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

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