Saturday, 17 April 2010

About plants that can destroy armies

(rhododendron luteum)

In spring Lesvos is just one big public garden full of wild flowers, but I already said that once. Last week I wrote that the flower of flowers is the orchid, but the nicest spring-attraction here on the island — and each year I have to mention them — is the rivers of yellow rhododendrons that flow though the dark pine woods on the slopes of the mountains between Parakila, Anemotia and Vatoussa.

These flowers are not only beautiful to look at, but they smell like divine nectar. When you walk through the woods in the West their heavy, sweet scent is so heavy in the fresh pine forest air that you could easily become intoxicated. As long as you only devour them with your nose you’ll be all right, but don’t ever try to taste their honey.

Around 400 BC the two sons of Darius II of Babylon, Artaxerxes and Cyrus, got in a fight over who should inherit their father’s power after his death. Artaxerxes won and banished Cyrus to a remote part of Greece. There Cyrus gathered an army together and went back to Babylon to try and take power from his brother. He did not succeed, he was killed and his army defeated. Xenophon, a kind of war correspondent-historian who traveled with Cyrus, put the army back together and traveled back to where they came from. On the way they had to fight other enemies and in the country of Colchis they were attacked. They managed to break through a small division of soldiers and continued their way towards Trebizond in the district of Pontus. When they felt safe they stopped to rest and gather food. They found honey and ate plenty of it. That same night all soldiers — about ten thousand in all were left — became ill and behaved like they were drugged. It was lucky the Army of Colchis did not find them then, otherwise they all would have easily been killed. Centuries later scientists guessed that they probably ate from the yellow rhododendron luteum, also known as rhododendron Pontica because it’s in the Pontus area where they grow in profusion.

Honey can be dangerous if you buy it from a beekeeper that does not know the plants — there are many poisonous species which vary from slightly dangerous to very toxic. One of the best known, and very poisonous in Greek history is hemlock. It is famous thanks to the death of one of the greatest philosophers. In 399 BC Socrates was accused of neglecting the Gods who were ruling in his time and for speaking about ‘new gods’. He was judged to be a bad influence on youngsters and was given the choice of exile for life from Greece or death by drinking a cup of poison. Socrates chose the latter path and it is said that the poison he drank came from the plant we call hemlock.

Hemlock (Conium maculatum) looks a little like chervil and can grow up to two meters high. It is an inconspicuous plant in the Greek landscape. Its juice however contains nerve gas that in a small quantity can be fatal. So you better stay away from conium maculatum, or hemlock.

But tell that to the birds! They have no problem eating hemlock seeds and seem to like them without suffering any ill effects. However, there is a problem if the birds that eat hemlock seeds are themselves eaten — by humans. On Chios some people who ate partridges shot during a hunting expedition fell ill and after an investigation it was found that, yes, it was the seeds of the hemlock that caused their illness.

Whenever a volcano erupts and spews huge clouds of ash, stone and glass in the air that endanger airplanes, it is understandable that they have to be they grounded. So maybe you might think it might be forbidden to hunt birds on Chios in case they are toxic — so in that case, better to leave them in the air than bring them to ground, or the dinner table? But no, the people of Chios want the impossible. Like trying to catch the dangerous volcanic clouds up in the sky, they now want to destroy all the hemlock on their island.

Everybody who has been to Chios or any other Greek island knows that it would be an impossible task. Who would go and eradicate the plants on the islands and regions that are uninhabited? Would not the birds that fly there bring back hemlock seeds? And who could guarantee that no birds from Lesvos ever made a little trip to Chios, having consumed a swathe of hemlock seeds? Should the airspaces between the two islands be closed to bird traffic, or wouldn’t it be simpler to just but a ban on hunting them?

We must hope that no beekeeper falls in love with the magnificent yellow rhododendrons and puts his beehives close to their wonderful flowers to get that marvelous aroma in his honey. If that happened the people of Lesvos might then have to go off into the volcanic regions of the island—where the abundant crops of wild rhododendrons can be found— to pull up or destroy the flowers with weedicide. That would be a great loss of one of the most beautiful attractions of Lesvos in the spring.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

Friday, 9 April 2010

Jumping rope with Fox Testicles Ice cream

(An Ophrys)

Every spring I am flabbergasted by the profusion of wild flowers that grow here on the island. It starts with the very colourful anemones, which sometimes come on as early as December. Then follow poppies, shaggy cistus, daffodils and soon all the fields, hills and mountain slopes are full of all kind of flowers. Tourists who come here only in summer will never have any idea what the dry earth they see brought forth before they arrived!.

The flower of flowers has to be the wild orchid, known to many specialists and collectors all over the world. It is not only the fragile beauty that makes the orchid into a collectors item for many people, it is also the fact that the flower is able to change itself, a quality that is unique in the modern world of plants.

For example, the fertilization biology of the Ophrys, the Bee-Orchid, is fascinating. Many kinds have developed a scent, a structure and colour pattern that mimics the female bee, wasp or beetle and this is how they attract the males of those same insects. The flower gets fertilized when the male tries to copulate with the flower...

On Lesvos there are about 60 to 100 different kinds of wild orchid, (opinions vary), and when you look at all the varieties you can understand just how a bee might make a mistake — because the differences are very hard to see. It is quite easy for a bee to accidentally visit an Ophrys that does not look at all like the right kind of female bee, but if the natural order of things proceed as they should, from this cross-fertilization a new variety or sub species is born.

Orchids don’t only drive bees crazy, but butterflies and their collectors too, as well as a group of people which believes an orchid is an aphrodisiac. The sexual implication is right there in the name because in Greek: orchis means testicle, and if you dig up an orchid you will find that it sprouts of two tiny bulbs (or tubers) which suspended from the stalk like a pair of balls.

It was Theophrastus (371–287 BC), the famous scientist from Lesvos, and often called the first botanist, that gave this eccentric flower the name of orchis. Some hundreds of years later a famous Greek doctor Pedanios Dioskoridis (40-90 n.Chr) wrote in his ‘De materia medica’ that Theophrastus was right to say the orchid could stimulate the sexual appetite of a man.

To that end the most important product of the orchid is called salep which comes from the Arab word for fox testicles, in Greek salepi. You dig up the bulbs, dry them in the sun until they are hard and then grate or rub them, until they turn into a fine flour. One of the secrets of the French chocolate maker and Royal warrant holder Sulpice Debauve, who had several famous chocolate shops in Paris around the beginning of the 19th century, was that he used salep in his chocolate.

Salep is also the name of a once famous drink which is made by heating milk and sugar with it until it becomes creamy and is served with a sprinkle of cinnamon. In the 17th and 18th century, before the hype for coffee and tea spread through Europe, the drink was really popular, especially in the Middle East and Turkey, and even England. For a long time in Greece and Turkey it was sold on the streets and in kafenions. People who could not afford coffee, would drink salep before starting work because it had a similar stimulating effect.

Nowadays it is said that maybe you can still find some street vendors with salep in the streets of Athens, but in general it has disappeared from Greek life, mainly because wild orchids are protected flowers in Europe, and making salep is prohibited. However, in Turkey its consumption continues as before, especially during winter, but also in summer Turks like to take dondurma with it, a kind of ice cream made with cream, milk, sugar and mastic mixed with salep until it becomes a gummy kind of mass. It is so thick and gooey it has to be eaten with a knife and fork and so elastic that you can tear it into long ropes you could use for skipping!

However the popularity of dondurma ice cream is a headache for nature conservationists. To make 1 kilo of salep you need at least a thousand orchid tubers! So can you imagine how many were needed in the days when Turkey exported hundreds tons of salep. Nowadays the trade is forbidden, but even though shepherds and other collectors warn that it’s getting ever harder to find the orchids, the Turks are still avid consumers of their dondurma, and are unlikely to give it up. However, it’s a real possibility that wild orchids will completely disappear from the Turkish landscape.

The major quality of salep is that it makes milk or water thicker. Probably, the salep sold nowadays contains only a small amount of orchid flour mixed in with cornstarch and vanilla. The orchid bulb has such a fragrant taste that it does not matter too much if you amplify it with cornstarch.

Dondurma ice cream does still exist in Greece — called Kaimaki Ice. To make it (and spare the orchids) here’s a recipe for Phoney Fox Testicle Ice Cream: using cornstarch, vanilla powder and some rose or orange-blossom water (and you need an ice cream machine).

3 cups of cream
3 cups of whole milk
1,25 cup of sugar
3 tbs. Cornstarch
1 tsp. rose or orange-blossom water
1 tsp. Vanilla powder
1/2 tsp. Mastic powder

Mix the cornstarch with some milk. Heat the other milk with the sugar and then add the mixed cornstarch and the other ingredients. Stir everything while it cooks until it becomes like a cream. Let the substance cool off and make ice with it in the ice cream machine.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Iron and concrete

(The new parking place at Molyvos)

Most of the time Easter means the beginning of the summer season here on the island. This year however, Greek Easter - the same date this year as the Catholic and Anglican Easter - is so early that it will really won’t be the beginning of summer. Normally most hotels try to be open by Easter: they do the gardens, refresh the rooms and tourists are all welcome. But this year only a few hotels are ready to open for Easter. Not many Greek visitors are coming because of the financial crisis. The municipalities try hard to get their roads and amenities ready for Easter, but for them this year it’s also too early.

I have to report that the municipality of Molyvos has not been lucky in this respect, especially with the road to Eftalou which suffered so much storm damage during winter. Sometimes you will see a bulldozer or truck shuffling rocks on to the road, but that hasn’t helped much. Last week our notorious west wind started blowing again so it looks like the municipality has one of the 12 labours of Herakles to perform, because waves have again pounded the boulevard and, will, I am sure, have undone some of the repair work.

The municipality seems to be a bit luckier with their work on a new parking lot, although that won’t be ready before Easter either. The town of Molyvos is a protected area and at the foot of its hill, just behind the school there used to be a beautiful parking space, a kind of field with olive trees where everybody could park their car. I thought it functioned very well but the municipality had different ideas, so the whole area is to be covered with concrete, and they are even building a huge wall in order to make a higher field as well as a parking space. Until now they have kept the olive trees, but you have to ask yourself why are they spending so much money on a parking place in such a time of crisis?

The municipality of Lisvori has no money left to realize all their projects. And so the refurbishing of the Hot Springs has also come to a halt. The mayor however has kept to his word about parking facilities so now the huge concrete apron in front of the two hot springs is covered with tiles. But the hotel and the baths have been left as they were: the improvements to the baths are not finished because the Archeological Service stopped the work because it did not have the permits.

The municipality of Petra is also taking part in the competition to see which town can make the island uglier. The new priest of the famous Maria Glikofilousa church on the rock that towers above the little seaside village has decided to make it easier for the many pilgrims that come every year to climb its 114 steps: along the path that winds over the rocks to the church he has placed a huge and ugly fence. Maybe you might think: everybody his own taste. But Petra’s beautiful eye catching Byzantine relic hardly deserves to have the kind of fence you normally see around a building site. Come Easter the thousands of cameras that will be pointed at the rock and its church will not be capturing images of family members proudly climbing all the stairs; all that will be seen will be the fences!

But at least the priest of the Maria Glikofilousa Church will be ready to receive churchgoers on the Saturday to Sunday night when most Greeks will attend the Easter midnight mass. But the parking lot at Molyvos and the coastal road in Eftalou will not be ready and will probably be the causes of some entertaining chaos.

Every year we wonder if everything will be ready for the summer season by the middle of April. And every year again we are surprised that many Greeks succeed in fulfilling their version of those labours of Herakles. However, this year, I am sure the above named projects will not be ready.