June/July 2007

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.

Topolia - burnt pinesCretans 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.

Topolia - the day afterIn 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 summer.

Topolia - 5 years laterAt 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 (το βερίκοκο)

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 better.

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.

Pink apricot leavesThey 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 blush-coloured.

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.

Our apricotsThe 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

Pink apricot leavesIn 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 garden.

Monster plantWhen 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 variety.

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).