Friday, 26 March 2010

A plate of delicious poisonous chorta

(picture: svirnies)

Spring has arrived on the island together with oceans of flowers. The Greeks have put their chairs and tables outside: summer can start.

But the Greeks love to live outside in winter too. Whenever the temperature allows it, a Greek always prefers to sip his coffee or drink his ouzo outside. On a nice sunny Sunday Greeks do not all take off into nature, like in Holland. Most people only go into the wild to find something they can take. Like in autumn, men go mushroom hunting in the woods. In the winter and spring it is mostly women that go into the fields to gather wild greens and vegetables (chorta).

Chorta time starts in January but only in March do the very delicious shoots of the otherwise prickly wild asparagus bush appear — yes, wild asparagus! Sometimes they appear far away from the bush itself, so when you are staring at the main plant hoping to see shoots, one may be right in front of your nose swaying gently in the breeze.

Looking for asparagus is as much fun as gathering mushrooms, but you really have to look hard to find the new shoots. The first year that we went gathering them, as well asasparagus shoots as thin as knitting needles, we found some nearly as thick as your finger. We proudly showed them to a neighbour who called out: “Those are not ‘sparangia’, but ‘svirnies’!”. Pff!—another new word for our Greek vocabulary (and another kind of asparagus).

This year we discovered that these same svirnies—called avronies on Crete and in Turkey stifno—were the young shoots of the tamus communis, a climber with heart shaped leaves. But I really got a fright when I read that they are poisonous! A few weeks ago a friend of us gathered a big bunch of them and together with more friends we enjoyed eating them as a salad. Well, we all survived. As I did when I gathered a few more myself last week, with no damage done to my health. I read on the internet that we had probably eaten the tamus cretica, maybe it’s an edible kind? On another website a scientist annnounced that there is no such plant as tamus cretica, only dioscorea communis, which is also poisonous. How confusing!

I best leave it to the botanists to give the plants these funny names. The fact is, though, in Greece we eat not only asparagus but as well their lookalikes: svirnies or avronies.

It is better to get to know what plants look like, rather than remembering their various different names, as these may vary from region to region. Like I finally found what plant the Greeks call kardamo. I had always thought it was the wild version of the famous spice used in the Indian kitchen: cardamom.

The Greeks use that same cardamom in some of their dishes, but it does not grow in Greece. It is known from linear B tablets that it was traded by the ancient as ‘cardomomom’ (as it was known then), an expensive spicy seed that could make you rich.

But when Greek women gathering chorta come home with kardamo, it’s not the spicy heavily scented seed, but a green plant whose leaves can be eaten. It would be great to start trading in kardamo because (like cardamom seeds) they do have a pretty special and delicious taste: strong and spicey, a very nice addition to your salad.

The plant looks and tastes a bit like field cress, which has the Latin name kardamine. That may explain why the Greeks call it kardamo. The problem is that it looks alike but not exactly. Maybe it’s a new cress species: Lesvorian cress or cardamine lesvorine?

Well, I certainly do not want to start a discussion among botanists who can argue for years about new species and their names. Kardamo is just a nice spicey green herb that makes a Greek salad more tasty. It grows like sparangia and svirnies (or avronies) at the beginning of spring. I’ve no idea what kardamo is but it must be a very health-giving plant, otherwise the Greeks wouldn’t eat it. The same is true for the svirnies. And we all know how healthy asparagus is: full of vitamin C and antioxidants. Bon appetit!

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

A letter to the mayor of Molyvos

photo:GrisGris (cat to the right), in memoriam

Eftalou, 14 March 2010

To Mister Karadonis, the Mayor of Molyvos

We have known Eftalou well now for seven years and have always known Adonis and his many dogs. However, since Adonis is now ill and does not live here anymore, there is nobody to look after and control them — and there are about fifteen. We have noticed that since last summer the dogs have become more and more aggressive and they no longer stay close to the ‘house’ where Adonis lived (in the shed across the road and on the beach opposite the Hotel Panselinos. They now roam into the fields (where vegetables are growing), into the gardens of the Hotel, and as far as the meadows across from the Pizzeria. They are a major nuisance.

On Saturday morning I was woken up at 7.30 by several of these dogs barking and running around our house. When I opened my bedroom window, I saw several of them attacking one of my cats. I ran downstairs to chase them away but I was too late to save the cat, she died in my arms. So now Adonis’ dogs are murdering my cats. I can assure you that it was a really shocking sight to see one of them killed in this way.

On Saturday night several dogs came again to the house, twice, and on Sunday morning at 5 am I rushed out of my bed to chase them away again and then had to do the same thing at 8.00 am!!!!!

A friend once saw these dogs kill a little dog on the street and another time she witnessed them killing a cat, also on the street (the small dogs and cats seem to have disappeared from Adonis’ place).

Even if I were the only person who was being bothered by this pack of dogs (but I am not) you will immediately understand that this is a situation that cannot be allowed to continue.

Last summer several tourists were afraid to walk along the road past Adonis’ place and there are people who are even afraid to pass there by bike or motorbike. One incident last summer involved a female tourist who wanted to get from Eftalou back to Molyvos, but she was so afraid of the dogs that she had to go back to hotel Bella Vista in order to phone for a taxi to pick her up and take her past the dogs!

And it is not only tourists who are afraid. Because of the dogs a lot of Molyvos people will not walk to Eftalou any more. I understand that Adonis wants to keep his dogs and it will break his heart when they are gone. But I think that he and his family will have to take the responsibility of keeping them in an orderly manner. It cannot be allowed that Adonis’ dogs are able to terrorize a main thoroughfare of your community, but that is what is happening now. (TB: Who will bear the responsibility if a person suffers serious injury, or worse? I for one could not have a clear conscience if I had not brought it to your attention.) You as mayor, should do something about this problem: these dogs must be removed from Eftalou.

With friendly greetings,


Tuesday, 9 March 2010

The world shakes

(Picture: the castle of Mytilini)

It is no news that the Greek economy is shaking. That the Greek earth is also shaking is also true. It goes with the series of earthquakes we recently had around the world: Haïti, Chile, then last Monday, the eastern part of Turkey, and a small shock around the Greek city of Patras (4.2 on the Richter scale) and the next day a shock of 4.3 around the northern Sporades.

Small shocks are no news in Greece. Since I have lived here I’ve felt a couple. But nothing like the quake that shook the world for two minutes in Chile – a bit different from waking up because you think somebody has been shaking your bed.

If you want to experience how a big earthquake might feel, you can go to the Natural History Museum of the Lesvos Petrified Forest in Sigri, where they have a special room that simulates earthquakes. This place is much visited by school parties where pupils are instructed what to do in the event of an earthquake.

Children are taught that they should hide under their school desks. Normally your first instinct might be to run outside, but all earthquake advice sites on the internet say you should do otherwise: when you are inside, stay inside! Hide under a solid table, stay away from doors, windows and outside walls. If you are in bed, stay there, and pull a pillow over your head to protect it. I wonder why you should not hide under your bed... but I am pleased to hear that my instincts were right: the first time I felt an earthquake I was asleep in bed, and woke up, turned around and thought “yeah, that’s it” and quickly went back to sleep. The only thing I did not do was pull a pillow over my head. Now having seen the horrible images of the earthquakes in Chile and Haïti, I think that next time I’d be better to stay awake, and hide under a pair of pillows instead of one.

Lesvos is also is an area where there is a real threat of earthquakes. The island lies in the area where the Hellenic curve touches the African plate, above the island is the Edremit–Skiros fault, off the southern coast is the beginning of the Lesvos–Psara fault and on the island itself there are many small faults. So the earth under our feet is not all that quiet.

The history of the island tells of many destructive earthquakes. Whole cities and villages have perished. Pyrrha is said to have disappeared into the Gulf of Kaloni. If it was not an enemy who destroyed the city, it was the earth itself which did the job.

The last ‘big’ earthquake was in 1984, but it did no significant damage. The last really destructive earthquake was in 1867. It not only caused enormous damage and thousands of deaths, it hit Turkish cities like Smyrna (now Izmir), Konstantinopel (Istanbul) and Gallipoli. It was the second time that Mytilini and Smyrna were destroyed by the same disaster. In 151 AD the two cities already were completely razed by a single earthquake.

According to an article in the Malta Times in the year 1867 in Smyrna the first shock of about 30 seconds was felt in the evening of the March 7th. It was followed by a much heavier shock, and again the next day another heavy shock struck. People fled into the fields and to the harbour in order to be safe on the sea. They probably did not know that a tsunami could follow an earthquake.

In the same article there was a letter from an eyewitness who saw the earthquake in Mytilini on Lesvos. He describes how the weather over the days before the quake had been uncomfortably warm due to a south wind and that on March 8th at six o’clock in the morning he was on his way to the office of the Austrian Lloyd’s, when he felt the first shock that lasted 12 to 19 seconds and which was followed by a much heavier second shock. When he looked to the harbour, it was like an underwater explosion had taken place, with foaming water coming up from below the surface.

“I saw all the surrounding buildings dancing like drunken men, and solid blocks of masonry, out of which the piers are constructed, tumbling like houses of cards. The office of the Austrian Lloyd’s and nearly all the buildings which belong to the Custom-house, the Lighthouse, and the large oil mill, all gave way. In all the streets houses fell, burying their inhabitants beneath the ruins. The ancient and beautiful castle, the cathedral, the governor’s palace, the prisons, the mosques, and I believe all the consular residences are damaged, and for the most part are no better than a mass of ruins ... The lowest lying part of town suffered most. The earth literally opened and engulfed a number of buildings along the street which led from the seashore to the interior of the town, and which on Wednesday afternoon was the most frequented part of Mytilene but is now invaded by the sea, and covered by heaps of mud. More than one-half of our beautiful town, the most delightful and the gayest in the whole Levant, is nothing more than a desert heaped with ruins”.

Yesterday the grey clouded sky turned into an orange light, which gave off an eerie atmosphere. I did not think anything of it and just hung out my white laundry as normal. Only later I realised what a mistake that was. It is not the first time that clouds of orange sand from the Sahara have invaded Greece in springtime. The sand comes down in tiny drops of rain, colouring roads, windows. Just about everything, including my white washed clothes, turned orange. Ships did not leave port, some flights were delayed, the long bridge between the Peloponessos and western Greece was closed for some time and I had to redo my wash. Off course this was not really a disaster, but still I uttered some bad words against these frequent unpredictable moods and deeds of Nature.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

Thursday, 4 March 2010

The wonder of a crisis


Already too much has been written about the financial crisis in Greece. I better not add any more but I will tell you about another crisis that resulted in something very beautiful. It is the story of the ancient capital of the south of Lesvos: Megalochori.

Hundreds of years ago the southern part of Lesvos was quite a wild area. It was a good place for people to retreat and hide. That is how small communities came and settled around a church. Then they built an olive press and that is how some of the villages in the south were founded. The biggest village became Megalochori and ruled the region for some time. These villages were hidden high in the mountains, far from the sea where the pirates regularly used to come to the island to steal, murder and destroy villages.

By the 19th century the pirates had gone, but the villages on the southern slopes of the Olympus found a new enemy, as dangerous and evil as the pirates: in the summers of 1841, 1842 and 1843 huge fires raged through the mountains of Olympus, burning entire villages and their orchards. Then in 1850 the Big Cold destroyed what was left, and most of the inhabitants moved down to the coast, to live at the seaside where fishermen and their families were making a living.

That is why houses were built around the mouth of the river Sedounda, as well as soap plants, olive presses, flour mills, ouzo factories and even ships were built to carry the trade further. Lots of seamen from all over Greece, like the Cyclads, Kythira, Psara and the Greek mainland were attracted to this new place. It was a good time to make a new start - the coast was safe again and the economy on the island was growing, thanks to the booming commerce with the Ottoman Empire, from Thessaloniki, Odessa to Antalya, which is why this new city called ‘River’ (potami in Greek, Flumare in Genuese*) had such a quick start.

When around 1922 the Lesvorian economy collapsed (together with the Ottoman Empire) Plomari was hit hard by the crisis. Most industries were closed and even now parts of modern Plomari seem to have been frozen in time: big patrician houses, mills and factories in ruins dominate the look of the city, silent witnesses of those good old times.

Even though times were bad, the harbour of Plomari as it is today, was opened in 1928 which meant fishing boats could continue their business and – more important - the ship yards from whence many famous sailing boats were launched.

Plomari always has been something of an exception on the island because for many years there were no good roads and it was difficult to get to. The port town led a more or less isolated life at the feet of the southern slopes of Olympus, depending on the sea for its communication with the outside world.

Nowadays Plomari is called the capital of ouzo, thanks to the excellent – and somewhat spicy – ouzo distilled by old Plomarian families like Varvayannis, Arvanitis and Pitsiladi who survived the crisis. So too did the olive oil which came from the new trees planted in the orchards after the terrible destruction wrought by the Big Cold. Recently more than one olive oil from Plomari won prices in international contests.

Thanks to modern roads a trip to the second biggest town of the island and the new capital of the south of Lesvos is not such an adventure these days, but still it’s a breathtaking tour around a landscape that used to be called the Switzerland of Lesvos. Hidden on the mountain slopes you still find idyllic villages that did not quite disappear after the fires, the Big Cold, the emigration to Plomari (or far away over sea). You will find the well hidden Neochori with its old olive press; Ambelico built into a steep slope, with its medieval quadrilateral tower in the middle, and at the bottom of the village, a church with a wonderful small museum of folkloric and religious artifacts. Then there is Akrasi built around a main square with a fabulous view of a deep ravine leading to the hamlet of Drota on the sea below, and the lively village of Paleochori where the baker still bakes his bread in a wood stove. Only the villages Milies and Kournella are nearly deserted.

So thanks to the crisis in the 19th century, caused by fires and a burst of extreme cold, Lesvos now has this wonderful Italian-like little town, built against the mountain with houses that tower higher and higher, as if trying to get a glimpse of the sea. In the labyrinth of small steep streets and stairs you will find old neo-classical houses in ruins, next to merry coloured restored houses that also climb towards the sky to prove Plomari managed to overcome the crisis. In the lower part of the town, along the Sedounda river, you will find old white chalked soap factories and the square under an enormous plane tree is a good place to have a coffee, unless you prefer to watch the Plomarians coming and going along the many terraces along the sea front.

And so you see that not only can you surive a crisis it can even bring new and beautiful things. Plomari has still not been discovered by masses of tourists and so it is a pearl of the south coast, where the Greeks will no doubt put their shoulders to the umpteenth crisis.

• Others say that the name of Plomari comes from the plant Euphorbia Charasias that grows in abundance around Plomari. The Greek word for this plant is Flomos. Old Plomarians remember that the little town used to be called Flomari, named after this plant, and which later became Plomari.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010