C'mon Baby, Don't Light My Fire
At the beginning of May, we had two weeks of hot, dry
weather. The grass and wild flowers, in self preservation, shot-up,
went to seed and died. Suddenly there was a lot of dry, brown vegetation
everywhere in the countryside. The risk of this feeding a forest fire
became very real.
are very fond of their bonfires. They use them to get rid of the olive
tree prunings, the debris that accumulates on beaches during winter
storms and any other bits of rubbish lying around. But after 1st May
here bonfires are banned. The local fire engine can be seen out and
about patrolling the hills behind Kissamos. Anyone starting a bonfire
is likely to be arrested. This is because the results of a forest fire
can be devastating.
Once trees and vegetation is lost in a summer fire the heavy rain storms
of autumn can wash Crete’s thin, stony soil off the hills and
mountains straight into the sea. With less soil to absorb the rain,
the risk of flooding becomes greater, and whole hillsides of mud and
stone can collapse.
The vegetation can regenerate, but this requires some work from the
local authorities. You may remember last year’s devastating fire
in August at Halkidiki on mainland Greece. It was serious enough to
be reported on international news. The fire destroyed 5,000 hectares
of forest land in a place of special natural beauty. Because of the
area’s importance to tourism, money was found by central government
to take action that would help to regrow the vegetation. Hunting and
grazing of animals was forbidden. Burnt trees were felled. This not
only reduced the risk of further fire, but the wood was also used to
form flood barriers. By November last year it was reported in the English
version of the Kathimerini newspaper that a variety of greenery was
again growing on the damaged land. But all the work and scientific
advice costs money. Greece is not a rich country, so this does not
always happen after a fire.
August 2002 there was a serious fire near the area where we live, in
a place called Topolia gorge. It was so bad that the road through the
gorge had to be closed and electricity was cut to surrounding towns
and villages. It is an area of special beauty which really means something
in Crete as the island is generally so beautiful.
I remember being driven through the gorge on a coach at the start of
my first holiday in Crete in 1997. I was stunned by the wonderful shrubs
and flowers that covered the steep cliffs. Butterflies and bees supped
at the flowers and little birds flew in and out of the shrubbery. Between
the village and the gorge were magnificent stands of pine trees. Practically
all of this disappeared in the conflagration.
Some shrubs have now regrown from the bases of their charred branches.
But the trunks of the destroyed trees still stand on the slopes. There
are no funds available to pay for their removal. This is the way it
usually is after the many small fires that occur across Crete in the
least the slopes of Topolia gorge are too steep for anyone to contemplate
building up there. Some forest fires are due to carelessness, but sadly
others are started deliberately by unscrupulous developers. It is illegal
to build on forest land. They hope that the authorities will simply
redraw the forest boundaries after the fire allowing them to encroach
upon it, and build profit making houses. Usually they are right. This
is just what happens.
Currently the records of forest land in Greece are based mostly on
aerial photographs taken after the Second World War. They are supplemented
by a few taken of some areas in the 1960’s. The Greek government
is aware that their records are out of date and they have secured some
European Union funding to update them using satellite data.
So what about some fire prevention? Surely it is better that fires
do not start, rather than trying to find money to regenerate the ravaged
land or simply giving up and losing so much of Greece’s beautiful
landscape forever. Things are moving forward. Last year it was reported
on BBC World news, that the mayor of a place called New Pendelli on
mainland Greece had installed an early warning system for fire using
a series of sensors linked to a central alarm. This system was developed
by a Greek professor. So three cheers for both these people!
Even here in the wild west of Crete, the local authorities are doing
their best. For the first time, this year two men with strimmers worked
for a week in May cutting down all the dry vegetation on our local
road. They even carted all the debris away. In the meantime we can
all do our bit. Be careful with that cigarette end you smokers!
Fruit of the season – Apricot
One of the many things I enjoy about living in Crete
is the procession of seasonal fruits and vegetables that appear in
the shops and markets. It used to be like that in the UK (when I was
young!) before all the big supermarket chains started importing green
beans from Kenya and strawberries from Spain. It means you have to
adapt your menus to what is available, but everything tastes so much
The fruits that arrive in June are peaches, nectarines and apricots.
They are all from the same plant family – prunus. This includes
plums, cherries and oddly enough, almonds.
I am fortunate enough to have inherited some mature fruit trees in
my garden, two of which are apricots. I never thought much of fresh
apricots when I lived in the U.K. I thought they were small, dry, yellow
things and not very tasty. I much preferred dried or tinned ones! But
my first taste of a juicy, golden apricot, still warm from the sun,
off my own tree changed my mind completely. The books say that prunus
family was introduced to Europe from China. But the apricot varieties
have not been changed much since the Romans grew them. I like to think
I am eating a fruit that has grown here for 2,000 years.
are lovely trees. Deciduous, the blossom comes out in March, before
the leaves. My trees have pink-tinged flowers, but on most varieties
they are white. The leaves which follow shortly after are also pink
when new, before they turn light green. Perhaps this is where this
tree gets its other Latin name “armeniaca”, which means
You need quite a lot of space to grow an apricot tree. They can reach
up to 10 metres high. But I have found mine need little attention as
they are planted in a sunny spot in well-drained soil. I thin the branches
out a bit to get light and air to the fruit and they benefit from a
weekly, slow water in summer. Otherwise they are no bother.
only trouble with seasonal fruit and vegetables of course is that you
end up with more than you can eat at the time. I bottle my unblemished
fruit in a light syrup and make apricot jam with the not-so-perfect
ones. Apricots do not have a lot of natural pectin in them to help
the jam set. I have learnt to add only a little lemon juice to my fruit
and sugar. My first batch had to be poured onto the bread after I made
the mistake of following an English recipe and adding water!
A nice, easy pudding to make with fruit that is very ripe is an apricot
cream. Just blanch the fruit for a few seconds to get off the skins.
Halve and destone them, then puree them with honey (about 500grms fruit
with 2 tablespoons of runny honey). Whip up a 150ml carton of cream
(in Crete make sure you buy the one with a picture of whipped cream
on the front!). Then break up a couple of digestive biscuits into small
pieces, fold the biscuits and puree into the whipped cream and put
it into the fridge for an hour or two to set. You can decorate it with
some chopped nuts to make it look pretty before you serve it.
1. Gardeners Latin Bill Neal (1993)
2. I apologise to the cookery writer who introduced me to apricot cream,
because I have long since lost their book so cannot acknowledge them.
A Monster Plant
spring I noticed a bunch of bulb like leaves emerging on the edge of
a border in my front garden. I am of the opinion that weeds are only
plants that grow in the wrong place, so I left it to see what it would
turn out to be. Well this little bunch of leaves just grew and grew.
It was definitely of the “Jack and the Beanstalk” variety.
This month it produced several huge globular heads of tiny pink flowers
and I recognized it as an allium. Alliums, for those of you who are
not gardeners, are plants related to onions and garlic. They are grown
now days as ornamental plants in flower beds as well as in the vegetable
I looked this particular plant up in my books, I found its proper Latin
name is “Allium ampeloprasum”, common only known as the
wild leek. It is believed to be the ancestor of the cultivated leek.
The book said it grows up to 1 metre high. Wrong! Here is a photo of
my husband who is about 1.8 metres tall next to my monster plant. There
are a few similar looking plants growing wild on a steep slope up the
road from my house, but they are nowhere near as big!
This group of plants all have that distinctive smell and in England
used to be called “stinking lilies”. When I broke off a
piece of my plant, its smell was very mild, but definitely of the onion/garlic
Leeks and their relatives are said to be among the oldest cultivated
vegetables. Garlic is described by the Babylonians in texts on herbal
medicine. It is certain that the Ancient Egyptian ate them. Herodotes
wrote that one of the great pyramids was inscribed with the amount
of money spent on providing leeks and onions for the laborers. Even
in the Old Testament the Israelites, with nothing but manna to eat
in the desert, moaned about the loss of “the leeks, the onions
and the garlic” that they had to eat in Egypt.
There is a lovely book that a friend bought for us called “Ancient
Greek Food”. It is written by a lady called Sophia Souli who
studied Ancient Greek texts dating from 1100BC to 400AD to get authentic
recipes. She says that the Ancient Greeks probably used wild leeks
in their cooking as well as cultivated ones, and that the wild ones
probably had more delicate flavour. So perhaps I shall try saving some
seeds from my monster plant to sew in my vegetable garden in the autumn.
1. Wild Flowers of the Mediterranean David Burnie (1995).