Sunday, 29 June 2014

June 25 – Help: a barracuda!

(Wallpainting at the tavern O Rofos)

Because of the bad weather it was doom and gloom for lots of people who came to Lesvos and other parts of Greece in May and early June. The more sturdy tourists didn't mind, although there were days when it poured so heavily that there was nothing to do other than sit inside and wait for it to end. After years of crisis, this spring has brought many more tourists to the island, and what did they get? There were some people who were so disappointed that they said: I will never return to Lesvos, because we did not see the sun!

But the people who come to the island often know that this past May and April were exceptions. Very bad weather can be encountered anywhere, even on the sunny island of Lesvos. Although a writer on My Greece Travel thinks differently: he (or she) made a list of his bad-weather-experiences in May and June during his holidays on several Greek islands. He finished with the advice that travellers to Greece in that period should pack some firm shoes with anti-slip soles in their suitcases so they can gallivant carefree over all the wet tiles and marble floors.

However a heavy thunderstorm often offers exciting views and lots of tourists consider such a downpour as a refreshing experience. The most exceptional thing about the past bad weather was that it kept going on, not for days, but for weeks: a weather phenomenon that even in wintertime is seldom experienced on Lesvos. Not only tourists were plagued by it, also the farmers had to stay indoors. And they cannot simply go to another island next year, they just have to muddle on in their own patch of land

Lesvos was actually relatively lucky during those dramatic bad weather days; on the Greek mainland it was so disastrous that many a harvest was washed away. You would think that all that rain is good for the plants. It is so good that all those weeds that were so painstakingly removed in early spring, got new life. Now that the heat finally reigns over the island, it's time to weed again. My prunes certainly didn't like all the regular water from heaven and were bursting open in protest. Even the strawberries, who are known for their unending thirst, got confused and no longer knew when to ripen: for two months now, every few days I harvest a poor little bowl full of them, while in other years the harvest took just two weeks. 

I am wondering from where shops and restaurants get their tomatoes, because for sure they do not come from the land around here. Tomatoes don't like mud and the fields have been muddy for weeks on end. Only the green beans, cucumbers and courgettes enjoy a soggy earth. They are the main harvest right now. When you eat in a small tavern, the choice on the menu may be meagre, because they serve only vegetables from their own garden. Last week I was in Gavathas with my family and after a swim I really longed for ouzo and fish. When we were passing through the village, I saw a small psarotaverna, a fish restaurant, which I had never noticed before: O Rofos, named after very tasty fish (dusky grouper).

In the open door stood an old Greek lady and I was not sure if she was waiting for customers or if she was on the point of scrubbing her doorstep. We decided to give it a try and I asked if the restaurant was open. Of course it was and we took a seat on the balcony that has an astonishing view over the village and the Gavathas Bay.

We were given paper tablecloths that kept on waving around our ears because of the wind. Lady O Rofoswas confused what to do first - take the order for the drinks, make a list of the food she could present or search for the table cloth clamps that seemed to have gone with the wind. She just kept on pacing back and forth. She found a solution by making a telephone call. While we removed the tablecloths and got beer and ouzo (there was no retsina or other wine) we saw a speed demon racing over the road towards the village. It was the reinforcement: the son of lady O Rofos. He proudly showed us two large dishes piled with fish, all caught that morning from the bay. And he even pointed out where exactly in the water he had caught them. We had a choice between gavros (a kind of anchovy), kefalos (mullet) and there was a bigger fish with a long thin nose that I had never seen or eaten before: its name was loutsos according to the fishing son. A pike!everybody called out seeing the fish. But how can a pike, a freshwater fish, have come out of the sea?  We were hungry and settled, thinking it was a fish with a local name and we rounded-up our order with whatever else there was on offer: French fries, a cucumber salad, the one remaining dish of green beans and some feta.

I am afraid we ate the midday lunch of the family. Just below the great wall painting of a rofos smoking a cigarette and downing an ouzo, we dined as kings. The loutsosthe middle part cut in slices and fried was excellent, the green beans were gone within a minute and the salty feta was homemade and great. Such simple but divine, fresh meals are now only to be found in the small taverns where an old Greek lady serves and her son does the fishing.

And the loutsos? After hours and having no result in finding a loutsos on the internet, I decided to take a look at a pike: the fish did look exactly like the fish we ate and its latin name is Esox lucius (lucius could be pronounced as loutsos). Could this be the one and could it have been raining so much on Lesvos that in the bay of Gavathas there is now brackish water, suitable for pikes to live in? Of course not! Eventually a friend suggested it might be a barracuda (Sphyraena), also a fish with a long and thin nose, called by the Greeks loetsos. Just like the pike it is a predator, but this one with a bad reputation. Maybe that is why I couldn't find it on different lists of Greek fish. According to Wikipedia most stories about barracudas attacking people are urban myths. But a barracuda on your plate sounds far more interesting than eating a pike and this predator definitely comes on my personal list of delicacies.

(With thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2014

Monday, 23 June 2014

June 20 – Culture clashes

Saints do not talk (ag. Eirini, Neochori)

(By: Pip)

When we visit other countries, we're open to other manners and customs. We're interested and we adjust. That is right, yes?

We make some efforts to learn the language, even if it is just a few words. We will be touched by seeing an old woman with a back like a snapped tree, dressed all in black, shuffling along a street. We will wait patiently until she reaches the other side of the street. Our hearts beat with joy, seeing an authentic village square where old men play board games with others watching and hanging around. And even though we know we will make a fool of ourselves on Greek nights, we will join the group to dance the sirtaki. And we will feel honoured when somebody offers us a local delicacy. Even if we are afraid it will give us the shits, we are too polite to refuse the offer. I recently was offered a preserved fig filled with nuts; it came from a smudgy pot standing on a even more smudgy kitchen counter, where beside it sat a soup pot and the worn-out mules of the lady of the house. I should not have worried: the fig tasted wonderful, my intestinal flora kept calm and I did not offend this woman by refusing her offer.

But we do use our own culture and habits as the base from which we judge other people. It is not that we want to harm locals, but without knowing we might offend them. I will not use as an example the young people dancing topless on bars and boozing until they drop in Chersonissos on Crete (and other popular Greek destinations), because while this behaviour is obviously offensive, it has no practice here on Lesvos. Not yet. And I do not want to call this scandalous behaviour cultural, it is just commonplace obscene vandalism.

An example made by young and old passing a cultural border, has to do with customs: while the Lesvorian people are still wearing winter coats in spring, the first tourists, happy to finally see the sun, parade with their milky white calves in short trousers. Even though we know that it is not appreciated, we just pop into that lovely little church in those same short trousers with bare shoulders. In the larger Greek churches, popular with tourists, the parish clerk will have shawls ready for visitors to cover their nakedness. The small ones however, many of them having the key in the door, are unprotected and everybody can visit them, in whatever manner they are dressed. No living soul will see it, except for the many images of saints, who do not seem to judge - though they may think it unworthy.

And the so-called ex-patspeople who have houses in a foreign country also trespass on many cultural borders. It can be in the Algarve, Tuscany or on a Greek island like Lesvos. When  a handyman is needed and he does not come at the agreed time, there might be a culture clash. Then the air fills with lots of grumbling about the work ethic of the Portuguese, Italians or Greeks. What we don't consider is that the handyman is too polite to say that the proposed time to do the job is not convenient for him. He doesn't want to bother you with the information that he has a second job or that the proposed day is on a local holiday, that he cannot get the materials in time or that he does not have the money to pay for them. He will simply come as soon as he can.

My first encounter with a handyman on Lesvos also came as a cultural shock. The ordered washing machine was supplied earlier than expected. Because I wasn't at home and my door was closed (I may be the only one on Lesvos who locks doors) the deliveryman came to fetch me at my work. The next morning, totally unexpected and very early, the plumber knocked on my door - on Sunday! Instead of being grateful that he came on his free day to connect my washing machine, I nearly refused him entry to my house.  In my culture it's not the custom to receive a plumber or any handyman in your nightdress. Before you know it, you may have a bad reputation and every Sunday you'll  find a Greek on your front porch.

© Pip, 2014

Friday, 13 June 2014

June 8 - Eftaloumberti

(The presentation of Eftaloumberti)

I come from the cheese country, Holland and I love its cheeses. However I have started to be critical in regard to their taste. Is it because cheeses produced on a large scale loose some of their taste? Or am I now accustomed to more natural products so when I eat a pre-sealed Dutch cheese, I only taste plastic? I stopped buying imported Dutch cheese here on Lesvos because the Gouda (as far as I know the most known Dutch cheese abroad) has no taste at all.

Lesvos is also known for its cheeses. That is very evident; in fact, the island has more sheep and goats than people living here. No matter which landscape you take a walk in, you will always hear the tinkling of goat's or sheep's bells. Dutch black & white spotted cows are world famous, but the sight of such a cow in a bright green meadow belongs to the past because cows in Holland are now stabled all year round. And what do those milk producers eat there?

Greeks wouldnt think of keeping their sheep and goats in a shed. These animals belong in the mountains and on the grasslands. Greece nearly has as many breeds of sheep and goats as it has islands: and due to their isolation, over time, many different varieties have developed. On Lesvos there is the Mytilini Goat (black, sometimes dark grey or black & white, with long horns and very small ears), the Black Lesvos Sheep from Agia Paraskevi (and yes, there are also white Black Lesvos Sheep) and the Lesvos Island Sheep, also called Mytilini sheep (how original). Probably descended from an eastern breed, some 80 to 100,000 of them still roam the island. These grass devouring four footers can be seen as lawn mowers, when herded well. The European subsidy has caused the number of goats and sheep to increase, and unfortunately some of their owners who only want quick money do not care sufficiently about the land, so that big parts of nature have become overgrazed and become barren.

I'll leave this subject for another time (during the crisis it seems that the number of goats and sheep has actually decreased). It is a fact that milk producing sheep and goat in Greece are far better fed than Dutch cows. In Greece they even pay attention to what the animals eat; for instance not all regions producing feta are allowed officially to call their product feta: for feta (as well as other Greek cheeses) you must farm in a region where the sheep and goats receive a rich variety of fodder. Not all regions in Greece are graced with fatty greenery.

But Lesvos has a very green nature and therefore is on the official list of Greek feta producers (the other regions are on the mainland: West-Thrace, Macedonia, Epirus, Thessaly, Central Greece and the Peloponnesos). Lesvos not only produces plenty of feta, but also the hard cheese graviera, ladotiri, which is stored in olive oil (also called kefalaki and one of the licensed cheeses of Lesvos) and the fresh, soft cheese myzithra. In contrast to the Dutch cheese which is made with cow milk, cheeses on Lesvos are mostly made with a mixture of goat and sheep milk. I have to admit that I find Greek cheeses often a bit too dry, but just like nearly all Greeks who do not eat a meal without cheese, I love dishes with prepared cheese, like ladotiri saganaki (baked ladotiri) or feta kafteri (feta mixed with chillies and/or garlic cooked in the oven, a nice spicy dish). And you have the homemade fresh feta, which can be so delicious that I cannot stop eating it, especially with a lick of honey on top.

I have been told that making your own feta is not so difficult. But you need space to curdle the milk, to strain it and so on, and everything with the right temperatures. I do not have that much space in the house, so I have never started the adventure of making my own cheese. But I do love to experiment with Greek cheeses, like making a kind of mousse by mixing feta with cream, yoghurt or Philadelphia cheese, then adding green herbs or horseradish.  Other Lesvorian cheeses can also be easily mixed together or with other dairy products so that the hard goat-taste can be softened.

But I do continue to miss the French and Belgium cheeses. Blue cheese, brie and camembert, a chèvre, along with the many other cheeses they produce in those countries. As they produce so much sheep and goat milk here, I sometimes wonder why there is not a bigger choice (there is a large variety of Greek cheeses, but just like the goat and sheep breeds - do not differ very much from each other). I am not the only one wondering about that, because people have now started to experiment: feta with herbs or nuts for example. The most different cheese on the island was presented to me at Easter: a real Levorian camembert. So it is possible to produce different cheeses here! You only have to find and import the special rennet (in the case of camembert, that is Penicillium camemberti), and hoppa!: a goat camembert (The French camembert is made with cow's milk.

It seems there blows a fresh wind through Greece: forced by the crisis new initiatives are taken. Lets hope that the government not only allows rich and big developers to make quick money but also encourages small people to dare to start innovative businesses so that in a few years we not only order the world famous feta cheese in a restaurant, but also an Eftaloumberti (the first sheep/goat camembert on Lesvos was produced close to Eftalou at Dio Petres).

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2014

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

June 2 - Warblers and other amusements

(Rüppell’s warbler [Sylvia ruepelli], photograph: Gerard van Zeele,

(written by Pip)

Many other Greek islands haven been transformed into amusement parks, but Lesvos has not. This island is the perfect destination for people who want to live the real Greece. This is what the travel guides say and from what I have seen from the island so far, the guides are right. The question however is how long Lesvos will remain an island unspoiled by tourism.

As the island is really a large green nature park, tourists have fun on Lesvos; but instead of aqua parks with complex-constructed slides, bearing names like Water city or Aqua Plus, tourists here have to make-do with some sixteen waterfalls like the one of Pesas. For others, climbing up Mt Olympos or Mt Lepetymnos with a rented car may be even more exciting than having a ride in a dangerous rollercoaster. And, when arriving home, being able to tell the story of how you survived an earthquake, sounds far more interesting than the one of how you were nearly shaken off a banana towed by a speedboat.

But this year there have been developments in order to raise the amount of fun for tourists, a change that might attract another kind of public. It is clear that not everybody is happy with these ‘improvements’. There has been lots of commotion around the two tractors that tow two wagons between Molyvos, Petra and Anaxos. This slow train, which disrupts the traffic on the small boulevard of Petra and the not-too-wide road between Petra and Molyvos has got the name Village Train. The drivers of these trains and those from the regular buses and cabs have been close to a fight on more than one occasion. The resulting road blockage was so bad that the police had to come and restore order. There is talk through the grapevine that this was done on purpose – an attempt to harm the train company. I’d best say no more about this. Even if they ask me for my opinion about this train I‘ll keep my mouth shut. Whether you approve or not, before you know it, you may make enemies for life. The good thing about this train is that since it now crawls all the way up to the medieval castle above Molyvos, the local beach bus between Anaxos, Petra and Molyvos now goes up the steep hill too and tourists no longer have to do the climb themselves or to take a cab to visit the crown of the town.

Another development is the reconstruction of the ‘flying saucer’, a building that has been standing empty for a decade (changing into a typical Greek ruin) on a mountaintop between Petra and Molyvos. Next month will be the opening of the Star beach-like club and then Lesvos will have a fancy night club with swimming pool, just like on Crete: the Oxy-club. Years ago this used to be a nightclub, but for reasons I do not know it closed down. The young Lesvorian men are all looking out for this new event, ready to practice their seduction tricks on the female tourists. With some cocktails, a nocturnal swim while accompanied by music of a famous DJ, they will feel confident success may be at hand. Another kind of men (and women) are not too happy about the opening of this club. They are the masses of birdwatchers who come every spring to Lesvos. The area around this nightclub is the breeding habitat of the Rüppell’s warbler. Even though the nightclub will probably open after the shivering spring nights, birdwatchers are afraid that this little bird will have to look for another spot to lay and breed its eggs and the birdwatchers will also have to change their beautiful look-out over the Aegean Sea.

That a Dutch snack bar, with real Dutch snacks, has been opened is not worth mentioning. For years you could find English breakfasts all over the place. Tourist attractions and foreign entrepreneurship remain small on Lesvos and I expect will remain small in the near future, especially now that the whole island has been named as a geo park. So it is Nature that still has the last say. It is still unknown what the warblers are going to do. Maybe they like Dance music and will remain where they now are. 

(With special thanks to Gerard van Zeele for his photograph and Mary Staples for the English corrections)

© Pip 2014