Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Bean Blues

(The broad bean plant has lovely flowers)

There is a day of spring and suddenly – zouffff – here is the summer. This year that day has come pretty late; in other years we have already had the first heat wave by now. But now, finally, here it is: the summer! Even though it has made its entrance very slowly.

As lovingly received as the summer, the first fresh beans of the year: koukias (broad beans) are being enthusiastically welcomed! Well, to be honest, they were already here many weeks before the summer.

Koukia (Vicia faba), used to be called favas and they were already being eaten some 6000BC in the Eastern Mediterranean. But they were also used for drawing lots to see who had to fight against who in the ancient Greek games of pankration (a combination of wrestling and boxing). In ancient Greece the seeds of the beans were used to ballot in the parliament: if you gave a black seed you did not agree, if you gave a white seed you did agree with a proposal.

The Greeks even had a special god for the beans: Kyamites. This rather mysterious God who looked after the bean harvest, had his temple on the road from Athens to Eleusis, a spot in Attica where they had celebrations for Demeter, goddess of the harvest.

The famous mathematician Pythagoras (570 – 495 BC) who came from Samos was also a philosopher and a reformer who had plenty of followers. Maybe this group was looked upon as a religious sect because they had serious rules to follow. They were forbidden to wear clothes made from animals, they were not allowed to pick up anything that fell from a table and they were not to eat beans, because Pythagoras thought that our ancestors lived in the beans. Maybe Pythagoras got that from Egypt where he had studied and where they believed that death travelled through the stem of the bean plants to the underworld. At the end of his life Pythagoras lived in Kronos (nowadays Corone in Italy). When the local people revolted against the Pythagorians and their revolutionary ideas, they mobbed their school and Pythagoras fled into a bean field. Here scientists disagree how Pythagoras died: some say that he walked slowly through the bean field because he was afraid to step on the beans and because of this he was caught and murdered. Others say he fled through the bean field, reached a temple where he hid and died from hunger.

In the novel Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture from the Greek writer Apostolos Doxiades we also find a combination of beans and mathematics. In the story, Uncle Petros tries to prove Goldbach’s conjecture, which is - that any even number greater than two is the sum of two primes. For this he used (dried) beans that he scattered across his living room floor. Even two years after that the book was published and both the English and the American publishers of the book promised a one million dollar prize for anybody who could solve Goldbach’s conjecture, the problem remains unsolved.

You could say that beans do not bring luck in mathematics¬ – but that they can make you happy ending your hunger. In Holland broad beans are far less popular than here in Greece. When they are fresh, like here on the island, they can be turned into a five star dish. You pick them when they are still small and you cook and serve them in their pods.

When the beans are really big, they are less wanted by the Greeks. But I know better - take those huge beans out of their pods and bake them with some bacon and cream. Another five star dish!

A popular Greek dish, mainly in wintertime, is fava, which can be green or yellow. You might think this is a dish made of broad beans, but it is not. Fava is made with split peas (and sometimes with chick peas). Which is strange, because I have never seen fresh peas on the island. But I have seen thousands of broad beans. And when the bean plants sigh with the weight of their heavy fruit, everybody invites you to come and pick the beans. Even though Greeks do not like their beans so big, it is a pity to let them languish on the land. Do the Greeks not know that with double shelled koukia you can make a marvellous kind of fava? You get them out of their pods, you cook them for about five minutes and then you mash them with some pepper, salt, mint, thyme, some lemon juice, olive oil, garlic and an finely chopped onion. You sprinkle them with cheese and put them in the oven long enough to melt the cheese: a tasty dish made with ‘fava’ beans not called fava.

Around mid summer, when the very last bean comes from the field everybody is greatly disappointed that the beans’ time has ended and that we have to wait another year for fresh koukia.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

Thursday, 19 May 2011

The wineroads of Lesvos

(Wines from Lesvos and one of Limnos)

Maybe you are tired of the old ruins from the far and glorious past of Greece. Modern Greece has more to offer than its monuments from ancient history. For example – wine. In ancient times, when temples and castles predominated the landscape, Lesvos was famous for its wine. Soil and climate were perfect for great wines like Pramian (see Winery).

Somehow during the turbulent events of the past and the many changes of rulers, the viticulture was lost here on the island; and the grapes were killed by the lethal disease Philloxera.

In the rest of Greece it was mainly the same story, and when the country stood up from the dust of the independence wars, the second world war and its civil war, it resumed serious viticulture.

Maybe Lesvos has remained a little behind the mainland, where today they make fabulous wines, winning more and more international prizes. If you follow all of the routes described in the website of ‘Wineroads of Northern Greece’ then you will have seen half of the country.

I do not know of any wine roads here on Lesvos, even not an ouzo road, Lesvos’ most known product. However more and more people here on the island do produce quality wine, like the winery Methymneos, that has put the name Lesvos back on the wine map.

About a year ago a new winery was created in Megolochori: Oenophoros, with its excellent red wine Daphnis & Chloë, that became my favourite wine. Last April they introduced a white wine under the same name as well as the red wine Makaras. I have not had a chance to drink these last two wines but I am looking forward to tasting them.

The wine roads on Lesvos are not that extended with only two vineyards existing here. But you have to realize that wine is made in nearly each village you pass, wines that never reach the shops because they are made for local consumption. They make a beautiful wine in Anemotia; each year I drink litres of a tasteful biological wine from Plomari and during very long evenings, I enjoy the strong wine from Lisvori without getting drunk. So, in a way, all roads of the island lead to those small local wineries.

Methymneos ( is situated in the small village of Chidera. Drive through Skalochori to Vatoussa, a beautifull village with tall traditional houses and a small but interesting folkloric museum. At the end of Vatoussa is the turnoff towards Chidera. The winery is at the beginning of the village and they provide interesting tours through their building. But the winery is not the only place to visit in Chidera: it also has the only digital museum in Greece: that of Georgios Jacovidis.

Jacovidis (1853 – 1932) was born in Chidera, studied art in Smyrna (today Ismir), continued his study at the art school in Athens and finally mastered his art in Munich. Most of his paintings are of people and lots of children, in a style called German Realism. His paintings are to be seen worldwide in museums like the Art Institute of Chicago and the National Gallery in Athens.

So, before you taste some wine at Methymneos, a visit to the digital museum is worthwhile. Works by Jacovidis are displayed digitally, and you can find facts around his work, his family and the time he lived, in an interactive way. It is a modern adventure in a traditional village.

Your wine road should not stop here in Chidera. You should go back to the main road and continue towards Andissa where you will pass the monastery of Perivoli. When the warden is present, in this now uninhabited monastery, you should not miss the opportunity to go into the church to admire the frescoes from the 16th century.

And now that this tour is becoming more a painting road than a wine road, you should drive another few kilometres where you will see – just before Andissa – the extension towards the small hamlet Tsithra, which is a small nearly deserted village, beautifully hidden in lush greenery, where you will find an Agios Nicholaos church also containing very old frescoes. The times I was there the lady holding the key of the church had always ‘just’ gone away. But I am sure you will be more lucky. After that I leave it up to you if you continue for a coffee to the marketplace of Andissa or to have a fresh dive into the sea at Gavathas.

The wine road towards the wine of Megalochori is not that romantic because it leads towards Mytilini where the actual winery is, a modern building where traces of old history can be found, just across from the supermarket Lidl. The vineyards of Oenophoros however are in Megalochori, and they have vineyards in Karionas, Eresos and Kalloni.

So if you want to sniff a little at the air and earth where Daphnis & Chloë comes form, the nicest way to Megalochori goes through the villages Ambeliko and Akrasi. Ambeliko is built against a steep mountain slope and at the foot you will find the village church with its small folkloric museum. You do not even have to enter the museum in order to admire the playful architecture of the church, the fountain and other paraphernalia.

Megalochori, in the past the capital of the island, is a cute mountain village and is just above Plomari, the ouzo capital of Lesvos. In this charming little city you can visit the distillery and museum of Barbayannis who makes one of the best ouzos of the island and, of course, you have to roam through the picturesque streets with mansions and the remains of old leather, soap and ouzo factories.

There is a third wine road. This one however goes over the sea towards the place with the best wines of the Aegean: the neighbouring island of Limnos. There you will find different wineries producing internationally praised wines as well as slobber wines, as we say in Holland – meaning good and not too expensive wine that you can drink litres of). Most wines are made with the Moschato Alexandrias grapes, but they experiment also with other grapes. Wines from Limnos keep on surprising me. I recently drank a fantastic white, Limnos Premium, which had a fresh sparkling taste. A few wineries also produce a sweet wine and those should be as famous as the Samos wine: they are great. The journey to Limnos cannot be made in one day, but for people who love wine, it is a must to take some days to visit this wine island.

By following these roads you will experience a big part of the island, where most wine is not yet in mass production but is only for local use. Lesvos, a wine island? Yes, indeed it is.

(Thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

The treasures of Megali Limni

(A volcanic landscape on Lesvos with the village of Agra)

While Western Europe is enjoying one of the hottest springs ever (during Easter lots of heat records were broken); Greece has to make do with a pretty cold and sometimes turbulent end of spring. It is so cold that a fine warm summer seems to be very far away.

In Holland the people will be thinking that the scientists are right in predicting that the world is warming up. However, here in Greece where showers in May still can chase you off the streets and where an ice cold wind that seems to come from the North Pole blows right through your clothes, you will think the opposite.

Scientists cite natural disasters to prove that the world is warming up, but it is the geologists who have proved that in very early times natural disasters were bigger and more disastrous. Digging into the earth, they have found evidence of previous volcanic eruptions and huge tsunamis that flooded the world.

We all know these stories from old writings like the bible and mythology. It was God as well as Zeus who sent floods to the earth to punish the people. In the book Genesis you find the story of Noah who saved himself from the floods by building an ark. There is a Greek myth that tells how Deucalion did the same when Zeus sent floods to the earth. Forewarned by his father Prometheus, Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha built an ark and escaped the water.

You could ask yourself if such a huge flood did really happen. As seashells have been found on top of high mountains — how high could the waves have reached? Thanks to progress in science, more and more proof is offered to suggest that the disasters written about in the bible could have really taken place. Just think about when the Jews fled Egypt and the Red Sea parted, leaving a way to escape. Was this not just the moment before a tsunami came and the sea drew back in order to gather strength and to relaunch its lethal waves later in order to destroy the soldiers chasing the Jews?

Scientists now think that Atlantis existed and was destroyed by a tsunami. Was Atlantis, in fact, the Minoan Empire (27th to 15th century BC) on Crete that — and here the scientist are sure — got destroyed by huge waves following the volcano eruption at Santorini?

Megali Limni (Big Lake) is somewhere near Agiasos and, just like its name suggests, used to be a big water basin that delivered water to Mytilini through the famous aqueducts build by the Romans (parts of which still exist at Moria and Lambou Mili). When in 1823 an uprising against the Turks was put down, the Turkish ruler confiscated the Megali Limni and drained a big part of it to plant wheat and had the inhabitants of Agiasos do forced labour as a punishment. Over a century later, when the Ottomans were thrown off the island, the rest of the lake was drained and it is now still agricultural land, where wheat and fruit trees grow.

Geologists have discovered interesting things in the earth at Megali Limni: the bottom there is easy ‘to read’ and they have seen tracks that go back tens of thousands years (22 to 62 thousands years to be exact). During the investigation of different layers they discovered tephra (fragmented material produced by a volcano eruption) that came from volcanos far away from Lesvos (the Cape Riva on Santorini, the Yali on Nisyros, as well as volcanos on the island of Pantelleria and in the region of Campania in Italy). Imagine what big eruptions those must have been! The disruption caused to flights in Europe last year by the ash clouds from the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull was nothing compared to what happened so many thousand years ago.

And we had the volcano eruptions right here on the island that killed and burned powerful sequoia’s and other trees (and who knows what else), after which heavy rains petrified the trees. But that happened millions of years ago.

The fact is that the earth never has been a save place to live. Ice ages finished tropical woods on Antarctica and after that the earth turned green again. The bottom in Megali Limni shows also that Lesvos was once covered in woods, at other times however there were steppes with barely any vegetation.

Scientists predict that Greece will warm up several degrees and will become more arid, especially in southern parts. Well, here on the island I see nothing warming up. Unless you consider that paddling in the sea wearing your wintercoat in May is a sign that the earth is getting warmer each year. I personally think we are slowly moving to a new Ice Age.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Tulips from the Levant

(Photo: Tulipa undulatifolia)

Holland is known for its bulbs and especially tulips. Tulips from Amsterdam are world famous, but did you know that the tulip is also the flower of Turkey? Tulips from Istanbul should be as famous as those from Amsterdam.

It is now common knowledge that the famous Dutch bulbs – like the tulips – originated in the region that is now Turkey (see: Tulips from Lesvos). What I did not know is that the Turkish are also very fond of tulips. The name of this special flower originated during the Ottoman Empire and is derived from the Persian word dulband, which means turban. Some say that the tulip is named after the turban because its shape resembles this headgear, others say the flower is named so because for a period the Ottomans loved this flower so much that they decorated their turbans with tulips!

And they were crazy for tulips. Lots of merchants went bankrupt due to the speculations during the tulip mania in Holland (1630 -1637). A few decades later, another tulip mania started in the Ottoman Empire: the Tulip Era (1718 - 1730), which lasted only twelve years, but was important enough to become history.

In this period the Grand Vizier Ibrahim Pasha decided that business was better than making war. He especially promoted trade relations with western countries. As there was less war related gossip, the elite of Istanbul started being interested in flowers; and because the then ruling Sultan Ahmet III was crazy about tulips, they focussed on tulips. Each spring the Sultan had legendary parties in the gardens of his palace. The guests could not only enjoy the many tulips planted in the garden; the sultan made sure that thousands of tulips were gathered from everywhere in Istanbul. They were placed in coloured bottles and displayed where no tulips normally grew. As the parties were given during the evenings, illumination was supplied by many lamps and candles as well as by tortoises that shuffled about among the flowers with lanterns on their backs.

The newest garden fashions were discussed and there were flower shows, and the person who presented the most beautiful tulip was rewarded with a certificate from the Sultan and a bag of golden coins.

Tulips have remained in Ottoman gardens and since this period their images are everywhere: on embroidery, clothing, in books and in paintings. Even now, the planes of Turkish Airlines have a tulip on their trunk and the municipality of Istanbul annual has three million tulips planted in the city.

Like the famous Dutch Keukenhof, Istanbul also has a famous flower garden: the Emirgan Park on the Bosporus. The park was created in the seventeenth century and is one of the largest in Istanbul. Besides a great collection of special trees and plants, since 2005 it has an annual tulip festival in April where people can enjoy tulips in all sizes and colours.

The Turkish word for tulip is lâle. Lalades comes from this Turkish word and that is what tulips are named on the Greek island of Chios. I am sure that there will be tulips in many gardens on Chios, but this Aegean island just south of Lesvos is famous for its wild tulips. At this time of the year you will find many of them and there are six different species.

Lesvos is not known for its tulips although there are four different species growing on the island. I think they are difficult to find because they look very much the same as the poppy’s that colour the island bright red in the same period. From a distance you can’t tell the difference between a poppy and a tulip so you just have to bump into them by accident or you have to know where to look.

I have never visited Chios when the tulips are flowering, so I do not know if you need a lengthy search there in order to find a field with tulips. Here on the island such a search can last for hours because they prefer to grow on faraway and difficult to reach areas, like on the higher mountain slopes of Lepetymnos and Olympos, as well in the neighbourhood of Klapados. Yesterday I saw wild tulips near Vrisa: they were hidden in a wood on a steep slope, but they were great with fancy undulated leaves and red pointed flower petals:Tulipa undulatifolia. Rumours say that a yellow tulip flowers on the island too. Who knows where?

Today it is the first of May. Here in Greece they celebrate the start of the tourist season, Labour Day and the day of the flowers. Garlands are hung on the doors and lots of Greeks go for a picnic in nature (or they ‘picnic’ in a restaurant). The island now is so gorgeous with all its wild flowers and although I have to admit that a field full of wild tulips is very impressive, I do miss those flowers shops in Amsterdam where they sell lots of different tulips, which you can buy, bring home and put in a vase and for weeks you can enjoy these wonderful flowers. I do understand why there were tulip mania periods. If I had lots of money I would have started one myself.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011