Sunday, 24 June 2018

June 23 - Trendy Lesvos Food

When I look at the food trends of this year I find that the trendsetters had quite varying preferences, but especially for food from very far away. Only a few things they had in common: the growing hype to eat more vegetables, mushrooms, fermented food, seaweed, a better awareness about eating meat and drinking local beer from small brewery's. There is a lot of choice for trendy restaurants. 

You will not find exotic fruit nor tropical vegetables in the restaurants on Lesvos (or for that matter, most restaurants in Greece). Most of them don’t even change their menu for tens of years, presenting only good old Greek food. I wonder if they even know that there are culinary trends.

However, the simple Greek kitchen is actually pretty trendy. To begin with: Greeks eat lots of vegetables, super fresh and preferably from their own garden. In the past years Greek food with local products scored high on the lists of trendy food. Now there is a new hot item: vegetable proteins. These are to be found in beans - of which the Greeks eat plenty, especially in the winter -, broccoli or mushrooms – also a new trendsetter – are also to be found regularly on Greek menus

Fermented food has become another fashionable concept, even though itis about just ordinary food like yoghurt, cheese, bread and wine. Greek food has your intestinal flora aplenty: tzatziki (yoghurt with cucumber and garlic), cheese, bread and wine are rarely left out of a Greek dinner.
Similar to the much-hyped Asian kimchi, in the Greek kitchen you will find preserved vegetables in salads and served with fish. They also like to ferment little fishes or octopus in vinegar. Vinegary food in Greek is named ksidatomarinato or toursi: also exotic names, ready to enter the trendy food lists next year.
Since a few years balsamic vinegar has found a place in the Greek kitchen: poured over 
roka-salad (rocket), sprinkled with pieces of ladotiri, the local replacement for parmesan cheese. Totally hot, this dish!

Wasting food is not done anymore. However leftover meals are not very poplar in Greece. Vegetables have to be fresh, so the leftovers go to the pigs, chicken or goats. That also is a way of recycling. Greeks have never liked to waste food: fish is served with head and tail (some Greeks say the head of a fish is the best part) and beetroots are served with their green leaves. What remains on the tables disappears into a doggybag, normal in Greece. Sometimes there are even fights over who gets the bag with the leftovers. 

Another trendy development is to no longer having meat on the table everyday. Greeks are familiar with this trend. For years now there has been no daily meat: by own choice or they simply cannot afford it anymore. If the meat is not from their own animals, they know exactly to which butcher they have to go for the best cuts of meat. Obscure meat packed in plastic from the supermarket is not done.

Lesvos is a little behind concerning brewed beers, but islands like Corfou, Tinos and Evia (I do not consider this as an island) brew their own beers, while in some bars in Athens they promoteproductsof all local breweries: Make it a Greek Beer please.

Greeks do not eat seaweed: they bath in it; the Aegean sea has plenty of it. Maybe that is the reason why the Greeks are a bit afraid of this green sea grass on their plates. One has to wait until a smart enterprising Greek starts to promote the product to be found everywhere along the Greek coasts.

It is clear that the Greek kitchen is pretty trendy. Now that the summer really has started and the children are free from school, the time for festivals has begun. On Lesvos it starts with the Lesvos Food Fest (July 5-15), this year with a program all over the island: learn about trachana in Lafionas, fish products in Skala Kallonis, fig syrup in Erèsos, a market with local food at the Gulf of Yera, cook books in Mytilini and cooking with olive oil in Aya Paraskevi. In Molyvos children can have cooking lessons, herbs will be presented in the hamam, local women will open their kitchens and there will be a wine tasting. 

An interesting program for the food gurus; it is time that the trend watchers come this way. And the Greeks have to learn what is going on in the rest of the culinary world. They do not have to adjust their menus, they just have to highlight how trendy some of their dishes are. This way they can better profile themselves as modern, trendy restaurants. 

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2018

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

June 12 - Smugglers & Co


Have you ever tried to sit in a suitcase? Last week port officers opened the suitcase of a traveller boarding the ferry to Athens and in it they found an illegal refugee. It was not the first time that they have come across this desperate manner of smuggling. 

On Lesvos there are people smugglers, in the North of Greece, in the mountains close to the Albanian border, the police have to deal with other smugglers: Albanians who sneak over the border to steal tons of, often very rare, mountain herbs. They set up hidden camps from where the pickers swarm over the slopes to gather their loot, using faithful donkeys to transport their loot back over the border to their own country where they can sell in all freedom the herbs for good prices.

Tea and a rare species of sage are high on their wanted list, but most favoured is cowslip (Primula vera) whose dried flowers and roots can be sold for more than 20 euro per 120 gram, or they may ask 34 euro per 25 plants. This way these smugglers earn in one month what they normally earn in a whole year.

If they did the picking in a professional way, or left an address card behind in order to share the profit, Greece may not have taken such extreme measures. But these smuggler gangs uproot plants in such a hurry, that they destroy whole fields and thus threaten the future growth of the plants. Now plenty of donkey caravans with illegal herbs are catched onthe smuggler routes.

Lesvos does not have that problem: no primula veragrows on the island and it does not border Albania. Even ifthe Turks were to get the idea to come and steal herbs on Lesvos, no bags with thyme would reach the other side because thanks to the people smugglers the island is very well guarded. And besides, Turkey itself is a Valhalla for herbs, where you can, without danger of getting arrested, uproot orchids, something which is forbidden in Greece (and in the whole of Europe). 

Lesvos is rich with wild oregano, thyme and sage, that is harvested by the locals in pretty modest quantities. They may even not know yet the new Greek law from 2014, saying that you are only allowed to pick herbs for your own usage: ½ kilo a person, per day. They just do not realize that it’s money growing in their fields. Maybe it is better this way, otherwise they would loot the mountain slopes like the goats eat all the greenery.

On internet I have only found two companies specialized in herbs (and olive oil and salt) from Lesvos: Melima products and Nissos (Greek food). I take it that they have a permit and do the harvest in a professional way. 

Rock Roses (Cistus creticus) are wanted by the pharmaceutical industry because of its etherial oil. A north Aegean firm has now made a deal with a big company to deliver 800 kilo of Rock Rose from Lesvos. I wonder if they also have a new way of harvesting, because these flowers are not the easiest to be picked: in the heat of the day, when the flower petals sweat that fragrant oil. Or will they use the old method: chasing goats through the Rock Rosebushes, and afterwards picking the oil from their coats.

Now while tourism on Lesvos is still very slow – people may still be afraid of little boats with refugees landing on the beach – it may be time for some people on Lesvos to think again what business they open. The island is not only a paradise for tourists but also offers plenty of opportunity for herb picking (wanted by the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industry) or seaweed cultivation (food of the future). With a bit of vision you could do better than opening the umpteenth restaurant or hotel for tourists who are staying away.

Last week I saw an, unknown to me, man dragging an enormous bag full of oregano on his back. Under the large load he made himself as little as possible. For sure there was more than half a kilo on his back and no donkey or car to be seen: it must have be hidden somewhere in the bushes. Was that an Albanian who crossed the border illegally and took the ferry to Lesvos in order to get some of that first class oregano of this island? If he is not caught along with the stowaways going back by ferry, there might be a truck waiting for him in Kavala that will bring him back to his country, not over the smaller smuggler routes but just over the highway: the new smugglers’ way. It is good that there is no primula vera on Lesvos, otherwise we might also become a smugglers’ island and then tourists might be frightened away totally! 

(With thanks to Mary Staples)

©Smitaki 2018

Friday, 1 June 2018

May 28 – Perky islands

(Caperflower and caperbuds)

Greece has so many islands that nobody can count them. That’s what I think when I read on Wikipedia that this country of Olympic gods has 1200 to 6000 islands. Most of them are probably so small that you do not notice them. Wikipedia gives a definition: “An island is a piece of land, on all sides surrounded by water, smaller than a continent but bigger than a rock or a sandbank.” Meaning when you have two rocks sticking out of the sea, it is officially an island. This explains why it is nearly impossible to count all islands of Greece.

The islands that are inhabited are easier to count: between 166 and 227. However it still seems odd that there is no exact number. Might it be that some 60 islands are some years inhabited and in other years deserted? The islands are at least divided into an exact number of groups: Cyclades, Dodecaneses, Sporades, Saronic, Ionic and Nord Aegean islands, to which Lesvos belongs, together with Chios, Samos, Ikaria and Lemnos.
Each island is a world of its own. They all have their own history, culture and climate. For instance the bright yellow broom on Lesvos will have finished its blooming, while on the more southern Samos it will still be spreading its sweet fragrance. On Samos you will also find blood-red anemones, while on Lesvos they will be long gone. On Samos you’ll see trees heavy with sweet oranges, a fruit only to be seen in the winter on Lesvos. I have been told that those are the ‘so-called’ summer oranges. I never knew those existed, but what a juicy treat!
Samos conquered the world with its sweet dessert wine, but great white and red wine is also produced in its vineyards, the vines gathering as much sun as possible high in the mountains. There you will also find thick sweet honey, due to the many flowers growing wild. Lesvos also has tasty honey, but the island is far less green than Samos, which in certain places looks more like a jungle. There you will hear the jackals crying at night (no other Greek island has jackals); yet there is barely space for grazing sheep and goats, plenty of which you will find on Lesvos. Many lovers of flowers weep at seeing a place shaved bare by sheep where once rare orchids flowered (sacrified to the excellent goat and sheep cheeses the island exports).
In ancient times Lesvos wine was even more famous than that of Samos, but that skill never came back. It is now ouzo for which Lesvos is famous — distilled following centuries’ old spice recipes. On each Greek island you will find Lesvian ouzo like Babayannis, but I must admit that the Samian ouzo Giokarini might be equally good.
When I regularly came to Chios and I told people there that on Lesvos they eat flowers, more than one Chiot had a big laugh because of its silly neighbours. Stuffed courgette flowers are unknown on Chios. There they throw plenty of capers and even caper apples over all their salads, while lots of people on Lesvos do not even know that there are caper plants on their island and have no idea what they look like. I have to admit that the caper bushes don’t grow everywhere on the island, contrary to Samos, where they seem to have as many caper bushes as they have grapevines. But on Samos I never saw a single caper on my plate*. There, available in each restaurant are the chickpea balls, while those are, as far as I know, only on the menu of one restaurant on Lesvos — Meltemi in Skamnioudi, and those are far more tasteful than all the chickpea balls I ate on Samos.

Salted fish, a beloved appetizer on Lesvos, was absent from most Samian menus (only marinated anchovy). Like the sardelles pastes, a speciality on Lesvos, made from the famous sardines from the Gulf of Kalloni, one restaurant on Samos offered salted sardines, but they were salted days before. I did not dare to order them. According to Lesvian cooks, the fish should be salted just a day to half a day before they are eaten. This way they keep creamy and soft. Furthermore sardines should be served only during high summer, when they have eaten their bellies thick and round. In June the real sardines time starts.
Each island has its own speciality: dried capers from Santorini, haloumi cheese from Cyprus, mastica from Chios, wines from Lemnos and so on. When counting the islands is already a difficult job, what a Herculian task it would be to register all those specialities? How many culinary treats do all those other islands still hide?

*Restaurant Eptastadio, just before Pappa's Beach in Ireon, does serve capers in some dishes. It is beautiful situated and has wonderful food. Worth visiting!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

©Smitaki 2018