Monday, 24 June 2013

June 18 – A magic garden

(An apricot or peach)

After he killed his children in a moment of frenzy, Heracles’ punishment was to undertake twelve deeds. One if his last tasks, was to steal the golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides. This was a kind of paradise that surrounded the tree with the golden apples, (a wedding gift from Gaia to Zeus and Hera). When you ate a golden apple you became immortal; so they were much sought after and protected by seven nymphs, called the Hesperides. However Hera did not much trust these beauties and reinforced the team with Ladon, the dragon with a hundred heads. How Heracles managed to get the golden apples, you can read about in Apples from Lesvos.

People now wonder what these golden apples were exactly, because many kinds of fruit in ancient times were called apples. More than once, tracing the history of a fruit, I have been amused to read that the fruit was supposed to have hung in the tree in the garden of the Hesperides. Oranges, apricots, quinces, pomegranates and peaches, they are all candidates for the golden apple. Maybe this famous tree was a magical one and bore all different kind of fruit.

Although I wonder if it was apricots or peaches that hung in that tree, because historians agree that these fruits originated in China, a country far from the garden of the Hesperides and the Greek Gods. From Persia (from where the name peach comes) Alexander the Great brought the fruit to Greece and later on the Romans distributed it further into Europe. Of course, Alexander did not personally bring the fruit to Greece. He died in 323 BC in Babylon, the mystical city in today’s Iraq, after eleven years of conquering half of the world without ever again seeing his homeland of Macedonia. His conquest of so many countries enabled the mingling of many a Greek tradition with foreign ones and I am sure that neither he nor his soldiers sat down to a Greek dinner, but were served the dishes of the conquered countries. The returning soldiers of Alexander’s army brought home the most strange things, like the seeds for apricot and peach trees.

Peaches are a little bigger than apricots, their flesh is white to light yellow; the flesh of apricots is darker yellow or plain orange. Both have a peachy skin, opposed to nectarines, which are peach-like with a smooth skin. These small differences confuse me. In my garden there is an apricot tree producing large apricots, which while ripening change in colour from light green to yellow, then to orange with a fancy bright red blush. My neighbour also has an apricot tree, but hers produces much smaller fruit. She also has another tree with fruit as large as mine, but the flesh is light yellow, like that of a peach. And there’s another tree with fruit that has orange flesh, which would appear to be apricot, although it tastes more like a peach than like my apricots. Are you still following me? Well, it looks like the apricot-peach-trees here in the neighbourhood each have different fruit. My neighbour also has a tree with fruit, which seems to be a mix of an apple and a pear. It is a very special fruit, also tasting a little odd. I have a pear tree surrounded by only wild apple trees, will my neighbours’ tree be a mix? You could easily believe that the Hesperides have again taken up gardening and are creating crazy fruit, so that future historians will be confused whether we have grown apricot or peach or apple or pear trees.

With the prune trees it’s the same story. I have a tree with fruit, which ripens into a dark blue colour and tastes soft and very juicy. My neighbour’s tree produces dark red prunes, which is less juicy and soft. Cherries here also come in two different tastes: the morellos (acid ones) and the sweet cherries, the last nearly impossible to harvest because the birds are always faster than me. But we only have one kind of mulberry: the white ones.

So I don’t know what to call the marmalade I have made from the seven kilos of fruit gathered from the various trees: is it an apricot or peach marmalade or should I just call it a marmalade from golden apples?

Anyway we are in the midst of the time of the golden fruit: prunes, cherries, apricots, peaches and mulberries all are ripe at the same time. Because of the wet weather in April, I neglected the strawberries a little resulting in a very meagre harvest. When in May I recognized my failing I did my best to pamper them and now they have rewarded me with a second harvest, meaning that whilst picking the fruit from the trees, I also have to roam through the strawberry fields to find the thick red and belated Summer Kings (a Dutch nickname for strawberries).

It is hard to get all the ripe fruit, just like it’s hard to catch all the thieving butterflies, wasps and birds who are all feasting upon my fruit and only satisfied after their bellies are well filled. No wonder we have those incredibly huge wasps: they do not produce royal jelly, but apricot and prune jelly (or is it only the bees who make royal jelly?)!

Each year it’s a great joy to taste the first ripe fruit from the trees. Even after a second and third day you are still being regaled with them. But when bowls have to be replaced with buckets to collect them, you start to panic about where you will find the time to collect and preserve. Now the harvest is nearly done, and only a few boxes are waiting to be preserved, but I am sure that by next week when I look up at the green but empty branches, I will again be longing for that juicy fruit. Tell me, Hesperides, why can you not make all the fruit ripen at different times?

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2013

Thursday, 13 June 2013

June 11 – 100 Coffee Houses and a Travel Agency

(Pandora Travel, Lisvori)

Quite a few people coming to Mytilini in this time of crisis will be wondering why all cafes are so crowded. Night and day the catering establishments around the harbour are bursting with young people. I guess you could say that it’s Greek culture: business deals are concluded and friendships are sealed in cafes. Their only difference from their fathers and grandfathers is that the young people have swapped the old dusty kafenions for bigger and more modern places. No crisis can keep a Greek from having his coffee or another drink in the café.

To whichever village on Lesvos you go, you’ll be surprised by the number of kafenions in their centre. A few of them will have been closed for years, as the Lesvorian villages have slowly emptied. The closed kafenions are a poignant reminder of a time in which the agora was the lively centre of the village. Whilst those village squares and main streets are no longer busy with people, they remain the beating heart of the village and many a tourist will have a faint heart driving through such a village, weaving around the tables of the still-open kafenions, afraid of driving over the big toe of one of the customers.

The mainly male customers (you will find the women seated on the front steps of their houses) enjoy seeing tourists carefully winding their way through the narrow streets of their villages. They are there to comment on whatever is happening and every event leads to discussion. In the coffee shops friendships are made, life is discussed, thanks are offered for a job welldone or sorrows are expressed.

In many villages modern cafes have not make an appearance because the young people have moved to the big cities. That is why the elder men have to hang around in kafenions that, who knows for how long, have not changed a bit. In a few villages trendy bars have been established, just to please the tourists. For example in Molyvos there is no old traditional kafenion anymore. Here the men have to retreat to restaurants such as Alonia or Angelos where they still are welcome to sip their coffee for hours and to comment on the world.

In Molyvos virtually all the old kafenions have been lost: mostly all buildings have been renewed and all vestiges gone forever. This is different in most other villages, where you can still peep through dusty windows and discover the interior of an old kafenion that should be put into a museum. I feel that they all should be classified as monuments because of their historic interiors with old pictures and artifacts hanging on the walls once freshly painted in awful colours (I say awful, but I guess that once these poo-beige and turquoise-green colours must have been à la mode).

Together with the old kafenions, the national beverage ouzo ­– with coffee the most consumed drink in a café - seem to be neglected: young people prefer to sip a frappé (cold coffee) or to nurse a colourful cocktail all night long. In an attempt to make it more fashionable an ouzo-festival has been organized in three different locations on the island: in the ouzo-strongholds of Plomari (July 6 & 7) and Mytilini (July 13 & 14) and in the faraway port of Sigri (July 10). Music, an exhibition of ouzo labels and snacks (ouzo should never be drunken without food) are some of the fixtures of this travelling ‘happening’, along with a slideshow of photos of the old kafenions of Lesvos, made by Tzeli Hatzidimitriou, known for her beautiful book 39 Coffee Houses & a Barber’s Shop, a book that has secured at least the images of a lot of these disappearing kafenions.

People may ask what is the best ouzo, but there is only one answer: Lesvos ouzo. The question of which of the many ouzos Lesvos produces is the best, I will not answer, because that is according to your own taste. I can only refer to an ouzo tasting, of which the criterion was personal taste: ouziotary. The cherry-ouzo that will be presented during the ouzo festival, was not on that menu but I am very curious about this odd combination.

There are very few old kafenions that are lucky enough to get a new life. In Lisvori (close to Polichnitos) one of the many kafenions (the coffee house from the cover of 39 Coffee Houses & a Barber’s Shop) has been taken over to use as a travel agency. A friend of mine has rented the shop, installed her computer on the counter (kylikio), replaced the bottles of booze on the shelves (teziakia) with books about Lesvos and hung some attractive pictures between the old tools that should be in a museum: and now the office was ready.

Not only is the office special, so too is her concept: she organizes tailor-made excursions and works with people on the island who mainly offer independent activities, like kayaking, hiking, boat trips, horse riding or coaching with horses, herb and orchid hikes and her own speciality: safaris. So if are you fed up with the more commonly offered excursions, or you want to do something that nobody else offers or you need special excursions for a group, you can ask Pandora Travel. When you visit Pandora Travel, settling some business or participate in an excursion close to Lisvori, you will not escape the tradition of the kafenion and will be received in a beautiful old coffee house conveying all the authenticity and hospitality of the island of Lesvos.  

(With thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2013

Sunday, 2 June 2013

May 30 – Harvest time

(a harvestman, photo:  

Driving around the island these days you’ll see freshly mown yellow fields sparkling brightly in the sunlight, as well as trucks stacked high with hay bales. I don’t remember ever having seen so many of these ‘hay wagens’ on the island.  I guess this is due to the crisis: the price of cattle food has risen incredibly so it’s back to using the grasslands to produce natural cattle food. I am okay with that, the land is now better used and I really enjoy those amazing yellow cornfields, which form a nice contrast to the fields with green crops.

These summer patterns in the landscape should inspire weavers to make beautiful carpets. Once there was a weaver who learned her skills from Athena. Her name was Arachne: a girl from a poor family chosen by Athena to learn how to weave. Once she perfected her skill she made the most beautiful carpets. People came to admire her talent and to ask who taught her to weave. Arachne was so pleased with her success that she took all credit to herself and did not mention Athena, claiming her talent came to her naturally. That offended Athena who visited her disguised as an old woman. Arachne didn’t want to listen to this old grandma who told her that she should be more thankful to the Gods for her skill. When finally Arachne discovered that the old woman was Athena she challenged her to see who could make the most beautiful cloth. Athena wove a story about how she had won the contest with Apollo for the most beautiful present to the Greek capital and about how people had been changed into awful animals, for not showing respects to the gods. Arachne wove stories about deranged gods and gods in compromising situations. However offensive Arachne’s work was, Athena could not find fault with the weaving. She was angered nonetheless and she touched Arachne with her weaving stick. Suddenly Arachne realized how unthankful she had been. She became so desperate that she hung herself. Displeased with her death, Athena decided that Arachne should continue weaving evermore and turned her into a spider (arachne in Greek).

Spiders are weavers of excellence and, especially in autumn, when the moisture in the air decorates their webs with fine crystal tears, spiderwebs can compete with the wondrous works of Arachne. Most spiders are harmless, at least for human beings. All they catch in their webs are other insects like flies. To hear about my meeting with a dangerous spider, read: creepy!.

Most spiders are creepy to look at. I prefer to keep my distance, which is easy in the winter because  – yes, they seem to hide during the cold months. Do they hibernate? They’re certainly not around. Come summertime though, all kinds of crawling and flying creatures come out again, including the spiders.

Yesterday I stumbled upon the biggest spider that I have ever seen my life. It had a thick yellowish body of at least 7 cm long! The creature was dead, but I was still too scared to approach, afraid he would rise from his death and jump up at me. I was so scared that the photos I took were blurred.

What strikes me is that each year there is a plague of some animal or another. Last autumn it was crickets (see: Cricket rush), in past summers there were ant invasions (see: A beastly mess) or I could not enter my house without bringing a hundred or so moths in with me. This summer seems to becoming the summer of the spiders. But thank God not of those ‘monster ones’ I described above.

I am nearly used to the rather smaller beige spiders (probably wolf spiders) that use my terrace as a racetrack and my house for hide-and-seek, but I have never seen so many spiders fleeing my feet as in the past few weeks. They don’t look too threatening and I have even dared to have a close look at them: a small black body on very long and thin legs. If they only had an elephant trunk they would be like those high legged elephants of Salvador Dali. 

The ‘creepy’ work starts just by opening the internet and looking for what kind of spiders they are. Ai, ai, ai, what a lot of creepy spiders there are! With a pounding heart I whizzed through lots of photographs, in my head knowing already what kind of spider it was: a Harvestman. Which actually is not a spider, but ‘spider–like’ in the order of arachnids.

There are as many as about 6000 kinds of Harvestmen (opiliones), but the exact one flooding the island I have not determined. I think Harvestman is nice enough as a name for this creature. Harvestmen differ from spiders because they have a single oval shaped body and they do not weave webs. So you don’t have to worry about one day stepping out of your house and finding it encapsulated in a huge cobweb.

And I have to admit, Harvestmen look friendly and as soon as they hear your foot swishing through the air, they flee. So they don’t really bother you; it’s only this year’s appearance of such large numbers that is striking. They even look cute when they waddle away, trying to keep dry when I water my plants, hence giving me plenty of time to study them. Although there is not so much to say about them.

So this year there are no large or abnormal numbers of wolf spiders, crickets, ants (yes, indeed, those tiny tiny ants) and even the number of moths was acceptable this spring. But the month of May on Lesvos clearly was the Month of the Harvestmen and the hay wagens (in Dutch the name for the spiders and the cars transporting the hay is the same: hooiwagens): in the grass – the spider-ones, on the roads – the high-stacked trucks with bales of hay.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2013