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!

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