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 (http://smitaki.blogspot.com/2011/04/throne-of-potamon.html), 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