Monday, 16 April 2018

April 14 – Rock Roses

(Cytinus ruber)

What is the biggest flower on earth? It is the Rafflesia arnoldii whose solitary flower can reach a diameter of one meter, and rightly calls herself Queen of the Flowers. This vegetal colossus hides herself so well in the jungles of South Asia that she is rarely spotted. But when you meet her, you might think it is a flower made of foam, so odd she looks. 

In Europe we have to live with her bonsai version: her nephews/nieces Cytinus ruber. These little flowers do not look at all like the Queen of the Flowers, but they do look odd. They grow in bouquets, the outer flowers female, the inside ones male. The whole lot looks like a bunch of radish because of the globular forms and the bright pink-red-white colour. Myopic people might think it is a fairytale red mushroom with white dots. They grow under the jungle-like empire of the dark green leaves of the rock flowers. 

They have more or less married those wrinkle flowers, as I call these merry sunflowers, whose bushes of white and pink coloured flowers cover many hills and mountain slopes on Lesvos. Hidden under the leaves the parasite Cytinus ruberlives on the invisible roots of the rock flowers.

Somebody told me that her father always picked those flowers and ate them straight away. They might taste like honey. I haven’t dared do this: they also look a bit like mushrooms and in the mushroom world the colour red means poison. But on the internet you can read that these strange plants without a visible stem or leaves worth mentioning are indeed edible and that locals might serve them as a replacement to asparagus. These days wild asparagus still wave with fat young shoots through the air, preferably in the middle of thorny bushes, where it is impossible to get them without your clothes being torn apart.

Greeks usually make an omelet with wild asparagus. If we are to trust the internet, you could also make an omelet with cytinus. It would certainly be a special and colourful dish. The medical world is interested in an extract of these plants to treat dysentery, throat tumors and as an astringent: thanks to the rock flowers, whose roots are the lifeline of the cytinus.

Rock flowers do seem to sunbathe all day and appear useless, but their bushes do work hard to make a kind of resin: landanum. As easy as it is to put a cytinus in your mouth as a honey bonbon, it is difficult to harvest this sunflower resin. It’s the flower petals that sweat out drops of the resin, which is best collected at the hottest hour of the day. In ancient times clever farmers had their goats rush through the rock flower bushes, and afterwards they combed the sticky, valuable resin out of their rough coats. In the middle ages this precarious work was done by monks who flailed a leather belt through the flowers. It is mainly the cosmetic industry that still wants this resin to make perfumes, soaps and deodorants. But you will see no more monks beating the bushes, they now harvest the flowers and little twigs and boil them until the resin comes floating on the water. 

Rock flowers are not monogamous: they also like to pair with mushrooms, plenty of which can be found in their neighborhood in autumn. Another beloved partner is the desert truffle (Terfeziaceae). This descendant from the truffle family does not have a strong taste and costs about a tenth of the price of those so valuable better known truffles. Collecting them will probably not make you rich. But wouldn't it be nice to have a pinch of desert truffle over a cytinus omelet or a honey bonbon? So, we really do have to kneel down on the ground and look for those truffles right under the rock flowers!

(With thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2018

Thursday, 5 April 2018

March 30 – Dying boats

(A traditional fisher boat in the harbour of Skamnioudi)

In the story of The Mermaid Madonnaby Stratis Myrivillis a fisherman takes his boat to Mytilini. In the past, lots of people used the sea to go places. Going from Mytilini to Molyvos, you could wait for a ferry, and even though the ship came from a distance, it was a regular connection. Going over the water was in many cases much more comfortable and quicker than crossing the rough mountains on the back of a horse or a donkey.

Greece was a seafaring nation. It is even said that the first inhabitants arrived by boat. But I don’t believe that, because Lesvos used to be glued to the Asian plateau, and it’s from there that hunters, mammoths, prehistoric elephants and apes came to explore the region. Seeing all that water the hunters must have begun fishing and it would not have taken them long to start to build boats in order to catch more fish.

In Ancient Greece warships formed the main fleet. Even when their conflicts were not fought mid sea, soldiers had to be transported over the sea, like during the Trojan war or the Battle of Marathon against the Persians. Also mythology tells us lots of adventurous sea tales, the best known being that of superman Odysseus, who could not find his way back home after the Trojan war. He did not have an astrolabe, an instrument to show your location on the oceans (that was invented either in the 2ndcentury BC by Hipparchus, or in the 4thcentury by the first Greek woman mathematician Hypatia; the scientists are not sure). But from that time on you could no longer come home and get away with telling your wife that you were lost at sea. So ships were for commerce and war, and some for fishing to feed all the men.

At the end of the 19thcentury, business on Lesvos was booming and the shipyards had plenty of work, some of them became famous for their craftsmanship, like those in Plomari and Perama. First they looked for the right trees, then they started the sawing and hammering. The craft passed from father to son.

One of the many pleasantries in Greece today is to settle down in the shadow of a terrace in a little harbour, or just in the sun when summer is not yet there. As is: enjoying screaming seagulls sailing over the water, little waves babbling at the quays, schools of curious fish looking for some crumbs to fall into the water, strolling passersby and a fisherman mending his colourful nets, little boats swinging softly on the heave, their splashing colours mirrored in the water, so often photographed as an abstract beautiful painting.

Skala Sykaminia, Molyvos, Gavathas, Skala Loutron, Plomari, Skala Mystegnon: those are just a few of the many little harbours we have on the island. Lesvos has more harbours than it has terraces at the sea, also more terraces than traditional little wooden boats, and more traditional boats than shipbuilders. 

Europe, keen on getting the fish quota down, offers a subsidy for destroying these colourful little wooden fishing boats. As if they are the cause of overfishing! The sea has become so emptied of fish that local fishermen feel obliged to take that evil offer, just to survive. 

Twenty years ago the Greek traditional fishing fleet consisted of 14,200 boats. Now there are some 2000 left. If these numbers concerned animals, they immediately would be added to the danger of extinction list. Who will protect the local Greek fishermen, the ship builders and their traditional boats?

When recently I was in Palios I saw some skeletons of wooden boats. They were not Greek. Turkey does not take this European subsidy, but they have their own way of getting rid of their old wooden boats. They sell them for a lot of money to smugglers, who put as many refugees as possible on the creaking boats and send them off to sea. Most of these boats do not survive the illegal landing on the rocky shores of Lesvos. Sometimes I have had to cry at seeing such a beautifully crafted boat, built with so much love, only to end up dying, without honour, as a smuggler’s tool.

There is plenty of money to finance expeditions to find antique ships that centuries ago ended up on the bottom of the sea. And they now give plenty of money to destroy museum pieces. What a strange world we are living in!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

©Smitaki 2018