Thursday, 22 December 2011

Happy 2012

On Lesvos the traditional Christmas dish is pork meat with celery: very popular!

I wish you: A merry Christmas & a very happy 2012

Καλά Χριστούγεννα

& Καλή Χρονιά

Friday, 16 December 2011

Let’s get the olives done

(Harvesting the olives: for old and young people)

Everybody on the island is busy picking the olives from the trees. This year the harvest has not been abundant because there was such little rain (and because of that not too many insects to spoil the fruit so the harvest is of good quality).

Each year I help friends with their harvest and after days of work my body feels totally broken. But even though it’s hard work, harvesting together with your friends can be fun. Especially when the days end with a communal dinner. This year it was also the beautiful warm weather that made it nice to help out: yesterday I could have picked the olives from the nets in my bikini, it was that warm in the sun.

Lesvos has millions of olive trees, but most of them are harvested by hand. In some fields they use those small trilling machines, a kind of vibrator, sticks with round flying plastic strokes– a marvellous toy for the men. But mostly getting the olives out of the trees is done with a long wooden stick that you use to bat the olives out of the trees, just like the ancient Greeks used to do.

In Morocco also they use wooden sticks to get the olives out of the tree. Looking at this little movie on YouTube The olive oil of Bhalil,
anyone who knows how to harvest will wonder why there are so few and such small nets under the trees. My experience is that when harvesting, you put as many nets as you can in a huge square around the trees, so that afterwards there is no need to creep around on the soil to pick all the olives that have fallen beyond the nets.

The movie shows a pretty old-fashioned olive press: with huge millstones, which here on Lesvos are only found in the museums; they make a paste out of the olives, which is spread on thin mats, which are stapled and then pressed for the oil. It is not so long ago that on Lesvos they were pressing the oil in the same way.

In America they have mobile olive presses. Those would be nice to have on the island: because the press drives to your field you are assured that the olives are pressed immediately (the quicker the harvested olives are pressed, the better the quality) and you do not have to haul all those heavy sacks full of olives to the press.

The human race likes to invent things to make life better and this is how a person made this harvestmachine – a multi vibrator. Although I ask myself if this is useful. Mostly it looks like this way the man can very happily and relaxed drive his tractor along the trees, while afterwards it’s the women who have to go into the nets and clean up his mess.

Than the fully automatic foldable, turned-upside-down umbrellas with built-in vibrators do a better job. You just embrace the tree and give it a tight hug and hoppa, on to the next tree. And women are no longer needed to pick up the spoiled olives.

It can be done even quicker if you use those monstrous machines, which drive right over the trees while at the same time picking the olives. I might be a little old fashioned, but I think this method has some minor flaws: The trees must be kept small and form long straight lines. This way you get a land full of olive hedges. Imagine if here on Lesvos they were to cut all those old and beautifully formed olive trees in order to plant rows of small trees? The landscape would be altered considerably. And harvesting would no longer be such a party: one person would just race over all those trees and finished. Gone would be the romantic harvest of the olives.

I do understand that this way you would get a bigger harvest, but what’s wrong with the olives of Lesvos, which are treasures – mostly harvested with pleasure and producing a high quality oil? I do hope that it will take some time before the wooden sticks and the nets are replaced by such all-in-one machines. Don’t forget that olives picked by hand give the best quality oil.

In Morocco donkeys still participate in the olive harvest. Here in Greece most of them have already been replaced by pick-ups. Donkeys here are even at risk of dying-out; but that is a story for another time. On YouTube you can see how they make the olive oil here on Lesvos: simply – but with care.

(With thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Candy and Marzipan

(Christmas market in Molyvos)

If the Greeks were to celebrate Saint Nicholas like they do in Holland, the women’s co-operatives would be busy as hell. Because the places (besides bakeries) that specialize in making sweets, are those run by these groups of women — baking cookies, making jams and marzipan.

A few decennia ago they started these local businesses to get the farmers’ wives and housewives out of their isolated position. This way they could learn to run a business and make their own income. Since 1980 at least 11 of these women’s co-operatives have been started on Lesvos and indeed it gives the women something different to do. Most of them have chosen to preserve and bake: a logical choice because, all year round in the Lesbian countryside, there is plenty of fruit and vegetables available. However preserving is time consuming, so I can imagine that sitting around a table mounted high with nuts or summer fruit, you’d happy to share this with other women whilst gossiping, discussing and laughing as you peel, de-stem and chop. These co-operatives are a solution for housewives who are bored, for women who love to cook; the small harvests are shared and preserved and this way traditional recipes will not get lost. Because I imagine these women cook exactly as their grandmothers have taught them.

As far as I know the only women co-operative that does something different here on the island is the women’s co-operative of Petra, where since 1983 women have run a Bed & Breakfast and a small diner above a pub at the central square by the sea.

At the other co-operatives, in Agiasos, Anemotia, Polichnitos, Filia, Molyvos, Parakila, Asomatos and Mesopotos, they merely make jams, the famous gliko tou koetaliou (preserved fruit and vegetables in sugar sirup) as well as baking cookies and cakes. They also make marzipan with walnut and almonds from which they create the most wonderful flowers and other decorative things. These beautiful creations are mostly given as presents at important festive events. I love marzipan, but when I get such an exotic flower I display it for weeks on the table until dust settles upon it and I have to throw it away.

I am sure they could also produce the candy that is traditional for the Dutch celebration of Saint Nicholas (characters made of chocolate, special biscuits as small as a nut, animals made out of coloured sugar) but in Greece they don’t have such a tsunami of candy at the beginning of December, because the Day of Saint Nicholas is not a celebration for children like it is in Holland. For the Greeks Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of the fishermen (see: Saint Nicholas) and on the 6th of December all people named after this saint – Nicos – celebrate their nameday.

Anyhow, the Greeks are not big candy eaters. There are some ouzo- and mastic candies, probably produced for the tourists and they make Turkish Delight, called in Greek loukoumia (jelly-like preserved fruit coated with fine sugar).

All Greek celebration days have their own sweets, mostly cakes or cookies. For example during Christmas they bake kourambides (almond cookies) and melomakarona (cookies dipped into honey); chocolate rings and balls are not part of the Greek Christmas culture. They used not to even have a Christmas tree to hang them in. Although nowadays you see more and more Greeks having a Christmas tree and chocolate rings and balls to hang in the tree. But this is a new trend coming from abroad.

The regular candy here in Greece – if you can call those candy - are the chocolate bonbons and some are so big that you better call them chocolate bonbon cookies. The easiest ones to make at home are the almonds coated with chocolate; but these chocolate fantasies are really a threat for your teeth because they are so hard.

And then there are the sugared almonds, koufeta in Greek. These are traditionally presented together with the invitation to a wedding or a baptism. They are a symbol of the good and the bad times: the bitter taste of the almond stands for the difficult times in a wedding or a life, and the sugar coating for the happy times. And you have to be sure that you put an uneven number in the bag because an even number can be divided and symbolizes a divorce.

The candy-month has started, also in Greece where they have started baking for Christmas. Last Sunday there was the Christmas market in Molyvos where they presented lots of cookies and cakes. Because of the crisis I bet that most of the women will be producing their Christmas sweets at home, baked in the wood stove of course. I wonder if the women’s co-operatives – that mostly sell at fairly high prices – will survive the ongoing crisis.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Treasure maps

(Map of Lesvos from 1597 by Giacomo Franco)

During my daily walks along the sea I’ve stated that since at least several months the sea has been at a very low level. Wasn’t the sea level supposed to rise? Whether it storms or not, the water remains much lower than it was last year. I have never seen it so low. The Aegean doesn’t have strong tides, so could there be another system, unknown to me, that makes the sea lower or higher from one year to another?

I looked for it on the internet, but found nothing, except that it seems that the North Aegean gets colder (although that depends on the winters) and that there are certain gulfs in the North Aegean which are more vulnerable to tsunamis (Lesvos is not one of those regions).
I found a report about the correlation between the rise of the sea level and the warming of the earth (which is already well known, but I don’t see the sea rising). And Wikipedia says that during the last glacial period – some 16.000 years ago - the sea level of the Aegean was about 130 metres lower. That must have been in the times that the island was still part of the Asiatic landmass.

It fascinates me to imagine that between the island and Turkey there used to be a large landscape and that in fact we are living in the mountains. This area off course is still there, although now is part of the underwater world. And now that the sea gives some of it back to the sun, I see rocks appearing that I never saw before. Is it possible that I will soon see the appearance of a wall, the remains of a harbour or a house or a castle?

On the old maps you should be able to see what was where in the past. The oldest maps (in general) – or descriptions of maps – date from before the birth of Christ. The man that is called the father of the cartography, Claudius Ptolemaeus, lived around the first century (ca. 87 – 150). This Greek astronomer, astrologer, geographer, mathematical and music theorist, published a guide about how to make maps: the Cosmographia of Geographia. Based on Ptolemaeus’ findings, in 1482 the German Johannes Armsshein made a map that might be the oldest preserved map of the world.

You will find Lesvos on the map but it is so small that you can’t see more than the fact that it’s an island. In 1584 the Flemish cartographer Abraham Orthelius draw a map of the island Crete with below ten smaller maps of other islands: Kythira, Karpathos, Rhodes, Chios, Naxos, Santorini, Milo, Limnos, Evvia and Lesvos.
Some years later in 1597 it was the Italian Giacomo Franco who made a map specifically of the island of Lesvos, and another preserved antique map of Lesvos was made around 1800 by the Frenchman Choiseul-Gouffier, where he also depicted Lesvos’ biggest attractions of that time: the throne of Potamon (, the aqueduct of Moria and a wall sculpture.

When walking over the island or making a tour by car, many a tourist must be cursing when he discovers that his map is inaccurate. There are no accurate maps of the island and there are some maps where you feel that the cartographer just made scribbles to mark the roads. But those antique maps won’t help you out either. Look at the two earliest maps mentioned above: the form of the island is too stretched: the capital Mytilini is placed north east instead of south east).

And where is Mythimna (Molyvos)? And why is it that Petra is in the south? Or should I have turned the map a quarter? But then some places are actually completely wrong. Would the cartographer actually has explored the island or just visited Mytilini where he was helped by locals to draw the map? In those times the rest of the island was pretty wild and it was hard to travel around the island. The easiest way to reach Molyvos for example was by boat. But in those times most people did not go any further than the capital.

What is striking about those old maps are the fairly large rivers and a few islands along the shore. How high would the sea level have been in those times? Mytilini used to be on an island, separated from the mainland by a canal. They filled in the canal and that is now Ermou, the most important shopping street of Mytilini.

And what about the large number of castles depicted in the ancient maps? There even is a Greek ruin designed close to Mytilini. But where is the castle of Molyvos? And anyhow, where have all those castles and the Greek temple gone? The maps are like treasure maps and sometimes I get the same feeling I got when visiting the Valley of the Kings in Luxor (Egypt), where you walked in an area where even today many tombs must be hidden, because they never found the tombs of all the pharoahs.

The maps do prove that, over the centuries, the island has changed a lot: rivers have shrunk and castles and temples disappeared completely. It is difficult to determine from the map how high the sea was. But because of the many small islands and the large river estuaries, my guess is that the sea then was much higher. So maybe one day I will see a ruin rise out of the sea now that the sea gets lower, although on the place where I guess Eftalou is located on the maps, there are no old castles to be seen. But that does not mean that there cannot be one, because I can’t find the castle of Molyvos on those early maps either. Strange, because Mythimna (the ancient name for Molyvos) was an important part of the history of Lesvos and the castle was definitely there in the fifteenth century.

(With thanks to Mary Staples)

@ smitaki 2011

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Do you know the mussel man?

(Oyster beds in the Gulf of Kalloni)

Yes, I know the mussel man, the mussel man lives in Skala Polichnitou*. In the winter Lesvos makes up a small part of the Greek mussel industry. That is to say, if all goes well and the local fishing unions are not at war with each other.

Three local fishing unions are fishing in the same pond: the Gulf of Kalloni. The fishermen of Skala Kallonis who want to go fishing for mussels depend on the fishermen of Skala Polichnitou, where the main commerce of mussels takes place on the island. This year however there are enough fishermen in Skala Polichnitou to not need the fishermen from Skala Kallonis. The Skala Kallonis’ fellows felt so frustrated being without a job that they have decided to make life difficult for their fishing colleagues: they complained to the authorities that too many undersized mussels were being sold and so the inspection service decided that all mussels coming out of the Gulf of Kalloni should be measured and that they must be at least 5 cm.

One fisherman had decided to go fishing for mussels and other shellfish this winter. It was a big decision to make, because if you don’t have a diver’s certificate and two year’s of shellfish experience, you need to hire a diver who has those qualifications to harvest the mussels from the sea bottom (which is the most usual way to catch shell fish on this island). And then you must have lots of patience in order to obtain all the licences and you’ll also need a small investment fund. The boat of the fisherman belongs to the small fishing fleet of Skamnioudi and even before going out on the water, this man had a buyer in Thessaloniki for his catch. When he found a crew, all papers were regulated, his boat was converted for shellfish catching and when the winds slowed down he finally set off to sea (although you cannot call the Gulf of Kalloni really a sea, because only at its end is there a small connection with the sea).

I have no idea how many mussels make up one kilo. But I can imagine, that as a boat can catch hundreds of kilos a day, measuring mussels is not the work you look forward to, after coming ashore after a day of hard work at sea. It also means loosing time in getting your catch to its buyer and time and extra labour is money. Then after making your calculations, you find it’s better not to play the mussel man, because with all those extra costs you’re better off staying in the harbour.

Ai, ai, ai, those Greeks. They can be so bloody jealous!

In Holland you mostly eat cultivated mussels, but here on Lesvos it’s the wild ones that live on the bottom of both the Gulf of Kalloni and the Gulf of Gera. With their beards they anchor themselves to the sea bottom and they feed by filtering plankton out of the sea water. When they are a few years old they are ready for consumption.

There is another difference: in Holland it is the blue mussel (Mytilus edulis) that is commonly eaten while here on Lesvos it is the Mediterranean Mussel (Mytilus galloprovincialis). Not that I know the difference. Last week I ate Mediterranean Mussels in the Dutch way, meaning that I served them cooked accompanied with bread and some dip sauces. They were so delightful that, for a split second, I got homesick for the restaurants in Amsterdam where I used to eat mussels on a regular base.

Greeks eat them in a different way, normally as a meze with ouzo. They eat them raw with a sprinkle of lemon juice, just like oysters. I do not support eating raw oysters (I love the taste but get sick) and so I don’t eat mussels raw. I‘d rather cook them to be on the safe side.

A Greek recipe with cooked mussels is midia saganaki: mussels in a tomatoe sauce with feta, just like the garides saganaki (with shrimps). But there is an easy way to make your Dutch (or other local) mussels in a Greek way: you just add some ouzo to the cooking juice.

The story that you have to discard the mussels that remain closed after cooking seems to be a fairy tale. That’s just a mussel with very strong muscles. They just don’t give-up during cooking but you can open them and enjoy their tastey meat (really bad mussels will smell strongly).

The Greek tragedy of the newly made mussel man has not finished yet. The hired diver (the new mussel man has a diver’s certificate but only one year’s experience on a shellfish boat) caught so few mussels that there was a quarrel and the diver left. Now the boat is anchored in the harbour and the remaining fishermen still have to charge more for their catch. I am wondering how long it will take for the buyer on the mainland to find cheaper mussels. Because then Lesvos can say goodbye to its mussel industry and they may never come out of the crisis.

Together we know the mussel man, the mussel man, the mussel man
Together we know the mussel man, he lives in Thessaloniki*

* A traditional folk song from Hollland: ‘Zeg, ken jij de mosselman?’

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Creative with firewood

(olive firewood)

Last September the Athenian firm McKinsky & Company published a report about how the Greek economy had fallen so low and what can be done, in the next ten years, in order to get the economy on a higher level again. Because Greece has enough potential to return to a healthy economy.

The report shows the weak spots like the investment climate of Greece that performs poorly because of complicated officialdom and laws. The number of officials should not only be reduced, but the whole system should be reorganized in order to work more efficiently, and old laws should be changed so that it is easier to start a business.

Greece should also be more commercial. For example: olive oil from Spain and Italy is famous, but when you enjoy an Italian olive oil it could be that you are using a Greek olive oil. Italy buys lots of oil from Greece, mixed or not with its own oil, and markets it as an Italian olive oil. So the Italians not only earn money but also get the credit for producing good olive oil, although more and more Greeks win prizes on international contests for having the best olive oil.

Greece is not only a country of sun and sea. Plenty of holiday islands have more specialities, like the sweet wine from Samos, more than one very good wine from Limnos, mastic from Chios and ouzo from Lesvos. Lots of islands – like Crete and Lesvos – produce tasty cheeses (amongst others feta), honey and of course olive oil. Lesvos also produces salt, sardines and shellfish.

For the last few days the island is under the spell of a cold northern wind and most people are sitting around their woodstoves. As I wrote a few weeks ago, lots of people have exchanged their central heaters or other oil and electricity consuming stoves for a wood stove in order to economize on their electricity and oil bills.

You can burn all kind of things in a woodstove, but it’s an art to keep the fire burning in the stove. The very first rule is that you don’t use fresh wood. Most wood must dry for about a year.

Looking for the best firewood on the internet, you will find many American websites (where they also still use a lot of woodstoves and open fireplaces) where they explain exactly which wood is best to use and how to store your firewood.

Ash, red oak, white oak, beech, birch, hickory, hard maple, pecan, dogwood, almond and apple are the trees that provide the best firewood. They probably do not grow too many olives there in the States (or don’t they use woodstoves in California where most American olives are grown?), because I could not find olivewood on any list.

I knew that the monks from Mount Athos (that monastery state in the north-east of Greece) are busy people but I did not know that they’re also wood tradesmen. They offer for sale oak- and olivewood, but also wood from the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo), a wood that is much appreciated on the firewood lists of Greece.

On Lesvos there are also plenty of strawberry trees, but these are not big trees, they are more like bushes with rather thin, beautiful coloured red trunks. I am wondering how many of these bushes you’d have to cut in order to get a reasonable big stack of wood. You’d think they would cut the whole Mt Athos bald? But the olive wood they offer comes from Corfu. Because this western tourist island also produces and exports large quantities of olive wood, mainly to the neighbouring country Italy where the wood is used in the pizza ovens.

I wonder why Lesvos is not selling wood. Does the island of Corfu have more olive trees or smarter salesmen? Or have they not also returned to the woodstoves? I know that Lesvos has enough olive wood to provide for its own inhabitants. They don’t have to cut those beautiful strawberry trees. There aren’t so many oak trees left – the original vegetation of the island – and they should not be touched. Because the pinewoods still have plenty of dead trees lying around. Whilst pinewood is not the best quality of firewood – it burns more quickly – it still can warm you up. I note also that chestnut trees are not the best quality but I am sure that a tree from the chestnut wood above Agiasos could keep you warm for a whole winter. And what about those majestic plane trees? They don’t live forever. And then there are plenty of almond trees to be pruned and they also provide first quality wood. Only it’s a very hard wood, so be careful when sawing it. So there is plenty of wood here on the island, why not export it?

The search on the internet provided more surprises: how do you stack your firewood? You can just throw it on an unorganized heap or build a nice wall with it. Seeing all the other possibilities I now dream of mountains of firewood and being able to realise such beautiful creations. So be careful not to become a wood hoarder, because for these projects you need lots of wood:

How to build a wood stack?, A tree ‘in’ pieces and a firewood house, A cute house, A wood stack for Valentines day (see third picture), Modern furniture from firewood, Firewood art from Nikolay Polissky, A wood stack in the house, A decorative wall, A woodfire entrance.

So these are plenty of ideas to keep you busy during the winter. And there is plenty of wood to keep you sitting around the fire and thinking about new plans to get Greece out of its crisis.

(Thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Let the water fall

The tree root sculpture at the waterfall of Klapados

Last week on November 4th there was an article in the Lesviot paper Embros from Chrisidou Vangelio, who wrote that a group of nature lovers stated that there were more than 14 waterfalls on the island worth visiting. The environments of Parakila, Skoutaros, Mesotopos, Vatoussa, Mandamados, Antissa, Pelopi and Eresos seem to be particularly rich with waterfalls.

When you look on the internet for the waterfalls of Europe, there are only two named in the whole of Greece: the Edessa waterfalls, about a 100 km northwest of Thessaloniki and the Rihti waterfall in the Rihti gorge on Crete. So Lesvos should be proud having at least 14 waterfalls, with the biggest one close to Eresos (Krinilou).

I had to laugh a little when it was mentioned that the nature lovers went to the Island’s government to enlist help in getting money from Europe to promote the waterfalls and make them accessible to more visitors. That means that paths and roads would have to be built. But in this crisis I wonder if Europe will be happy about a Greek island asking for money; as they already provide the whole country with money. Or could there be somewhere in Europe a special jar with money for waterfalls for which they can apply?

But it would be totally crazy to provide money to make new paths and roads to these waterfalls, while the normal roads are falling apart and there’s no money to repair them. As it is, next year there may no longer be a road to Eftalou, because when we get the next real heavy winter storm, this road will disappear into the sea.

Don’t get me wrong, I do wish everybody could visit these waterfalls. You can in fact visit them now, if you are in good shape and if you know where they are. But it’s quite an adventure to reach them over slippery donkey trails that sometime seems closer to steep gorges.

Last week I was at the Klapados waterfall. The waterfall itself is impressive but also the place itself is rich with water and great plane trees that come in all forms and shapes. It also has an astonishing silence and I can’t imagine being too happy visiting this waterfall along with a busload of tourists exclaiming ah’s and oh’s while their children are loudly splashing in the water. So if they make this waterfall accessible to more people I demand that there be a sign: SILENCE!

The problem of the waterfalls of Lesvos is not only that they’re not easy to reach, but there is not always water. The once so impressive Pesos waterfall near Achladeri has – since I visited it two years ago – been reduced to a small trickle, because farmers have illegally siphoned off water somewhere above the waterfall. The Pesos waterfall is actually the only one on the island with direction signs and to be reached by a lovely path with wooden handrails. And now even in the winter water barely trickles over the steep cliffs.

The Krinilou waterfall’s problem is that the area has been shut down by the owner. A few years ago some vandals (yes, indeed, we sometimes have vandals on the island) damaged his paradise so much, that you can visit it now only on appointment.

Not all waterfalls have enough water in the summer to show their falling streams. The Klapados waterfall is dry in the summer and if just a little rain falls in autumn, it can take some time before you can enjoy its beauty.

This is the case now. The Klapados waterfall is dry, because the two days of rain we have had since last summer were barely enough to get the water flowing. However, the steep wall of rocks where the water normally falls, now shows its splendid sculpture of tree roots that try to find the water among the rocks.

The drought is also the reason that there are no mushrooms on the island this autumn. Last year you tripped over them and now you really have to visit the most humid places on the island in order to find those popular pèperites or peppery milkcaps (Lactarius piperatus) and the bright red coloured Caesar’s mushrooms (Amanita caesarea).

So this group of nature lovers that want to promote the waterfalls of Lesvos should first start a rain dance and then a money dance.

Now I still have ten waterfalls to find, because I have only seen the one close to Mandamados, and the Pesos, Klapados and Krinilou waterfalls. So I also have to dance – a dance around the island – to find them this winter. I’ll keep you informed.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Sardian nuts

(Sweets from the Russian olive tree)

Even after two years the leaders of Europe could not save Greece from an economical downfall, nor could they stop the crisis in Europe. Alexander the Great only needed ten years to conquer half the world.

Imagine that just to travel on foot to India nowadays would take you more than a year. And Alexander, who dragged an army of ten thousand behind him, wasn’t simply doing a pilgrimage like a walk to Compostella (Spain). His forces did more than kilometres per day; during their travels they were busy fighting bloody battles, Alexander entertained himself with the people he conquered and made sure that his army was invincible.

His army was good at inventing military devices, like the torsion catapult, but it is also said that Alexander invented shaving. He insisted that his soldiers shaved every day in order that during battle the enemy had no grip on his soldiers’ beards.

Alexander not only conquered half the world; he also changed it. He spread Greek culture far and wide and in return his soldiers experienced and acknowledged new cultures. And, believe me, they certainly brought home lots of things, like apples and aubergines, from these foreign countries,.

Alexander came across the Sardian nut tree, not so far from home, in Sardis, the capital of the ancient empire of Lydia (West-Turkey), which had been conquered by the Persians before Alexander himself. Obviously much taken by that tree, he ordered his army to plant Sardian trees all over Greece. Later the Romans dispersed this tree even further through their vast empire.

And this is how the chestnut tree, as the Sardian nut tree is now known, came to Europe. In Asia, chestnuts had already been known for thousands of years as a staple food and when people couldn’t afford to grow corn, or when a harvest went wrong, they would use the chestnut to make flower for their breads.

Nowadays you will mainly be served roasted chestnuts when visiting one of the chestnut festivals in Greece: in Kastanitsa (Arcadia), Paleochori (Kavala), Damaskinia (Kozani), Karitsa (Larissa), Arna (Laconia), Elos (Crete) and in Agiasos on Lesvos.
Although the Greek kitchen has a large variety of chestnut recipes: stuffed turkey, garlic sauce with chestnuts, rice with chestnuts and chestnut cakes.

I love chestnuts, but I also hate this fruit. I enjoy eating them a lot; but I hate to peel chestnuts.

When I go to the chestnut wood above Agiasos I am always tempted to bring home a large bag of chestnuts. There are thousands that wait to be picked up. Once home I roast some and then I gather courage to peel some for a chestnut puree. To do this requires some time. With a sharp knife you make a cross in the outer shell, then you cook them in some water for a few minutes and then you can remove the outer shell and start peeling them.
Chestnuts don’t have a smooth skin, but rather like walnuts, the skin has a ribbed surface with folds with requires a lot of patience remove.

No sooner have I made the puree than this delicacy is consumed. And although I intend to make another one, I usually don’t fancy doing it — so I will never make it nor do something else with the rest of the chestnuts.

Now I find myself with another basket full of chestnuts brought back from Agiasos. The first ones have been roasted. And even though it was a real job to peel them I enjoyed them a lot; but preparing another chestnut puree, pfffff, I just can’t face it. Last night I took a look on the internet: hoping to find an easier way to peel them and indeed I found a new tip to get rid of these nasty skins. I immediately commenced work to test the tip.

Eureka! It does work! And it’s even more simple. So instead of the dangerous job of making a cross incision on the flat side (when before you know it your knife shoots across the hard surface of the outer shell and causes cuts your fingers)– with a big knife you just have to chop the chestnuts in half. You put them in a casserole, cover with cold water, boil the chestnuts for some minutes and then you pull off both their skins with pincers. If I do like this peeling method, I might use all the chestnuts to make a nice chestnut bread and I might even try out a recipe for the famous French marrons glacés.

While experimenting with the chestnuts, I took some sweets from the ‘Sweet Tree’ to roast them on my new woodstove. They come from the Russian olive tree or silver berry (Elaeagnus angustifolia). A neighbour told me that when she was a child they used to roast and eat them. According to her they tasted like marshmallows. The tree looks like a weeping willow and its fruit is like light brown olives. When raw the inside looks like candy floss but their taste is dry and mealy. My finding is that when you warm them up (slightly roasted), they don’t get a taste like a marshmallow but more like a warm candy floss. Which is not bad for a sweet you can get free from nature. I can imagine that roasting these Russian olives will be a good substitute when chestnuts are not around.

(With thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

The good old times

(Vangelis cutting wood)

During these times of crisis, many must be thinking: Away with the Greeks! But I don’t think that the Greeks alone have contributed to this European crisis. And have you ever thought how the world would be if there had never been Greeks?

In the last decades Greece has become known as a popular holiday destination and as a country with mighty shipping magnates. In ancient times however Greece was the birthplace of lots of scientists and philosophers and many of their inventions and theories are still part of the modern world.

For example, when you get brutally awakened from your sweet dreams by your alarm clock, do you ever think of Plato, who may have used the very first alarm clock? And then when you take your shower, do you realise that in the fourth century BC Greeks were also taking showers and, just like you, they used a bar of soap? Then you check your computer. Centuries ago Greeks did the same: The Antikythera mechanism is the famous analog computer that was found, about a century ago, in a shipwreck close to the island of Antikythera. Only recently has it been discovered how smart this mechanism is. It calculates astrological positions and it can calculate the dates for cultural events like the Olympic Games.
When you set off to work and you take along some chewing gum, you will be chewing on a Greek invention. And when you unfurl your umbrella against the rain, you take shelter under another Greek invention.
The list of Greek inventions is much longer and also contains the anchor, the catapult, the steam machine, the thermometer and central heating.

According to Wikipedia central heating was invented by the Roman Sergius Orata. The system used to be called hypocaust and was originally floor heating: in ancient Greek hypo means under and caust means burnt. So the name is Greek and according to Pliny the Elder, long before the Romans marched into Greece, there were houses and buildings that had this hypocaust system. So, it’s more accurate to say that the Greeks invented central heating and that the Romans adjusted it.

Last week this invention was bitterly needed, because we suddenly got a preview of winter: the thermometer descended to below 5oC! Suddenly this beautiful Indian summer was gone and the heaters had to be lit.

Most people here on the island have oil-fired central heating. But some ten years ago the heaters on Lesvos were mainly small oil or electric heaters and some people had a woodstove or an open fire. Nowadays there are even people who survive the winter with only their aircon. But in latter years many people have changed to central heating and no newly build house is without it. Just like in ancient times.

In Ephesus they have found the remains of a hypocaust: air was heated and was transported through clay pipes to the houses (of the rich) and public buildings. Although in that time they did not use oil to create the heat.

Did they use gas? Natural gas comes from the earth and cannot be claimed as an invention; but in ancient Greece they were already using natural gas. Some thousands years BC, there was a shepherd on Mount Parnassus who discovered a fountain of fire coming from the earth. The flame would not stop and was seen as a sign from a god. That is why they built a temple around the flame: the famous temple of Delphi, where priestesses used this eternal fire to see into the future. Gas was used as an oracle fire.

Could these priestesses have foretold that there would one day be a time when the Greeks could no longer pay for their central heating? The price of the oil has now risen so high that many Greeks can no longer afford it and on the island many people are rushing to buy woodstoves.

In a way, the heat of a woodstove is better than that of a central heating system. Lots of houses here on Lesvos fight against moisture that causes mould on the walls. No matter how much you clean or cover the walls with water resisting paint, the mould always comes back. The best way to fight it is to burn a woodstove that takes the moisture away.

So lots of people will benefit from buying a woodstove: the heat is more efficient and using one is many times cheaper than buying this incredibly expensive oil. The island has enough wood: the lop (pruning wood) of the olive fields and the many dead trees in the woods.

So the countryside will be more busy this coming winter. People will be going into the woods more often to pick-up a free meal, searching for wild vegetables (chorta) and mushrooms. And there will be a new group coming: wood poachers.

The old Greek empire also gave birth to money: coins were invented in what is present day Western Anatolia, where Greek city-states were invaded by the Lydians. The first coin was made during the rule of King Alyattes II. He was the father of the legendary King Croesus, famous for the proverb As rich as Croesus. Croesus was so rich he could afford to build one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: the famous Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. And who knows — maybe he also installed central heating there.

Times however have changed since rich King Croesus. So where have all those mighty kings and smart scientist gone, now that the Greeks have no money left and cannot afford the oil for their central heaters?

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

Monday, 17 October 2011

Crocodiles on Lesvos

(Kafenion in Agios Dimitrios; Photo: Fenna Westerdiep)

Lesvos is a rather big island: 1650 km2. Crete, the largest island of Greece is 8336 km2 and Evia, the second largest is 3584 km2. Lesbos is not overly populated; according to a count this year, 85.000 people live on it, while on Crete some 621.000 and on the smaller island of Rhodes (1398 km2) 119.000. Even fewer people live on Lesvos now than ten years ago. In 2001, 90.643 living souls were counted on Lesvos.

I have no idea how long it would take you to drive around the island by car, nor do I know how much time it would take you to walk it. Roads don’t always follow the coast and the main roads cut right through the heart of the island. But I do know now how long it takes to paddle with a kayak around the island: 5 days.

At the beginning of October Nektarios Paraskevidis from Mandamados proved that the journey along the 320 km long coastline of Lesvos was not that difficult. He departed from Mytilini, having loaded his kayak with food, drinks and a tent to sleep in. He peddled around 10 hours each day and slept overnight on the beaches of Plomari, Tavari, Lapsarna and Tsonia. The only problem he encountered was peddling against the wind. So now you know how much time you will need to circumnavigate the island by kayak.

Lesvos is a pretty old island. It was once part of the Asian landmass and maybe that was the case when millions of years ago the southwest part of Lesvos was a huge lake. The lake was more or less filled up and disappeared when two vulcanoes spewed their fire and lava over the island. This is what created the petrified trees that are now found mainly in the west of the island.

Those trees that were changed into stone, as if by magic, can be seen in the Petrified Forest and the Natural History Museum in Sigri, where you can also learn lots about the natural changes that took place on the island. But what was living on the island when the sequoias towered to heaven and there was a lake that now is just barren land?

Some years ago near Gavathas they found evidences of a huge prehistoric elephant: the Prodeinotherium bavaricum. But there had been no further knowledge about what animals dwelled in the woods or lived in the lake; until last June, when professor Katarina Vassiliadou revealed her discoveries at the 9th congress of the European Association of Vertebrate Palaeontologists on Crete.

In the sediments of the old lake, Katarina found traces of snails, lake fish, reptiles and even prehistoric crocodiles! We are of course speaking about a time some twenty million years ago; so when visiting the turtles that still live here in the small lakes and rivers, don’t be afraid, that a large head with a giant jaw and sharp teeth will suddenly appear out of the water and snap at your hand as you attempt to pat a turtle.

Wildlife on Lesvos has not done well since those ancient times. There remain now are only lots of foxes, some wild boar and a single variety of deer. So when you participate in a safari it won’t be like in Africa, where you can meet giraffes, elephants and crocodiles. Here you will only cross paths with some wild cats, dogs, cows and horses.

Nor has Lesvos that many thousands-of-year-old buildings or temples. Close to Klopedi and Messa (near Agia Paraskevi) there remain some standing pillars from an Aeolian and Ionian temple. Mostly Lesvos has to do with the remains of centuries-old little churches from Byzantium and the Middle Ages and a few old castles.

Nonetheless tourists still say that the island is unique and authentic, more so than the popular Greek islands like Rhodes or Crete. Lesvos does not have famous temples, but beside its hundreds of little churches and tens of monasteries, it is rich with very old kafenions.

Those are, of course, not hundreds-of-years-old, but I bet that some can celebrate their hundredth birthday. When you travel through the sleepy villages of Lesvos you’ll find more than one old kafenion per village, where, behind the counter, the grandmother prepares mezèdes (little snacks) to be served with the ouzo.

The hamlet Agios Dimitrios, famous for its springs, seems only to exist of two kafenions and one real Loungebar. You can find it – just before Agiasos, along a byroad ‘The old road’, a kind of bypass off the new road from Polichnitos to Agiasos. Since the kafenions no longer face the main road they tend to look almost forlorn; but their environment is breathtaking: they are surrounded by old chestnut and walnut trees. Within the interiors, on their huge verandas, that seem not to have been changed since the Fifties, they serve you coffee and other drinks with a Spoon Sweet (sweet preserved fruit and vegetables), for which they are famous.

Young Greeks, however, want something different from those dusty kafenions of their grandparents’ time – so they have their Loungebar opposite. Even so, the entrance door of the Loungebar is kept in a beautiful and colourful old style.

Just like the crocodiles, elephants and old Greek temples, those old kafenions with their interiors, worthy of museum status, are doomed to disappear. But for the time being, Lesvos still is like an open air museum, full of little churches and kafenios in a gorgeous natural setting, that – if the vulcanoes keep guiet – will remain so for many more years.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

Thursday, 13 October 2011


Rain over the Gulf of Kalloni

On Saturday we were all looking forward for the rain to fall. After a summer with only blue skies, you want something different. But instead of the rain, we got the last trick of the season from our arsonist. He set fire to a field left from the road from Molyvos to Favios. The southwest wind that preceded the rain was blowing hard; the firemen were not at strength, because, amongst other things, there were no planes to help control the fire as they already were parked in their winter stabling.

The fire was lit in at least five different places and it was free to travel; it hurried up the mountains in the direction of both Eftalou and Vafios. Within two hours the fire crept over the mountain at the camping site at Eftalou, where it threatened a farm and houses. Fortunately the firemen on the road to the dump knew how to stop the fire; because had it gone further, crossing that road, the fire would have found a paradise of pines and olive trees and then the disaster would been great and Eftalou left totally blackened and charred.

About an hour after the last flames were extinguished, a hesitant rain started to pour down from the black sky. There was just enough water to give the people living around the fire a worryless sleep.

On Sunday thundering clouds sailed by and flashing lightning hurried along the horizon but it was only at night that the downpour started and on Monday the Heavens opened and let down a continuous fall of water.

That was enough to put out all fires and a blessing for the olive trees, which, for the moment, received enough water – thank you – in order to get ready for a good harvest.

The falling rain also lowered the temperatures and so finally the long and beautiful summer has come to an end.

Tomorrow the sun will be back, but then the leaves will whirl down and temperatures will no longer reach 30oC. Fresh green grasses, yellow and purple autumn crocus and pink cyclamen are emerging from the earth: Kalo ftinopero (have a good autumn), like the Greeks say.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Walnut blues


Once upon a time there was a King in Laconia who had three daughters: Orphe, Lyco and Carya. One day the god Apollo visited and he spent such a nice time at the palace in Laconia that he rewarded the daughters of the king by giving them the power to see into the future: on the one condition that they would never do anything against the wishes of a god. A while later it was Dionysus who paid a visit to the palace. He fell in love with Carya. But Carya’s sisters were jealous and did everything to prevent the two lovers from meeting. The sisters had to be punished because this was going against a wish of a god. Orphe and Lyco went mad and turned into rocks. Carya was changed into a walnut tree.

And this is how the walnut tree (Juglans regia) became a symbol for wisdom and in ancient times was sometimes seen as an oracle. Not only was Carya’s name given to the nut tree (in Greek karydia), but also to a Greek style of building: caryatids. These are sculpted female figures serving as architectural supports, pillars. The most famous Caryatids can be found at the Parthenon in Athens, where six female columns support the roof of the Erechteion.

Others say that these female pillars are named after the village Carya, a place on the Peloponessus famous for its walnuts. Once there was a temple for Artemis Caryatis, where women danced for this goddess with large baskets full of reed on their heads.

You might find a caryatid in Mytilini; but there are not many of them on the island. Though there are plenty of walnut trees around, because its fruit is an important ingredient in the Greek kitchen, especially in sweet dishes.

Just like olives, walnuts are beaten out of the trees. And because a walnut tree is far bigger than an olive tree, the beaters have climb into the trees with their sticks. So don’t be amazed if, walking along, you find a tree full of men striking with full force the branches with sticks. Under the tree the women will wait patiently to gather all the fallen fruit.

The walnut grows in a green shell and when this bursts open or turns black, it’s harvest time. And then work is just beginning; because often you have to get the nut out of this green shell. When I first did this job I didn’t listen to a neighbour who warned me to wear gloves. So my fingers turned brown and the stain stayed for days. With these green shells you can make a wonderful hair dye, used by Greek women to keep their hair beautifully black. Deep black is also the colour of the liquor made out of unripe walnuts.

Once the nut has been removed from its soft green shell it has to be cracked open, which is another time consuming job because cracking of nuts requires some skill with or without a nutcracker. A friend of mine told me that as a child he cracked the nuts in the door hinge. I thought this a very clever idea; but he told me that the only result was that his father got mad because the inner walnut shells are so hard that they can damage the door. In the aeroplane industry the hard shells are used for polishing, NASA still uses ground shells for insulation) material and in the old times bakers used ground nut shells to make an anti-stick coating in their ovens.

In these beautiful autumnal days you might see old women sitting outside with large heaps of walnuts in front of them, carefully cracking all the nuts. They patiently do their job so that they have enough cracked walnuts to make cakes, cookies or a famous baklava.

Baklava is that very sweet pastry in which a filling of nuts is put between filo layers and then it is doused with a sugar syrup or honey. Baklava is also made with pistachios, almonds and pinenuts, as well as walnuts.

All over the world this pastry is called baklava, although spelled differently in each country and it’s fairly certain that it comes from the Ottoman Empire. According to Wikipedia it originated in the kitchens in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul where, every fifteenth of the month during Ramadan, the sultan presented huge plates of baklava to his Janissaries. Others say that this sweet pastry was already known in Mesopotamia or that it was a popular desert in Byzantium times.

How old it may be and wherever it came from, the recipes for baklava were brought to Greece by the refugees from Asia Minor in the Twentieth century and nowadays this pastry is firmly settled in the Greek kitchen. When making a baklava, they always make it big enough to last for days. Of course that also means that it takes many hours to crack the nuts for it.

That doesn’t matter because raw walnuts are good against stress and I imagine that two hours cracking walnuts can also calm you down. Walnuts contain phosphor, magnesium, zinc, iron and calcium; and amongst others things they keep your arteries elastic. They contain twice the antioxidants of other nuts like peanuts, almonds, pistachios and cashews.

So whenever you pass a walnut tree that still has its fruit hanging, beating them out will give you the perfect anti-stress therapy. Look for a nice recipe for cake or cookies with walnuts and you’ll see: walnuts’ curative powers will revive you.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Going away

Whilst Greece is sinking into the crisis, the sun keeps on shining, as if she wants to warm up the shadows in the hearts of the desperate people before the dark winter starts.

On the island international charter flights still arrive to disgorge loads of tourists: summer was so bad in the West-European countries that lots of people want to see some sun before they enter the cold winter.

However the largest groups of tourists have left the island: the small number of Greeks who could still afford a holiday and the masses of tourists who wanted to spend their holidays at the seaside. Now the island has regained its quietness and it is preparing for the winter. Grapes, figs, and walnuts are greedily harvested.

Spring was cool, wet and unpredictable, for a Greek summer we didn’t have many heat waves, but September was lovely, hot and warm. Last week a front with thunderstorms passed the island with loud concerts of thunder, splashing lightshows, only a short serious downfall and some small rain showers. In the West of the island only some droplets reached the dry earth.

In Soha, close to Leonidio on the Peloponnesus, this bad weather front hit full force, but it didn’t destroy, it left a present. The heavy rain unveiled an old Mycenean cemetery from the 14th century BC - or as the BBC likes to say: before common era - and in some graves were found various bits of old earthenware.

More days followed with happy white and gray clouds chasing each other across the blue sky. Then the sun picked up her dominant place in the sky and autumn seems still far away.

But hidden in the hearts of the people autumn has long started. The Greek people suffer from increasing prices and taxes, bankruptcies and unemployment. More and more retired people return to their villages in the country and on the islands where they came from ¬ because there they still can grow their own food.

Greeks from the mainland (and later the islands) have a long tradition of emigration. Since the Eighth Century BC (BCE) they left to settle on islands and foreign coasts as far as the Black Sea and Egypt. Later many fled back because of political mayhem after the fall of the Byzantine Empire in the Fifteenth century. Then they returned in the Nineteenth century to Egypt and Minor Asia to increase their commerce.

In the Twentieth century it was poverty and oppression that chased them even further into the world. In 1910 a quarter of Greek manpower left for faraway countries like America, where in 1914 more than 35.000 Greeks arrived. A beautiful movie about this emigration is America America made in 1963 by the Greek/American director Elia Kazan, who himself in 1913 emigrated with his parents to New York.

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire (1923) it was not so easy to enter America because of stricter immigration laws. So lots of Greeks then went to Canada, Egypt, Australia, South Africa and South America. Between 1940 and 1974 more than one million Greeks took off with their suitcases. A large number of them however didn’t go that far; but went to work in other European countries. For instance, in 1973 there were over 430.000 Greeks working in West Germany.

Since the end of the Twentieth century Greece itself became a country for immigration. Along with lots of Greeks who returned to their country it was Albanians and Egyptians who came to fill low paid jobs. Now they can all return home, unemployment rises like a barometer going mad.

The history of the last centuries on Lesvos is all the same: in the Twentieth century poverty made lots of people leave the beautiful island, leaving semi-abandoned or empty villages behind, like Ambeliko or Milies.

The amateur historian Vasilis Vasilos became fascinated by stories of the immigrant Lesviot people in Australia, where most Greeks are gathering in clubs according from which Greek region they come from. You even have clubs with people from the same villages like Antissa, Agiasos or Mytilini. Vasilis started to collect their stories and photographs, which has resulted now in two books: Journeys of Uncertainty and Hope and Our Homeland: Lesvos.

His website Syndesmos (where you can find more information about the books) lists which people departed from which village. It is of course not the entire list of emigrants but it gives you an idea of how many families were broken because of the immigration. Some of them have written stories of their lives, which are also on the website. They’re success stories of people who had no future on Lesvos and by very hard work in Australia made new businesses and thus created a dignified existence.

It is fascinating to read these stories. But also it is sad to know why these people left their roots in the Lesviot soil to start a new life far away from their country. Children departed in order that their parents had less mouths to feed; boys were exploited on the tobacco fields or didn’t earn a dime keeping sheep, girls didn’t want to have to marry poor farmers and followed their brothers on the long travels to the unknown.

Greece is again at the border of a heavy crisis. Already on Lesvos, youngsters were leaving for a better future in the big cities of the mainland. Young people are now reaching even further: they try to go abroad for study and better work.

I am wondering if we are at the beginning of an era when bitter poverty will again force many Greeks to pack their bags to find a better life elsewhere. But wherever they will go, their hearts will remain in Greece.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Pearls from the sea

(Shells from the Greek islands)

Everybody knows that snails have houses and everybody knows what they look like: a long body with two antennae at the head. But do you know what the animals who have been living in the shells that you find on the beach really look like?

On a day here at the beach I was flabbergasted when I admired a Triton-shell that had just been fished out of the sea by a fisherman, and suddenly a very strange creature came creeping out of the shell. It even wore a hat!

The animals that make the beautiful shells we find are molluscs. They have three parts: the foot, the interior and the mantle, which is their skeleton or shell. So they have their skeleton on the outside and use it as a shield from predators. Despite looking so weak, many of these beautiful coloured animals are not so soft and friendly.

They chase other sea animals and even their own kind. One of the biggest Triton shells, the Triton charonia, for example, eats starfish. He stalks them, tears off some of the tough skin of the starfish and injects a poison in order to enjoy his dinner at his ease. Starfish - themselves predators – have a sense that enables them to hear the approach of the Triton monster and many times they try to flee. So a real undersea chase scene follows and even the biggest starfish, the Crown of Thorns (Acanthaster planci) can loose the battle because the Triton-creature is always faster. Can you imagine the picture: an animal that has to tote its beautiful shell and on one foot chases a starfish that also uses only one of his feet for escape?

There are stories told that a human can be killed by a Giant Clam,
(Tridacna gigas), the biggest seashell that can grow to over a metre and live to a hundred years old. When you actually see the animal that lives inside this clam you immediately believe those stories about getting stuck in the shell and drowning: but the stories are said to be fairy tales. Just as it’s not true that the Goddess of Love, Venus, was born out of a Giant Clam, as pictured by the Italian painter Sandro Botticelli in his famous painting The birth of Venus. He might have meant it symbolically, because in his time clams were seen as vulvas. But we all know that Venus was born out of the foam of the waves at Cyprus.

However there are molluscs that can be dangerous for humans. There are some inhabitants of the conus shells who have a bite so venomous that they can kill you. So be aware when you pick up shells from the bottom of the sea that are still inhabited by their creators!

We like to eat shellfish like mussels, oysters, venus shells and Coquilles St Jacques. For many people these are culinary delicacies. In the past shells also had other purposes. The ancient Greeks and Romans used to make a purple dye out of Bolinus brandaris (originally called Murex brandaris). This must have been very expensive stuff because to produce one pound you needed at least 30.000 shells. To make the dye, glands of the sea animals were boiled with salt in urine, so you can imagine what a bad smell that must have been. Whole mountains of these shells have been found and now it is easy to tell exactly where this dye had been made in ancient times. It is a wonder that the Bolinus brandaris survived until this era; it still creeps over the sea bottom around the island.

What I didn’t know is that, in ancient times, they produced seasilk. The silk was made from threads produced mainly by the giant mussel, the Mediterranean fan-shell (Pinna nobilis Linneaeus). Cleaning blue mussels you must have noticed that some beards have to be removed. These hairs are used by the shells to cling to rocks and because the Mediterranean Fan-shell can grow to 90 centimetres and is many times bigger than a blue mussel, you can imagine that he also grows much bigger beards. The silk made with this sea hair is finer, lighter and warmer than the normal silk. Some people think that the Egyptians buried their pharaos in seasilk and in China it is also called mermaid silk.

I recently bought the Dutch book Sea shells from the Greek islands (Schelpen van de Griekse eilanden; only available in Dutch) by Jan Veltkamp and Sylvia van Leeuwen, in which they describe 80 shells to be found on Lesvos and other Greek islands.

In this I discovered the Chama gryphoides Linnaeus and the Pseudochama gryphina with the curious names translated from Dutch: the Right turning jewel box and the Left turning jewel box. They look like the irregular form of an oyster but are smaller and the lower part of the clam is deep and the upper part closes like a lid on a box. I did not have them in my shell collection but now having heard of them I found the Left turning jewel box (Pseudochama gryphina) at the Gulf of Kalloni.

There are no Giant Clams around the island but there are plenty of Venus shells. It is not always easy to distinguish the shells, but the Mediterranean fan-shell is easy to recognize. There still are plenty to be found around both the Gulf of Kalloni and Gera. It is said that they can produce pearls. Pearls are made when some grit enters the shell and gets covered by mother of pearl. So take your change and look for pearls! The Mediterranean fan-shell however is now a protected species, due to over-fishing and pollution. I presume they were not yet protected in 2002, when the publishing house Indiktos in Athens published the booklet Panorexia, ouzo appetizers from Lesvos by Stratis P. Panagos. Amongst the recipes you will find one with the Mediterranean fan-shell: Pinokeftedes. Mix the chopped fan mussel with onions, bread, an egg, some ouzo, trachanas and Oregano, knead it into balls and fry them in the oil. But you are no longer allowed to make those. So I make legal keftedakia with Venus shells (Kidonia). Venus balls — that really sounds good!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Fighting against Demons

(cover of Scattered Clearings)

The writer Stratis Myrivilis was born in 1890 in Sykaminia on the island of Lesvos. He grew up in the village and when he was fifteen he went to the gymnasium in Mytilini. He later went to Athens to study law, but not for long, because when in 1912 the First Balkan War began, he joined the Greek army.

When he returned to Lesvos, the island had been freed from the Turks and was filled with refugees from the fallen Ottoman Empire. His first novel Life from the Tomb is about the soldiers’ dreadful life during World War I and is set in the battlefields. His third novel The Mermaid Madonna, about a foundling in a little village, made the fishing village of Skala Sykaminia famous. His second novel The Schoolmistress with the Golden Eyes, published in 1933, has something of both the other novels: the atrocities of the war and the life in a small community.

The story is set in a fictitious village on Lesvos. It is called Megalochori (the real village of Megalochori on Lesvos is above Plomari in the mountains), but it could have been Molyvos, because the village is on the coast and has a castle towering high above it. It’s said that a schoolteacher from Molyvos was the model for the schoolmistress with the golden eyes. She is the widow of the war hero Vranas and is the most beautiful woman of the village.

The main character Leon Drivas is there when Vranas dies in a military hospital. He promises the dying man to bring some personal belongings to his wife Sappho, who lives in the same village where Leon’s family has a summerhouse by the sea. When Leon returns from the war he and his sister go to their summerhouse in Megalochori and he meets Sappho. And you’ve probably already guessed it: he falls in love with the beautiful Sappho. The story is about Leon’s inability to give in to this love because she is the widow of his friend from the war.

And of course, a love affair is no simple matter in a village where all houses have ears and eyes. It is a very traditional village where they will not accept that the widow of a war hero finds another man so quickly. Sappho already turns the heads of all the village men, giving the women even more reason to gossip about this tragic character.

The story is set around 1930 and fifty years later the village is still full of gossips. You can read about this in a newly released Dutch novel, Scattered Clearings (Verspreide opklaringen; not yet translated in English), written by the Dutch writer Peter van Ardenne.

This is the story about Rudolph, a Dutch guy who went to Molyvos in the Eighties to fight his demon: alcohol. A friend advised him to switch the town cafes where beer and jenever flowed plentifully for a sunny island. So lonely Rudolph takes the train and boat to go to Lesvos and ends up in Molyvos.

There is no jenever in Greece but pretty soon Rudolph discovers that there’s as much ouzo flowing in the Greek taverns as ever there was jenever in the Dutch bars.

Rudolph is a foreigner in the Greek village, so he doesn’t care that the villagers know exactly which girls stay at his house and how often he struggles to get home after long hours of drinking. Nor does he care about the attractions of the island that his girlfriends enjoy. Better to go to the beach and have an ouzo party than to visit the Petrified Forest or Eresos.

He is taken in by a group of colourful people who the more they drink, the more discussions they will have, especially about the revolution. But just as Leon in Myrivilis’ novel does not like communism, Rudolph has no sympathy for a revolution. Both main characters dislike politics: Leon because of his experiences during the war and Rudolh, well, he doesn’t believe in anything.

Scattered Clearings is a beautiful book about a person who wants to stop drinking, which is a lot to ask. At the background is Molyvos in the Eighties, when there were few tourists, the only official accommodation being the Hotel Delphinia and most roads – like the one to Eftalou - still dirt tracks. The people of the village were very hospitable but, at the same time, also very gossip-like and quick in judging the libertine life of the foreigners. Even those who come from the ‘faraway’ city of Athens were considered as outsiders.

In those days, many foreigners had been coming to the island for a long time. They were not all like Rudolph, more like Saskia (one of Rudolph’s girl friends) and her father and his friends: writers, scientists and philosophers who were all well integrated in Greek life and knew how to handle the drinking. Lots of these people are still returning to the island and they know most of the villagers.

Peter van Ardenne also returned and has now realised his dream to write a novel. According to him ,it’s a not difficult read: about a cynical person who starts to realise what consequences his behaviour can have. If you were to count the number of bottles emptied during the story, it would be surprising for you not to be fed up with Rudolph who keeps on falling into his own traps – ‘one more glass and then I will stop’. He is cynical and can be pretty blunt, yet the reader will love him. And even though he regularly is too pissed to enjoy the island, there still is magic to be found in the author’s descriptions of island life.

Leon had to fight the demons of his war – the death of his friend Vranas; Rudolph has to fight as hard against his alcohol problem. Whatever demon the model for the Schoolmistress with the golden eyes had to fight is unknown. In Scattered Clearings there is the description how she died: a tragic death worth a novel.

The Schoolmistress with the Golden Eyes, Stratis Myrivilis, Efstathiadis, 2003

Verspreide opklaringen, (only in Dutch): Peter van Ardenne

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

Friday, 2 September 2011

Greek grappa

(Tsipouro Dimino)

When you read about the history of alcoholic drinks like liquors, wine and beer, you may be amazed by the fact that many monasteries are part of their making. In monasteries in Belgium you still can taste beer, like the one that was invented by the Trappists in the seventeenth century.

It was the Greek god Dionysos that taught humans how to change grapes into wine. In the Middle Ages, wine making was mostly done in monasteries. God changed water into wine, so did the monks (well, they actually changed grapes into wine). Greek wines were famous worldwide and also produced by farmers, until the Turks invaded Greece in the fifteenth century. After that the farmers had to pay huge taxes and were unable keep their grape vines. However many monasteries were given privileges and so were able to keep on producing wine.

Of course the monks did not make alcohol to get pissed. Some saw it as a religious symbol – wine was considered to be the blood of Jesus Christ – and above all it was a healthy drink because it was made out of natural products. Some wines were even considered as medicine.

Monks used to be pretty busy people; they formed a closed community that had to produce its own food. So they worked the fields, brewed herb mixes to combat diseases and had all the time of the world to concoct new things; in earlier times monks looked for the secrets of life and were the scientists of the world. They also experimented with wine: an example being the liquor Chartreuse, made from 130 different herbs, which was created in a monastery close to Paris in the seventeenth century.

Much earlier, Greek monks had invented another drink through experimenting. Beginning in the first century they hacked monasteries out of the ground on the most eastern peninsula of Chalcidici (Macedonië), now renowned for its monastery empire Mount Athos. Wine from Athos was famous. In the fourteenth century a local monk used the ‘must’ that remained after the crushing of the grapes for wine to make another drink: tsipouro, called also tsikoudia (on Crete), raki (the Turkish name) or souma.

After ouzo, wine, retsina and beer, tsipouro is the most popular local alcoholic drink of Greece (whisky is more popular than tsipouro, but is not local). This strong beverage (around 40% alcohol) is best compared with Italian grappa. When the grapes are crushed, stems, skins and stones remain. This substance is put into kettles together with some wine and herbs and after several distillations it gives a clear liquid that may seem to look like ouzo but is quite different.

The secret of tsipouri is to be found in the herbs and everybody uses different ones. In some regions they add saffron, giving the liquid a bright yellow colour, similar to the yellow Chartreuse, although this is quite different. In other tsipouro’s they add aniseed and/or fennel, which creates anethole in the drink, meaning that when you add water it will turn white — just like ouzo, but a different drink. What they call raki in Turkey is often thought of as ouzo, but this is a tsipouro with aniseed and/or fennel.

Tsipouro is also called the poor brother of wine, because it is made with bi-products of wine making. When the recipe of tsipouro was presented to the world, it was mostly poor people and farmers producing and consuming it because the ‘must’, the herbs and the wood to keep the fire going under the distillation kettle did not cost any money. It was mostly made in an amateurish way in copper kettles and commerce in small communities was allowed. In 1883 the first taxes were imposed on alcoholic drinks. In 1896 the first licenses for tsipouri were issued. In 1989 tsipouro came under the European distillation laws and today it’s an official Greek product.

It is thanks to these laws that tsipouro has grown into a quality product. But, as you can imagine, there remained farmers who, in their barns, secretly stoked tsipouro according to their grandfathers’ recipe. And even now when visiting a Greek family, after dinner there might suddenly appear on the table a mysterious bottle with home made tsipouro.

It is said that tsipouro (provided that you drink moderately and eat some mezedes) never gives a hangover. I have to admit that I once drunk so much home-made tsipouro that I fell pretty ill. So for a long time I stayed away from this drink because even the smell made me sick. But now I have tasted another product of the island: the tsipouro Dimino, made in Mytilini — and I was pretty happy drinking it. Sometimes grappas and tsipouros have a flat taste, like you are drinking just alcohol, but Dimino has a full taste of autumnal fruits and herbs. Dimino is the only tsipouro officially produced on Lesvos.

Since the crisis in Greece, prices have risen speedily. In the eight years since I came here, prices for alcoholic drinks have nearly doubled or tripled. The monasteries no longer produce wine, the church now is brewing dinners for the fast growing population group that cannot afford Greek life anymore.

Luckily, here on the island, not many people need to knock on the monasteries’ doors for food. Most of them have their own garden — hence their own food. Many people also make their own wines. And even though Dimino is a very good quality tsipouro, I won’t surprised, if, during the coming grape harvest, the illegal distilleries will be taken out of hiding again.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

Smitaki @ 2011

Thursday, 25 August 2011

The Greek monsoon

(The lighthouse and unknown building in Hiyarlik Koyu, Turkey)

The monsoon is a wind that returns each year and is the announcement of the change of a season. When I think about a monsoon, I immediately see images from India or someother southeastern country where long and heavy rainfalls make humans and animals thoroughly wet and changes their world to a huge mud pool.

Here on the Greek islands we also have a yearly wind (sometimes called a monsoon) ¬ the meltemi, which the ancient Greeks used to call the Etesian winds. However, this northern wind that can blow over the Aegean from May to September is dry and brings not a drop of rain.

The Etesians are due to low pressure above Asia and high pressure above the Azores. The heat above Turkey reinforces this tension and creates the meltemi that can blow for days on end with a force from 6 to 8 Beaufort.

The ancient Greeks used to have numerous Gods who were responsible for the winds. They were regularly asked for help. When the island of Kea, was struck by a severe heat wave that made all crops die, the ancients accused the dogstar Sirius for this evil. This shiny big star is at its clearest during the Dogdays in July and August. Zeus decided to help out and sent the Etesian winds to cool the island for forty days. This brought about a new cult dedicated to begging for the yearly return of the Etesian winds.

Forty days? I would go crazy! In India people look forward to the monsoon. Equally the Greeks wait for their monsoon, because this wind is seen as a blessing: it chases away the heat and lowers the humidity.

Some days ago the meltemi came and I wonder who invited him, because we were not suffering from a heat wave. It was nicely warm. Of course, a day with a meltemi blowing can be a refreshing change from the usual heat — but please, not for so many days! After just one day, I am already a bit itchy because of the draught in the house. Even with the meltemi blowing the house becomes a furnace if you close all windows and doors; so you need to open them all, which means turning your house into a playground for the wind.

The Etesian winds are also fairly unpredictable. It slows down whenever it wants. Whilst there are some people who say that it always dies down in the night; I got blown out of my bed for several nights. On the sea it brings foam to the waves and in the water it shuffles the loose seaweed into moving clouds, which can be upsetting when you swim. Just when you think that the sea has calmed down and you go down to the beach, the waves start climbing again, the seaweed rises from the bottom and you have to think twice about entering the water. Another habit of the meltemi is to cool off the sea.

One advantage of the meltemi is that it clears the air. Sometimes during heat waves visability can become so bad, due to the humidity, that Turkey, which is opposite Lesvos, disappears completely from sight. But, when the meltemi sweeps through the air, you can start to see people lying on the beach in Turkey. Well, I admit that, is a little exaggerated; but you can clearly see the buildings in Turkey.

Just opposite Eftalou you can see a slim white tower. I thought that this was a minaret, but viewing the Turkish coast by Google Earth I learned that this is a lighthouse (if the picture is right). When the meltemi had chased away the hot muggy air, I discovered that behind this lighthouse there appeared another tower, a brown building covered in something red, twice as high and maybe three times wider than the lighthouse. I am intrigued because I cannot imagine why they built such a tower just behind (or beside) a pretty lighthouse. I think this mysterious building is at Hiyarlik Koyu, somewhere between Assos (Behramkale) and Koyunevi. Does anybody know what they are building there?

On the sea, when the waves appear with their white manes, sometimes you see the sail of a kitesurfer racing past. Surfers have the time of their lives during the meltemi. Other sailors are not that happy with this kind of weather; ferries sometimes have to stay in the harbour and it’s a treacherous time for sailing.

The meltemi announces the change of season, which makes me a little sad because it means that the summer is beginning to end. The dry leaves that fall because of the heat are the messengers and they dance in the wind, impatient to welcome the autumn. But we still have some summer weeks to go and it is not yet clear for how long the meltemi will rattle doors and windows. At least most people are happy that August is no longer ruled by the heat wave. So I’d better stop complaining.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

Sunday, 14 August 2011

The miraculous world of Mary

(Interior of the Maria Vrefokratousa church in Ayasos)

On Monday August 15 it will be Maria Assumption. After Easter this is the biggest holiday in Greece: when Maria will be taken into heaven. It is said that Maria spent the last years of her life in Ephesus, across the Aegean in Turkey, just opposite Samos. The Virgin Maria had been taken there from Jerusalem, by the apostle John, in order to escape the prosecutions of Christians.

On a hill, just beside a source John built her a house. Maria died after nine years living in Ephesus. The apostles buried her coffin in a cave a few kilometres from her house. St. Thomas however couldn’t make it on time for the funeral and when he did arrive, they all returned to the cave. Opening the coffin so that St. Thomas could have a proper goodbye it was revealed that Maria’s body was gone, although the coffin had been properly locked before opening: Maria had been taken to Heaven.

This is the story of the German nun Anna Katherina Emmerich
(1774 – 1824) who had, during her life, experienced plenty of visions from the lives of Jesus and Mary. When, at the end of her life, she became seriously ill there were few people she allowed around her. One of them was the German poet Clemens Brentano who wrote down Emmerich’s stories and later published them.

This is how curious people started to look for the house of Maria, that Emmerich had described so clearly, in the surroundings of Ephesus. In 1881 a priest from Paris found the location, but nobody believed he had found the house of Mary. Ten years later a group of people found the same location and this time they were believed. It was the ruins of an old monastery, with behind a path leading to the top of a mountain, a little stream passing by and a source. It is amazing to think that a German woman, who had never been there, had described this place so accurately. Later scientists revealed that under the remains of the monastery from the 6th – 7th century, there were indeed walls from the first century. Today the house of Maria has been rebuilt and it is a very popular place of pilgrimage.

Greece’s number one place for Maria pilgrimages on the island of Tinos – say the Lourdes of Greece – is also connected to a story from a nun who had a vision. The nun Pelagia was aged only fifteen in 1822 when Mary told her where to find an icon. So people went digging in the field she described and at the second try they indeed found an old icon, which is said to have been made by the evangelist Lucas. It has been attributed with so many miracles, curing people from illnesses, that the church Our Lady of Tinos (Panagía Evangelístria) was built to house the icon. It now attracts thousands of pilgrims. Even today many people pray to Maria to be cured and in return they promise to travel to her church on their knees, or even rolling or on their stomach..

Lesvos has two pilgrims centres dedicated to Maria: the
Maria Vrefokratousa church in Ayasos and the Maria Glikofiloussa church in Petra. The story of the icon in the church on the rock in Petra says that the icon belonged to a fisherman who always took it with him. In a rough sea the icon was lost. Once ashore, the fisherman saw a tiny light glowing on a huge rock and there he found his icon. He took the icon back to sea and again the icon got lost. When he found the icon for the second time on the huge rock, he realised that he had to build a church and leave the icon there. The church is from the seventeenth century and was rebuilt in 1840.

Another miraculous story is that of the Church of Lagouvarda in Markopoulo on the island of Kefalonia (Cephalonia). Each year in the first weeks of August this church is visited by snakes! When the people come to honour Mary during the 14th and 15th of August, the little snakes not only crawl around the icons, but are also passed from hand to hand by the believers. When Assumption Day is over, the snakes disappear as quickly as they came. These snakes belong to the Catsnake family (Telescopus fallax ) and are said to bring luck. Their non-appearance in the church during two years was seen as a bad omen: in 1940 when the island was occupied by the Italians during World War II and in 1953, in the midst of August when serious earthquakes destroyed large parts of the villages on the island.

It is another story involving nuns explaining these odd visitors. Once a monastery with nuns in Markopoulo was besieged by pirates. The nuns were very scared and they prayed to the Holy Mary saying that they preferred to be changed into snakes rather than fall into the hands of the pirates. And so it happened. When the pirates finally penetrated the monastery they were met by hundreds of snakes and they fled as fast as they could, leaving the monastery unharmed.

So here in Greece people keep occupied with Mary and her miracles during the month of August; the faithfull flood all the different places of pilgrimage, such as Agiasos and Petra, where it’s so busy you wouldn’t think there is a crisis going on.

I myself am not such a big believer, but I have to thank Mary on my bare knees for bringing back my dog Humpedumpy. We had to take her to the vet in Mytilini and when she arrived in the city she panicked, got off her collar and ran away. For ten days she was lost in the big city. Then a friend phoned me saying that she had seen the dog walking in a busy street outside of Mytilini where I was later able to pick her up. In the meantime my beloved Labrador Black Jack has died after a short illness but I guess no miracle can be produced to bring him back.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki