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


  1. Hi SMITAKI !
    I have since I discovered your blog some two weeks ago read almost all of it since the beginning, so now I of course am looking forward to your weekly letters , they are all teaching me something new and are funny reading too.Me and my daughter have been to Lesvos three times and are going now again next Thursday. We have been staying in Agios Isodoros, Sea Sun Hotel, so are we now but one of the three weeks we are going to drive around. One of the hotels I have booked is the Tower House after finding it on your blog.From Annie, Norway,anne.grethe69@hotmail.com

  2. lots of mulberry trees in skala kallonis