Saturday, 23 October 2010

From what fruit took Eve a bite?


The Tree of Knowledge, Good and Evil or Forbidden Fruit stood in the Garden of Eden, where, according to the Bible’s book of book Genesis the first people lived: Adam and Eve. However, they were expelled from paradise because Eve could not restrain herself from eating the ‘forbidden fruit’.

Historians keep asking themselves: from what fruit did Eve take the bite? Was it an apple, a grape, a pomegranate, a fig or maybe a quince?

These historians are always busy wondering about fruit: what were the mythological golden apples that grew in the famous gardens of the Hesperides? These were the ones Herakles had to steal (but first he had to kill the dragon which was guarding them).

Aphrodite threw a golden apple amongst the guests at a wedding to which she was not invited, thus (indirectly) setting off the Trojan War. She also gave three golden apples to young Hippomenes who used them to defeat the goddess Atalanta during a foot race. Atalanta had to marry the man who could beat her, but when Hippomenes dropped the apples (one by one) she couldn’t resist stopping to pick them up, and so lost and had to marry him.

The question remains: were all these mythical apples from the garden of Eden, the Hesperides or the ones thrown by Aphrodite real, or were they made of gold, or were they really oranges or, as some people believe, quinces?

Lesvos has just had its first serious autumn rain, a blessing for the olives as some trees are so heavy with fruit they were desperate for water. The figs have all gone, but a few unpicked grapes are withering on their vines. The first chestnuts are falling, but most remarkable are the yellow-gold coloured quinces that you see everywhere around the island and yet few people ever pick them.

Through in western Europe and north America the quince is a forgotten fruit. It originally came from the Caucasus, and centuries before Christ it was known in Arab and Greek kitchens, and later in the Roman kitchens. The Roman cook and gastronome Marcus Gavius Apicius describes several quince dishes in De Re Coquinaria, which is maybe the oldest recipe book we now know.

However, the quince is not such an easy fruit to cook, which may explain why in the era of fast food it is not popular. If Eve really did take a bite from a quince she would have needed strong teeth, because it is like concrete if try and eat it straight from the tree. Botanists think there may have been a softer version in ancient times, because the one we know can only be eaten and enjoyed once it’s cooked. It’s taste is somewhere between an apple and a pear but it also has a magic fragrance. As well as a delicacy the quince was often used as an air refresher!

In ancient Greece, the quince was a symbol of love and people would throw quinces at newlyweds setting off in their carriage - and the pair were supposed to eat at least one to sweeten their breath. The bride then counted the pips to see how many children she would bear - a strange tradition because a quince has so many pips you wouldn’t wish that many children on any woman. The Romans also thought the quince was a symbol of love and gave them when they got engaged.

None of these customs are remembered now; the quince has lost its reputation as a good luck token and has even been forgotten as a tasty fruit and so is not much harvested in Greece. Unlike walnuts, grapes and olives, quinces are left hanging on their trees.

It is said that Charlemagne introduced the quince to France and Germany. In 812 in his Capitulare de Villis he ordered that everywhere in his empire gardens should be made to grow vegetables and fruit trees and the quince was amongst the names of seventy plants he listed. In France they still make and enjoy a beautiful quince liqueur - liqueur de coing.

The Portuguese used to love quinces otherwise we might not have had marmalade. The Portuguese name for quince is marmelo and the original marmalade was quince jam. The quince we know today - Cydonia oblonga – is named after the ancient city of Kydonia in Crete, now called Chania. The English used to make excellent jellies and jams from quinces, but, perhaps because of the cooler climate, they are not easy to find in England.

A quince tree loves warmth but is also is pretty resistant to cold - an ideal fruit for the Mediterranean climate, but a nightmare for cooks who have forgotten how to preserve fruit.

Last week a friend came with a big box full of them. I was a bit alarmed because I know how difficult it is to make them into a preserve. Actually, because they are so hard, cutting them up into slices is quite dangerous: you could easily chop off a piece of finger!

However the rewards are very sweet. Jam, jelly and liqueur are quite easy to make and as the Dutch expression goes: it’s like ‘an angel pissing on your tongue’. Here is an easy recipe for Persian quince jelly,

Peel the quinces and cut them in small parts. Put everything in a pan and add water until they are just covered. Add two cardamom seeds per quince. Cook until the fruit is soft (1–1.5 hours). Put the mixture in a cloth in a pan overnight so that all the juice comes out. In the morning weight the juice and add an equal weight of sugar then boil it until it thickens to a jelly. Pour into sterilised jars, close the jars and cool.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Send me a postcard, darling

(Portret of Theophilos at Karini)

When I was a child, there was no television and I could not yet read the papers, the first images I saw from far away exotic countries came with postcards. Do you remember pictures of Spanish dancers (with real fabric skirts!), a donkey with a straw hat, mountains and bright blue lakes, a Laplander in colourful costume or a group of Greek women dressed for dancing?

In those days the postman would often bring cards from friends or family on holidays, but these days the post box remains pretty empty and you only get cars for your birthday or at Christmas. I have to admit that long ago when I was on holiday I took a long list of friends and family with me to whom I had to send a card and spent at least an afternoon writing them all. Now we send emails or we phone to let the people at home know our holiday is going well.

So old postcards have now become collectors items and sometimes represent a little piece of history. You now can find such relics of old Lesvos - including black and white pictures of Mytilini, or Agiasos - on the internet.

Theophilos Chatzimichaeli (known as Theophilos) was a painter born around 1870 in Varia (close to Mytilini). He died in 1934.
Besides his artistic activity he worked as a doorman at the Greek Consulate in Izmir, as a sheperd in Pilion and in Volos he did all kinds of jobs. After spending some thirty years in foreign parts he returned to his home island where in the last five years of his life he painted walls, cafes and canvasses.

He was an eccentric man who was often teased by people. He loved history especially the great warrior heroes. At carnival times he regularly dressed in a traditional kilt, as Alexander the Great, one of his Macedonian soldiers, or a hero of the Greek war of independence (at the beginning of the nineteenth century).

He took all the work he could get and painted theatre designs for theatres, and, in exchange for a meal, would do a mural on the wall of a café. You can still see his work in Pillon and on Lesvos in some lost cafes. The most colourful part of his life was when he lived in a hollow tree at Karini, near Agiasos.

However, so much of his art perished, or was lost, what remains is worth a fortune and is well regarded by international art dealers. This month there is an exhibition of his work in the Benaki Museum in Kolonaki, Athens which has started people re-thinking Theophilos, the man, especially the long standing perception that his character was like his paintings – simple and naïve.

Already in his time there were postcards of the same subjects he painted in his ‘naïve’ style: people in traditional costume, rural scenes with shepherds, country girls or landscapes with villages which so often feature in his paintings. Art historian Maria Moschou, wrote an article for Athens Plus (October 1) in which she wonders whether he was so naïve. Maybe he simply knew that people liked to see heroes, street vendors or artisans.

I wonder what themes and subjects are popular these days? Besides beautifully photographed landscapes and city scenes there is a fashion for elderly Greek people with lined faces, long gone trades and crafts and, yes, people in traditional costumes which nobody wears any more. So if he been born a century later what would Theophilos have painted?

Would he have depicted cars travelling through the landscapes, or would he look for ones without signs of progress? Would he have painted scantily dressed tourists roaming the lanes of Molyvos and Petra, or would he has have depicted Albanian workers on building sites dusted with white cement, or maybe the old men sitting with their coffees all morning long in the cafenions? Would he have dared paint half naked women?

Stelios Kouniaris of Molyvos, a contemporary equivalent of Theophilos, is not worried by near nakedness or cars. His work is studded with such images, not big in the foreground, but like stray cats and dogs, they wander through his pictures.

Both the works of Theophilos and of Stelios Kouniaris present a colourful vision of Greek life - nice souvenirs to take home - but for the work of Theophilos you have to make do with postcards, unless you are a real art collector willing to spend a tidy sum on an original. Stelios Kouniaris has not yes been discovered by the art market and can still be bought for reasonable prices, although in the castle of Molyvos where he works, there are already some postcards of his work on display. Send me a postcard, now!
(for more information on Stelios Kouniaris, see: Epsilon art).

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

Thursday, 7 October 2010

The Greek – Chinese connection

The port of Piraeus

Greek politicians are happy: China wants to help Greece out of its economic crisis with huge projects including a major investment in the port of Piraeus. What’s more, Chinese tourists have chosen Greece as their favourite European destination.

In May this year, Turkish and Greek tourist agencies worked together to attract Chinese tourists to this region with a plan for twenty-five offices in Istanbul and Athens all aimed at Chinese visitors.

Even though Lesvos has a few Chinese inhabitants, a Chinese tourist is still a curiosity. Chinese residents have shops selling cheap clothing and sometimes you see them driving around in over-loaded old cars, but I bet they total no more than the fingers on your hands.

On Rhodes there are several Chinese restaurants but the only one here, in Mytilini, closed its doors years ago. Chinese on Lesvos? You will only find them in their cheap stores in Kalloni and Mytilini.

This sudden friendship between China and Greece is not so strange. Both countries are said to be the cradle of civilizations: Greece of western civilization, China of the east. A Greek archaeologist, Theresa Mitsopoulou, thinks that the Greeks originally came from China. It is conventional wisdom that they are descend from Indo-European people, but she claims they are Sino-European in origin.

Theresa did her studies in the 1960s and discovered many similarities between ancient Greek and Chinese cultures: in their languages, techniques of shipbuilding, the use of the snake as a symbol, or an amulet against the evil eye. Her theories were too controversial in Greece. No proud Greek could ever admit his roots were in China. However people who agree with Theresa are convinced that there are archaeological finds in Greece that confirm her theory: in particular the use of the undulating snake with the heart shaped face; the ships once built and designed in Santorini especially for shallow waters clearly resemble Chinese ships; and in the language there are several similarities such as the Greek word for wood - dasos - and the Chinese dashu which means ‘tall trees’, and the clincher: the Greek word for grandmother is Yiayia and in Chinese it is Yeye.

Besides being an archaeologist Theresa used to be the bestknown tourist guide in Athens. She speaks six languages including, of course, Chinese. Had she not decided, after thirty years climbing the Acropolis, that she was now too old to get up to the Parthenon, to give up being a tour guide, she would have been be the ideal companion for the coming flood of Chinese visitors.

For Chinese tourists visiting Lesvos there is good news. This week on Lesvos the authorities assembled about the permission to install a custom post in the harbour of Molyvos, so that cruise ship passengers could be processed there instead of Mytilini. At present they have to endure a ninety minute bus ride before they can see the wonderful medieval village of Molybos on the opposite side of the island from Mytilini (although the journey does take them through the island’s gorgeous landscape). To land them directly at the port of Molyvos is a very attractive proposition all round. Lots of cruise ships already pass close by on their way to Istanbul, so it’s hoped by the 2012 season they can drop their passengers in Molyvos - and who knows how many Chinese we will then be meeting?

And although there are similarities between the Greek and Chinese language, Chinese remains impenetrable to people who haven’t studied it. So, it’s probably a smart move if our school children started learning it soon - and shopkeepers too. Before you know it the Chinese might even buy Molyvos harbour. So I say Hyanying! - my first Chinese word and I think it says Welcome!

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

Friday, 1 October 2010

Hear the wind sweeping through the mills

(The wind turbines at Andissa)

One of the more powerful sounds you hear on the island is the wind in the trees, especially during storms. Sometimes you hear the winds arriving from far away and the noise made response by the trees varies a lot. Olive trees rustle with a high pitch, the fine needles of the pine forest make a much denser sound – like the booming of kettledrums – so when the winds blow you can enjoy very nice concerts.

In places where there are no trees but only hills and mountains to resist the wind, as in the desolate landscape of the West, some new instruments have recently joined the orchestra. This is the region where huge prehistoric sequoias once reached towards the sky, until thousands of years ago, when they were destroyed by volcanic eruptions. After a series of surveys and excavations some were revealed and displayed as the island’s famous Petrified Forest. But most of them are silent, buried in the earth, quiet witnesses to what once was an ear-splitting episode of natural music. Sequoias are the tallest trees in the world, up to more than a hundred metres! So imagine what play the wind must have made with them.

Nowadays the west of the island is an empty, undulating, hilly landscape, but it is still very appealing, because in the folds of the mountains you will find surprising green oases with woods and water falls, like at the mill of Krinelou, just above Eresos. And when you think of all the fossil trees still buried under your feet, you sense their connection with this otherwise mostly barren land.

However the emptiness is about to change. Driving from Andissa down towards Eresos and Sigri you will see the agents of that change: the wind turbines, huge modern windmills, installed on three hilltop ridges, a new forest of giants, which will eventually number over a hundred and fifty!

Wind turbines can be built even higher than the ancient sequoias– up to a 150 metres — but those around Andissa will be between about 50 and 80. Looking up from the foot of one these towers it’s difficult to judge its height. It is stabilised by huge pegs anchored deep in the ground, and during my visit the wind was blowing pretty strong and the blades were turning. Trees can be blown down by a gale and I felt a little anxious standing under that enormous colossus. Could it be blown down or lose a blade?

I counted about 25 towers altogether, each of which is said to generate two megawatts of electricity, and that, according to Wikipedia, would be enough for 2 000 American households. If you assume that a Greek household uses the same amount of energy, then the 25 wind turbines at Andissa could power 50 000 houses on the island. Lesvos has over the 90 000 inhabitants, so if you also assume there are two people in every household, these turbines could make enough for the whole island. The Rokas company has plans for 153 wind turbines altogether, which could supply 300 000 households. I do not know how much energy the factories and businesses use – and I don’t suppose sheep and goats consume much electricity – but it’s possible Lesvos could be self-sufficient from wind power, and even have enough left over to sell. I may have made miscalculated, and I don’t know a lot about this new green branch of energy generation, but standing under them, looking up at these impressive artificial trees frankly, I think wind turbine parks are a blight on the landscape!

The Netherlands is covered with them, so children in the future will probably take them for granted, but I don’t; although I don’t dislike them so much in the barren landscape of west Lesvos where they look as if they’ve always been, or like a monument to the long gone sequoias.

The sounds of west Lesvos will also change. The turbines have added a modern element to the symphony of winds: ‘vlaff-vlaff-vlaff’ go the blades, and sudden gust don’t break their steady rhythm. But how will it sound when the wind plays on all 153 mills? There will be some very modern new music generated by our very ancient landscape!

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki