Sunday, 1 June 2008

Through other eyes

Last week in Florina (Western Greece) there was a conference about the local flora of Greece. According to professor Constantinos Papanikolaou Greece has at least 400 varieties of herbs that are used in the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries. According to the professor it would be very profitable to cultivate these herbs. Greek farmers don't grow enough of them because they usually only grow traditional crops. They stick to growing tomatoes, aubergines, courgettes and watermelons and their sheep and goats. If you give a farmer some seeds to grow Brussels sprouts, they thank you profusely, but we've never seen a single Brussels sprout growing. There's a Dutch saying: what a farmer doesn't know, he doesn't eat. In Greece he doesn't grow it either.

Greece once used to be a centre of revolutionary thinking, which led to great knowledge. The father of modern medical thinking, Hippocrates, was born around 460 BC on the island of Kos (just above Rhodes). There he taught that illness is not a punishment by the Gods, but the result of an unbalanced body. Through exercise and diet the body can regain its balance.

The foundation of botanical knowledge comes from the Greek philosopher (and first botanist) Theophrastus, who was born around 372 on the island of Lesvos. Along with others, he wrote about peoples characters, about stones and natural phenomena. But his books about plants, ('De causis plantarum' and 'De historia plantarum'), are seen as his most important works.

Lesvos, as the birthplace of the Father of botany, still honours this fact by being a green island. In Greece there are about 6000 varieties of plants, on Lesvos there are still some 1450-1500. This makes Lesvos the second richest island of Greece for flowers (after Crete).

Elder Lesvorians especially, know what grows in their environment. Only a few decades ago there was great poverty on the island and the poor had to find their food in the wild. Many an old Greek still remembers how they gathered wild vegetables and mushrooms on their way to work in the olive harvest.

Today wild vegetables (chorta) are still on the menu of many a restaurant. Not because people are still so poor, but because they wholeheartedly believe in the medical benefits of wild vegetables. I'm not sure what plants are good for what, but the old Greeks know what to use to deal with stomach pains, headaches or kidney problems.

Even though the old people know a lot about wild vegetables, the lore on wild vegetables and other flowers will soon perish, because the younger generation only goes to the supermarket. All plants have their special qualities. Do you know for example that the roots of hollyhocks used to be used to make marshmallows, that the seeds of lupins work like a drug that in ancient times people took to communicate with the dead, or that a tea made from oregano is good for a cough, asthma or nervous headaches?

The young Greeks and the tourists (except for the botanists off course) don't even know what plants they see. Do you know what a Prickly Asparagus looks like, or the Caper Plant, the Wild Root, a Shaggy Cistus or a Common Mallow?

Jan van Lent, photographer and moviemaker from Holland, has now lived for some years on Lesvos and through his photography he became fascinated by the flowers here on the island and what these plants can mean for our health. He runs an excursion, only in Dutch, and has now published a booklet about the flowers that can be found on this excursion: 'Through other eyes' (met andere ogen). I am sorry, but again: only in Dutch. (When the book is a success next year a German and English translation will follow).

In a booklet that slips easily into your pocket, with breathtaking pictures, he describes 27 plants with short passages about their history and their culinary and medicinal powers. Not only for people who want to know what a Squirting Cucumber looks like, how the Chaste Tree got its name, what can save you when you are bitten by a snake or when you want to lose weight, but also for people who want to know more about figs, olives or capers.

What this booklet doesn't tell you is the secret of the high quality of the olive oil from Lesvos. Recently the olive oil of Andriotellis from Plomari was awarded first prize from the German culinary magazine 'Der feinschmecker'. Ou of 800 different olive oils they choose the best 250, the one from Plomari was chosen as the best.

And also not mentioned in the booklet is that the best cook in the north of Lesvos, Angelo from restaurant Anatoli in Eftalou, will be cooking this summer in the new restaurant Filoxenia in Molyvos, just next to the town hall.

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

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