Thursday, 25 August 2016

August 19 – Tomato-junk


'Help, tomatoes' was the name of a piece that I wrote more than ten years ago, when I was discovering Greek food. It seemed that all you ate was 'infected' with tomatoes. After all these years of eating Greek food, I have to confess that I too have become a tomato-junkie. So imagine when last week I went to the grocery store and I found only empty boxes: “Where are the tomatoes?!”, I screamed in panic.

A few weeks ago the Greeks had taken all the watermelons to the beach and the mountains of juicy green whoppers had totally disappeared. Then I congratulated the greengrocer for doing such good business. Now that the piles of watermelons are back, the boxes with tomatoes are empty. I threw the grocer an aghast look and said: “It's not possible to have a grocery store without tomatoes!”

Tomatoes rank 4th on the list of most beloved vegetables in the world (although they really are fruit). Mediterranean and Arabic countries eat the most, Greeks and Libyans being the people eating the largest amount of tomatoes. In Greece fish, meat, vegetables and pasta swim in tomato sauce, and there is the famous village salad; you will find a decorating slice here, another slice there, a vodka here, a glass of juice there and before you know you it, you are at your limit: more than 100 kg a year. While I would have thought that the pizza and spaghetti country Italy would be at top: there will be no pizza nor pasta without tomatoes.

It is unbelievable that this pretty red fruit, within one and a half centuries, has taken over a whole kitchen. Greeks were – and still are – pretty conservative with what they throw in their cooking pots. When at the beginning of the 19th century the first elegant tomato plants were introduced to the Greek gardens of monasteries and of wealthy people, no one dared to take the fruit to his mouth, because the plant belonged to the lethal belladonna family.

But the first cookbook appearing in the Greek language (translated from Italian and published in 1827 on the island Syros) already had two recipes with tomatoes (then still called pomme d'oro, golden apple): fried and halved golden apples stuffed with pieces of liver and a hand full of herbs (that really sounds yummy) and butter-baked eggs in a sauce of golden apples, onions, sardines, basil, parsley and fish sauce. But I guess in those times housewives, even if they could read, didn't use cookbooks (rather they referred to their mothers). It was only when in the South of Italy the tomato got married to pasta - in the middle of the 19th century - that tomato sauce slowly streamed into Greece, to really settle here at the beginning of the 20th century.

It is unbelievable that Holland dares to produce tomatoes: they are round and red, yes, they even resemble the golden apples, but they contain no sun, so no taste. Even though tomatoes consist for the most part of water, it is the 5 to 7% solid meat that makes the taste with more than 400 different aromatic materials, and all those love the sun, that is why the mediterranean tomatoes taste so divine. A tomato should taste sweet in the middle and a little sour near the skin. In Peru, the cradle of the tomato, they even thought the fruit had aphrodisiac powers. Maybe that is why those Greek summers are so hot, slow and long. Because all their food is spiced not only with salt, pepper and olive oil but also with this sexy fruit.

The beginning of the season had a good start thanks to the warm spring: so, excellent sweet tomatoes. Taking them in the hand you could feel they were firm and not too hard. Cutting them the juice immediately ran. A slice of such a tomato with just a bit of salt, pepper and olive oil conjured up paradise: Eve must have picked a golden apple from the tree. So I intended to make a winter stock for the freezer, cooking pure tomato sauce without any herbs and I will also dry some of them. But first I had to cook a great dinner for some friends. With my head full of ideas for tomato dishes I arrived at the grocery store. My plans evaporated as soon as I saw those empty boxes. I mean, of course you can make one dish without tomatoes, but a whole Greek dinner? Totally disillusioned I went home with an empty shopping bag, thinking so frantically about Greek dishes without those red rascals that a headache came up and I finally cancelled the dinner without tomatoes.

The next day there were just a few tomatoes in the still mostly empty boxes. I bought them all because I had heard through the grapevine that an illness had killed all the tomatoes on the island. There may be just a few tourists, but when there are no tomatoes on the fields, I will not be the only cook in trouble: how else can a Greek consume his average of one and a half times his weight in tomatoes.

Now the boxes are refilled with tomatoes. The rumour about this tomato-illness has not been confirmed. People do say so many stupid things. If you were to say that the refugees secretly come over at night from Turkey to steal our tomatoes, all the villagers will believe you. But it's really the tourists who have picked up the tomato-battle with the Greeks: they try to eat twice as much as their average weight. Because yes, there are 'some' tourists, and the happy few who are here, fully enjoy the island, sun and sea and they eat all our tomatoes!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2016

Monday, 15 August 2016

August 12 – I ♥ Lesvos

(Beach at Faneromeni)

In my previous column I referred to the failing tourist offices in Greece. Besides beautiful posters the country has offered other attractions. Even in ancient times the Olympic Games hosted masses of people. Today athletes' biggest dream is to win an Olympic medal, only they now have to get it elsewhere. Now more and more people think it better if this traveling circus were to be permanently returned to the cradle of democracy. Many of the countries hosting the Games are left broke, because of the impossibly high cost of security and the expensive demands of the sport buildings. Watch out Brazil.

Greece had no pennies left after the Olympic Games in 2004. Most sport palaces built then at great expense have turned into glorious Greek ruins (just like the country itself, thrown by Europa into the shredder).

Greece used to be so much loved, partly thanks to Who pays the ferryman, a tv-series whose music nobody ever forgets. The movie Zorba the Greek made sure that the now world famous dance sirtaki – especially arranged for the movie - became synonymous with Greece. And who didn't pack their suitcases immediately, looking for sun, sea, love and themselves, after seeing the movie Shirley Valentine ? Marrying in Greece became 'hot' after the happy movie Mamma Mia, which showed Greece as more than a paradise. Never on Sunday already was a legendary movie, but the Muppet Show made the movie immortal with Miss Piggy playing the part, played in the film by Melina Mercouri. This cultural ambassadress of Greece, after a career of a chain smoking actress and singer, perked up Greek politics.

The newest star in the Greek firmament is Yanis Varoufakis. Last year he gained international fame as Minister of Finance because of his different opinions and self-willed behaviour during the negotiations with Europe. He was reviled by friend and enemy alike because the European Bobos thought him crazy. But now the IMF admits they then took wrong decisions and that the plans of Varoufakis were not so bad. His honour is restored and the people who then distanced themselves from him, now regroup around this professor in economy, who has founded DiEM25, to get Europe reformed with open and more righteous rules. It may be possible that this Greek hero will enter the history books as the rescuer of both Europe and Greece. If we give him a chance.

Because yes, it is quiet around Greece. The country having problems feeding both its people and the thousands of refugees stuck in the country thanks to 'successful' European politics. It is waiting for a movie about the Greek people, with a hero à la Zorba the Greek, who shares all he has left with those without house or country.

Lesvos never belonged in the Top 10 of Greek tourist attractions. But last year due to the refugees crisis, it became the most famous island of the country. And while tourists stay away, the list of VIPs visiting the island is still growing. No other Greek island has had the honor of having a visit from the Pope – I still cannot keep my eyes dry recalling this impressive event on Lesvos. Also movie stars like Susan Sarandon, Angelina Jolie, some stars of the popular Game of Thrones and artists like Ai Wei Wei, are some of the celebrities who took in the faith of the island.

I do hope that, along with all those VIPs, perhaps some location scout will have discovered what a super location the island is, with landscapes matching those of the Game of Thrones: the dry, volcanic West, the jungle like woods in the centre, picturesque villages like Vatoussa, the azure blue sea licking lonely little beaches like at Avlona, the rough and mountainous North, or the long beach of Vatera. Maybe the next tourist attractor will be as great a series as Who pays the ferryman, and will be shot on Lesvos, the island where on some Sundays you still think you are in the middle of Never on Sunday.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2016

Thursday, 4 August 2016

July 30 – The hamam runs dry

(The hamam of Molyvos before restoration)

It is incredible to know that the Greek tourist organization has existed for more than a century. Complaints about shabby hotel rooms, an absence of (local) cooperation or any plan for the future are as old as this state institution. The Greeks think that by publishing nice pictures alone, they can entice visitors to come and add money to their economy.

There always have been tourists in the country of the Olympic Gods. In the near ancient times people traveled from far away just to see the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, to swing at music events, for discussions at theatre festivals or to gain a much wanted laurel wreath at the Olympic Games. The Games were so important that during the period that when the athletes were challenging each other, all wars were stopped in order that participants as well as spectators could have a safe journey across all regions. What a pleasure it would be to find only good news in the papers during the Brazilian Games!

Lesvos, only touched by the traveling Olympic Torch in 2004, has had its tourism somewhat delayed. In ancient times some spa guests will have showed up, but the island had no World Wonder nor important national festivals. Although Lesvos' nature already was celebrated then: it was here that Theophrastus invented botanical science and Aristoteles travelled especially to Lesvos to study its plants and zoological world (see: Aristoteles' Lagoon). Later the Romans celebrated Lesvos as the green pleasure ground of the Aegean. There then followed a long gap in the history of Lesvos' tourist history, only filled up by some travellers' diaries.

The Greek Tourist Bond does not seem to have shared the opinion of the ancient Romans. In any case, by the beginning of the 20th century most tourists only wanted to see archeological treasures, and those had long ago fallen apart on Lesvos, except for some castles here and there. Then, in the Sixties, when the first tourists wanted to keep the island a secret because they thought they had found a lost paradise, the first tourist building was opened: Hotel Delfinia in Molyvos (1961). Since then the number of visitors has been on the rise.

This year, however, the numbers have fallen dramatically because tourists are afraid of refugees, who only hang around the camps near Mytilini these days. Already plagued by the crisis, the middle class is desperate and echoes one after the other their cries of distress in the media. But the island remains incredible quiet. Time for some meditation, necessary for Greek tourism, but also for Lesvos (see Tourism in Greece).

The excursions of the big tourist operators keep on going over the same paths, some hotels have their guests sleeping in the same beds for decades and no director has any idea which touristic values are a trend. Yes, I do admit: in recent years there was no money to renovate. The crisis hovers around like a big moustachio'd maffia boss. But when a new cafe or supermarket is a success, the following year plenty of copycats will open their businesses, so there still is some money going around.

Last week the old bath house of Molyvos was reopened after years of renovation. For many people sweet memories of cleaning parties and lots of water fun will have surfaced. The hamam for a long time was the only place to bathe in the village. The luxury of bathing at home only became available at the time that the pool of Hotel Delfinia was threatened with becoming the second bath house of Molyvos.

The bathrooms have been restored to their rich old marble glory, transparent glass covers the floors and lightholes in the typical Turkish cupolas, changing rooms have been painted bright white and the taps gleam like gold. However there is no water streaming anymore, nor are the spaces filled with that mysterious steam that turns bath houses into those pleasing and exciting places: the hamam of Molyvos has been turned into a museum.

The bath house has been transformed into a jewel. But instead of shaking off the dust and taking a break from the hot sun and passing time gossiping with friends in a refreshing cloud of steam, you now can only watch, salivating over pictures of people enjoying their baths, and long for the quietness of the water or some beneficent massage. Which smart ass turned the water off?

The local information office has been retrenched to Mytilini; more than one little museum sighs with doors and windows closed under a layer of dust. The Teriade Museum that possesses, apart from paintings by Lesvos' most reknowned painter, Theophilos, works from international artists like Chagall, Matisse and Picasso, has now for years promised in vain to re-open its doors. Time and weather has been given the opportunity to damage its art works. I bet that in three years' time the Hamam of Molyvos will look the same as it has in past decades: another one of the many buildings in the village now doomed to be closed and to fall to pieces - like the customs office in the harbor of Petra, where not even a refugee boat has ever moored.

This is typical for the tourist politics on the island: self-interested people with big mouths run the world, making us miss the opportunity to enjoy how it really feels in a Turkish hamam. Therefore you have to go to Mesagros, where old bathing buildings from 1898 not only are rebuilt, but also where you can enjoy relaxing in warm water, surrounded by clouds of steam and nice scented soap.

The choice for bath houses lessens by the year on this hot spring-rich island. The hot springs of Eftalou were for years, summer and winter, a popular place to gather and bathe, it has now become more and more a no go area because of a bad service and the growing number of days when it is closed. The baths of Lisvori for years now have been abandoned after a catastrophic attempt at restoration. No Councillor lies awake because of this.

In the hundred years that the Greek tourist organization has existed, there has been no minister who has tied local tourism to a workable national plan for the future - leaving the tourism to some local potentates. It seems that we have to wait until that awful sultan from the other side comes over to make the baths ready again for a bigger public.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2016