Thursday, 25 November 2010

Shall we skip winter?

(the gulf of Kalloni)

This beautiful autumn seems endless. You can’t call it an Indian summer, because the humid nights, the fallen leaves and huge numbers of mushrooms are clear signs that it’s really autumn. However, every day the temperature climbs above 20°C and people are still swimming in the warm blue sea. Having lunch in the sunshine is also a treat: lots of Greeks and a few tourists are taking advantage of the conditions especially on Sundays and all the outdoor areas of the waterside restaurants that don’t close for winter are packed with people.

The olive harvest started early this year and most trees have lots of fruit. Everywhere you hear the ‘rickety-tick’ of the sticks people use to knock down the olives, and around the trees, people picking the olives off the ground. On the roads you meet cars loaded with sacks full on their way to the olive press where you can see them stacked in huge piles waiting to be processed. Sometimes you may even hear a vacuum cleaner being used to suck up the olives - by someone too tired or unwilling to bend down any more.

The light has a warm glow and it is great weather for walking. The trees which are shedding their leaves are beautiful and so are the scenes made by the rays of the sun. Up in the woods above Anemotia or Vatera, or in the forests around Agiasos, you will come across more cars, full of families, or just men and women, who stop and race into the woods with baskets to collect mushrooms. Their tracks are obvious because when they stop to check mushrooms for worms they cut them and chuck away the bits they don’t want - so like Tom Thumb you can follow the tracks of rejected mushrooms, but you won’t find any for yourself.

When there is no wind the gulfs of Gera and of Kalloni are like turquoise mirrors, their surfaces disturbed only by fishes gulping for a bit of fresh air. Small white clouds are reflected in the water, and at the salt lakes of Skala Polichnitou flamingos have returned to walk proudly on their long legs through the shallow water.

There are no shellfish on offer because there’s a ban on catching them - too much cadmium - although levels of salmonella, coliform and lead are said to be okay. Both fishermen and people who love to eat shellfish are disappointed.

However, the splendour of autumn has been spoiled by a fire at the Molyvos garbage dump. Unlucky the houses that are in the wrong wind direction, they have been shrouded in an evil smelling cloud and people have had to keep their doors and windows tight shut and you wouldn’t venture outside without covering your mouth and nose with a cloth - in such fine weather! The Mayor said it was not his decision and blamed farmers for the disaster. Throwing earth on the fire didn’t help and so for weeks we’ve had this stench. The Mayor has promised that next year there won’t be a problem because there will be a proper waste disposal plant. But who believes him? He is the last Mayor of Molyvos whose position disappears in January, after which the whole of Lesvos will have one municipal council, and only one mayor based in Mytilini. These are the moments when you don’t want to live on this island, as such a beautiful place is ruined by people who have no idea what to do with their garbage.

Each time rain is predicted the heap spontaneously bursts into flames - like today. Even though the forecast was bad, the day was splendid, except for the foul smell of burning plastic. A southerly wind chased the clouds high above the mountains but the rain stayed away. Thankfully the wind was strong enough to blow away the fumes and smells.

While I was walking and looking for mushrooms, I suddenly spied a delicious fat shoot of asparagus. So instead of chasing mushrooms I went after more asparagus and, sure enough, found more shoots that were too impatient to wait for spring.

The anemones are also in a hurry. A week ago I saw some already opening their buds and there are little fields full of them. How can we cope with all these people impatiently setting fire to the garbage and an environment that won’t wait for spring?

I love the winter. I love to sit near the fire as the rain drums against the windows and the wind howls around the house. But when you see so many signs of a spring (I’ve even seen a Shaggy Cistus with an open flower) you have to ask yourself the same question as those asparagus shoots and early anemones: shall we skip winter?

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Imperial mushrooms

(a Caesar's amanite)

After all these years I finally found the most popular (and common) mushroom on the island: the Peppery milk cap (Lactarius pepersaus), in Greek peperites or (in local language) pefrites. I knew they grew under pine trees and that if you see a small pile of earth you have to dig for them and yesterday, in the huge pine forest above Anemotia, we saw these little mounds everywhere, including one enormous specimen (they grow twenty to be thirty cms across!).

It is amazing to realize how these sturdy milk caps find the force to lift themselves through the earth. You could use them to dig your garden! I understand now why Greeks often say they come home with several kilos of mushrooms. Some of them are so heavy I bet four would weigh a kilo.

Although I see on internet that these white peperites are not valued as a top culinary dish, it is nevertheless the mushroom that is eaten most on Lesvos. However, there are other kinds of less abundant milk cap to be found that taste even better. For example, we also found the Lactarius sanguifluus (in Dutch the Blood milk cap) and the Lactarius deliciosus, the Saffron milk cap.

The Lactarius sanguifluus looks quite scary: it is bright red and green - not colours you’d like to cook with - and yet it is more valued for its taste than its milk white cousins. I prefer the Saffron milk cap and actually fell in love with it because it reminds me of mandarins. Cut the stem, and the outer ring is bright orange. However, when you clean them for cooking parts can turn bright green. According to mushroom fanciers it has less flavour than the Lactarius sanguifluus.

There’s quite a debate about which is the most delicious mushroom: porcino or ceps (Boletus edulis) or Caesar’s mushroom (Amanita caesarea).

The ceps I know from Holland and Belgium: a real treat and easy to recognize and a few years ago we found some marvellous ones above Agiasos, but never since. Most likely we’ve been looking at the wrong time of year.

I had seen Caesar’s mushroom before, but never eaten it. This orange-red mushroom does its name proud. Maybe it was named after Julius Caesar, or, for its taste which makes it the ‘emperor’ of the Amanita family? The Romans called it boletus and in 54 BC it caused the death of one emperor. Claudius who had taken power after his nephew Caligula was murdered loved both mushrooms and women. His fourth wife was Agripinna who, before they married, already had a son, Nero. She promised him he would be emperor and persuaded Claudius to recognize him as the official heir to the throne. However, Agripinna was impatient for Claudius to die and served him a meal of his favourite Caesar’s mushrooms into which she had sneaked in a few Death caps (Amanita phalloides). That was how Nero came to power.

Amongst the milk caps we also found some Caesar’s mushrooms, which with their red caps were easy to spot in the autumn landscape. Compared to the world famous, and poisonous Fly amanita (Amanita muscaria - and also known as Fly agaric) which is red with white spots, Caesar’s has no red spots and the under part of its cap and the stem are orange. And it’s one of the world’s tastiest.

I am not a hero when it comes to eating mushrooms I do not know and when looking for ceps, I know to leave the red ones alone. So eating red Caesar’s mushrooms was quite an adventure. My host baked them with cheese, cream and cognac and they were excellent. The orange of the mushroom dish made a great contrast with the green and white of a dish of rice and chard, another with red beets and a salad of fennel and oranges.

At the end of this delicious feast one of the other guests felt faint and although we trusted our host’s knowledge of edible mushrooms, we couldn’t help thinking maybe some of them might have been poisonous. I imagined us all being rushed to hospital, so we quickly looked on the internet to check symptoms of mushroom poisoning. Feeling faint was not included and when the doctor finally arrived it was found to be a case of low blood pressure.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

At you the choice

(Mytilini, the capital of Lesvos)

The advantage of living on an island is that you feel far away from the hectic world where the important things are decided. Especially these last days when the weather has been incredible beautiful: high temperatures with the sun trying to dry out the humidity which makes mysterious foggy shapes out of the mountains.

However, thanks to the letter bombs addressed to heads of states and foreign embassies, the Greek capital has been in uproar. The international post was shut down for 48 hours but here at the Molyvos post office mail going to foreign countries has been taken in as usual. Let’s see how far the post will come these days.

Some of the packets were sent by courier services and normally would be delivered within a day. However, when the Speedex company had to bring my new computer from Athens to Lesvos, they took their time. First it went to Patras (how could you confuse Patras with Mytilini?!) When that mistake was discovered the computer stayed a day in Patras before going back to Athens where it stayed another day. Only then was it shipped to Lesvos. The boat arrived at seven in the morning, and you might think that somebody at the courier service would jump into a car to deliver the package to me - it was already three days late. But that was too much to be expected. When I phoned Speedex in Mytilini the employee I spoke to took no interest in my problem and told me there was no way they would deliver it the same day: maybe tomorrow or the day after!

Unfortunately, this lack of service is still common in too many Greek companies (especially those still state owned). Sometimes you think you live in a communistic country where the workers are not interested at all in their work but do everything that make the hours pass as pleasantly and quickly as possible.

Yesterday, this kind of apathy was confirmed by the results of Sunday’s local elections: only 54 % of the Greeks voted. There was even a village in the northwest – Velvendos - that broke a new record. Protesting against the new Kallikrates project 95.77 % of the villagers stayed at home! Greeks are tired of change and don’t believe in the government’s solution to the crisis. They also don’t think it’s possible to prevent politicians and other people with power from putting money into their own pockets, or that the workers will forever continue doing jobs for slave’s wages, or that anybody can get Greece out of this crisis.

However, these elections have shown that small parties - left wing or green parties – are gaining more and more votes which means more Greeks believe that by not voting for the two main parties (Pasok and Neo Dimokratia), they can change the country.

On Sunday there was indeed a lot to decide. Not only was there the choice between parties, but elections according to the new Kallikrates system took place. This means that Lesvos is no longer part of a regional island group including Limnos and Ai Stratis, but is now also with Samos, Chios and Ikaria. So people had to choose a new governor for this expanded group. Kallikrates also meant that our island’s local municipalities were also disbanded, so that now there is only one authority and again, for this a mayor had to be elected - plus a deputy and the entire council from very long lists of candidates. Each of the old municipal districts had to vote for a representative on the central council. It was the same everywhere in Greece because the national government wants this Kallikrates system to save billions of euros.

On the topic of economics, here on the street these days there are more and more people riding horses or donkeys. Will the crisis bring back the old ways of getting around? People also fear that the price of heating fuel has risen so far they won’t be able to afford it for the coming winter, so I think in a lot of houses we’ll see a return to the old wood stoves. Another sign: although the ban on public smoking is opposed by Greeks many have stopped because it’s also become far too expensive.

So, we are facing a hard winter. Although some people are cheered up by the prospect of a good olive harvest - the trees are heavy with fat and juicy fruit ready for the olive press - this year rather than paying people to do the work, many will be doing their own harvesting. This is how people are forced to face the crisis: spending less and working more. And now we have to wait and see how it will work with only one mayor for the whole island. I am wondering if such a mayor, living far away in Mytilini, will take notice that the road here in Eftalou has not been repaired since the storm damage of last winter. Do we have to wait until the road disappears completely into the sea so that people living here can only get to Molyvos via the coastal road to Sykaminia?

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

Monday, 1 November 2010


(the house of Andonis)

The Greek Olympos had that many gods they sometimes get into your head. I have tried hard to learn all their names and connections but if you are not careful you make mistakes and mix them up. When writing my last column about quinces I said that the goddess Aphrodite distributed lots of golden apples. However, she only gave away three – to Hippomenes – and although she played a part in story of the apple that (eventually) started the Trojan war, she was not the one who threw it into the crowd of wedding guests. That was Eris, the goddess of strife. So I was very sloppy writing this and I apologise (see my story about Apples from Lesvos).

There are many stories about the man I am going to write about now, but I choose only to pass on what I know to be facts and leave darker stories for what they are.

Everybody who has been to Eftalou, knows this man or at least the place where he lived: close to the Panselinos hotel between the road and the sea there is a complex of shabby structures made out of drift wood where a bent old man lived with dozens of dogs and cats: Andonis. You could only see what lay behind those shacks if you looked at them from the sea. It was a tiny stone house in which this man from Molyvos used to live.

Adonis was born by the sea here in Eftalou where he grew up with his brothers and sisters, together, it’s said, with lots of cats and dogs with which they slept to keep warm in winter.

Andonis married and had children but although his wife had a house in Molyvos, Andonis preferred to live in his little house by the sea and refused to abandon his many cats and dogs.

He was crazy about his animals and whenever he thought somebody might harm them – even if it were an unsuspecting tourist trying to stroke one of his cats – he might suddenly appear, screaming and rushing to save his beloved animal from the hands of a quite innocent animal lover.

If a cat got lost pandemonium broke out and he would run into the garden of the hotel, cursing people because he was sure it had been kidnapped by a tourist. His love for his animals had no limits, neither did the number of strays he took in. Early every morning his wife would come from Molyvos with food for him and all his charges.

Andonis came from a fishing family and he loved going out to sea to catch more food for his animals. Maybe that is how he met the seagull which for years lived at his little jetty, and was always there when he’d been fishing.

Even when big storms blew in the winter, no-one could get him to move into the village. His sons would beg him but he stayed with his animals. In the end it was cancer that made him move out. Two summers ago he started going home to his wife in the evenings, and last winter he no longer stayed at his seaside home with his animals. Although they were still fed by his family, they were in truth abandoned. And this is why they became the terror of the Eftalou boulevard. On the internet they became known as the ‘hellhounds of Eftalou’!

It is a very sad story because the abandoned dogs eventually ate the cats and then ran wild. They still lived on the street but some were not quick enough to jump away when cars sped by. Somebody even put poison down — and so last summer there were only six left.

As they roamed around and their territory expanded, they even came and killed one of my cats and, although I will never forgive the way they tore it to pieces, my heart still bleeds as I hear them barking and struggling to survive without their master.

One week ago the cancer finally took Andonis away and his dogs will never see their master again. It is likely that they will be taken to an animal shelter so that Eftalou will be safe again. Even though they were a real plague these last years, I will miss them, as I do Andonis. We will never see his crooked old back shuffling along the boulevard; we will never hear his shouts when he lost a cat or a dog did something he didn’t like. We will never speak to him when he was sitting at his little house, secretly eyeing the wandering tourists. He would always answer me with an avalanche of Greek words, most of which I never understood — and Andonis loved to talk.

One of his dogs has a new home at my place and I dearly hope that the others find places to live and people to look after them; and that Andonis too has found peace without his animals. Even though his dogs caused us many problems we shall miss this icon of Eftalou. So I am wondering if there are dogs and cats in the timeless fishing grounds where he now is. Goodbye, Andonis, I wish you well.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010