Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Wind of change



The castle in Mytilini has a long history. The main building (the upper castle) was built in Byzantine time, they think it even was built upon a much older acropolis. In the 14th century for some hundred years Lesvos was under the rules of the Italian family Gateluzzi that took as well the castle in Mytilini as that in Molyvos as their property. They renovated it and built the ‘Middle Castle’. In the 18th century, when Lesvos was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish enlarged the castle to the northwest, by building the ‘lower castle’.

In 1912 Lesvos shook off its occupiers and nobody cared about the castle anymore. They even used stones from the castle to build new houses they needed for the many refugees that came from the Ottoman Empire. The castle declined, as well because it turned into the homes of the army.

Nowadays the Greeks know better and take care about their old treasures, even that Italians and Turkish helped building it. Archaeological services are digging inside of the castle and partly the castle has been renovated. In the summer on the large fields inside the long walls there are cultural festivities like theatre plays and concerts.

Organizing a concert with the internationally known German group ‘The Scorpions’ however was a little bit too much for the archaeological service of Lesvos. It seems that the manager and the members of the Scorpions became fond of Lesvos and they asked for a concert in the castle of Mytilini. Then the archaeological service had bad dreams about ten thousands of fans who destroyed ‘their’ castle.

The castle however stands like a rock. It is known as the biggest and strongest castle in the whole of the North Aegean See. Many people pleaded for the concert, because this worldwide known band can bring many visitors to the island, people who otherwise would never visit Lesvos. And it is a big opportunity in economical bad times like we have now.

The predictions of how many tourists will visit Lesvos this summer vary. In a local paper I read that the booking of the first tourist group, the birdwatchers, have gone down with 50 %. A Dutch tour operator however says that the bookings for this summer are the same as last year, it might be even more.

Off course a lot depends on the number of tourists that visit the island this year. Do not forget that tourism here is mainly organized by small family businesses. In the winter they harvest their olives, they have their sheep and goats and go for chorta. But their main income has to be earned in the summer with their little hotels, apartments, shops or restaurants, where all members of the family work.

The importance of a concert of a worldwide known band that will attract thousands of people was the main talk in the discussion that took months and even involved the Greek Minister of Culture. At last the archaeological service of Lesvos lost: The Scorpions are allowed to come! A first date is the third of September. But mind you, this date can be changed to one in the beginning of July, because the 6th of July The Scorpions are expected in Athens at the ‘Scorpions festival’. So the fans have to wait a little before booking their flights until the date is confirmed. I do not want to get the blame when people booked to see The Scorpions and then the date of the concert got changed. Just watch their site for their concert dates: www.the-scorpions.com

In 1965 ‘The Scorpions’ was started up by Rudolf Schenker. Their first international hit was ‘Rock You like a Hurricane’ from their album ‘Love at first Sting’. In 1990 they got a mega-hit with ‘Wind of Change’.

It may seem to be a funny combination: a metal/hard rock band playing in an old castle. But first of all they have their name: scorpions do love old stones and I am sure that the castle of Mytilini is already full of scorpions. Secondly: The castle is build for defending purposes. There were certainly more tough and strong soldiers than that there were women strolling the walls. Especially the Turkish made the castle into a defence fort to resist the attacks of the pirates. The building has a reservoir under the ground and many storerooms and everything seem so that the population could have a safe shelter in the castle. If you were to organize a concert for those hard fighting soldiers in that time, would that not be a hard rock concert so that the soldiers could get crazy for one night, and some emotional ballad in between? Just like The Scorpions do!

Look how they played ‘Wind of change’ in Moscow. Greece needs such a song. Look at the still lasting blockades of some frontiers, the new local terrorist group with their bomb attacks that strike Athens with panic and finally the escape from prison by helicopter of two heavy criminals who escaped years before the same way and now make again fools of the Greek government...

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Vrochi (rain)


The Greek government decided to build desalination plants for drinking water on at least 13 islands. This will be the solution for the driest islands. Last year Cyprus had to be saved from a sincere drought by a ‘water bridge’: water was brought to the island by big tankers (for the Turkish part they are building a pipeline from Turkey).

Lesvos is not on the list of the driest islands. Maybe during a very hot summer in high season the water is closed off some parts of the day. Plomari however always gets quicker into the problems. So they built a huge reservoir in the mountains, but since years the works to finish it have stopped because there was no money anymore. This winter the mayor of Plomari restarted to harass the responsible minister in Athens who promised money, but the money never came. Let us hope that we see the lake finished in the coming years. About the not functioning reservoir in Molyvos there is no news.

Anyhow, we do not have to worry for the next summer on the island. It rained that much this winter (that even is not finished) that all rivers are full with water, little streams running merrily in waterfalls from the mountains and a lot of fields are under water. The adjustments at the estuaries and the cleaning of the river-beds of the last years have proven to be successful because when for two days it was raining cats and dogs, there were no announcements about floods, like it was the case after the torrents from heaven in October 2006 that caused more than one flood on the island.

People who suffer from a winter depression had a hard time here on Lesvos, because the sun was seldom to be seen and when it did not rain, somewhere at the sky-line there always were lead colored or pitch black skies that held the promise with more rain.

The optimistic people however could look through those menacing skies: all variations of the colors of pink, white and purple of the anemones are now coloring the green grasses and the almond trees are proudly showing their masses of rose flowering blossoms. Even the hard southern storms of last week did not manage to blow the flowers away.

Zeus, who is amongst others responsible for the rain, was in a very bad mood this winter. Where were for example the Alcyonides Days, mister Zeus, that you create each year so that Alcyone and Ceyx have all the quietness to brood over their offspring? Alcyone and Ceyx were so happy they called themselves Hera and Zeus, what made Zeus that angry that he sent a storm to drown Ceyx, and then Alcyone was so sad that she jumped into the sea. But the gods got mercy on them and changed them into a pair of halcion birds (kingfisher). Since then the Alcyonides Days are a period in January with a calm sea, high temperatures and sun (see Alcyonides Days), a period when everybody changes back into summer clothes and gathers on the terraces in the warm sun in order to make plans for the coming summer. I do hope that Zeus will get under the spell of the unfolding spring and will create some warm days, but the weather forecasts are still only talking about rains to come.

It is a capricious God, this Zeus. Thousands of years ago, in the bronze era, a king offered his son to Zeus. This cruel deed made Zeus so angry that he decided to flood the world. He opened the floodgates of heaven and for nine days it poured down. Deacalion, son of Prometheus, got warned on time by his father and he build a boat that saved him and his wife Pyrrha from the floods. The boat stranded on top of the Mount Parnassus (close to Delphi) and so they survived. (It is said as well that they stranded on the Etna in Sicily, the Mount Athos in Chaldiki or the Mount Othrys in Thessaly).

When the water started to get down, Deucalion thanked Zeus and asked the oracle of Themi how he could repopulate the world. The oracle answered that he had to throw the bones of his mother over his shoulders. Deucalion and Pyrrha understood that those must be the stones of mother earth (Gaia) and so they threw stones over their shoulders and from the stones Deucalion threw men came and from the stones Pyrrha threw women came.

This story of creation is a lot the same as the biblical story of Noah and his ark. Only Deucalion and Pyrrha did not save any animals. Will this be one of the reasons that the Greeks are not always so nice for the animals...

Monday, 9 February 2009

Golden apples


Atalanta was a daughter of a king and she was told at an oracle that marriage would bring her bad luck. But her father really wanted her to be married so he proposed his daughter to marry the man that could beat her in a foot race. Atalanta was more than a very good runner and did not object because nobody could beat her. A lot of young men tried but all lost. When Hippomenes saw Atalanta he immediately fell in love with her. That is why he asked Aphrodite to help him win the race. Aphrodite gave him three golden apples that he had to drop on the road. The beautiful Atalanta could not resist the golden apples and stopped three times in order to pick them up and so it happened that Hippomenes not only won the race but he got as well Atalanta as his wife.

This is one of the many Greek myths and they never end like fairy tales: “and they still live long and happy...” There are two versions about how the marriage of Atalanta and Hippomenes ended. It is said that the two lovers forgot to thank Aphrodite and that is why Aphrodite turned them into two lions so that they could not make love anymore to each other. Or it was Zeus who punished them by turning them in lions because they made love in one of his temples.

Golden apples are mentioned in different myths. Scientists think that those apples were not made of gold, but that they were quinces or, even more possible, oranges.

Originally oranges came from Southeast Asia and were properly introduced in the western world around the 15th century by the explorers, amongst them Christopher Colombus. That is why the Dutch and German call the orange an ‘apple from China’ (sinaasappel and Apfelzine), while others gave them the name of the country from where the explorers were: Portugal. In Greek a sweet orange is a portokali and in Turkish portakal. In other countries the fruit is just called after its colour: orange or naranja (Spanish).

Lesvos grows just a few oranges and you will find most of the orange trees between Thermi and the capital Mytilini. The best walk to enjoy these orange orchards is the walk from the walking book from Brian and Eileen Anderson (Lesvos, car tours and walks, ed. Sunflower): walk number 3: round walk Thermi over Panagia.

I mentioned it before that the Andersons think that they should outrun as well Atalanta, according to them the walk takes 1 hour and 20 minutes. You can make the walk that quickly, if only you were not distracted by those same golden apples that held up Atalanta. Not only are the orchards with its orange fruit a breathtaking sight, you pass as well little churches where you really have to stop: the Saint Nicolas church with its enchanting walled garden where you can taste secretly from a first orange, with its walls built out of very old stones and there is the Agia Panagia church of Panagia, whose fore front dates from 803 and that has beautiful wood carved icons.

The walk leads you not only over walled paths and through nice scenting orchards, but as well along some old tower houses, traditional Lesvorian houses that were build in the 18th century by farmers who did not want to give up their land to the pirates who raided the fertile coast grounds more than once. The farmers built high stone houses with the first floor often of wood and a little larger than the floor below, with thick wooden entrance doors and grated windows. Later people from Mytilini used those houses as country houses. One of the better renovated tower houses is just besides the Agia Panagia church and from there you have a stunning view of the seaside region of Thermi.

You best make this walk in the winter when the trees are bearing fruit and when you can buy for a few euro huge bags of oranges and tangerines at the kiosks just besides the old Turkish bath hotel at the sea (still an impressive hotel, even that it is falling apart because the Greeks refuse to restore it).

Most oranges that you find in the north are bitter oranges, neranzia in Greek (named after the colour). I would not recommend a glass of bitter orange juice, but you can always mix it with the juice of sweet oranges. The peels of the bitter oranges are as well used as a replacement for the lemon, just like you can use leaves of the bitter orange tree in the mass of figs when you cook vrasma (fig syrup). The Greeks as well make a ‘gliko koutaliou (sweet spoon) of the peels of the bitter orange: they cook the peels in sugar water.

The Lesvorian company Milelia that has a traditional mill on the island that they use to grind wheat. Besides their home made pastas they sell other products like orange/chestnut/cinnamon jam or orange/tangerine/ginger jam (see under preserves in the e-shop of Milelia), but the most surprising product with orange is an olive oil flavoured with orange or lemon, manufactured by the Cretan company Biolea.

Copyright © Smitaki 2009

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Winterfood


The talk is often negative: “The house smelled of long cooked cabbage”, a saying that mostly means that it is a house of the poor that have nothing else to eat than cabbage. Cabbage does not have a good name and if it should be on a menu in a restaurant in Holland, I would never order it.

Anyhow, I do not know where they got the idea that cabbage should be boiled endless. You just need to cook it for some minutes, then there will be no bad smell and cabbage is very healthy to eat. It contains large amounts of calcium and vitamin C.

Cabbage in Greek is ‘lachano’ and when you order here on Lesvos ‘lachano’ it seems that you order quite another thing than cabbage. Because the white cabbage that they serve you here is nearly a delicacy, although it is just cooked for some minutes and aroused with a little olive oil.

But they do more with cabbage than only a dish with cabbage. For example in the winter you do not eat the famous Greek salad choriatiki, because there are no tomatoes. Some people may think that here on the island fresh tomatoes are growing during the whole year (well, yes in green houses...). A few weeks ago an old Greek who always works in his garden growing vegetables and flowers met a group of tourists who were passing by. They asked him if he had some fresh tomatoes left and were very disappointed when he gave a negative answer. The Greek wondered from which planet these ladies were, asking him for tomatoes in the middle of the winter...

In the winter you eat green salad, in Greece known as marouli. I personally prefer the anamichti, a mixed salad of marouli teared in small strokes, grated carrot and grated cabbage with spices and some hot green preserved peppers.

The most tasteful cabbage dish is the lachanodolmades, stuffed cabbage leaves that in some restaurants are served as excellent dishes. Off course you can get as well still the normal dolmades. Each good Greek housewife in spring picks new wines leaves and keeps piles of them in the freezer, in order that she can make dolmades the whole year through.

Although I prefer stuffed cabbage leaves and last week I got the best I ever had (and I did taste already quite a lot of different ones). Normally the leaves are stuffed with rice and spices or rice, spices and minced meat, but in restaurant Meltemi (just outside the harbor of Skamnioudi, a little harbor place under Lisvori) the owner stuffed the cabbage leaves with a mixture of rice and octopus. A real sensation!

Greeks are good in cooking rice with fish. They do not make paella, this royal Spanish dish where different sorts of fish and or meat and vegetables are all cooked together, the Greeks make a side dish of rice cooked in the broth where mussels (midopilafo), shrimps (garidopilafo) or other shells (thalassinopilafo) are cooked in.

Mussels are not that popular on the island. Tons of them are fished out of the Bays of Gera and Kaloni, but most of them get exported. Mussels are mostly used to make a rice dish or cooked with tomatoes and feta (midosaganaki). When you order just plain mussels, do not be surprised when they serve you a little dish with raw mussels and half a lemon. That is the way the Greeks eat all shellfishes. But you can always ask the cook to cook them for you in a little water or white wine.

Last week when I got bags full of mussels and oysters from a friend who is a fisherman, I invited a Greek friend to come and eat mussels the way we in Holland (and in Belgium) usually eat mussels: a big pan full of cooked mussels, served with some dip sauces. Our Michaelis could not believe his eyes and together with the oysters we ate as kings.

The nice thing of going out for dinner in the winter to the small restaurants that depend on only local customers and no tourists, are that you eat what the ‘mother’ cooks, what means that you will often have surprising dishes, cooked according to recipes that are generations old like stuffed calamaris, smoked fish, rice with spinach, rabbit and so on. With the green cabbage and other vegetables of the season like cauliflower, broccoli and sellery as very tasty side dishes.

It may sound silly to some people but here in Lesvos you can feast upon a dish simple cooked cabbage, just like many Greeks know how to transform a dish of beans into a five-star dish. They do not use cream, alcohol or whatever special ingredient, maybe just their own olive oil, and their dishes can compete with the products of a star-cook. The Lesvorian food can be simple, but thanks to the fresh products they use, it remains top food.

Copyright © Smitaki 2009