian landscape.

Here you don't smell the dump, but you see it first. When you see a slope that is full of coloured plastics, you can be sure that the dump is not far away. No gates to prevent the plastic flying all over the landscape. So the dump can seem far larger than it actually is.

In a few years the central waste disposal plant should be ready. But until then in the autumn you risk inhaling toxic fumes when the dump 'accidentally' catches fire. And don't believe that they'll come and evacuate you because those fumes are bad for your health. First of all they don't measure and secondly most Lesvorians don't even realize that those fumes are such a danger.

So you see: Lesvos is no save place for a vacation! With greetings to Marius.

Copyright © Smitaki 2008