Sunday, 23 December 2012


(Love Ikona by Chantalle van Eijk)

Greek icons and Indian Gods inspired Chantalle van Eijk to make her Love Icona. With this beautiful picture I wish you:

Happy Holidays and a very good 2013

Chantalle van Eijk (born 1974) finished her study as artist in 1998, then she made long travels and got her inspiration from the faraway countries. In 2003 she fell in love with the Greek island of Lesvos where she stayed and since then lived and worked. The structures, colours and basic forms in the landscape and the sea are her main inspiration.

For more information:
Facebook: Chanti van Eijk

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

December 14 – I want a Hay-Madam!

Photo from  the  internet: Solar cooking at CantinaWest

While you can see snow glistening on one of the mountain peaks in Turkey and temperatures on Lesvos have dived, the sun is still trying to keep the frost out of the earth. But last night I put on my warmest clothes and sat outside to see the stars falling. Well, in fact it was not stars falling last night, but space debris, coming from the meteor Geminides. When I had lost track of the number of flares crossing the sky, I went back to my warm bed, not waiting for the highlight of this meteor shower, because it really was much too cold to stay outside.

And while I was sitting under those twinkling lights I thought that this sky is a world that could never be lost, even though so many stars or debris are falling out of it. And I do hope the same for beautiful Greece. I mean the Hellenic people have already existed for thousands of years. Now they are living through a black spot in their history: a crisis touching so many Greeks in their hearts and in their wallets. In Holland they complain that the Dutch are reining in their spending, here in Greece the people do not even have money to spend.

To economize is the big thing these days for everybody. Shops in Mytilini are barely decorated for Christmas and it is hard to find any luxury items in the food stores (or were they already sold out?). Here the wood stove does its best to keep the house warm. This way, I too I economize on gas, electricity and on fuel, which cost this year has risen by 50 %. Lots of people have already bought a woodstove and I am sure illegal logging will increase this winter. People have rediscovered using olive pits to heat, like they did in earlier times. They are now delivered as an alternative and cheaper fuel for central heating. They also sell olive pits compressed in blocks for wood burners and olive pits can be turned into a bio fuel for cars. Let’s hope that a smart Greek is buying all the olive pits at all the olive presses here on the island and starts a business with it. As far as I know at the moment there is only one business on the island selling these olive pits for the central heating and he sold out his merchandise pretty quickly.

A woodstove is a nice way to economize. Apart from it giving warmth, you can use it to warm up food; preparing food when you have a woodstove with an oven, you can bake bread, pizzas and cakes at any time of the day.

But there are more ways to economize while cooking. In the poor, warm third world countries (and Greece is on its way to re-enter this category) there is experimentation with solar cooking. With mirrors or silver plated panes the warmth of the sun is directed to a central place where you can place a cooker. Just imagine a satellite dish, plated with tinfoil, directed to the sun. In the middle an iron frame keeps a boiling pot and in it you cook. The solar cooking box does the same, but seems to me more practical: a box with mirror sides and the cooking pot is placed at the inside.

In the winter it may be that solar cooking is not possible. Imagine you plan a dinner and there is no sun for the whole day. Then you have to use an open fire, or the hot ashes in a firepit. The drums of old washing machines are easily turned into a fire pit or outside stove: just put an oven grid over the opening and there you can put your cooking pans. But make sure that this pan is fire resisting!

One of the eldest pans used to cook on an open fire was called a Dutch oven. These are heavy iron cast pans that could last for generations, made in Holland. In the nineteenth century they were indispensable and popular amongst the pioneers going to America in search of a new life.

People living in the city can’t always make an open fire, nor use a wood stove. But even without fire or sun it is possible to economize while cooking. The hay box is a box or basket where you place a pan with food in the middle, fill it up with hay and or woollen blankets and the food gets done because the hay and/or blankets will keep the warmth. In Holland they developed a modern hay box, a large upside down tea-cozy, which is a joy to have in the kitchen and is called a hay-madam.

This week I didn’t manage to experiment with young thistles, nor with mushrooms but I have some other Christmas menus which are composed of dishes from my cookbook Almost Greek. I am not sure if you can prepare them all in the above mentioned cooking fashions, because I imagine that these alternative ways of cooking need some practice. But there are enough ideas to set yourself to work. The vegetarian menu I gave in last week’s column Rain, mushrooms and a Christmas menu. Here are a meat and fish menu for Christmas.

Almost Greek meat menu for Christmas

Chestnut bread rolls

In between:
Peach in champagne

Main course:
Rabit with mushroom sauce
Vegetables with pesto
Potato pancakes with herbs

Mud from Heaven with figs

Finishing dinner with:
Quince liqueur

Almost Greek fish menu for Christmas

Spinach omelettes with shellfish ragout

In between:

Main course:
Pasta with asparagus-shrimp sauce
Carrot salad with almonds
Broad Bean Dip Sauce
Olive bread

Red jelly pudding

Finishing with:
Fresh apricot bonbons
Orange liqueur
(the recipe of orange liqueur is not in the book)

  • The cookbook Almost Greek is available through the website Smitaki (in Dutch, English and German), in the shop 1912 (Lisa) in Molyvos (Lesvos, Greece), at the bookstore ΜΟΥΤΑΦΗΣ at Ermou 11 in Mytilini (in English), the book can be paged through at Cafe Joke at Omirou 13, Athens and the Dutch edition is for sale in different book-and cookshops in Holland 
(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2012

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

December 9 – Rain, mushrooms and a Christmas menu

(Saffron Milkcap)

In the Wild Hunt for Saint Nicholas last week I mentioned that many thunderstorms had passed over the island, causing great lightshows. A reader mailed me, asking why I had written about the bad weather without mentioning how much damage it caused on some parts of the island.

It’s a big island; it can happen that such news does not reach you very quickly. When you don’t follow the national news regularly on television, it can also happen that, especially if you live in the countryside and you’re not regularly connected to the social gossip of a village, you may not be up to date with the news. So I have only just heard what damage these floods and thunderstorms caused in the centre of the island and in Mytilini. Mytilini, Agiasos and Ambeliko had so much rain, that roads flooded in Mytilini, mudslides came off the mountains damaging houses, parts of roads were destroyed in Ampeliko, churches (and other buildings) got flooded and a rapid fall  of water went straight through the theatre of Agiasos, see films on YouTube {the first 5}.

The colossal rains caused lots of damage on the island, but all that water also did some good: mushrooms are shooting out of the earth and even though the weather remains rainy and unpredictable, lots of people are going to the mountains and woods to collect mushrooms.

The ancient Greeks were familiar with all kind of mushrooms. But somewhere in history this knowledge got lost and modern Greece has just recently (since 20 years) regained interest in mushrooms. It was mushroom specialist George Konstantinidis, who started publishing papers and later books in Greek about the mushrooms of Greece and since then more and more people have been infected with mushroom fever.

It’s a similar story here on Lesvos. Some ten years ago most people only knew the pèperites (peppered Milkcap, Lactarius piperatus), that grow in the pine forests and some people were familiar with the meadow mushrooms. But when you showed them a mushroom that they did not recognise, the advice was always the same: “Don’t touch them, they are poisonous, throw them away!” Nowadays plenty of people, gathered in groups, roam over the island on mushroom hunts and even visit their fellow mushroom hunters in Turkey. And slowly the people of the island are learning that there are a lot more tasty mushrooms that can be turned into a meal when the rains finally transform the dry landscape into fertile grounds from which lots of delicacies grow.

Because of the wet weather and the muddy roads I have not ventured too far – for example to Agiasos or Klapados where I know there are ceps growing. I stayed close to home at a spot where plenty of the tasty sister of the peppered Milkcaps can be found: the saffron Milkcap (Lactarius deliciosus). Because these Milkcaps love to grow under earth and branches they are quite dirty and the easiest way (yes, I do know that you should not clean mushrooms with water) to clean them is wiping all the dirt off the upper cap under some streaming water. And because between the gills there is often some dirt, I loosen it with a knife, as I also did with the smudgy borders of the cap. This way you get very clean mushrooms to use for delicious dishes. Yesterday I cut them in small pieces and fried them in some butter. The orangey juice of the mushroom mixed with the butter into a delicate sauce, which I kept on boiling in order to reduce and then seasoned it with cream, salt and pepper. I then mixed this saffron Milkcap ragout with boiled red cabbage, which is an excellent combination.

Of course lots of other mushrooms grow around here, although I do not know them all and leave them, like the beautiful bright orange mushrooms that grow under the olive trees, and the small yellow ones with a crenate bordered cap or those parasol-like chocolate coloured mushrooms, who stand up straight out of the grass. The light brown boletus I do know, but since they are not so tasty I leave them and the time for the meadow mushrooms just has yet to start.

I my cookbook Almost Greek you can find the recipe for ‘Peppery Milkcap Fries’, easily to make with the peperites; because they are so big and sturdy they are easily cut into long sticks. You will also find a recipe for how to make a mushroom ragout or how to turn young meadow mushrooms into peppery snacks (‘Spicy Mushrooms’). This month I will remain in culinary mood and in the coming week I will experiment some more with the mushrooms and with the young Maria thistles, which, just like the mushrooms, spurt in big numbers out of the ground. I was surprised even to find some wild asparagus, normally to be found in March or April, which means that indeed nature is somewhat troubled these days.

For Christmas I will make some suggestions for three Christmas menus - vegetarian, meat and fish - composed of recipes out of the book Almost Greek. Here is the first one:

Almost Greek vegetarian Christmas menu

Greek croquettes
Spicy mushrooms
Filled eggs with asparagus cream
fig fingers

In between
Courgettetagliatelle with feta and mint sauce

Main course
Pancakes with mushroom ragout
wild spinach with orange juice


Finishing with

* The cookbook Almost Greek is available through the website Smitaki (in Dutch, English and German), in the shop 1912 (Lisa) in Molyvos (Lesvos, Greece), at the bookstore ΜΟΥΤΑΦΗΣ at Ermou 11 in Mytilini (in English), the book can be paged through at Cafe Joke at Omirou 13, Athens and the Dutch edition is for sale in different book- and cookshops in Holland

Saturday, 8 December 2012

December 4: The wild hunt for Saint Nicolas

(Thunderstorm approaching Petra; photo: Jeroen Koster)

According to Wikipedia the Wild Hunt “is an ancient folk myth prevalent across Northern, Western and Central Europe. The fundamentals in all instances is the same: a phantasmal, spectral group of huntsmen with the accoutrements of hunting with horses and hounds in mad pursuit, cross the skies or along the ground, or just above it.”, announcing a thunderstorm and mostly taking place in mid–winter.

People still believing in this old legend must have been pretty happy these last few days seeing plenty of the Wild Hunt here on the island. For days heavy thunderstorms passed and each day we could enjoy (or quiver) while seeing bright lightshows as lightning illuminated the clouds like light bulbs, or we could wonder about the freakish lightning that was sent straight into the ground or the sea.

Was it Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus that kept the rain away for a few hours during the Christmas market which was held in the schoolyard in Molyvos on Sunday December 2? Did they also delay the Wild Hunt, in order that the villagers could get in the mood for Christmas? Or was it both Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus — who are believed to be the same person (see: Saint Nicholas)?

In German mythology the leader of the troop of hunters who chased along the thundering sky was the old German god Wodan, but there are also people who believe that it was Saint Nicholas who lead this group of men.

Some people believe that there are connections between the rituals around Wodan and Saint Nicolas celebrated of on December 6th by the Dutch. They both ride a grey horse, Wodan through the sky, Saint Nicholas over the roofs; Wodan commanded an army of black soldiers, while Saint Nicholas is helped by black servants; Wodan used black ravens to spy for him, Saint Nicholas has his servants spy on the children for him; Wodan had an upbringing role in reprimanding people who were not living according to gods laws and Saint Nicholas puts naughty children in a sack. These and other similarities lead people to believe that a few of these old German stories about Wodan were the origins of some of the Dutch rituals around the Dutch Saint Nicholas celebration.

Here in Greece there are no similarities between Wodan and Saint Nicholas. December 6th in Greece is the name day for all people named after Saint Nicholas (Agios Nikolaos), the patron saint of the seafarers. That is why there are thousands of Saint Nicholas churches to be found in Greece, most of them close to the sea. There is a Saint Nicholas church in Mytilini, close to the old harbour, an ancient mosque rebuilt in 1912 as a church. Another Saint Nicholas church on the island is the very old basilica in Petra, hidden under a huge plane tree, not far from the rock that is home to the famous Maria Glykofiloussa Church. In this ancient church you will find very old frescoes of a series of saints, amongst them of course Saint Nicholas. Some of the wall paintings are 3 layers thick, the eldest dating as far back as the 16th century. Beautiful woodcarving and a bishop’s throne 500 years old, complete the faded glory of this old basilica.

Certainly there will be more Saint Nicholas churches on the island; there are still plenty of small ports where fishing boats keep on coming in and out and they all need to be able to burn a candle for a safe journey. On December 6th all those churches will be lit with extra candles because all men called Nikos will celebrate their name day.

So Saint Nicholas exists in Greece. And it is generally believed that the Saint Nicholas so celebrated in Holland originally was the Greek bishop of Myra. This bishop was also buried in this area (near Demre, Turkey). Italian merchants believed in all the miracles Saint Nicholas did and when the muslims threatened to take over the region of Myra, they exhumed the remains of Saint Nicholas and brought them to Bari in Italy, where they built a basilica, and where his remains still rest.

I think that in Turkey they have no Saint Nicholas celebration, nor are people named after this saint. However, the Turkish government has more than once asked Italy to return the remains of Saint Nicholas: they claim that they belong to the Turkish heritage.

Maybe secretly Saint Nicholas is also for them a patron saint for seafarers. For days now, here on Lesvos as well as at the other side of the sea, intensive storms have raced over the area, causing havoc. The first winds came from the south, shaking the olive trees, causing garden furniture to fly through the air, walls to crumble and streets to flood. For two days there have been long, strong rollers from the west, making some coasts of Lesvos look like Hawaii with huge waves tumbling over the streets. It will be no paradise these days on the sea. May Saint Nicholas keep all seafarers safe.

(With thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2012