Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Olive rhapsody

Now that most of the tourists have gone, work in the olive groves can start. The nets have to be spread out under the trees and the olives are nearly ready to be harvested.

The olive tree (olea europaea) is a tough tree which is difficult to destroy. You find it all around the Mediterranean, never far from the sea. In more than one country you will find famous and very ancient olive trees, some of them older than 2000 years.

According to Greek mythology the olive tree was a present from Athena, the goddess of Wisdom. She won a competition with Poseidon, god of the Sea — giving the best present to the city of Athens. This is how the first olive tree grew on the Acropolis. In the 4th century BC the father of biology, Theophrastus, recognized the olive tree on the Acropolis was the one given by Athena. Pausianus, a famous traveller and geologist, living in the 2nd century, wrote (in the year 170) that when the Persians set fire to the Acropolis, at the time of the battle of Salamis in 480 BC, Athena’s tree was also burned. However, on the same day, a new branch emerged from the blackened trunk and the olive tree survived.

There used to be another famous olive tree in Athens, in the western part: Plato’s Olive, where it was said that some 2500 years ago Plato held his academy. The tree lived through many turbulent centuries until 1975 when a bus drove into it and not only damaged the tree but uprooted it too.

Most of the old trees have fascinating whimsical forms and no wonder many people have fallen in love with them, so much so that they give a cheery salute to their silver grey leaves. The tree itself does not have too many enemies, although the fruit, the olives themselves can be attacked by a particularly nasty pest: the olive fruit fly bactrocera (dacus) oleae, known by the Greeks as dakos.

The females of species lay eggs in a olive and when they become larvae, they feed on the olive for ten days before becoming adult flies. By that time you can forget about the olive! In this way a single female fly can damage around 400 olives; and through the summer months at least 5 generations of these flies can be born into the world.

When after World War II chemical pesticides were introduced to farming, the Greeks, just like many other Europeans, were so happy with this new killer spray they hired planes to douse the landscapes with the mission: kill the dakos! The result was a bigger harvest of olives and better quality oil.

Well, I am glad that since I’ve been living here, these planes have never appeared. I would have stayed inside the house for at least a week if they sprayed their lethal cargo. Fifty years later even children know how poisonous these pesticides were.

For other farmers, including those into viticulture, it is easier now to farm organically without chemicals, but for the olive farmers there is still no way to find an environmentally friendly way to completely eliminate the dakos fly.

Although most farmers here on the island have changed their farming ways: the poison sprayers are more and more banned from the orchards with signs warning: ‘organic garden’. This does not mean that all owners of olive trees did it for a safer cleaner environment. No, the Lesvorian olive farmers have changed to organic because they get a good subsidy to do so.

The result is that at many entrances to the olive groves there are signs saying they are ‘organic only’ and in the trees you will see little square green or white bags (pheromone traps) which contain a powder to attract the male olive fruit flies. As soon as a male touches the powder and flies away with some on his legs, other males think he is a female and will follow him instead of the females. This way fewer and fewer females get fertilized. How do they find such things out?!

Another way to get rid of the dakos is by hanging plastic bottles in the trees containing a mix of ammonia, water and honey or some other sweet juice which will attract the flies. In these ways the islanders hope finally to get rid of the olive fruit fly.

But organic farming remains a difficult choice because without the dakos you have a bigger harvest of good quality while using these organic methods not all flies are immediately killed, which means that it’s very likely in the first years of organic growing the harvest can be disappointing.

This year on Lesvos the expectations were that they could harvest some 25.000 tons of olive oil. However due to the frequent rains in spring this number has to be reduced to 8.000 tons. Another problem comes because many farmers aren’t able to look after their groves and their trees more or less run wild and bear less and less fruit. Because of a lack of money some farmers don’t plough under the trees at the beginning of summer, nor can they afford to hire a specialist to prune their trees.

Thanks to mass production in countries such as Italy and Spain (where I bet they do not grow organic olives) the prices of the olives goes lower and lower, putting small farmers in a vulnerable position.

But anyhow it will be virtually impossible to remove the olive tree from the Mediterranean landscape. Not only are the trees tough, but so are the people who live with them. They are born amongst the olive trees and grew up on olive oil. It is a tradition that cannot easily be lost, neither because of dakos the olive fruit fly, nor the pressure from international olive businesses.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Free-range snails

This month Lesvos has been picked as one of the 22 European Destinations of Excellence for 2009. Other regions on the list include: the Viroin Hermeton Nature Park in Belgium, Vouni Panagias on Cyprus, the Northern Vosges Regional Natural Park in France, Park Gravenrode in the Netherlands, The Bird Republic in Warta Mouth in Poland and the Municipality of Remich in Schengen, Luxemburg.

This nomination is a small consolation for the tourists who are here now and who have to endure heavy rainfalls and thunderstorms. I can imagine they are a little disappointed, because going on walks will be a challenge - because they would have to cross many a mud stream trying to find its way to the sea.

So I pity them, but as I am living here I secretly love all this water. The summer dust finally gets washed away and lovely fragrances are freed. It is a real joy to inhale he fresh odour of the pine trees, the spicy smell of the earth and the prickly smell of the first wood fires.

In between the rain showers I am quite enjoying trying to navigate the mud, over the pine needles brought down and rendered by the rain into artful patterns, and between the olives that have started to fall; and I am careful not to step on the snails that now are part of the micro traffic on the paths. And when you see some Greeks with their noses down shuffling through the landscape, you know that they are not looking for chorta (wild vegetables) but for snails (saligaria).

I love to eat snails, but not to prepare them. I know it is a little contradictory maybe to enjoy eating them but to be too afraid to kill them in order to prepare them for cooking, but I cannot butcher a chicken, cow or pig, either, even though I eat their meat.

Before you start cooking the snails they have to be cleaned; they obviously eat dirty things and all that has to come out. The Greeks put them in a box or a cage (they need air) from where they cannot escape. Then they feed them with a little flower and pasta. Then, as far as I understand it, the snails can eat their bellies full and, again, all the dirt passes through,

Another way to clean them is to put them in water with some vinegar, and an even more lousy way is to starve them: they are put in a box/cage for 5 –6 days without food so they will empty themselves. I am sure that I would not sleep one night, or would free them on the their first day of fasting.

But snails are very healthy to eat. They have lots of calcium, they are rich in proteins and they have lots of vitamins B1 and E. It is said that snail eating is good for curing anaemia, asthma and rheumatics.

According to an article on the internet, a Dutchman Ruud Bank in 1988, found as many as 63 species of land- and sweet water snails on Lesvos. I could not find much more about his investigation or this Mr Bank so I have to do it with the list of the 63 snail names. I guess the species of snail that I always encounter on my way around here is the Helix cincta anatolica, a snail which probably came from Anatolia in Turkey.

The Greeks have eaten snails for a very long time. In the old Lycian town of Aperlae (founded in the 4th-3rd century BC, in the South west of Turkey) archaeologists excavated a site of about 1600 square meters full of shells from the Murex snail. So for sure it must have been a snail farm. Besides being eaten, the Murex snails were used for making a purple-red dye. Scientists calculated that for 1.4 gram of dye, 12.000 snails were needed. Wow, if you would have to eat that many...

The Greeks that lived in Anatolia used to prepare snails with onions, tomato sauce and bay leaf. On Lesvos, where many Anatolian Greeks fled at the beginning of the 20th century, they also add quinces, which makes a delicate combination of tastes.

People from Crete however have the most snail recipes. It is said that they know as many as 300 ways to cook them. A Cretan cook once served snails at a festival in Athens cooked in 20 different ways.

‘Bourbouristi’ is the name of a Cretan dish with fried snails. It is named after the plopping sound the snails make when they fall into the hot oil. Then they are seasoned with olive oil, vinegar and rosemary. Another snail dish is made with bulghur, tomatoes and spices; another with potatoes and spices and, continuing like that you can vary the ingredients until you have 300 recipes.

Especially in Bulgaria snail farms prosper. This year this Balkan country will export no less than 800 to 900 tons of snails. Mostly to France, but also to Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. And even now they cannot meet the demand.

Here on Lesvos you only have free-range snails. You can even think of the island as one big snail farm. The Cretans may say that snails are a Cretan speciality, but first try out this Lesvorian recipe: snails with quinces.

1 plate with cleaned snails
1 cup of tomato sauce
2-3 bay leaves
half a cup with green olives
2 onions, chopped
1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
pepper, salt
2 quinces, cut in big pieces

Fry the onions in some oil. Add the tomato sauce, the snails and the bay leaves. Stew it a little, than add salt, pepper and cinnamon. Then add the quinces and olives. Cook until the quinces are soft, then the dish is ready to serve.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Kalo Ftinopero

(Picture: The harbour of Molyvos in autumn evening light)

Greeks are not only hospital people, they also have plenty of good wishes for you: kali mera (good day), kali apojevma (good late afternoon), kalo vradi (good evening), kali nichta (good night) and those are only wishes for a day. On Monday they also wish you a kalo efdomada (good week), and on the first of every month a kalo mina (good month).

At the end of the summer, when the sea is still warm and temperatures are around 30ÂșC, they start wishing you a kalo chimona (good winter) and it won’t take long before they start saying kalo Christojenna (Happy Christmas). At midwinter they start again, wishing you a kalo kalo kero (good summer). Summer cannot start quickly enough. Strangely, NOBODY HAS EVER WISHED ME a good autumn (kalo ftinopero).

I love the seasons. I could never go and live in tropical country where there is no clear differentiation of the seasons. When autumn comes I love to see the beautiful fading light, the warm sea, the changing colour of the leaves and especially the typical aroma of autumn: a combination of dying figs and grapes, humid earth and the sweet smell of quinces. In summer I long for the open fire, in winter the burning sun and the cooling water of the sea. But it is good that after autumn comes winter, maybe with some snow, always in front of the fire. Then, just when you have had enough of the cold, spring announces itself.

My favorite seasons are autumn and spring. And I am lucky because here in Greece these seasons can stretch for months. You can say that ripe figs at the end of August are the first signs of autumn. Then it depends on the weather when autumn really starts. Cold, rain, mushrooms, snails, these can occur at the end of September, or not until November. And the Greeks say that real winter only starts in February, so you can see how long an autumn can last here on Lesvos.

For spring it’s the same story. The first signs of spring are the purple anemones that carefully open their petals in December. And when according to the Greeks it is real winter there are plenty of anemones, together with other spring flowers and blossoms.

We got the dark seasons – autumn and winter — thanks to Demeter the Goddess of the harvest and cereals. Her daughter Persephone was abducted by the god of the underworld, Hades, and disappeared into the kingdom of Death. Ilios (the sun) saw that happening and warned Demeter who immediately took off to Hades to ask for her daughter to be returned. But Hades was clever. He already had offered some of those beautiful red seeds of the pomegranate to her. Persephone could not resist eating a few of them, thus signing her own fate: anyone who ate something in the Underworld had to stay there forever. This is how Persephone married Hades and why Demeter had so much sorrow that nothing grew on the earth anymore.

Would the Gods rule a world where nothing grew? Zeus, who actually helped Hades to abduct Persephone, intervened: Persephone would stay one month in the Underworld for each seed of the pomegranate she ate. In different versions of this story the number of seeds Persephone ate varies. So you can’t be sure just how many months she had to stay in the Underworld or how long Demeter had to cry and not let anything grow on earth. So the months can be anything from two to seven.

If Persephone only ate two pomegranate seeds, then we would have two months with no growth or flowers. Well, Demeter must be a modern Greek politician - getting bribed - because what I really like about Greece especially here on Lesvos is that in each month there is always something growing: in October quinces and pomegranates are ripe and the strawberry trees are full of fruit; by November chestnuts and olives are ready to be harvested (the olive harvest can last until in February); in December anemones start to flower and you can find plenty of mushrooms. They are there as soon as the first rains fall after the end of summer.

In January the first almond blossoms appear, and oranges, lemons and mandarins will be ripe; in February many other trees blossom and in the first months of the year many wild vegetables will slowly start showing their bright green leaves. In March you can go crazy amongst all the spring flowers (some of them edible) and wild asparagus shoots turn their heads towards heaven. So how can you say nature is ‘dead’ in the dark months of winter?

The winter fields here are full of all kinds of cabbages, salads, spinach, carrots. There are no empty fields and harvesting goes on all year through. I think that Persephone must have divorced Hades before staying too long in the Underworld, otherwise her mother Demeter must have offered a bribe in one of those famous envelopes used by the Greeks to settle everything.

After a super post-summer season, the weather forecast now predicts true autumnal temperatures and hopefully the plants will get some water. The soft pink evening light suggests humidity in the air and one of my favorite seasons now starts: kalo ftinopero!

(Thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

Friday, 9 October 2009

Messages from the Lesvorian Heather

Aristaeus was the son of the Greek god Apollo. He had many occupations including keeping bees. He liked women as well and when he saw Eurydice, the love of the musician Orpheus, she had to run away from him. In her haste she did not look out and got bitten by a poisonous snake. It was a fatal bite and Orpheus was broken hearted. Aristaeus was also inconsolable, because all his bees then suddenly died. Like a real Greek man he went to his mother to seek comfort. She told him straight: because of him Eurydice died, and his bees died because of the sorrow of Orpheus. As a penance he had to sacrifice bulls and cows to the gods. After which a swarm of bees rose up from one of the corpses. That is how Aristaeus was able to teach humans how to keep bees.

Nowadays too, bee colonies just seem to disappear. You could believe that the gods are once again angry because of something a human being has done. Scientists cannot find why so many bee colonies are disappearing from the face of the earth. The phenomenon, called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is worrying because bees not only make honey but are also responsible for the fertilization of many crops. In 2006 this mysterious disease was discovered in America, European countries like the Netherlands, Belgium and Greece followed too as bee colonies (containing from 20.000 to 60.000 bees) vanishing.

The cause could be urbanization, or a new pesticide, or a new insect-enemy, and it is heard on the grapevine that it might even be mobile phones!

Lesvos is full of radio masts - for telephone, television, radio and all that modern life requires. On the tops of all our mountains you will find forests of antennae pylons. And Lesvos also has masses of beehives. If the Lesvorian beekeepers ever want to enter a new record in the Guinness Book of Records they could line up their hives to a form a line many miles long. A few times in a year their blue and white hives are moved to other places: in the spring they are put out in the meadows amongst the spring flowers, and in the autumn they are moved up into the pine woods.

Bees can fly some 15 miles an hour, to make a pound of honey they would have to fly the equivalent of three journeys around the world, because one bee produces in her life time only one twelfth of a teaspoon of honey. Bees communicate with each other by dancing and they are supposed not to be aggressive creatures. Although if they feel their beehive is threathened, they may attack. But when does a bee feel threathened? Plenty of walkers on Lesvos have paid for their ignorance with many a sting, and have had to visit the hospital to get some injectors — just for daring to walk past a row of bee hives.

So, I stay clear of those white and blue boxes. Especially on a road where somebody might pass by once a week. How does a bee knows that I am not a Winnie-The-Pooh on the lookout for honey...

But walking in the pinewoods at this time of the year is a great pleasure. The beehives are in the pinewoods, because of the heather growing between the trees and that is now beginning to blossom. On the mountains between Olympos and the main road between Kaloni and Mytilini you will find many fields of purple heather shining between the bright green trees. And while the wind is so lovely as it plays with the needles of the trees, above the colourful heather the bees buzz their wings at 11.400 times a minute making their wellknown zooming humming noise.

Besides ouzo, olive oil and goat cheese Lesvos also exports honey. There is the honey that is just called Lesvos honey, made in cooperatives, and their are local individual sellers like in Stipsi and Karini and recently (in 2007) the Kamperos family opened a honey bussiness called ‘Melostagma’ in Skalochori. As well as honey they sell pollen, propolis and Queen bee jelly (known as ‘Royal’ jelly).

Pollen is the fertile part of flowers that the bees collect as well as the nectar. Propolis comes from the resin of trees and Royal jelly is made by the socalled nurse-bees. Like the name suggests, it’s a very healthy product. After I stayed some time amongst the heather, thinking of all the healthy products this island has, I decided I would soon make a visit to the Kamperos family in order to buy some of their bee products (Melostagma honey can also be bought along with other brands at the cooperative in Molyvos).

On Google Videos there is a film of the Melostagma compagny. However, for me it doesn’t make a very a positive publicity point, because you see thousands of bees swarming in their hives — quite fascinating, but I would say more scary. Anyhow it gave me the creeps. Although it is also mesmerizing to realise that all those creepy crawling bees are the only insects that make food for humans. In ancient times honey was called the nectar of the gods. And when you consider the high prices for a jar of honey it still is. Even on this island of goats milk and honey...

Friday, 2 October 2009

Some small changes

(picture: Green is for Pasok, blue for Neo Demokratia)

On the 4th of October there are national elections in Greece. The question is apart from possibly a new Prime Minister will they will bring real change?

The government has decreed that during the last two weeks before the vote the media must not publish any prognosis as to the result. Not that they are needed. It is clear that one of the two main parties will win: Neo Demokratia or Pasok. Even if they always keep on promising change, the fact is these two parties have been governing modern Greece for ages, and so any promise of real change is a hollow one.

The other three serious parties, Siriza (a green left party), KKE (the communist party) and Laos (an extreme right party) have no chance of winning, so it seems Greeks are afraid of any real change in their country.

Yesterday, when I arrived in Athens after a week in Holland, three political party stands stood together in fraternal solidarity at the exit of the airport: Neo Demokratia, Pasok and Siriza. Only at the stand of Siriza were people discussing things. Why would you ask anything of the Pasok or Neo Demokratia people? After all these years it is obvious how they govern the country: by corruption and scandal.

The columnist Niki Kitsantonis, who writes for English language weekly paper Athens Plus (not entirely online), is dead right when she says Greece has no money left for anything. And yet when the elections come around, there’s plenty of money to grease the electors’ palms, to pay the people counting the votes, for enormous billboards and advertisements and for stands scattered all over Athens.

This would never happen in Amsterdam. In the Dutch capital there was a possibility that even stands selling flowers and herring might disappear from the streets. This is because the Amsterdam city council is very busy devising new laws to make life in the city more and more dull. Because it is not allowed to smoke any more in public buildings, bar life has moved to the streets but people are banned from drinking while standing. In some quarters of Amsterdam it is even forbidden to drink in front of your own house and last week a city alderman came up with the idea that people who have been drinking should not allowed on the streets at all!

So I was very happy to be able to leave that carping country and return to the chaos of Greece. In earlier times when you flew into the old Athens airport you landed right in the chaos when you had to change flights going to the islands. After the new airport of Eleftherios Venizelos was opened in 2001, that chaos was blown away on the wind leaving only sweet memories. Even Greek passengers left chaos behind. You used to have to fight to get to the check-in desk, but now Greeks at the new airport are incredibly disciplined.

Olympic Airways, Greece biggest flight company, has now two new competitors: Aegean Airlines and Athens Airways. However they do not fly to Amsterdam, so when you want to fly to Lesvos, you better go with Olympic and your luggage is transferred and you have time for the connection between the two flights.

It was Aristoteles Onassis who bought the old Greek air company and founded Olympic Airways in 1957. He made it a company to be proud of and it always felt good to fly Olympic. Until recently you ate with a metal knife and fork and the stewardesses kept on wearing the same blue uniforms with coloured shawls.

When I flew to Holland a week ago, we boarded a Hellas Air plane at Athens. I heard that Olympic Airlines (so called since 2003 when they had a financial crisis) was to be taken over, so we flew into a black hole. The service on board was terrible, the food was pretty basic and the plane, yes, it just about flew…

Yesterday, coming back to Greece, was quite another story. Although Olympic Air officially will open on the 1st of October - after a take-over by the Marfin Investment Group – already it had new planes, stewardesses and services. I have not flown in such comfort for years, and in such a sparkling new plane with lots of space between the seats, tasty food and remarkably good service. The six Olympic rings are still on the tail of the plane, but the seats are now made of leather and, as a tribute to the decade when Olympic Airways was founded, the stewardesses wear new kinky retro dresses. We even got an Olympic badge and some super chocolate as a gift.

To spare the pride of the Greeks, the name of their oldest airline has changed only very slightly: Olympic Air. Maybe next week only the name of the Prime Minister will change from Kostas Karamanlis to George Papandreaou, but unfortunately, any other changes...

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009