November/December 2008

A Weird And Wonderful Plant

Growing and flowering now and on until spring, is mandragora officinarum, common name mandrake. Some botanists split this vanable plant into two types and call the Mediterranean one “mandragora autumnalis” but others say they are all one species.

mandrakeThe plants big, flat rosette of crinkly leaves grow close to the ground. The short-stalked bell shaped flowers arise from the centre and come in various colours from pinkish to deep blue. It looks a perfectly ordinary quite beautiful plant, but there is so much myth and magic surrounding it that it has even ended up in a scene in a Harry Potter film.

It is actually a medical plant. The Latin tag officiarum means "of the apothecary’s shop". Ancient civilizations knew it well. Its use is recorded in cuneiform on Babylonian tablets inscribed seven centuries before Christ. Hippocrates (460-377 BC), that most famous of ancient medical men, explains mandrake’s uses in his notes. Theophrastus (370-285 BC) writes about it in his "Enquiry into Plants".

The plant’s root contains a mild narcotic. This drug helps induce sleep and kill pain. To produce the medicine, herbalists cut the root into small pieces and dry it out until it is friable enough to be ground. The Babylonians classed mandrake as a potent herb along with hemp and opium poppy. In the Middle Ages it was used to treat insomnia and gout and also given to patients during surgery. The leaves were used in wound healing.

mandrake myth and magicBut in spite of its respectable place in herbal medicine, it is the myth and magic surrounding mandrake that everyone remembers. The superstitions about it arise from the odd shape of the long tap root which forks in a way to make it resemble a human body. In old illustrations it is depicted with human head, and you were supposed to identify male and female plants! As well as being used in medicine it was used in magic and love potions. Theophrastus says that you should draw three circles round a mandrake with a sword and "cut it with one’s face towards the west". Then when you cut the second piece he recommends you "say as many things as possible about love".

In the Middle Ages, the plant was said to utter a shriek when pulled from the ground. To hear this shriek was certain death. So the best way to gather mandrake was to loosen the soil around the roots and then tie the top to a dog, so the dog could pull it out. (Presumably you retired to a safe distance so you couldn’t hear the plant scream). To own a mandrake root was supposed to be a very beneficial thing. It could protect you from demons and bring good luck. The only trouble was that to have this effect it had to be harvested from beneath a gallows and in the company of a black dog. I don’t think I will try it, I am perfectly happy just to enjoy the beauty of its flowers on a Cretan hillside in winter.

Greek News

At least the Greek flag was raised in Beijing, when a blind swimmer - Haralambos Taiganidis - won a gold medal in 100 metres freestyle. He even broke his own world record. I like the Olympics, but I love watching the Paralympics. To see people in wheelchairs zipping around playing basket ball or zooming around race tracks, is inspiring. To watch Paralympics and amputees transformed into athletes by taking to a swimming pool is wonderful. And how does someone who is blind swim in a straight line, for goodness sake? These events seem to me a triumph of the human spirit and the peak of human achievement. Mr. Taiganidis should have been on the front page of every newspaper in Greece.

Vatopedi MonasterySadder news in October was the breaking of a political scandal. State Minister Theodorus Roussopoulos is implicated, along with two other government ministers in helping to arrange an exchange of land for a monastery called Vatopedi which is part of Mount Athos. The land the monastery originally owned was relatively worthless. It was exchanged for prime real estate - which was promptly sold for a huge sum of money. This allegedly defrauded the Greek state of around 100 million euros.

Mr. Roussopoulos is known to be a close friend of Ephraim, the head monk of Vatopedi monastery, and that is why he is suspected. He was also a close ally of Mr. Karamanlis, the Prime Minister. To defuse the threat to the government, he has resigned his post. Parliament has voted for a judicial enquiry into the affair. This is all very proper in a democracy, but generally people are not happy about this close alliance of politicians and the Greek Orthodox Church. It leads too easily to corruption and church interference in political matters.

Anyway, onto something jollier. A new crop is being tried by farmers in Northern Greece. These farmers used to grow tobacco. The market price of tobacco is now lower than the production costs. European Union subsidies on tobacco are being cut by half in 2010 - so these farmers have been at great distress.

The new crop is a plant called stevia which comes from Peru. The dried leaves produce a sweetener which is three hundred times sweeter than sucrose. The climate in Northern Greece is ideal for the cultivation of this plant, and the infrastructure for drying the crop is already in place. It sounds ideal and I hope it is a great success.

Good news for you and I, when this sweetener does come onto the market, that it contains very few calories. So we can enjoy the sweet things in life without it showing in the width of our hips!

Seasonal Produce - Cauliflower

cauliflowerCauliflower is a brassica, which is one of the cultivated varieties of the wild cabbage (brassica oleracea). Wild cabbage is native to coasts from Southern England, across the Mediterranean to the Adriatic. Cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli may look very different, but their common ancestry is evident because they all need the same growing conditions and have the same flower if allowed to go to seed. Cauliflower has been around a long time and was known to the Ancient Greeks and Romans.

Cauliflower normally produce a single stem bearing a large, roundish flower head which consists of white or creamy-white flower buds known as the "curd". The flower head nestles in the surrounding leaves over the flower to keep it from being damaged.

Cauliflowers can be grown all year round, but in Greece they are at their best from November to March. The winter rains and shorter days keep them growing naturally. In summer they need copious watering and extra feed so it is more environmentally friendly to eat them in winter.

It is an excellent vegetable for providing vitamins. The flower head contains beta carotene (Vitamin A) and riboflavin (Vitamin B2). The leaves close to the flower head, are rich in Vitamin C and a good source of folic acid. Riboflavin and folic acid are important in the use of oxygen by the tissues, and the formation of new cells. Thus they protect against heart disease and help prevent cancer.

The classic cauliflower dish is cauliflower cheese, but boiling cauliflower destroys some of the vitamins so it is best steamed gently. It is also good stir fried. Lightly steam the cauliflower florets, then fry some crushed garlic and chopped onion in olive oil to soften them. Add the cauliflower, sprinkle with crushed coriander seeds, salt and black pepper and cook for five minutes until golden. Not only delicious but also this method of cooking does not produce that distinctive sour smell that brassicas can give off when cooked. My husband likes to stir fry some crispy breadcrumbs in butter, and sprinkle them over lightly cooked cauliflower - it gives a nice contrast of textures.

The Trouble With Greek

Cretan lamb is small but very tasty, and one of my husband’s favourite taverna meals is grilled lamb chops with a few nice chunky chips fried in olive oil.

Cutlets in Greek are called paidakia, so that is what he cheerfully ordered (confident that "ai" in Greek is pronounced like the "a" in "acorn"). Then a Greek friend smilingly pointed out the little dots over the "i" on the menu. This indicates that the two vowels are actually pronounced separately as in "a" for "apple", and "i" for "ink". Too subtle for us, these Greeks.

Paidi in Greek means "child". If you add -aki to the end of a noun, it means small. What my husband had actually asked for, was to eat small children for his dinner!

Greek Orthodox Saint Of The Month

December 4th is Saint Barbara’s day. Please note that if you meet a Greek lady named after this saint, she will not recognize her name unless you emphasise the second syllable rather than the first as you do in English.

Agia BarbaraThe original Barbara was converted to Christianity by letter. She corresponded with a doctor of the church called Origen, so she must have been a well-educated young woman from a middle class home. There is a story about her, that she climbed into a well and was baptized by a vision of John the Baptist. The more prosaic version is that she was baptized by another senior churchman called Valentinus.

However, her family did not approve of her new found religion. Her father is said to have locked her up in a tower and when she failed to recant, he had her head chopped off. What a fond parent! But she went straight to heaven and there was presented with a special chalice by the Baby Jesus as a symbol of her virginity. Her father meanwhile, back down on earth, was struck by lightning for being so nasty to his daughter.

There is actually no historical proof that she really existed. Certainly the stories about her seem to be out of a fairytale. In spite of perhaps being only a myth, she is the patron saint of professions: architects, building workers, and firework makers. She is also the patron saint of prisoners, which is more logical.

There is a particular superstition about her - that if you light a candle in church on her day, you will die a natural death. In icons, she is sometimes shown holding a palm as a symbol of her martyrdom. Other representations show her holding the tower that was her prison.