Wednesday, 30 January 2013

January 28 - Chorta-la-di-dee


One of the things I noticed during the first winter I spent on Lesvos, was the groups of horta collectors. During the summer I had already been invited to go to the mountains in order to look for wild vegetables so I imagined a romantic outing on fresh mountain slopes with superb views. There also was a lady who kept inviting me to a farm in the mountains.

In that winter I found out that the area she referred to is known by the name Seven Hills (Eftalou), but I see this region as pretty flat and not at all mountainous: a sloping land with meadows and where olive trees grows. The farm was actually nearly at the sea and also it seems that the word farm for Greeks has another meaning than we have.

Here on the island nearly no Greek lives on his farm. The Greek farma which is normally only home-made ruins consisting of a collection of old wood and ancient beds set together as a shed which act as a shelter for sheep and goats. The farmers themselves mostly live in the nearest village and do their work from their village home. Agricultural farms are relatively unknown on the island.

So I wonder why you should go into the mountains to look for horta or go to a farma in the mountains: the seven-hill-area is one of the most popular horta regions of the north of Lesvos and as I have written many years ago in my blog: there are days that one group of horta hunters after another appear here in Eftalou, so busy that you could imagine starting a little fish & chips shop at the seaside.

You have very bold horta-hunters, who just roam into your garden or park their car or moped there, tear down the gate from the ‘closed for the season’ hotel (because there in this forbidden place, —the grass [in this case the horta] looks greener and juicer). The hunters behave as if finding horta is like a quest for the holy grail so everything is permitted. They have just one goal: to fill up as best and quickly as they can their plastic bags.

The knowledge of horta is mostly passed from mother to daughter; there are men who also know their greens but their skills lie more in hunting mushrooms. What horta hunters look for depends on what grows in that time, what speciality they have or on their state of health. One can look for horta that can mellow a headache, another looks for a horta that cleanses the blood or something against stomach pains. The fact is that horta is superbly healthy and lots of people do not even care or remember which horta is good for what ailment.

It is not that long ago that it was mostly only old women who went for horta. The horta knowledge was in danger of disappearing. However, nowadays more and more people have picked up the challenge of horta hunting and so I’m hoping that the knowledge of wild vegetables will be saved. Due to the crisis, going for horta is a new mania and why not? Suddenly people realise that nature is a kind of market where you get for free wild greens, seafood and snails. Along the coast you can go for squid, shellfish and sea-urchins, on the land you can gather vegetables. There is no supermarket that sells it that fresh!

When I recently was in Holland I was shocked to see that a big part of the Dutch go to the same supermarket, a super market that reigns a country! Pre-cut vegetables and fruit packed in plastic: who can believe that that is healthy? However tasty they make their products with chemicals, it has less and less to do with real food.

You do not have to live in Greece to go for horta. You will find plenty of edible greenery in your back garden, like burdock, cattails, chicory, dandelions, plantains or purslane. You may even cultivate wild greens as real vegetables: Weeds in your garden? Bite back! Or venture out on Sundays to the country and you will see, hunting horta can be fun.

Here on the island you do not really have to exert too much effort to get some food: the island is surrounded by a huge fish pond and so many wild vegetables grow that you do not have to look far, you’ll just stumble over them. Or the loudly buzzing horta-women will lead you to the best spots.

What is so great about the Greek climate is that, even in winter, nature is full of edible stuff. Besides horta and mushrooms, now the citrus fruit is to be harvested and it is time to brew sweet liquors, to pickle lemons and make and eat lots of orange and clementine puddings.

I wondered if there could also be horta-drinks. Herb drinks, like thyme liquor, are known, just like ouzo is made with plenty of medicinal herbs (that is why it is said that ouzo might cure stomach pains). I read somewhere that some Greeks drink the horta cooking water, seasoned with some lemon juice, as a medicinal drink. I have just remembered that as a child I made ‘wine’ with dandelions: I just soaked the yellow flowers in some water turning it a kind of yellow, which I seriously declared as ‘wine’. But dandelion wine does exist, even though I have not drunk it since my youth. Here is a recipe. And if you prefer to drink beer, here is a recipe for a dandelion beer.

Greece is a green winter-spring-wonderland full of culinary possibilities. It may take more time to collect than to buy ready-to-cook vegetables or fish filets in the supermarket, but at least you get something very healthy and fresh and… for no money!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2013

Tuesday, 22 January 2013


 Thanks to abundant rain the is land is green and wet. The wetlands seem to have doubled in size. The little pools and their watersides are like two playmates, creating wonderful landscapes.  Hard not to get inspired: The wetlands.

Material: ink, acryl paint, conte on watercolor paper, sizes: 24 cm by 31 cm, prize: 125 euro.

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:
Or on Facebook: Chanti van Eijk

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

January 7 – A song of churches

(The little church Panagia tis Amalis)

It is not that long ago that the majority of the people living on Lesvos voted for the communist party. The island used to be known as a red island. Which is a little odd, because Lesvos is also known for its large number of churches and its inhabitants still live pretty traditionally: communism and religion here form a pair.

Long ago the island was already exceptional by building lots of churches. Anthony Kaldellis wrote in Lesbos in Late Antiquity* that this abundance might be due to the fact that in pre Christian times Lesvos had bishops who followed doctrines other than those dictated by the main church in Constantinople and that for this reason they built churches for the followers of Constantinople as well as for those who were faithful to their bishop.

They were very pious in those times: Ioannis Moutzouris wrote in his book Ο Μοναχισμός της Λέσβου (the monkhood on Lesvos) that there used to be as many as 35 monasteries around Mytilini and 44 around Methymna (Molyvos). I wonder how he arrived at those numbers; because I don’t know of a single monastery around Molyvos. There must be traces to be found. I’m sure that some of the stones in the older houses will be found to have come from one of those monasteries. And once you go digging in the earth I do believe that whole monasteries and ancient settlements will appear from the earth. It is a matter of reading the old documents.

According to Moutzouris, it can very well be possible that the patron saint of Molyvos, saint Theoktisite (see: The Robinson Crusoe of Molyvos), before she was abducted by pirates, lived in a monastery for women in Mnos. Molyviots eat part of their words and that is why it is possible that the name Mnos comes from the word monastery (monastíri). Most people think that the region Mnos is also called Eftalou. But Mnos is actually just before the first high hill of Eftalou. In the past, during building work at the former taverna of Angelos, ancient walls were found in the ground, just on the spot where it was said there used to be a monastery. But there is no money for excavation and as we know there is so much to dig up in Greece. If you really want to dig up all of Greek history, the whole of Greece would be turned upside down. So the ancient walls in Mnos were recovered with earth and buried again with their secrets (the same happened during the building of the house of the yoga’s Victor van Kooten en Angela Farmer, a little further afield in Eftalou).

If there really were so many monasteries, how many churches would there have been? Not only Lesvos, but all of Greece is full of big churches and even many more little churches or chapels. You see them everywhere, even in the most remote spots. The ‘in-the-middle-of-nowhere’ churches are called xoklisia and they can be very old indeed. According to a study about the landscape on Crete the age of those churches can be very valuable to the history of its region: those churches were not just built on any old spot, but served as a landmark for a road junction, a well or a spring or a settlement.

Lesvos also has lots of old basilicas from early Christian times, built by the church. Some were made of the stones from temples or were built right on the spot of old temples. Kaldellis has a second thought about why there were so many churches here on Lesvos. He suggests that when Christianity was introduced on the island (pretty late, around the fifth century), the merchants who were familiar with the outside world and who introduced Christianity made sure that many churches were built in a modernization effort. The inhabitants were not forced to convert but old pagan believes slowly made way for Christian rites. So no iconoclasm but a transition from temples to churches, with people combining usage of old pagan rites and the belief in one God. Kaldellis also refers us to the sacrifice of the bull, a tradition that existed until not long ago in Agia Paraskevi, where bulls were offered and even nowadays symbolically celebrated each year –a pagan tradition that has never disappeared. 

But most xoklisia were (and still are) not built by the church but by citizens as a tama. Tama is the promise that you make to God when you want something from Him: getting cured from an illness or to acquire something very special. On Chios for example, the island of shipping magnates, it is the norm that for every second ship you buy, you build a little church to show your gratitude.

You will not find shipping owners on Lesvos, but lots of sheep. It might be that for every hundredfold of sheep you build a church? Fact is that even though it is a time of crisis new churches are still being built. But I am sure that once the crisis is over, an even bigger new craze of building churches will appear!

*From the book: Archaeology and History in Roman, Medieval and Post-Medieval Greece: Studies; chapter 10 by Anthony Kaldellis: Lesvos in late Antiquity: Live Evidence and new Models for religious Change.

(With thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2013

Friday, 4 January 2013

January 3 - O, Christmas tree!

(a creeping pine tree)

When talking about Greece, pine trees don’t immediately come to mind although there are plenty of pines amongst the many other trees on Lesvos, where throughout all seasons the large pinewoods colour the heart of the island green.

The pine even has a minor role in Greek mythology. The story is brought to mind of the bandit Sinis who used bent pine trees to catapult people into the air or alternately  split them in half. King Theseus, known as the hero who killed the Cretan Minotaur, gave Sinis a bit of his own medicine and so the road to Athens became safe again.

Pan, God of the woods and animals, liked pine trees and nymphs. One day he fell in love with the wood nymph Pitys, who was already being courted by Boreas, God of the Northern winds. But because Pan made much less noise than Boreas and his stormy winds, she choose Pan. Boreas, infuriated by her decision, let Pitys fall from a high rock. Pan found her lifeless and changed her into a pine tree. Since then, when the northern winds are blowing, Pitys cries and her thick tears become the resin that drips from the trees and which in turn are used for retsina.

Pine resin is used for many other purposes and until the end of the Sixties resin was still harvested here on the island (see: When the pine trees still had a face).

Christmas trees also belong to the extended pine tree family (Pinaceae), but the ones which are used in the West of Europe for a decorated tree (like a spruce or a fir tree) do not grow on Lesvos. On the island we mainly find Aleppo pines, black pines, Turkeys pines and here and there Umbrella pines. Of course those can be used also as a Christmas tree, although the smaller ones have limp branches with only a few needles and when decorating the tree it requires great effort to prevent all the lights and balls from crashing to the ground.

Pinecones, the fruit of the pine trees, are other beloved Christmas decorations. And there are plenty on the island. They can be painted gold or silver or just used in their natural colour. They also serve very well in the barbecue or as kindling for a stove or an open fire. But before you throw them in the fire, consider that they have taken quite some time to grow: some of them up to 1.5 to 3 years. I am wondering if that is an explication why, for two years now, the Umbrella pines around my house have not produced any pine nuts. Are the pinecones all of the same age, meaning that they will be ‘born’ in the same year and during the time that they grow, there will be no pine nuts?

Pine trees have more peculiarities. Like the trees I used to call creeping pines, in Dutch ‘kruipden’. Officially a ‘kruipden’ is not a pine tree crawling over the ground, but a Mountain Pine (Pinus mugo): short pines growing on high mountain slopes. Quite different from the big pine trees, they, instead of standing tall, creep over the earth or forming T-junctions in the air with their branches. I have some of these around the house and seeing them makes you happy: a special kind or a stubborn pine that perversely grows side ways.

I do understand why the pine tree was a favourite of Pan: this beautiful tree is stubborn, evergreen and has a lovely fragrance. When just before Christmas I took a walk to the Pessas waterfalls, I became sad because there still doesn’t seem to be much running water: the farmer that illegally drains the water has still not been stopped. But my walk went straight through pinewoods where you can still see the rusted iron buckets for the tears of Pitys and thanks to the drizzley weather and the strong perfume of the trees I got into Christmas mood.

Over Christmas the weather turned beautiful and temperatures rose. Christmas lunch could be eaten in the sun, sheltered from the wind, and in the following days you could still adjust your tan in the warm sunrays. In the nights the moon also contributed to happiness with plenty of light and you could have very romantic walks in the moonlight, feeling the landscape turning into a fairy tale, enjoying the pine trees that sparkled as if they were decorated with candles.

And now we are approaching the second celebration day of the year. In many countries Epiphany (or the Three Kings) is celebrated, but in Greece it is also the day on which the priests bless the waters, boats and seamen (see: Cross throwing). January 6th is also the day when traditionally all Christmas trees should be banished from the house and in so doing lose that great aroma of the pine trees. But even though there are no real Christmas trees, here on the island there remain plenty of beautiful trees, whose fragrance we can enjoy: sweet and fresh, a stimulating scent for the new year!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2013