Monday, 26 August 2013

August 20 - Yammi, a bami!

The summer is moving towards its end and still plenty of tomatoes, cucumbers, courgettes, beans and watermelons are being served. There are even beetroots still being served (although I think of them as winter dish). I’m slowly starting to long for cabbages and spinach, but we have to wait for the winter for them to appear in the fields. My local market gardener actually succeeded in growing green salad (marouli) in the summer heat (this also is regarded as a winter dish), and it was a welcome change from endless tomato salads (choriatiki), and I used it to combine wonderfully with different wild herbs and dried tomatoes.

I must admit that by the end of August I have had enough of tomatoes (and for sure I have eaten too much watermelon). But now the real work is about to start: preserving tomatoes. Even though you might feel as if you’ve eaten five years’ worth of tomatoes; as soon as the first showers start encouraging the rotting process of the last tomatoes, you’ll get that feeling: gosh!, I really do like a big tasty red tomato. And you cannot do without tomatoes in the Greek kitchen. I once had a Greek cookbook (most likely thrown away because of its poor quality because now I cannot find it anywhere) containing recipes, which were predominantly tomato based

I have to admit that I now also use a lot of tomatoes in my dishes: they are a fine seasoner. When in winter you want to make a fish soup or simply a spaghetti sauce it is handy to always have some tomato sauce in the freezer or preserved in a pot. So you’d better preserve tomatoes in the summer.

In past years I have made lots of tomato sauces, in which I also put other vegetables and herbs like aubergines, paprika, courgettes, parsley and basil: whatever remained in the garden and had to be finished. But since I got a new oven in which I can bake pizza, I make a pure sauce, just tomatoes. Pizzas already have enough ingredients so a neutral sauce is better; although you couldn’t possibly call the rich taste of Greek tomatoes dull. So I just reduce them to a thick sauce, with just a little salt and pepper added and end up with a first class tomato sauce.

One of the many Greek summer dishes with a sauce of these red rascals is Okra in Tomato Sauce (bamiès me saltsa). It is not on the list of the most familiar Greeks dishes (they are rarely available in restaurants), although okra was introduced centuries ago to the Greek kitchen. Growing okra is not as easy as growing tomatoes, nor is the harvest an easy job. Gathering these fruits demands patience because they are at their best when they are small (3 to 5 cm long) and picking them is work requiring gloves as the plant is highly allergic. This plant (Abelmoschus esculentus) often grows as long as two meters, though it belongs to the family of the low growing Malva and it has soft yellow, hibiscus-like flowers. Okra resembles some pulses and the taste is a little like green beans.

This vegetable is especially popular in India, Africa and in certain southern states of the United Nations (for Gumbo). The English gave them the elegant name of Lady’s Fingers, in Spanish they have the funny sounding name of quimbombó and in Greek (and other Arabian countries) they are named bamies (which sounds a little like the Indonesian dish popular in Holland: bami).

There are people who want to eat nothing else but bamies, once they appear in the fields. I took a long time to appreciate them and I’m still not keen on certain dishes like Bamies in Tomato Sauce or when combined with chicken (kotopoelo me bamies). What I don’t like is their sometimes slimy consistency.

My local market gardener grows them every summer and each summer he offers me this delicacy. He puts lots of time into harvesting them and he just can’t understand that I don’t like them. So I searched the web in order to find a nice recipe and eureka! I have found a nice one! It is a recipe where for some reason or other this ‘okrian’ sliminess does not occur, so you can eat them as very tasty Lady’s fingers: filled and fried okra, a dish coming from India, served as finger food or as a starter. You make a herb mix, cut the stem and head from the bamies, make a deep cut lengthwise (be careful not to halve them!), fill the cavity with the herb mix and fry them for a few minutes in a layer of oil till they are crispy. In preparation, pray for some patience, but it’s worthwhile. Further down you will find the recipe for the herb mixture: kali orexi!

(Besides bamiès, marouli and really tasty tomatoes the gardener on the road in Eftalou also sells white aubergines)

Mix for filled okra’s:
½ tsp ground peanuts
½ tsp ground coconut
½ tsp sugar
½ tsp coriander
½ tsp ground cumin
½ tsp ground chili
1 tsp sesame paste
½ tsp salt
1 tsp olive oil

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2013

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

August 9 – Mary Thalassine

(The Mary Vrefokratousa Church in Agiasos)

You would think that when the sky is blue each day and when the sun shines constantly, the weather is always the same and that’s boring. But there is another factor influencing the weather and that’s the wind. This summer we have had more than enough wind: the meltemi blows around your head almost all day long, especially if you live somewhere with a northern outlook; north is the direction from which this wind mostly blows.

In Molyvos people complain about the heat, which is retained between the stone houses. But if you just go a kilometre out towards Eftalou, you could easily be blown out of your shoes by a warm wind, which most people welcome as a nice change. However, I don’t feel that way. 

What bothers me about this wind is that the sea is never calm anymore. That beautiful light blue tranquil water surface that invited you to at least ten swims a day seems to be just a sweet memory. Rarely do I see the sea settle down, and when I do, I know I have to hurry to the shore, because before you know it, the white caps appear in the distance. Of course it’s fun to swim in a sea with waves, but here on the coast the water whips up the seaweed: green wisps surround you and tickle you everywhere. This seaweed bath can be healthy, like thallaso therapy, but you cannot have a relaxing swim in a centrifuge full of seaweed.

The other disadvantage of the meltemi is that you cannot sit quietly outside. A full glass will be heavy enough to withstand the wind, but salad leaves or other light foods will be blown off your plate into the bushes. And you can certainly forget about playing cards. On the web I have read about tourists who can’t leave windows or doors open lest their room be thrown into turmoil, nor can they sit on their balcony. This wind also makes you pretty restless.

The meltemi, in ancient times called an Etesian wind, can blow from mid May until mid September, so in the worst case we could still have a month to go. I don’t exactly remember when the wind started this summer, but I can’t stand it anymore. For a few days the meltemi is a blessing, for a few weeks a meltemi is okay, but a meltemi blowing for a few months is too much.

A good sailor might be glad of this wind, though the meltemi is known as a treacherous wind. You never know how strong the wind will get: 6 or 7 Beaufort can easily be upgraded to 8 and then you’d best be in a sheltered harbour.

While temperatures in many places have easily risen to over 35 ºC, here I remain stuck with this meltemi. At least this wind, which thankfully ceases periodically, is far better than the endless heat wave we had last summer.

And it is like this unending wind also is blowing forwards time more quickly: this week the peak of the Greek summer will be there! August 15th – celebrated in Greece as the Assumption of Mary. This Thursday masses of people will be visiting churches and chapels dedicated to Mary. Regardless of whether a meltemi or a heatwave strikes, most of them will make a traditional pilgrimage in order to ask this Holy Lady for a favour: from Mytilini on foot to the church of Mary Vrefokratousa in Agiasos, or climbing the 114 steps to honour Mary Glikofiloussa in Petra.

The Saint Mother Mary, in Greece called Panagia is known for so many miracles (see The miraculous World of Mary) that she also has many different names: in Agiasos it’s Panagia Vrefokratousa – Mary wearing the Holy Child, in Petra it is Panagia Glikofiloussa or Mary of the sweet kiss. But she can also be called Angeloktiste -Mary the Angel; Elevtherotria – the liberator; Galatousa – the nurse; Hodegetria – the leader; Hypermachos Strategos – the protecting general; Myrobletissa – the source of the myrrh.

There even is a Mary of Death: Panagia tou Garou. This Mary is named after an icon that can be found on the small island of Lipsi. She is pictured like an Italian Pieta, with Jesus, after crucifiction lying dead in her lap. In the Orthodox Church Mary is normally depicted with Jesus as a small child or baby, which can explain the exceptional name.

There also is a Mary of the Sea: Panagia Thalassine (read here her miraculous story). This icon, which I think now resides in a monastery on Crete, is celebrated on the sixth of December, the same day as Saint Nicolas, the saint-protector of all seafarers.

I would say that the Mary in Petra should also be a Thalassine. The story of the icon in the church on the rock in Petra is that the icon belonged to a fisherman who always took it with him. In a rough sea the icon was lost. Once ashore, the fisherman saw a tiny light glowing on a huge rock and there he found his lost icon. He took the icon back to sea and again the icon got lost. When he found the icon for the second time on the huge rock, he realised that he had to build a church and leave the icon there.

Participants of the Aegean Regatta 2013 could ask the Mary Thalassine in Petra for a safe and successful journey. Just two days after the Assumption of Mary this race over the Aegean starts from Molyvos harbour. I’m not sure what the sailors think about this consistent meltemi, but the first stretch of the race will be to the island of Lemnos in the north, which might engage the sailors in a battle with the winds. From there they sail south towards Skyros and then north again to Skopelos, where the race will finish this year.

Apparently Philip II of Macedonia (382 - 336 BC) always planned his military actions during the meltemi season so that his enemies to the south could not – or only very slowly – reach him. When the meltemi continues to blow it is a blessing for all pilgrims (although I doubt if its cooling winds will reach as far as Agiasos), but for the sailors this wind might be a curse.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2013

Saturday, 3 August 2013

July 30 – Help, somebody ran off with my phone!

(A fox on Lesvos)

I must admit that since the attack of the camel spider on my terrace, I have not been at peace sitting outside after darkness falls. The monster of the screen door can be death, but barely a week later another camel spider stormed over the terrace, straight towards me and I barely managed to jump aside before the monster disappeared into the dark bushes where the cats, in vain, tried to locate him.

When it’s dark, so many things crawl, run and walk around the bushes around the house. Apart from the cicadas, who are making a deafening sound due to the increasing heat, on the ground amidst the dry grasses and the plants there is a lot of swishing as the cats spend long hours engaging in their nightly hunt.

Not that they hunt everything. Some animals are difficult to catch: like the two hedgehogs which come every evening to look for the cat’s leftovers. Whilst there they also have a little nip from the water trough. They are so cute I just have to stroke them and the cats, who watch carefully what the hedgehogs are up to, keep a clear distance.

My dogs also think hedgehogs are interesting, but they are wary of having a fight with such a prickling ball. The natural enemies of hedgehogs are badgers, fitches, pine martens, lynx (which we do not have on the island), wild boars (which have been reintroduced for the hunt around Ayasos), foxes, hawks, golden eagles and eagle owls.

I have no idea if we have badgers or fitches on Lesvos. What I do know is that under the roof tiles of my house there lives a noisy family of a kind of rats, although I think they could be some other kind of animal. The list of mammals of Greece, offers up an endless number of mice – or ‘rat-alikes’ (under the chapter Rodentia), all with beautiful names. The family living above me have white bellies, as far as I can see; they barely show themselves, except for their tails, which you can see when they flee the house over a tree branch or an electricity line. Sometimes they have a party and yell and scurry, like children playing games, from one side of the roof to the other. If I don’t interfere they might well celebrate long into the night. But when I knock with a broom against the ceiling, they become perplexed and fall silent.

There aren’t many rabbits on Lesvos, although I sometimes spot a hare jumping over the road. Lemnos is the island full of rabbits, often a plague for the agriculture there. Squirrels and moles are plentiful on the island, and one can often see holes in the earth which I guess belong to other animals (which ones I have no idea). Greece also has a long list of bats. Around twilight small batmen fly around my head when I sit outside, but I can’t see the difference between two bats in the darkness.

The biggest mammal here on the island (I don’t count the wild boars, as they have not come in a natural way to the island) is the fox which lives here in great numbers. You not only see them darting in front of your car, but more and more often, you stumble upon them while having a walk.

Last week I went for dinner to some friends in Molyvos and I wondered about the assorted weapons they had next to the dinner table: a bucket of water and a plastic water-gun, a toy normally for children —  although they had none. The story was that their cat had a bad encounter with a fox, which wounded her and since then they began their hunting season for foxes. Not only had he lain the cat low for some days, but shoes also started to mysteriously disappear from the terrace and the house.

A fox is not known for its cheekiness, but rather as a smart animal. Although it is a fact that they more and more go into the village, looking for food, or – who knows – for a drink (my friends have a pool which both the foxes and the cat use as a watering hole). But apparently they also like shoes. Or is it just the little foxes that wander with their mother into town, looking for toys? A neighbour of those friends told me that the foxes ruined one of her handbags and that on another evening when she was working in the garden, with her telephone lying on a table, she saw a little fox running off with her mobile phone! From her landline she phoned her mobile and you can imagine that the little fox got a bit of a fright from the phone jingling in his mouth. He dropped it instantly and the woman, after a search of about an hour, found her mobile, undamaged, deep in the bushes

I like to see foxes, they look cute, but were I to have to buy a new pair of shoes or a mobile phone every day, I too would buy a water pistol. In the same vein, I now have a glue spray ready for when the camel spider dares to show his face again.

Even in ancient times Greeks didn’t know what to do with foxes. The ancient city of Thebe once was being punished by a God with a huge fox (Teumessian Fox) that attacked children and it was known that he could never be caught. The regent had a hard time figuring out what to do; he decided to enlist the help of the mythical dog Laelaps, who was renowned for always catching his prey. Just imagine the sight of those two: the dog endlessly chasing the fox through bushes, along beaches, through woods, over mountains and so on. After a while – or maybe even an eternity – Zeus took pity and changed both animals into a rock and later he put them between the stars, two constellations now known as the Little and the Big Dog.

On nice evenings you’d better look upwards to the stars, rather than down towards the creeps, and you’ll see a large array of animals such as a dog, a fox, a bear, a horse, a goat, a bull, a hare, a fish, a scorpion and a lobster: they are all placed in the sky for eternity.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2013