Tuesday, 13 November 2018

November 11 – Soccerboletus

(Soccer boletus)

There once was a time when it was believed that mushrooms traveled with lightning. This explained how they could appear so suddenly. We still believe that mushrooms shoot out of the ground after a good rain shower.

However I no longer believe that. With the exception of a bit of rain during a bad week at the end of September; day after day the sky has remained super blue. The clouds have continued to avoid the island, as has the rain that from time to time could be observed above Turkey, but it has never dared to cross the Aegean and relieve the dehydrated land over here.

Last week, when I went with friends to the pine forest above Anemotia, we immediately saw that a herd of mushroom pickers had passed through the wood. Wherever we looked there were the remains of rejected mushrooms. So, even though during the past months there had been only one teeny-tiny shower, the forest seemed, surprisingly, to have been full of mushrooms.

We were frustrated by the broad track the destroying mushroom raiders had made the day before, so we became very focussed in finding what was left. The resulting finds were some forgotten aspros (Russula delica) and p├Ęperites (Lactarius piperatus), dried out boletus, perished milk caps, grey mushrooms and other mysterious kinds. I also discovered a dark brown ball, already taken out of the earth. It looked like a porcini, the king of boletus, rolled up, anxiously, like a hedgehog. Nearby we discovered two similar balls, only this time as big as footballs: burst because of their explosive size and unnatural form. They did look like porcini disguised as giant puffballs. 

We left those strange balls in the wood, only took the small one to research it back at home. We also took the mysterious triplet with suede caps, just like the orange-yellow Caesar's mushroom (Amanita Caesarea); those mushroom freaks had forgotten the most delicious one there is to eat. 

The ancient Greeks ate mushrooms, but I guess they were not fond of them. They mistrusted them and thought it strange that they sprang so quickly out of the earth and had no seed. Maybe the story was true that they traveled with lightning: that is why they were also called sons of Zeus, the god of thunder and lightning.

In ancient times people died from eating poisonous mushrooms. Nowadays the Greeks are still careful about eating them. I only know a few Greeks who eat more than two kinds of mushrooms. I must admit I am a bit the same. I love searching for mushrooms and identifying them, but eating all of them: no way! Most of them are not tasty at all.

When we arrived at our secret spot, it seems we came too late. Not because of mushroom hunters, but because of the time: most boletus had already perished. But we did find an enormous colourful dotted stem bolete (Boletus erythropus), diverse mysterious clusters of yellow-white mushrooms, small shiny pearl grey mushrooms and more milk caps — a mushroom Walhalla! There was even a green amanita with white dots, the brother of the fairy-tale-red-dotted-fly-amanita. 

It is believed that during the Eleusinian Mystery Parties, where club members were confronted with violent visions, and during the heady celebrations of Dionysus, where the Maenads were brought to demented deeds, there must have been mushrooms circulating. Similarly with the priestesses of the Oracle of Delphi, who transmitted the words of the gods whilst in trances. That could have been due to gasses they inhaled, but some scientists thought that they were just tripping women, that chewed on a white dotted fly amanita, pretending to be the messengers from heaven.

The Romans liked mushrooms more than the Greeks and became huge consumers, meaning: only the upper class. There were times that as a poor citizen you were not allowed to even touch a mushroom! The Romans also became skilled in killing each other and it was not rare for a murder case to involve mushrooms.

I agree with the ancient Greeks that mushrooms are strange beings. It is a miracle that only with humid air they can grow into such big creations — in such fascinating forms. Maybe those giant porcini puffballs were a new kind: Soccer boletus. Too big for squirrels to play with (in Dutch those porcini are called Squirrel bread), but big enough for the boars who have come back to Agiasos and, who knows, possibly now also returned to the woods above Anemotia.

The suede triplet appeared to be a rare Velvet roll-rim (Tapinella atrotomentosa)edible but without taste.The small ball cut in halves was indeed a porcini: easy to dry and delicious to cook with. Now I regret that I left those other two Soccer boletus in the wood. It would have been kilo's of first class porcini. 

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2018

Saturday, 3 November 2018

November 2 - Chestnuts-la-la-la

(The chestnut wood above Agiasos)

What is a Zeus acorn, a Sardic nut, a Pontic nut or a Sinope nut? These are all names, found in old documents, for the sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa). When looking through the history of this autumn nut, lots of different names were found, but I’m not entirely sure if they all concern the sweet chestnut. Everybody who knows the thorny husk where the chestnuts hide, would never call that a woolly fruit, like Mota, meaning 'woolly'. Or Lopima, another name for the chestnut, meaning 'easy to peel'. Well, if there is one fruit that can drive you crazy while peeling, it is the chestnut. I love chestnut puree, but then you need lots of patience and a whole day to peel a bowl of chestnuts. 

In an earlier column from 2011 (Sardian nuts) I wrote that Alexander the Great introduced the sweet chestnuts to Greece. But since reading and understanding the paper Cultivation of Castenea Sativa in Europe*,I have found thatlong before Alexander the Great even was born, sweet chestnut trees were blooming in Greece. The writers of this scientific paper have researched ancient Greek books where chestnuts were named, even if they found a whole lot of different local names. Happily enough Theophrastus named the fruit by its known name, so there is no confusion. Because another problem is that in ancient times all fruit with a hard skin was named a nut, making it difficult to find out where, when and for what chestnuts were used: the text could just as well be about a hazel, walnut or an acorn tree. Before Theophrastus, Herodotes and Hippocatres had already named the chestnut; after them many more followed. 

By then we are in a historical period that is much easier to research. Then you had for example Magna Graecia (Great Greece) that started in the eighth to sixth centuries BC, when Greek states blew their hot breath over the coasts of the south of Italy and Sicily, until the Romans ended that colonization. Syracuse and Neapolis (later Naples) were the most important colonist cities. I now do understand why, in those ancient times, lots of Greeks traveled to Italy: it is known that Sappho for example lived for a few years in Syracuse as a refugee or an exile. And the great philosopher Pythagoras fled Samos from the dictator Polycrates around 530 BC and settled in the South-Italian city of Croton.

These are only two of the many Greeks who settled on the Italian coasts, thus building large Greek colonies. These Greeks brought the chestnuts to Italy. Maybe there were already some sweet chestnut trees in Italy, but there was no real chestnut culture. The Romans learned from the Greeks the huge value of the wood of the chestnut trees and what to do with chestnuts in the kitchen. And thus later the Roman armies brought the chestnuts to more northern countries.

Maybe one day it will be known when the chestnut trees appeared above Agiasos, but who brought the first chestnut treeto Lesvos will be difficult to find out. The mountain village Agiasos is number one in celebrations on Lesvos. At the end of the winter it is a champion in organizing a sizzling carnival with colourful and humorous events. Around August 15ththe thousands of pilgrims offering wishes (or a thankyou’s) to the Holy Virgin at their famous Maria-church are welcomed with lots of music, food and drinks.Finallyduring the first weekend of November this little town will celebrate the popular chestnut festival, which, for weeks already, they have been collecting chestnuts in the woods. In the coming days the perfume of roasted chestnuts will whirl through the small picturesque streets, the squares will fill with lots of visitors and the booze will stream abundantly. 

Nowadays most vegetables and fruit that are at the base of the Greek food have been spread all over the world: olives, figs, walnuts, grapes: you will find them as far as in California, an American state that imported nearly everything from the old world. Greece nowadays has its umpteenth emigration crisis, if only this one does not go to Italy. The last emigration wave was in the 60's-70's, when most emigrants departed with everything they owned in one suitcase. Nowadays it’s young people who have finished their studies and export their knowledge. This will be a big loss for Greece, who will need decennia to repair the damage Europe has caused.

There is also knowledge flowing into the country; its coming in with the refugees, who, however, do not want to settle into a poor country. And so Greece, once a proud country, with lots of booming commercial cities as far away as in Italy, now again sees its country impoverished. They no longer have anything to give other than great holiday experiences, like the entertaining Chestnut Festival in Agiasos. But that takes place just when most of the tourists have gone.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

©Smitaki 2018


*The cultivation of Castanea sativa (Mill.) in Europe, from its origin to its diffusion on a continental scale, door: M. Conedera, P. Krebs, W. Tinner, M. Pradella en D. Torriani