Friday, 30 July 2010


(Local cheeses in the Cooperation shop of Molyvos)

The Dutch have the surname ‘Cheese heads’ (Kaaskoppen), not because Holland is the biggest cheese producer, that’s France, nor is it because they are the world’s biggest cheese eaters —the Greeks are, but, there’s a nice explanation: in earlier times, the wooden casks in which cheese was made were used during wartime as helmets. So when you had a cheese cask on your head, you became a Cheese head!

The biggest cheese eaters do not have a surname to indicate their cheese consumption. And I don’t think that they used to defend their lands with cheese casks on their heads. But they have defended the cheese that makes up two thirds of Greek cheese consumption: feta. There used to be ‘Turkish feta’, ‘Danish feta’ and lots of other countries produced feta. However since 2002 the European Union ruled that feta was a specific Greek cheese that could not be produced as such in any other country. The Danes argued against this saying their feta was made from cows’ milk, while the Greek feta is officially a mix of milk from sheep with 30% from goats.

The Swedes also were not too particular with their dairy products. For years they marketed a ‘Turkish’ yoghurt on the market, with packaging showing a smiling Greek farmer. This Greek became pretty angry when he heard that he was being represented as a Turk and recently he received a large indemnity.

Choosing feta in a Dutch supermarket has become a lot easier thanks to this European regulation, but here in Greece and on a feta-island like Lesvos, it’s still difficult. Lots of villages produce their own feta and so the taste can vary a lot, from creamy and soft to quite spicy. The biggest producers are around Mandamados, Skalochori and Vatoussa, but as a lot of feta is also made at home, for local consumption (or for the restaurant) and it’s always a nice surprise when you are served a super tasty homemade feta.

A real treat is the soft cheese that I used to call ‘fresh feta’ because I did not know it was altogether a different kind of cheese: mizithra. Fresh mizithra is eaten from just a few hours to a few days after it is produced and is made from sheep, goat or cow milk. Dried mizithra is saltier and good for grating.

Another popular cheese is graviera, which takes at least five months to ripen. It is a hard cheese and I find it often too dry, so I just use for grating. The Greeks use a semi-hard cheese called kasseri, made mainly from sheep milk mixed with a little goat.

Greek cheeses are mostly eaten young and although you will find some spicy fetas, there’s no old cheese like they have in Holland. But I did discover an export cheese made in Lesvos: ladotiri, also called kefalaki. It is made of – what else – sheep and goat milk and has to ripen about three months but the difference is ladotiri is preserved in olive oil. It comes in a conical shape and although it’s not a Lesvorian tradition, but I learned a trick from somebody from the island: leave ladotiri for a year in oil somewhere dark, and you get a super ‘old’ cheese, as tasty as the ones they make in Holland.

I must admit that one of the things I miss in the Greek kitchen is a wide variety of cheeses. Just hearing the word France makes my mouth watering because then I have to think at Camembert, Chaume or Roquefort. Greece however does have quite some different cheeses, but they are hard to find together. All the local cheese made in the different regions and islands in Greece like the metsovone from Epidaurus, or the soft chalumi from Cyprus, are not exported to the Greek islands, only to the markets in big cities like Athens and Thessaloniki.

That is why most tourists think there’s nothing but simple feta here on Lesvos. Which is wrong. The feta saganaki and garides saganaki are made with feta, just like the cheese on top of a choriatiki (Greek salad) is feta. But tiri saganaki, is a baked slice of hard cheese, like kefalotiri or ladotiri, coated with breadcrumbs, sometimes even served flambĂ©. The cheese grated over different dishes or to make moussaka is mostly kasseri or an old mizithra.

There is no Greek meal without cheese. Which is both healthy and tasty. Maybe there should be more information about them so tourists can find out about the different cheeses made here on Lesvos. I have a nice idea for that: create a Sheep Light Show, where during the performance pieces of cheese can be tasted. Then the tourists will have a lovely evening (just like the farmers). How? Take a look at the linked video (Extreme Sheep LED Art) and I am sure that instead of a Mona Lisa, the sheep could create a nice collection of ladotiris.

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

Friday, 23 July 2010

The Oracle of Lesvos

(The Oracle Cat Molly)

Soccer madness is over. The few balconies that were decorated with the colour orange here on the island have been stripped of their flags and banners and the orange t-shirts have mostly disappeared from the streets.

I am not a big soccer fan, but I did find it interesting to read what was happening around the world championship. I was pretty amused by all the stories written in the run-up to the final between Holland and Spain about oracles predicting the result. And what oracles they were! There was a German octopus called Paul, which got all Germany’s results correct and then accurately foretold the demise of the Dutch team. The Dutch better believed his rival, a Dutch octopus called Pauline, who was off course predicting a victory for Holland, just like an Indonesian parakeet.

The ancient art of prediction has never faded far from human society. Besides the horoscopes in the papers, all over the world you still find prophets who will read your future in a glass bowl or from the tarot cards (or whatever).

In Greece they will read the coffee grounds in the bottom of your cup. When you’ve have finished drinking, just turn the cup upside down, wait until the sludge trickles down the sides and then reverse the cup, and see what pattern emerges around the inside wall of the cup.

In ancient times a simple cup of coffee would not do. You had to visit a real oracle, mostly located in a monastery, and first you had to make offerings to put the relevant deity in an obliging mood. The most famous oracle was at Delphi, in the temple of Apollo, where the priestess Pythia —a medium between the people and the allknowing god — told you what awaited you and (if you understood it correctly) you could then act on the advice.

It is said that on Lesvos too there was an oracle consulted by people who came from all corners of the ancient world. When the head of Orpheus was washed was upon the Lesvorian shore, it was brought to a local temple of Apollo (it is as also said the oracle was in a cave), from where the head started to tell people their future; or it did so until Apollo got a little angry with the dead musician who, as well as continuing to sing songs after his death was now foretelling the future. So he made sure the prophetic of Orpheus was never heard again.

I have to say that there’s a lot of difference between hearing the future foretold by a mystery priestess, the head of a mythological demi-god or an octopus.

Actually the octopus has a relatively large brain and scientists have suggested it is an intelligent animal. Researchers on the coast of North Sulawesi and on Bali have seen octopuses come on to the beach and pick up discarded halves of coconuts. They dig them out of the sand, gather them up in their tentacles and like huge dancing spiders trip back into the sea. They then use the hard coconut shells to reinforce their undersea lairs, the hiding spots where they retreat when danger comes near.

Scientists can try to prove that octopodi are clever, that they can hear and learn, but that would be hardly enough of a reason to believe that they are interested enough in soccer to be able to predict the results of world cup games; or that maybe they are in communication with the god Apollo who tells them what will happen in the future.

Maybe we had better listen to animals which have had a closer relationship with humans and, in some cultures, were praised like gods, as were cats of ancient Egypt. I too have my own oracle: my cat Molly. Just before the first game that Holland played in South Africa, Molly scratched her ear open and there was blood everywhere, so much that at first I thought she had been attacked (and even killed) by the local dogs. But it was just the upper tip of her ear that was the cause of the bloody mess.

Some days later — by which time I had cleaned the blood from our tablecloths and chairs — Holland played its second game and my poor Molly scratched her ear again, so that once more I had to take to the scrubber, soap and water hose to clean up the mess, while on the television, Dutch supporters went mad with joy because Holland was again on the merge of a victory. So when Holland’s third game came I thought it might be wise to put my nice clean table cloth out of the way, a wise decision as it turned out, because although the fountain did not flow as long and fast as the first time, Molly’s ear bled again and sure enough, after she had made her third self-sacrificial offering of blood, Holland won again. This ritual went on and on until there came the final game and Molly once more started her scratching. But this time there was no blood and, as we all know, the Dutch lost to Spain.

It was only after the events that I realised that it was only Molly’s bleeding ear that was predicting victories for Holland. So, as far as I am concerned, she is definitely an oracular cat.

Molly got through her ordeals away from the glare of the international publicity colossus, and is now back to her normal life. But I do wonder what octopus Paul is up to these days. Some business people from Galicia in Spain wanted to buy him, remove him from his aquarium in Oberhausen, to become a food festival mascot. But he has not been allowed to emigrate and I think that is a good thing. Imagine if he were swapped for a Galician octopus and cooked into one of those fabulous Spanish paellas. I am sure Apollo would not like that.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

When the pine trees still had a face

It is difficult to say which trees are in the majority on the island of Lesvos: olive trees or pine trees. The value of the olive is obvious to everybody, but what pine trees give (except their cooling shade during hot days) is an old story that not everybody knows.

The fruit of the pine is the cone and the seeds that are hidden between the plates of each cone are edible. However, they are often so small that nobody bothers to harvest them, except for the fruit of the Stone (or Umbrella) Pine which has seeds big enough to collect (and sell) for consumption as pine nuts.

It is a pity that Lesvos is not full of these Stone Pines, otherwise their nuts would have found a place in the Lesvorian kitchen. The trees that cover the middle of the island around Mt Olympos are Aleppo Pines (Pinus Halepensis), although scientists say it is a subspecies or perhaps even quite a different pine: the Turkish Pine (Pinus bruta). In the west of the island you can also find Black pines (Pinus negra).

Pine trees provide wood, although it is not hardwood but in Lesvos, unlike the Amazon region, wood lumbering is practised with sustainable techniques and it seems clear that people here realize how important the island’s pine forests are to the environment.

They also are part of Lesvorian history. During the Turkish occupation wood and also resin were taken from pine trees. A by-product of resin is tar, an ideal material for waterproofing wooden ships.

Until the big ‘exchange’ between Turkish and Greek population in 1923, nomads called Giourouks used to live in the woods around Agiasos. They lived in tents and made a living selling firewood and other wood products.

From the Twenties on forests were rented to companies that wanted to harvest the resin. They hired local workers who were glad to get a job because there was a lot of poverty in those days.

Sometimes you might still see a little square bucket hanging on a tree trunk, but the period when the resin trade boomed here was from the Twenties to the mid Sixties - when suddenly it stopped. It was not because the trees had been over used or worn out, but because there were no workers left. People on Lesvos got tired of living off the land and the poverty of life in Greece and they emigrated in big numbers for cities on the mainland or to South-Africa, South-America, Australia or the United States.

But half a century ago life was quite different in mountain villages like Ampeliko. From April to October many people inhabited the pine forests and collected resin, six or seven days a week. And even when they ate spoiled food or drank bad water, they managed to keep themselves and their families alive. They lived in small huts, made of low stone or wooden walls, with roofs made from tree branches, and beds from the soft pine planks hewn from the trees. For a door they might have nothing more than a piece of cloth hanging across the hut’s entrance.

As now there were policies regulating the harvesting of trees and the collection of resin, which could only be done by people who knew the skills. They used a special wood cutting tool known as an ‘adze’ and when you made a good cut, the veins through which the resin in the trees flows, did not close but stayed open. The cut had to be of a certain height and depth, otherwise the tree would be damaged, and anyone making the wrong kind of cut had to pay a penalty! The cut itself is well named ‘the face’ and after the first cut, there are two more which scrape off a layer of the face to open new veins of resin.

Because of the years of emigration most small mountain villages now have very small populations, and even when people still lived there the villages were often empty because people were either away collecting resin or, in winter, working in the olive groves.

The Greek moviemaker Irini Stathi has made a documentary about a group of old villagers from Ambeliko: ‘The Face of the Pine Trees’. It is a valuable record of a way of life that is in danger of being forgotten.

In it old people tell their stories about working for the resin and how the forests were rented out and everyone worker was allocated trees, according to their ability. A woman tells how a supervisor took away her adze because she had made a wrong cut and she had to beg him to give it back, asking him to make her pay a fine instead of taking away her working tool so she could continue to make a living. Others recall that during the civil war guerrillas lived in the woods and that they were afraid of them (although it was really the soldiers they should have been scared of). Everyone in the film agrees: they were hard times, but they were happy then, whereas now, although the terrible poverty has gone, everybody is complaining. One old grandmother remembers how the mountains used be full of the sound of music, because when the resin workers started their day they sang, and again when they finished. An old man adds: “Now even the birds don’t sing anymore”…

The collected resin was brought on a donkey to Megalo Limni, later on to Achladeri and even to Panagiouda (besides Mytlini) to be transported by boat to different factories. At many a place in the forests you will still find traces of this life: old huts, tanks where the resin was collected and even an old taverna!.

The most well known product of pine resin is of course retsina, a wine made for thousands of years, which matures in wooden barrels that are rubbed with resin. Nowadays more alternative (and better) wines are available on the Greek market and they threat to take over from the traditional resinated wine. More and more people now seem to dislike drinking retsina but they are wrong. I do not think that the days of the singing woods when the pine tree had a face will come back, but a tasty glass of retsina is just as essential to Greek life as feta and should not be missed.

*Irini Stathi wrote a number of books and publications about Greek movies, she edited an amount of movie productions and she worked some 10 years for the great, Greek film director Theo Angelopoulos. Nowadays she works as an assistent professor at the Aegean University at the department of Cultural Technology and Communication.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Toc toc, who is knocking?

One day I heard an anguished mewing coming from somewhere in the bushes. I love cats so I immediately thought it was a kitty in distress. So for hours I talked sweet words into those bushes, hoping it would come out. But nothing did.

I could not forget it, and when I heard the mewing again I went right into these impenetrable and prickly bushes still hoping to find this cat. There was no cat to at all, and the only animal that was there, was a tortoise who looked at me suspiciously. Tortoises make a mewing sound and when they are after females, males might even fight with each other and if you hear a ‘toc toc toc’ sound it’s caused when their shells bounce against each other. When they climb on a female and are making love, their tongue comes way out of their mouth and they puff away as if they are climbing Mt Lepetimnos.

A dull ‘ploink’ would probably have been the sound heard when a tortoise landed upon the head of the Greek writer Aeschylos (ca. 525 BC – ca. 456 BC), probably dropped by an eagle. The story goes that an oracle prophecied that Aeschylos would die that day when his home collapsed on him, so knowing that prediction, Aeschylos spent the day out of the house in nature. But the oracle got it right: Aeschylos got killed by the ‘house’ of a tortoise.

Hermes, the Greek god of commerce and messengers of the rest of the gods, extracted yet more sounds from a tortoise. It is said that he made the first lyre out of the shield of a tortoise which he spanned with strings and after he had pilfered some cattle belonging to Apollo, the wonderful sound of the lyre so beguiled the great god that he let Hermes keep the cows - in exchange for the lyre.

The Greek poet Aesopos (aka Aesop ca. 620 BC – ca. 560 BC) was mostly known for his fables, which later inspired writers like Jean de La Fontaine. One of these fables is of course ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’. When you drive over Lesvorian roads and you suddenly see a tortoise shuffling across your path, you cannot not believe it could beat a hare in a running race. However in the fable, according to Aesopos, the hare was so arrogant he thought he could afford to take a cat nap (which in Dutch is actually a ‘hare nap’), while the tortoise struggled slowly behind, but he felt into a deep sleep and the tortoise was easily first over the finishing line.

It’s not too well known that tortoises and turtles are both part of Lesvorian fauna, but they are really very common. On land you might easily come across a Spur-thighed tortoise. A Marginate tortoise is more rare, and you can only tell it apart from the Spur-thighed tortoise by the dark triangles on the shield that protects its belly. Scientists however dispute whether or not the Marginate tortoise is indigenous to Lesvos.

The tortoise can not only be very slow (although they know how to run when they have to) they are also pretty lazy. Besides their extended winter hibernation, they relax in summer too, often taking long deep sleeps under shady bushes. So spring is the time you are most likely to spot them.

However there are easier ways to meet turtles or terrapins on the island, even when summer has already started. You just have to find a pond or slow flowing river and there’s a big chance that you will hear little puffing sounds made by the terrapins as they slide into the water. With their necks like extended telescopes stretching out above the surface they come to see who is disturbing them. Most likely these will be Caspian turtles, because the European Pond terrapin does not show itself so often. These turtles are also a bit lazy: they love to sun themselves and relax for hours just next to the water.

Looking at turtles has even become a tourist attraction here on Lesvos and these water creatures have become fond of bread-feeding spectators. When you come on the road from Kalloni to Polichnitos and you cross a bridge just before Achladerie, if you stop, get out and stand on the bridge, turtles will race through the water from all directions towards you, as if they are screaming: we want bread, we want bread! Brave ones even climb out of the water and when one succeeds others follow, scrambling over each other, all trying to be first in line for the food they think you have brought.

The pond along the road from Skoutaros to Vatoussa, just a little before Skalochori, also has these curious turtles that come and beg for bread. But they have to share the place with cats, that for some reason also like to spend the summer around this pond. You think maybe they like turtle soup?

At Lambou Mili when you take the road towards Agiasos you will find another great viewing spot on a bridge over a river where you will discover not only turtles in the water but fish that are coloured like trout, and as big too, and you wonder if maybe they are trout. Every time we pass this place, I certainly get an appetite for trout. And even though the local Greeks say these fish are not edible, I still think they might be trout, because often Greeks will say such things even though they don’t really know. But we have never tried to catch one of these fish to see whether or not they really are trout. I would never eat turtle soup but a nice trout, wrapped up in foil and popped on the grill might inspire me to invent a lyre, just from the sheer joy of having one on my plate.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ 2010 Smitaki

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Hello, where is my beach?!

(the coastal damaged road at Eftalou)

Here on Lesvos you can make a choice from all kinds of beaches: small and hidden, or big and busy; they are covered with small or big pebbles, there are sandy beaches and some are cloaked in thick layers of sea weed. There are beaches just beside the main road of the coastal villages; for some you have to drive far away and others can barely to be reached on foot. Plenty of choices, I would say.

There are also beaches on Lesvos formed from ‘beachrock’. This is a kind of flat stone formation at the high tide mark. It looks like eroded rough cement and the first time I saw some, I thought the Greeks were so crazy and careless with their rubbish they even threw old cement on their beaches! At Melinda there’s a long line of this ‘cement’ that looks like a crumbled path. I imagine that in earlier times people from Plomari might have come there to parade their finery along the sea shore: women in long white lace dresses with parasols to protect them from the sun and high heels tip-tapping on the cement.

But in previous times Greeks were not that enamoured of beaches. The sea was where you went fishing, children liked to play in it or, if they wanted to cool off, women might just step into the sea fully clothed and stand there gossiping with each other as if they were in the neighbour’s kitchen. So, even though the azure Aegean has always been within reach on this island, swimming in it was never a common pastime. People certainly paraded along the shore, but they preferred to linger high and dry along the boulevard or the quays in the harbor.

However, the cement I had assumed was dumped there turns out to be a purely natural phenomenon: the sea ‘cements’ itself. Under certain conditions its action turns sand, stones and shells into these flat stone masses and they can be kilometres long and metres thick. I have a vivid memory of the beach at Drotta with a complete wall towering alongside the rock of its ‘cemented’ stone.

Here on the island they have been investigating the relationship between tourism and beachrock and it seems tourists don’t like it, one reason: it becomes slippery and dangerous to walk on – you can quite easily step on it and fall. There are even tourists who offered to donate money so the formation of these stones could be stopped! But they don’t really avoid beachrock beaches – they just choose a spot to enter the water where there isn’t any. But I imagine beachrock can be useful. It stops beaches disappearing under the water.

The beaches disappearing is a problem. For example, Eresos (in the south) is losing its beaches to the sea because of a new beach rock ‘dam’ formed by the sea. Here in the north of the island some beaches are shrinking before our very eyes. At Molyvos in front of the Olive Press hotel the beach used to be much wider and you easily pass whole days there. Now, for that experience they either have to go to the beaches at Eftalou or those further along the coast, even beyond the Hotel Delphinia.

After the nasty violent winds that struck us in the winter and spring (big surf-like rollers were here even last week) the beaches continue to be shrink and some at Eftalou have completely disappeared. Hello, where is my beach?! My own little stretch of beach is totally gone. Now the water laps gently at the walls of the road which still has not been repaired after the mighty waves that broke some of it away and pulled it down into the sea.

I was hoping that a new storm would bring back the sand and pebbles, but I am afraid that this is just an idle wish. As the sea level slowly rises it’s eating our beaches away.

How good life must haven been when the sea level was dropping: you would see more and more beach appearing but now it looks like we will have to crowd on to beaches that are getting smaller and smaller. Imagine if it were to happen to a famous British resort like Brighton where thousands of people come to the beach, it would be a complete disaster. But I will not complain because life at the beach on Lesvos is so quiet. The number of tourists has decreased - many Greeks don’t have the money to come the islands and some foreign tourists are afraid of the strikes and bombs in Athens.

So, even though our beaches have become smaller, we continue as usual: the local Greeks lie in the shade of the trees while their offspring play at the high tide mark and the foreign tourists lie shimmering in the sun to catch some colour. The sea itself has not really changed. It still embraces you with its warm and transparent water. I’d rather have a diminished beach with ‘cement’ beachrock along the coast than an offshore oil well leaking into the sea. When such a disaster strikes you have the right to complain for years.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010