Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Art to eat

My father always said that I should not play with my food. In France they consider bread as holy and you are not supposed to play with it. So I never play with the food on my plate. But I have other ways to play with food.

Here in Greece, I prefer to eat the vegetables of the season (there is hardly any other choice). So when the summer advances and the heat boils parts of your brain and I arrive at the vegetable shop I sometimes get mad about the small choice: tomatoes, cucumbers, aubergines, paprika, zucchini, onions, potatoes: those are the vegetables of the season.

I have to admit that I have given up Greek cooking. I have never understood how the Greeks know how to turn such simple ingredients into five star dishes. I have decided that in my kitchen it is more fun to play with those local ingredients than to labour to become a Greek cook.

For example, I love an African couscous and the only ingredient not available on the island is the couscous itself (those little wheatflour grains). You can import it from abroad or buy it at the Alpha Vita in Mytilini. But be careful what you buy: the Greeks have now discovered couscous as well, or let’s say they have produced something they call couscous; but it’s very tiny pasta balls that has a totally different property than the real thing – juice-loving little grains made out of wheatflour. Nor can you get merguez sausages on the island; but you can bake the local home made sausages with lots of hot paprika powder, which gives an inkling of the taste of merguez. Other specific ingredients for a couscous dish are tomatoes, chickpeas, mint, lamb meat which are all readily available during a Greek summer.

Another favourite dish is a Spanish paella and all the ingredients, except again for the sausages (a paella has hot chorizo sausage), are available. If you wish to make a paella with shellfish, you have to wait for the winter when they come fresh from the Bay of Kalloni. But with frozen shrimps (the fresh ones also come only during the winter), octopus and other fresh fish you can make a lovely paella. Saffron comes mostly from Kozani, the region in Greece where saffron crocuses are grown on large scale. The Greeks also make rice dishes with shellfish, but they keep it simple: just rice cooked in the cooking juice of the shellfish.

I also experiment with somewhat simpler dishes. For example, when you make a cream out of feta, cheese spread and other local cheeses (like ladotiri or graviera) you get a tasty dip which you serve with slices of cucumber. You can also spread the cream on grilled slices of aubergine. You roll them up, pin them together with a tooth pick and you’ll have a wonderful snack. And have you ever served feta with quince jelly, oriental fig confiture? Or you can serve it, as the French do, with some of their goat’s cheese, — just aroused with some honey and sprinkled with thyme? And then there are those Italian courgette pancakes made with grated courgette, eggs, garlic and basil.

Greeks will not approve when I will tell them about the fish terrine that I made recently with the fish that was supposed to be used for a fish soup. Greeks don’t like to mash their food and so a fish remains whole until it ends up on your plate (except of course for those in the soup). But when there’s a heat wave, like we have at the moment, you don’t fancy soup, so — a fresh fish terrine is a welcome change of food.

And, during this summer heat, how about a delicious icecold Spanish gazpacho (tomato soup)? I was once served a very tasty cold Greek yoghurt-cucumber soup by a friend who got the recipe from his mother who lives in Kozani. So the Greeks know a cold soup. But best cold soup you can get at the moment in Molyvos is the famous and incredible lovely carrot soup from the restaurant Majorani.

But what to do with all those melons? For the honeydew melons there is the old standby recipe of slices of melon with smoked ham. But a good ham (unless imported), is difficult to find here on the island, just like paté. You only get those farmers’ sausages, which are lovely, but why can’t they produce smoked hams, like they do on Cyprus?

A few years ago, I wrote about how, every summer, everybody is confronted with enormous amounts of water melon. You can even grill them: grilled watermelon. A while ago I saw an even better use for a watermelon: water melon art. I was flabbergasted by the beautiful objects they carved out of the fruit. On YouTube you will find plenty of instructive films on how to make them: for example – carving roses. And when you spoil one, you can eat it yourself!

It would be a super attraction for the tourists on Lesvos. The island does not have enough sandy beaches to organize a sandcastle contest. Nor does it have the right climate to build huge palaces out of ice. But Lesvos has mountains of watermelons and with them you can create large fields of flowers. If on Rhodes they can dance the sirtaki with 2000 persons, why can we not change 2000 watermelons into a piece of art?

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

Friday, 22 July 2011

Fire risks

(Fire close to Petra)

One of Europe’s biggest catastrophes in the last century unfolded not too far from Lesvos: the destruction of Smyrna (today Izmir). This city used to be the richest town of the Ottoman Empire and was the home to Turks, Greeks, Armenians, Jews, English, French, Italians, Americans and so on. After World War I, Kemal Atatürk saw it as his duty to free Turkey from the plans of West-Europe and America to reduce the mighty Ottoman Empire to the size of Anatolia. There was also the question of who would become master of Smyrna. This political bickering turned out to be disastrous for the inhabitants of Smyrna. For years, there had already been fighting in Turkey, but the people of Smyrna thought they were too powerful to be touched. Only when the defeated Greek army started to pour into their city, followed by tens of thousands of refugees and finally the army of Atatürk, did they realize that they also were in danger. On September 13th1922 the final catastrophe, that would end the easy living at Smyrna, started when houses were set on fire and flames slowly made their way through the various quarters, on to the quay, where half a million refugees got trapped between a hell of fire and Turkish soldiers eager to kill.

As it happens, a fleet of ships from international powers was moored just outside the city in the Bay of Smyrna. But they were only there to save their own nationals and, not wanting to get involved in the Turkish conflict, they did nothing to prevent this humanitarian disaster. It was due to the American Asa Jennings, a clerk at the YMCA in Smyrna, that hundreds of thousands of people were able to escape the hell. He personally made a deal with Atatürk, the Americans and the Greeks that under the American flag, a fleet of Greek ships moored in Mytilini’s harbour were allowed to evacuate the people.

The book Paradise Lost by Giles Milton reports the tales of witnesses and diaries from that time. It tells about the tolerant city, its beauty, the rich dynasties that lived as though in paradise, as well as the ongoing wars and political chaos, but especially about this incredible hell that ended everything.

Lesvos in this history was just a springboard to Smyrna, for the Greek army and later for the evacuations. Of course the island in that time became engulfed with refugees (not only from Smyrna) who lost everything. Many people here on Lesvos have their roots ‘at the other side’, in what once was the Ottoman Empire.

Lesvos too has also lost places to fires. During the building of the big church in Agiasos in 1812 the church went on fire as did a part of the village. And maybe God was not so happy, because sixty-five years later the newly rebuilt church and the entire village got destroyed by another fire.

Megalochori, the big village above Plomari, was destroyed three times by fire in the 19th century and has earned the name Kameno Chori (burned village). One or two of the fires had been set by the pirates. When the pirates had finally been chased away from the Aegean Sea, the inhabitants left their fire-prone village to found a new city at the seaside: Plomari. And that is why Mechalochori is sometimes called Old Plomari.

Petra has also not been lucky. When, in 1912, the island was freed, the withdrawing Ottoman army plundered the houses, murdered civilians and set fire to the village.

Nearly a century later the danger of fire is again high on the island. It is not that cities and villages are in danger, but, for about four years, there seem to be an arsonist active in the region of Molyvos. He causes sleepless nights to many inhabitants; he starts his work when the children’s summer holidays start and the fires stop when the children go back to school. He attacks only the region between the Molyvos-Vavios road and Petra. So far this summer there have been six fires.

The third fire was alarmingly big and started near the Hotel Molyvos Castle, on the Molyvos–Petra road and raged quickly over the mountains to Petra in the direction of Stipsi. Thanks to a changing wind and its swimming pool the hotel was spared. As was Hotel Panorama in Petra where the fire was miraculously stopped by the walls that enclose the hotel. There was huge panic but the flames were kept outside of the hotel. The three last fires were all in the same afternoon, seemingly the pyromaniac is playing with the firefighters.

In Washington D.C. it took thirty years to catch the arsonist Thomas Sweat who set fire to hundreds of houses, just to trigger his sexual fantasies. The best known arsonist of America is John Orr, who was an arson investigator himself. He published a book about pyromania, but lit ten thousand fires in the region of San Francisco (also it seems to stimulate his sexual fantasies).

It is not certain that the region here has a pyromaniac. He has not yet been caught— if it is a ‘he’ (female arsonists are very rare). Nor indeed do we know if there is not more than one person involved. He probably does not aim to cause a humanitarian disaster like in Smyrna, as he has avoided the villages. Until now, he has only caused black charred landscapes; but his fires are coming closer to hotels and houses. Civilians and firefighters are extremely alert these days — so let’s hope he get caught before worse things happen.

(With thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Dance the night away

I finally have the feeling that summer has arrived: temperatures are climbing above 30°C and from the beach children’s noisy voices beam through the neighbourhood. It’s the time when people on the beach and the streets take up their summer mood: racing taxi’s and mopeds.

Crisis or not, Greeks always enjoy summer. Especially the nights when work has been done and the afternoon heat has passed away. Even though the municipality does not have too much money, it has presented a reasonable cultural summer program, although most events are taking place in the capital Mytilini. Here in the north we have to make do with a music performance of Nick Tsirigotis on the main square of Petra (21.00 on July 18) and on August 6th there is music and dance from the Ionian Islands in the castle of Molyvos. On August 7th in the same location there will be a children’s event called The princess and the frog (21.00). In addition to the famous Sardine Festival on August 6th and 7th in Skala Kalloni, Kalloni has some concerts and Plomari and Polichnitos have both one event. However for all other music and dance events you have to travel to Mytilini.

Maybe you are curious about the timing of the childrens’ event – nine o’clock in the evening – that’s because, in the summer, Greek children don’t go to bed early. They sleep in the afternoon when it’s so hot and they only go to the beach about six or seven o’clock. And when the parents go out for dinner much later, they take the kids along. In wintertime I have also been amazed about the late bedtime for children. More than once I have seen movies for children programmed very late on television. I wonder if Greek children ever go to bed early.

Here in the north we don’t have to be too sad about the meagre municipal cultural program. Besides the many local festivals and the celebration of the Asumption of Mary on August 15th, there are several restaurants which hire musicians to light up the hot summer nights. In any case, even without planned dance events, you will often find dancing because Greeks love to dance.

Dances of Lesvos have been influenced by history. The Karsilamas is a dance that came with the refugees from the East and this dance is now popular in both Turkey and on Lesvos. Karsilama means face to face and that is why the Karsilamas has to be danced by two people. It is also called ksila (χιλα), which means wood.

I prefer to watch an Ayvaliotikos Zeybekikos, another popular dance on Lesvos which I think is more dramatic. The name comes from Ayvalik, the village in Turkey opposite Lesvos, meaning that this dance also came from the other side. In this dance normally one person performs before a group.

It is pretty amusing to surf around on YouTube in order to see what little movies have been made of these and other Greek dances. I even found some instruction movies to teach you how to dance; but the instructions for how to dance the Karsilamas were too poor to be taken seriously. Just take a look at Music on Lesvos Island, and you will see that these dances are a little bit more complicated than just one, two, three, four.

However you can win prizes even though you don’t know all the steps to a Greek dance. This happened to father and son Stavros Flatley during the popular television program Britains got talent in 2009. Due to their great Greek charm and without too many Greek dancing steps they reached the final of the competition and became fourth.

In western European media Greeks are now said to be ouzo boozing lazy people, stopping work when they reach the age of fifty. People who visit Greece know that this picture is totally wrong. Especially in the summer season, old and young folks work like hell in order to save for the winter months when there is less work to be found. But late in the evenings, when a glass of ouzo may well appear on the table, the Greeks throw their tiredness into the air and not only drink but also dance the night away. Local tavernas and village festivals provide welcome opportunities to forget their worries. The bull festival in Aya Paraskevi has already passed but have a look at this man who wanted to dance but could not separate himself from his horse: a horse dance. And what do you do when you don’t want to go home after the Sardines Festival? You just continue to dance an improvised Karsilamas in front of the harbour.

Or, if want to get into the papers with your Greek dancing — then you have to go to Rhodes where, in Kremasti, on July 31, they will try to enter the Guiness Book of Records by having 2000 people dance the famous sirtaki dance. This dance is also called Zorba’s Dance. That’s because this dance was created during the filming of the famous movie Zorba the Greek where Anthony Quinn had the memorable leading role. The steps of traditional dances such as the hasapiko or the syrtos were too difficult for Quinn so they created a new dance for him with the music of Mikis Theodorakis. And that is why the most famous Greek dance is no older than 1964, when this movie came out and was an instant worldwide hit.

If you don’t fancy any Greek traditional dance, then you should come to Lesvos where from July 14 to 17 there is going to be a tango festival in Molyvos. What better than to do a tango under a bright moon to music of famous deejays? During the daytime there will be workshops and dance demonstrations by famous tango dancers.

Summer heat has arrived, along with the languorous nights. What more can you do than dance the night away?

(With thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

Monday, 4 July 2011



There are days that I could wring the necks of some Greeks. This is because of a huge birthday party we had, with many friends and family coming to the island – with some of them telling me pretty upsetting stories about their hotel owner or a car hire company. I had to do my very best to tell them that not all Greeks are like this.

Greece who is dancing a dangerous tango with bankruptcy cannot afford to loose tourists. Tourism is the economic segment that at least brings some money to the empty treasury of the state. Here on the island there are some entrepreneurs who are doing everything in order to save their business from Greek ruination. But some are not.

It is a disservice when a Greek that give you a warm welcome when you arrive, but then bluntly says that your reserved room has been taken and you have to make-do with a room in some backyard hotel – or when arriving at the airport your reserved car for five persons turns out to be a small car for four persons – or in a row of several cars the police decide that your rental car is the only one wrongly parked and gives you a ticket. Hotel owners had the whole winter to do some rebuilding, but some only started to build when the first summer guests arrived; as if all that construction noise is an attraction for the guests who came to enjoy quietness! These are not very friendly welcomes for the visitors to this island. I sometimes ask myself what people here are doing to manage their hotels or car rentals agencies. It is clear that some of them really are in need of a good course in customer service.

However these are only small incidents and when the victims of such a welcome recover from their first fright, they discover that Greeks are by nature hospitable and warm people. Although I must say that the Greek small entrepreneurs, like the hotel and restaurant owners and car renters of this island are in a difficult position because ¬– to say it simply ¬¬– together with the Greek lower and middle classes they have to compensate for all the unpaid taxes of the rich.

So, it’s no wonder that in Athens they take to the streets and demonstrate, so you’d better not venture these days to Syntagma Square or near the parliaments buildings of Athens.

On Lesvos there is nothing to be seen of this unrest – even though the general strikes have caused some delay for a plane or two and we have had some small power cuts. Although the Greeks here are a little sad – life is becoming more and more expensive and nobody knows what is going to happen to their country – but life continues as usual. As in other summers, charter flights disposit hundreds of tourists on the island who come to enjoy sun, sea and the countryside.

Crisis or not, the earth gives what she has always given – vegetables and fruit; a little late, because of the cool weather – but plenty and not more expensive. The fruit season has started and the trees are full of apricots, cherries, mulberries and prunes. The first cucumbers, zucchinis, tomatoes and eggplants have been harvested, while the bean season has already finished. For the tourists life on the island seems to be like a cloudless sky.

However, it seems as if the weather is participating on the side of the protesters. Clouds gather in the sky and, more than once, they have formed a front, looking like riot police with shields, to block off the sun. Yesterday it poured cats and dogs in some places on the island and the weather forecast for tomorrow also predicts some rain. Mornings and evenings can be rather cool and a jacket is indispensable when you go out for dinner. I am still sleeping under a thick duvet in the night, which is unheard of for a Greek summer night in July.

So there are very comfortable temperatures here in Greece, especially for the tourists who experienced extremely hot weather in their own countries like Holland and Germany and have come to cool off in Greece!

Until now summer has been strangely cool and full of hot debating. Will you help the Greeks? Come and have your holiday in Greece. I am sure you will not regret it because people who spend their holidays here always return home very satisfied, even though they might have met a person who forgot how to behave like a ‘hospitable Greek’.

(If you are in doubt about Lesvos being nice enough for your holiday, order the book Scatterlight Donkeys & Foxballs Ice Cream and get seduced by the stories and the pictures of this beautiful island.)

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011