September/October 2008

An Ordinary Agricultural Track In Autumn

Pistacia lentiscusSeptember and October are lovely months in Crete.

The days can still be warm and sunny, but the evenings are cool. Now it is a pleasure, not a chore to take the dogs out for a local walk.

It is very peaceful - the cicadas have stopped mating calls, so I can hear the small birds in the olive groves twittering to one another, and the occasional chattering alarm call from a blackbird disturbed by the dogs.

The countryside is dry and brown, after nearly four months without rain. Most shrubs are still hibernating, but the tough Pistacia lentiscus (mastic) bushes are green. The female ones are particularly pretty, with their decoration of pink berries.

Inula viscosaFrom the dry banks on either side of the road, the bright green shoots of Inula viscosa have appeared. This shrubby plant is very common, and can be seen everywhere. Soon they will be covered in sprays of small, yellow daisy-like flowers.

If you break off a little piece of this plant, you are hit by a very pungent smell. The books say it is rank, but I don’t find it unpleasant, just powerful. It would certainly have been effective in rousing a delicate Victorian lady from a swoon!

The leaves have tiny gland hairs, which secrete a sticky substance that leaves a residue on your fingers.

The strong smell was thought to keep away fleas, so the common name in Greek for this plant can be translated as "flea-bane".

Urginea maritimaOn a rocky exposed slope, where the soil is too thin for olive trees, Urginea maritima (sea squill) is now flowering. This plant grows from a large bulb, the top of which sticks out from the earth. The broad, shiny leaves appear later. They are very tough, and last most of the summer ­ particularly as the goats won’t eat them.

The single flower spike looks white from a distance, but up close, you can see that the little star-shaped flowers have yellow centres, with a fine pinkish stripe down the centre of each petal.

Sea squill used to be used medicinally in cough mixtures, and to treat heart disease. Because of the plant’s ability to survive, it became a symbol of fertility in Greece. Even today, you see this plant hung outside Cretan homes at New Year.

Smilax asperaScrambling over the shrubs that grow in the dried out water course, is a climbing plant called Smilax aspera (rough bindweed). It has tough, shiny, heart-shaped leaves, and new tendrils are pink-tipped.

From late September onwards, it produces clusters of creamy flowers which fill the air with a sweet perfume. The flowers give way to red berries, which were used in herbal medicine as an antidote to poison.

Dioscondes, who wrote the first comprehensive publication on herbal medicine in the first century, says that if a drink made from these berries is given to a newborn baby, it would "be hurt by no poisonous medicine" - what a miraculous plant!

The dogs and I, slowly return to the asphalt road that leads to our village. Then they run off to harass an unfortunate local cat, so I have to call them to order, and thereby abandon my contemplation of nature. Even so, I remember how lucky I am to live in this beautiful place!

Greek News

In June, all Greece united in sorrow when their football team was defeated in the European Cup. Too much defence, too little attack, said the football pundits.

In July, a huge tanker full of 40,000 cubic metres of drinking water was dispatched from Greece to drought-stricken Cyprus. But when it arrived, they found that the hosepipe they brought with them was too short! Still, it's the thought that counts, isn’t it?

In August, all Greece once more united in sorrow, when their Olympic athletes either sunk into obscurity, or were sent home in disgrace after positive drug tests. What a sad contrast to the glory of Athens 2004.

In September, another sort of Olympic was in the news. This was Olympic Airlines (OA), and the new plan to privatise it. The government has been trying to sell it off for years, without success. The company is overmanned, inefficient and loss-making. It has cost the treasury 850 million euros in subsidies since 2005, all of which is illegal under European law.

But now the European Commission have approved the plan to divide the company into three, and sell it off in bits. If that succeeds there will be mass redundancies, and naturally the staff are protesting. I feel sorry for anyone who loses their job, and some of the OA staff I have encountered, have been the most polite and helpful people.

In mid-September, the OA staff protested by sitting in the middle of the runway in Athens international airport, stopping the planes taking off. Later that month, they were outside the OA main office in central Athens, quarreling with police and causing traffic jams. This is all making them thoroughly unpopular with the travelling public - so no change there!

Seasonal Produce

September in Crete, means grapes.

Every Cretan garden has a vine or two for dessert grapes. Every Cretan family has their own small vineyard for wine grapes. There are family gatherings in September, where all generations lend a hand (or a foot) in picking and treading the grapes.

The original grape vine (Vitis vinifera) probably came from western Asia - it's one of the oldest cultivated plants. The ancient Egyptians grew vines 6,000 years ago. Wine was made - probably from wild grapes - even before this, in the Caucasus.

Cretan grapesThe Ancient Greeks, and then the Romans, developed viticulture and introduced vines into their colonies across Europe and the Near East. There are now hundreds of grape cultivars in existence. Some types of early ripening wine grapes can be grown successfully in northern Europe. Dessert grapes, however, do better where they can grow and ripen outdoors. The Mediterranean climate is ideal for them.

The dessert grapes I am now eating (from my own and my neighbours' gardens), are glorious. Their colours range from deep purple to pale lemony greens. All are sweet and luscious, but each kind has a different flavour. Some taste like honey, others are slightly scented. At last I understand what wine buffs mean, when they talk about the different flavours that grapes give to wine!

Dried grapes ­ raisins, sultanas and currants ­ are usually produced by cutting the bunches from the vine, and laying them out on the floors exposed to the sun. They have been important trading goods for centuries. Greece is still a major exporter of currants, made from a small, purple grape variety.

Greece does not, however, have a great reputation for producing great wine. The only wine that everyone knows, is retsina. At the local tavernas on Crete, you are likely to be offered the owner’s own produce, served up in a jug. However, it can be of very variable quality! Some of the so-called red wine, particularly, takes a bit of getting used to. It looks more brown than red, and tastes a lot like sherry. But actually, Crete does grow an appreciable amount of grapes for commercial use. They are used by reputable wine producers, such as Boutaris and Achaia Clauss, to make their "Kritikos" wines.

The four main grape growing areas in Crete, are Arhanes, Dafnes, Peza and Siteia. The grapes are grown on the lower northern slopes of Crete's mountain ranges, where they are sheltered from hot winds from North Africa, and watered by melting snow from the mountain tops during summer. This has been going on for a long time, since the world's most ancient wine press was found in Arhanes on Crete.

Our own area (around Kissamos) produces wine grapes, but they are used only for making country wine (vins de pays), not vintages.

Some wine grape varieties are grown only on Crete, for example the black grape varieties Mandelaria and Kotsifali, which are blended to make a dry, red wine. Liatako grapes are used in dry and sweet red wine, and rosé. A dry, white wine is made from Vilana grapes. The Sultanina grape, as you might expect from the name, produces a sweet white. Vidiano, which is grown in Rethymno, makes a good quality country wine.

So enjoy the beautiful harvest of lovely dessert grapes now, but look out for "Kritikos" wines to enjoy all year round.

If you want to know more about Greek wine, there is a book of that name on the subject by Geoff Adams, published by Winemaster Publishing Ltd.

The Trouble With Greek

A friend living here in Crete, had grown some lovely vegetables, but was having trouble with her neighbour’s hens, which kept invading her garden. They scratched around, uprooting her tomatoes, and pecking at her lettuces. They were a general, all round, feathery nuisance.

So, she decided she needed to put up a fence to protect her vegetable patch from these marauders.

Off she went to the hardware shop, armed with the correct Greek words for fence posts and wire netting. Having asked the lady for these items, they were duly produced. She was rather proud of herself, but wondered why her request had caused such a puzzled look.

When she got home she checked her dictionary, and realisation hit her. She had meant to ask for materials to build a fence to protect her "lachanika" (vegetables) from the hens. What she had actually asked for, was fencing to protect her "loukanika" (sausages)!

Greek Orthodox Saint Of The Month

Saint KiriakosSeptember 29th is the day on which Saint Kiriakos is celebrated, who is reputed to work wonders in healing the sick.

He is a very Greek saint, having been born in Corinth in 448. He took to the religious life when he was very young, and was inspired to travel to the Holy Land to join a religious community there.

He dedicated his life to fasting, vigil, and prayer. When even this ascetic life in the monastery seemed too easy to him, he went out to live in the desert, followed by only one disciple.

In the desert, there was very little to eat, except herbs and plants which were bitter to taste. But he prayed to God, and lo and behold, the plants became sweet and nice to eat!

Anyway, this hard life he chose for himself must have suited him, because he eventually died in 557, which made him 109 years old!

On icons, he is usually represented as a rather grim-looking old chap with a beard, sometimes with his disciple beside him looking after him. I've not been able to discover the disciple's name, nor what happened to him. The backroom boys never get any credit, do they?