Friday, 1 November 2013

October 28 – Will the chestnuts disappear?

(Ceps and chestnuts)

Getting bored on Lesvos? Not for a minute! Even now as the summer season finishes and tourist villages like Molyvos and Petra are slowly being deserted, as the beaches are cleared of the sunbeds and umbrellas, there is still so much to enjoy on the island. And I’m not just speaking about the great weather, which is so nice that there’s no day that you’d want to spend inside your home.

In the autumn it’s the trees of Lesvos that attract people. Tourists switch from the beach to the shadowy, wooded mountain slopes with the wide views over the island and the locals (lots of them running shops or restaurants in the summer) return to their fields and olive trees for the harvest. Although this year they will not have too much work because the harvest is said to be pretty poor (see: Waiting for the rain).

Apart from the olives, there are many more trees asking for attention - for example, the pine trees that colour the heart of this green island. Lesvos has extended pinewoods, especially around Mt Olympus and above Parakila in the west. Until the late Sixties people went into the woods to harvest resin (see: When the pine trees still had a face). Even though this was hard work, it made a living for many villagers. Industrial progress however made resin uneconomical and this industry died. Now the pinewoods only offer fertile ground for mushrooms.

Reminders of the resin harvest were the iron cisterns nailed against the tree trunks where the resin was gathered. Although the resin harvest died-out, today these rusted cisterns are still the silent witnesses of that period when the villagers camped out for days in the wood to collect the resin. However, driving through the woods near Achladeri, we noticed that those rusted iron cisterns have been replaced with brand new ones! Has there been new demands for Greek resin and has some smart entrepreneur taken up the resin harvest?

That same smart person might also start cultivating the mastic trees. The neighbouring island of Chios is well known for the mastic (resin) of the Pistacia lentiscus, a bush or small tree from the same family as the pistachio tree (Anacardiacea family). It’s not true that this tree can only be found on Chios: but it’s only on Chios that they have been so long cultivated and where they produce a rich harvest. Were you to cultivate these trees on Lesvos (there are, in fact, many around as for example in Palios), this island also could start mastic production. But we’re speaking about a project that would take years and years; the trees on Chios have been cultivated for hundreds of years, and that is why they are so valuable there.

Then there are the fruit trees: after the olive, the walnut is the tree that gets harvested the most, because not everyone collects the fruit of his almond, quince or pomegranate tree (I must say, lots of them grow in gardens of deserted holiday houses whose owners are far away). Driving around the island in November I often see fruit just rotting away on the branches of trees or lying on the ground.

Around Agiasos, however, collecting sweet chestnuts still brings money in. The biggest woods grow on the slopes of the Olympus mountain range, although everywhere on the island you come across groups of these beautiful trees. They sometimes grow on very steep slopes, making me wonder if this fruit gets wasted or if there’s a person crazy enough to harvest there. When you go to Agiasos now each shop sells the brown fruit and you may meet pick-up trucks full of people who have been gathering big sacks of chestnuts. Sometimes there is such a deep layer of chestnuts on the ground that I imagine you could just scoop them up from a car driven slowly through the forest.

But this may not be the case for long, because the chestnut trees of Agiasos are ill. They are suffering from Cryphonectria parasitica, a mildew that has been killing sweet chestnut trees all over the world. In the United States millions of trees died and nowadays the sweet chestnut is no longer the number one tree in the woods of America. A few years ago it was thought that the chestnut woods on Lesvos and on Crete might escape this illness, but the mildew has managed to travel over the oceans and is now threatening these sweet Lesvorian chestnuts.

Last May I read an article about how the last mayor of Agiasos (Chrys Chatzipanagiotis) lobbied the Greek government to obtain a vaccination program. He was successful: this summer the trees were to be vaccinated. I am not sure if the job has been done and if this vaccine will be successful, but at least something has been attempted to save this (so rare on the Greek islands) chestnut wood.

Last week when I visited the colourful and scented chestnut wood, lots of the trees were a sorry sight: bare, dying branches waving in vain amidst the yellow coloured leaves of their still healthy neighbours. What a sad sight! It might be that I was there just at the very beginning of the chestnut season, but the ground was dotted with far less cupules than other years.

For me, each year visiting the chestnut wood above Agiasos is the highlight of the autumn. Between the bright coloured leaves you have breathtaking views over the Gulf of Yera and the Gulf of Kalloni. I hope that in future years these slopes will not start offering a wider view over all the island or that we can no longer find chestnuts in the shops of Agiasos.

The forests are also a unique habitat for mushrooms. My favourite mushrooms belong to the boletus family, and are plentiful under the chestnut trees if you’re there at the right moment. Even though the autumnal rains (I don’t count the few casual showers we’ve already had) have not arrived yet, it has been moist enough for the first mushrooms – such as the peppery Milkcap (Lactarius piperatus) - to emerge from the ground, just lurking under the first layers of fallen leaves. I could not believe my luck when I also found two ceps (Boletus edulis). It’s hard to find this emperor of all mushrooms, especially on this island. Where will they be growing if the chestnut wood really disappears?

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2013

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