February 2008

The Joys of February

acacia dealbataFebruary can still be a wintery month in Crete. When the sun is out, temperatures can rise into the low 20’s centigrade. However, winter weather depressions are still chasing one another across the Mediterranean and bring with them, furious thunder storms and high winds.

But there are compensations for this nasty weather. Crete is very green and lush at this time of year, and some wonderful plants are flowering in February. Funnily enough, I realised the other day that all my favourites begin with "A"!

In my neighbors garden, an acacia tree is covered in cascades of small, round, bright yellow flowers. There are several species of acacia, both trees and shrubs, and I think this one is acacia dealbata. Acacias are not very long-lived: some only survive 20 years. But they are very garden worthy, because they flower their hearts out while they are alive.

arum liliesOn the hillsides the almond trees are flowering. The pink and white of their blossom shines out against the muted green of the olive trees, and on sunny days the blossom is covered with bees.

The Arum lilies in my garden have been up for some time now, but are not due to flower yet (according to all the gardening books).

However one plant, sheltered by the house wall, has defiantly produced its magnificent blooms early.

These plants grow wild in Crete, along their cousins arum maculatam (our Lords and Ladies) and arum vulgare (Friar’s Cowl).

On open patches of ground anemone coronaria is in bloom, forming carpets of pink, mauve and purple.

anemone coroniaThey have been coming out since late December, but the beautiful scarlet “poppy” anemone is only just emerging.

In our valley there are a few single plants growing is sheltered places on road margins or amongst patches of thorn bushes. There was a colony of them beside the road just below our house, but two years ago a local farmer sprayed them with herbicide and they have never re-appeared.

The name anemone means wind flower, which comes from the ancient belief that the wind caused the flowers to open.

My last February joy is the common asphodel. It is a tough old thing, growing in the rockiest, hottest, driest places.

common asphodelIn overgrazed ground, where other vegetation is kept down, it forms huge colonies. Do not ever let it escape into your garden, because it will take over. It grows from a tuberous root and is hard to get rid of. But in its proper habitat, it is a marvelous thing.

Although grazing animals won’t eat it, the common asphodel is in fact edible. The ancient Greek writer Theophrastus, suggested that “the stalk is edible when fried, the seed when roasted and above all the root when cut up with figs”.

From a rosette of grey-green sword shaped leaves, the bare flower stalk starts emerging in January. Now the first flowers are opening. They look pink from a distance, but in fact are white with a reddish stripe down the center on each petal.

Eat Your Greens

Fresh spinach is just appearing on the market stalls and supermarket shelves now. One of the good things about living in Crete, is that the vegetables available are fresh, in season and locally grown. No ecologically unsound Kenyan beans for us!

Popeye © King Features SyndicateThere are two main types of spinach. The round­seeded one is sown in spring and the leaves have to be picked fairly quickly in early summer before the plant runs to seed. The prickly­seeded type is sown in late summer or early autumn for picking in spring. The second type forms an open plant with roughly triangular leaves. This is the one that is available now.

Spinach of course is famous for being full of iron (Popeye The Sailor Man, and all that). Unfortunately, because of other substances in the leaf, human beings cannot absorb the iron it contains. But spinach is still good for us. It contains carotenes, from which vitamin A is formed after digestion, and folic acid which is part of the vitamin B complex. Vitamin A has long been known to help form the pigment, visual purple in the eye. Visual purple is necessary for seeing in poor light.

My mother told me that, during the Second World War, people were told that the reason Royal Air Force pilots could see at night was because they ate plenty of carrots! They were in fact using radar, but this was a secret at the time. Now scientists have found that vitamin A protects against age related degeneration of sight as well.

Spinach has been around for a long time. It is included in Ancient Greek recipes with seafood or chicken. In Britain it is usually eaten as a boiled vegetable or made into soup. Although I hated it as a child ­ I found its strong taste and slimy texture very unpleasant - I am perfectly happy to eat it now. But I love it the way it is served in Crete, either lightly steamed and dressed with olive oil and lemon juice, or sealed inside two layers of crispy filo pastry as “spanakopita”. Delicious!

Cash, Hash and Kalash-nikov ...

Cretan news this winter has been about crime.

This is unusual, because apart from people shooting one another occasionally during family quarrels, the crime rate is very low. However, there are some problems here with law enforcement.

Zoniana roadsignCommunities are relatively small and close-knit. There are always a few rich and politically powerful families in each community who are practically untouchable, and local policemen are drawn from that local community, so they are influenced by it.

Added to this there is a hangover in the Cretan male mentality from occupation of the island by the Ottoman Turks and the Germans. This makes them fiercely independent, defiant of authority, and very fond of having a gun just in case!

An extreme example of these problems came to a head in a mountain village called Zoniana, in a rather wild area to the south of Rethymnon.

Apart from the usual olives and goats, the villagers supplemented their income with cultivation of cannabis. They did very nicely out of it too. I am reliably informed, that one young man took feed to his goats in the boot of a brand new Mercedes sports car!

However there was also some nastier stuff going on: cocaine dealing, involvement in people trafficking and so on. The villagers and the surrounding communities were well-armed and protective of one another. It had become a no-go area for local police.

Special forces in Zoniana This all came to a head when a suspected drug dealer was chased out of Iraklion back to Zoniana.The local authorities knew what they had to deal with.They gathered together 12 jeeps piled with 40 policemen and a local prosecutor.The rank and file police were not told where they were going until 10 minutes beforehand ­ to make sure none of them called in sick.

Appropriately, it was November 5th, and there were fireworks! As the police convoy got near Zoniana, they were ambushed and a gun battle ensued. It was just like something out of a Wild West film, and would have been funny if three poor policemen hadn’t been injured during the fight. The lawmen retreated.

However they were made of sterner stuff than the villagers gave them credit for. Two days later the police went back in force. This time they brought with them the heavy mob from Athens. They had no local connections, so had no hang-ups about going in with all guns blazing. The villagers were subdued, and the police searched the place from top to bottom. Among the finds were caches of weapons and ammunition, drugs, two cannabis plantations, a cannabis factory, three stolen cars and two bank ATM machines!

The local mayor of the Zoniana area, has now promised to provide education and help to find his villagers a new source of income and outlet for their energies. Watch this space!