Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Pretty salt

We often wonder why there are so many rare birds to be seen on Lesvos. It’s partly because our island is on the geographical crossroad between the cold north and the warm south, the continents of Asia and Africa.

There is a special attraction for birds migrating back and forth: the salinas —salt flats — at Kaloni and Polichnitos. Black winged stilts and flamingos love these saline wetlands, as do ducks and other small water birds. Many of them are looking for food and nesting opportunities on their journey north in spring.

As long as salinas are well managed, the birds don’t impact the production of salt, and if salt producers take care that birds’ nests are not flooded and there are enough safe places for the birds to nest, then the industry is of ecological as well as economic value.

In the whole of Greece there are seven significant salinas with economic value: two on Lesvos. In Messolonghi-Tourlis the salt is manually harvested and in other regions (Kitros, Messi, Nea Kessani, Aggelochori and in Polichnitos and Kaloni) salt is harvested with the aid of machines. There are some small salinas like on Kythera and Mani where they do as well manual harvest and on some other places salt is harvested from small pools between the rocks at the shore line.

On Lesvos, as you drive across the island from Mytilini to Kaloni you can’t fail to notice the salinas and the huge white salt mountain at the head of the Gulf of Kaloni. Plenty of drivers are annoyed by the salt trucks which travel between Kaloni and the little port of Petra, where the salt is loaded into freighters for distribution to other parts of the Aegean. The salinas of Polichnitos are not so well known, probably because it is less likely to be visited by tourists.

Whenever you add salt to your food, you probably don’t realize how precious it is. Salt used to be even more valuable than gold. You can see the evidence at an antique market where ancient salt shakers feature, but the ordinary plastic modern version might never suggest just how salt once played a leading role in the history of food and civilization.

In his fascinating book ‘Salt, a world history’ the American Mark Kurlansky describes all the many possibilities of usages of salt. Without salt there would be no mummies, no salami, no salt fish, no cheese, no bombs and lots and lots more.

Starting in ancient China and the days of the Egypt’s pharaohs he tells us about civilizations that revolved around salt: wars were fought over salt, revolutions launched, governments became rich from salt taxes, houses collapsed, armies got lost. Kurlansky explains the role of salt in creating the old Roman sauce of Garum, the original recipe for tobasco sauce or a Breton Galette. He also writes about the history of salinas, salt mines, salt mountains and even a salt city and there are simple recipes to preserve fish, meat and vegetables.

Salt fish have always been important in the Greek kitchen. In antiquity fish was brought from the Black Sea to Athens in salt. That way it stayed edible for about a year. Soldiers got salt fish when they went to war and it was said that salt fish was a good appetizer, and so it was often served as a starter at dinners.

You still find salt fish on the modern Greek menu. The sardines from the Gulf of Kaloni are famous in Greece and so are salted tinned versions (which are a very good alternative to salted anchovy) both of which are important export products. I once heard a tourist say that the salted sardines (sardelles pastès) from the Gulf of Kaloni never needed to be salted because of the high level of salt in the water. The Gulf may not be quite as salty and buoyant as the Dead Sea where you can float almost on top of the water and although it is very salty, to make good sardelles pastès you will definitely have to add salt. People who like salted herring from Holland will love this recipe:

Sardelles pastès:
Put 1/2 a kilo of sardines in layers on a scale. Take a cup of coarse sea salt and cover every fish, and between the layers, with salt flakes. Leave them for 6-8 hours in a cool place. Rinse them clean, take off the heads and gut them, drizzle the fish with a little olive oil, sprinkle it with fine cut parsley and serve with two half lemons and a glass of ouzo. Use fresh sardines (caught the same day) and good olive oil. Enjoy!

Last weekend Athens celebrated the opening of the New Acropolis Museum. Of course, no museum on Lesvos is that sensational. But Lesvos can be proud of a lot of small and very different museums. The nicest is the Natural History Museum of the Lesvos Petrified Forest in Sigri and the most remote one is the Lakovidis Digital Art Museum in Xidera. According to the salt project ALAS a salt museum was planned for Skala Polichnitos in 2003, just next to the salinas. There’s been an exhibit but so far nothing else. So I can only wonder what happened to that project?

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Under the mulberry tree

What was the most valuable thing that the Greek Desdemona Stephanides (a leading character in the book ‘Middlesex’ by Jeffrey Eugenides) took when she fled Turkey in 1922 with her brother? A little box with silkworms.

In earlier times silk was produced in Greece in various places. Nowadays they only make it in the little town of Soufli in the North of Greece. Soufli has the only silk museum of Greece, dedicated to the memory of the craft the town keeps alive..

The Greek silk industry boomed in the 19th century but more or less disappeared halfway the 20th century, mainly due to World War II, and the Greek civil war that followed, and then, of course the introduction of synthetic materials on to the market.

Lesvos did not have a substantial silk industry, unlike the neighbouring island of Chios, where under the occupation of the Genoese (14th – 16th century) who established silk making. Athens and Thessaloniki also had silk factories and the the Byzantine town of Mystras on the Peloponnese also became known for its silk. In fact, the whole of the Peloponnese was famous for its silk. In the middle ages the Peloponnese was even named after the diet of silk worms: mouria — mulberry. However while some say it was because of the presence of mulberry trees, others claim it was because the shape of the Peloponnese, which on the map looks like a mulberry.

Anyhow, the silkworm eats white mulberry leaves, a tree that just like the silk industry which it kept going seems to have been forgotten in modern Greece. It used to be cultivated on a grand scale, to nourish the worms spinning the silk. It is stunning to realize that the very ordinary looking leaves of this tree are basis of the finest material ever made by humans!

On Lesvos there are just a few mulberry trees left. Even in the mountain village of Sykaminia, which is named after the old Greek word for mulberry (sykaminia — pronounced as “skamnia”), it’s hard to find a mulberry tree. So I was very surprised to find a mulberry shoot sprouting out of the ground next to our outside shower. And it turned out to be a white mulberry tree. So now we have this luxury: while we taking a shower, we can eat the fruit from the tree.

Besides white mulberries there are red (really dark blue) mulberries. It took me some time to find a tree in the right season to taste a red mulberry. Last week I finally found one — just in front of the little church of Liota (called as well Ligeri). My opinion? Red mulberries taste even better than the white ones. They are more fruity and less sweet.

But the fruit is not so well loved here on the island. I’ve never met a Lesvorian that offered me mulberries or anything made from them. They are hardly ever mentioned. Maybe there’s a reason, especially because the red fruit leaves stains that are very hard to remove. The effect of parking a car under a mulberry tree is a disaster because the red juice seeps into everything.

In the picturesque harbor village of Skala Sykaminia there is one enormous mulberry tree, under which is the famous restaurant Skamnia (I mentioned in my story about the Mermaid). The tree is so old that it no longer bears fruit. Good, because otherwise you would drink red tinged ouzo and eat octopus, squid, salade and everything else all coloured by mulberry juice from the tree, and you would best wear your napkin on your head in order not to leave as red as a Martian.

However in Turkey they still harvest these superb dark mulberries and so you could meet a mulberry tree filled with red stained women, who climbed into the tree in order to pick the fruit. I’ve never had the chance to enjoy a mulberry harvest, but it must be quite an event, thanks to all that red juice.

It is a shame that on this island mulberries are neglected. Mulberries are good for anemia, tiredness, stress and encroaching grey hairs. In China, Japan and Korea mulberry juice is a popular health drink, especially because it can be kept for three months in the refrigerator. Jam, jelly and ice are the products that are mainly made with blueberries.

The busy time of preserving has already started here. The strawberries are all harvested, eaten or preserved; the heat helps the cherries grow big and and fat quite fast; the cheeks of the apricots are showing their rosy tint; plums are changing from green into yellow; capers are opening their magnificent flowers; oregano and thyme are flowering and will have to be picked and dried now — and of course we have to harvest our white mulberries. I can perfectly well understand that in earlier times being a house wife with a garden, you had to eat a lot of mulberries simply in order not to get stressed.

But of course, it’s really the silk that has that magic appeal. The book ‘Effigy’ by Alissa York is a beautifully told semi-historical story about a Mormon family in the American West. One of the women has a room full of silk worms, and reading this story (and ‘Middlesex’) it makes you curious about how it would feel to weave silk. Sadly, I spend too much time preserving fruit, so I can only dream of making silk…

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Where is the queen?!

Photo Vespa orientalis: Robin Edwards

The first heat wave of summer has started. That means that all kinds of insects are looking for a home inside our house. Spiders, ants and other creepy things will invade, looking for water and sweet things. It means we have to clean extremely carefully: leave no bread crumbs behind, tightly close the sugar pot and don’t leave out tea cups or coffee cups with sugar or sweetener in them. My house soon will be a Walhalla for entomologists, just like the modern Greek political world will be a Walhalla for Aristophanes…

Aristophanes was a Greek poet and playwriter who lived from 446 BC – 386 BC. He is known because eleven of his plays have survived. They were usually only once performed at a festival visited by the ‘jet set’ of ancient Athens. Its administrators knew no shame, and Aristophanes had no qualms about making fools of his high tone audience, the hot shots in the front row.

And now it’s the turn of the Greek administrators of today to once more be made fools of. The reason? Because nearly half the population of Greece failed to turn up and vote in last Sunday’s European parliamentary elections. Most Greeks thought it was more important to visit the beach than going to the polls. Sadly, the ruling Neo Demokratia party has proved that it is just as corrupt as its main rival Pasok, and so Greeks are fed up with politics.

The fact that the Pasok won the most votes was shaded by the low turn out. You can see it as an act of massive civil disobedience, because voting in Greece is compulsory — although nobody is ever punished for breaking the law.

If Aristophanes were alive now, he would have a lot of fun making fools of our contemporary politicians. If you read him you will see that in his day politics were also a mess. In his play ‘The Wasps’ he satirizes old Athenian men that played the role judge for money, but never delivered justice in a fair way. The man who governed Athens in Airstophanes’ time was Cleon, and the playwright certainly made a fool of him.

In this political comedy the old men who are the judges, come to help a colleague, but are shown to be a swarm of wasps with nasty stings. You can say the same today; our politicians are just the same dangerous swarm of wasps, and although the insects are essential to the cycle of life in nature, they can also threaten your life. It is very dangerous to try and destroy a nest of wasps because they get angry and attack, and that could be fatal.

The results of the voting for Europe in Greece was just like an attack on the nest of the Neo Demokratia. The leader and Greek premier Karamanlis will have to respond, but most people think he will just shuffle a few of his ministers. He is not a real ‘queen’ wasp, because it is the opponents of our political system that really might deliver the fatal sting: think of anarchistic youth and students who have not stopped their rebellion since the riots of last December. They are angry enough to keep on fighting, attacking banks and luxury shops with fire bombs and rocks.

So the wasp (Sfika in Greek) is very much alive in Greek life. Research on our neighboring island of Chios (by Mike Taylor of the Liverpool Museum in the UK) has found a big variety of wasp species, like the so-called spider wasp (Pompilidae), that hunts pseudo-tarantula’s (woaw, I can’t believe those creeps might be here as well…) and other big spiders on Chios.

I myself recently encountered a queen wasp in my house. She was at least 5 centimeters long and belonged to the hornet family, a Vespa orientalis (or was it a Scolia flavifrons?). Anyhow, these hornet wasps are huge, and just like some politicians they like to eat the bread (well, in case of a wasp it is meat or fish) off your plate (Dutch expression).

I am happy that I am not too afraid of this gigantic wasp species, because they are so big and noisy, you usually see or hear them coming first. So I gently put our royal flying monster out of the house. However, the next day she was back again, exploring our living room. I decided to evict her for a second time, but the next day again she got in through her own secret entrance and this time there was no way I could catch her.

I spent two days wasp-catching and on the third day it was too much, so I decided to ignore her. That wasn’t easy: try to concentrate while such a missile is flying around your head. But I managed; so well that I lost all trace of her. And now I am worried. I have no idea how wasps live, and so I can only hope that this great queen is not so sneaky as to brood (and breed) in complete silent seclusion in a secret hidden nest somewhere inside the house. Imagine if in a few weeks I enter my living room and am attacked by a swarm of colossal stinging beasts! Just like a lot of politicians, not all wasps are to be trusted…

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Creative with bricks

Wherever you live on this island, it is impossible not to be intrigued by the stones, because they are everywhere. When you are at the beach, you find the most beautiful colored pebbles. Try to plant an elegant rose in the soil and you will meet stubborn stones which are very hard to be moved. Stones are part of your life: walls enclose gardens and orchards with olive trees are supported by stones; lots of traditional houses are built with natural stone; landscapes are scattered with big rocks, mountains show colorful rock formations.

Lesvos used to be a volcanic island and the volcanoes probably not only spewed fire but also threw out big stones all over the island. The plateau near Skalochori looks like a moon landscape with huge rocks scattered around, as if the Cyclops had been playing games with them. The famous Panagia Glykofiloussa Church in Petra is build on a huge rock (Petra in Greek means rock), mysterious small heaps of stones decorate the tableland of Michou, the Golden Beaches with black stones are very popular at Eftalou, but the beach with white pebbles in Skala Kidonia is less known. (The beach at Melinda is brilliant white with quartz and just a few meters into the water there’s a vast single stone like a small island TB).

The mountains above Plomari are known as the “crystal” mountains because they secrete crystal and other semi-precious stones. The southern beaches are the places to find the most colored stones. In the west there are petrified trees which have strewn the shore with multi colored stones — the slivers of million year old trees. The bare landscape is often crossed with long walls of stone that creep over the mountain slopes like arteries you find on stones. (Some of the island’s ancient walls are made of such large ‘polygonal’ stones you wonder how anybody could have lifted them TB).

So, it is normal that people that built houses here were inspired by the plethora of stones. The traditional houses of Molyvos, and of most other villages on Lesvos, are built from natural stones, and they are not painted chalk white and mostly they have red tiled roofs. A few have upper storey closed verandas made of wood but nowadays modern houses are built with concrete blocks and are plastered and painted. Although some house owners might add a natural stone wall for decoration, fewer and fewer people choose the traditional stone style for the structure of a new house.

Some traditional walls were made with bricks. In the Ypsilon Monastery close to Sigri walls and chapels are decorated with lines of bricks. (The handsome old olive press buildings (and chimneys) were usually built of brick TB) and in the mountain village Ampeliko, below the Olympos mountain, towards Plomari, the priest of the Saint Nicolas Church has been going crazy with bricks. The porch of the church displays the creative wedding of natural stone and brick, and so do the arches of the public building/museum and the fountain and other small decorations nearby.

In earlier times the country houses were built with little towers, in order to watch out for the pirates. These are the famous Tower Houses of Lesvos. You can find them around Mytilini. When you approach the village of Sigri, on your right you see the arches of bricks of a Tower House nearly hidden behind trees and a hill. Each time we visited Sigri we notice an arch or another tower has been added. Last year thanks to the internet I found out that this is the Tower House, a hotel that has 4 apartments. The owners, Evangelia and Dimitrios Komninos started building some eleven years ago: it’s like a castle with towers, patios, and covered balconies hidden under arches, all built with wood, natural stone and a lot of bricks that have been used to decorate the walls and terraces. Evangelia and Dimitrios are not afraid anymore of pirates, they just love the old architecture of their island.

Dimitrios, a renovator of old houses, has not finished yet. Next to the main house he is adding the finishing touches to a large, luxurious apartment. It seems that the more he builds the more artistic he becomes, because this new building is a showpiece in how to be creative with brick, inside as well as out. The wood and stone of the interior play a tremendous game together. Dimitrios has even made two inside wall decorations with stones of petrified wood. All Tower House apartments are fancifully furnished: heavy wooden pieces, some antique, some from India, with white lace curtains and classic tapestry. Their most beautiful item of furniture is in the new apartment: an antique wooden bed, which was once used as a seat by a rich Indian raja (even though now it’s a bed) on the back of an elephant.

The garden has a magic view over Sigri, its harbor and the island Nissiopi opposite of the harbor. You will find romantic seats, strange formed stones that are worth a place in a modern museum, a swimming pool with a bar, an outside oven, a barbeque, (all of course, fully decorated with bricks), a lookout post and a small place for children to play, fruit trees, flowers, waterfalls, all designed to give a pleasurable time in the garden. Together with the new apartment (another one is planned above), Dimitrios is also building a little church that is, no need to say, fully decorated with bricks.

Whenever you want to spoil yourself by staying some days in this fairy tale-like Tower House I have another tip: the best place to watch the sunset over the sea at Sigri is from the café-par (no spelling mistake) Etzi, which is in the fields behind the sandy beach of Faneromani, a few kilometers out of Sigri. With a little bit of luck you’ll get your retsina served in glasses owned by the grandmother of Nondas, the owner. And when you get to know him, you may even have a chance to have a ride in his home made automobile. I had no time to test his motorized pedal boot. Just as at the Tower House, and in the fascinating environment around Sigri, where the mountains still hide hundreds of petrified trees, you could stay forever in the bar Etzi…

@ Smitaki 2009

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)