A fig’s ‘decisive moment’

Despite the fact that we have old, semi-wild fig trees in our garden, it does not guarantee that we will savor wonderfully ripe fruit come August. We need to be on the alert, prudently waiting for the ‘decisive moment’ when the fig bows ever so slightly, where its stem bends from the bough of the bole.

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Only then, and not before, is the tree ready to give its blossom over to the harvest. If you mistime the picking , even by half a day, the blazing August sun starts to dry-out the fruit’s succulent interior. In our stony and arid island, it is almost a miracle that these contorted, frail looking trees, with trunks infested by colonies of ant, manage to give such small, sweet, delectable fruits. Harvesting figs before the stem-curve moment results in unripe produce, good for the grill or salads, but certainly bearing no resemblance to the honey-sweet, wonderfully juicy taste we adore, the figs we long for the rest of the year. (more…)

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The Pious Cake

Last week my hairdresser, Vagia, asked I if had a good recipe for fanouropita. I had known about St. Fanourios since childhood and his feast day, August 27, the day specially baked cakes were brought to the church. I thought the tradition was ago forgotten.

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“Oh. You cannot believe how many cakes were brought to the church last year.” Vagia said, filled with pride for her own special fanouropita. She then leaned over and whispered that she did cheat sightly by using real butter instead of olive oil which the tradition called for. The tradition also mandated that the fenouropita be made with either seven or nine ingredients. (more…)

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Fresh Fava and Green Almonds

I just cut the first favas of the season. The small velvety pods, with their tiny, juicy beans, are so tender that I love to eat them whole, on the spot.

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I still have a bagful in the freezer of the remaining large shelled favas from last year. They have a tough, slightly bitter outer skin that would need to be removed, if we decided to follow the sophisticated Italian ways–but here nobody ever peels the fresh favas. I love to stew these tender pods with lemon and wild fennel, like string beans, or I chop them and cook them with orzo, risotto-like, adding chopped fresh garlic and a handful of crumbled feta at the end. (more…)

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Leaving the city: A brief history…

Our property, slightly larger than an acre, is not far from the sea, but has no sea view. It came with fifty olive trees and about twenty aged and neglected almond trees. We are in a little valley, which is cool in the summer and somewhat-protected from the winter winds. But ‘protected’ is a relative word when it refers to the fickle winds of the Aegean. The noisy storms seem to roll down the hills, and we can hardly distinguish between the dry, cold northern gusts, or the humid southern winds as they surround us from all directions. Winters are very loud, compared to the absolute stillness of the hot July afternoons. Fortunately, even the worst winter storms have caused only minor damage to our garden. But we live with constant fear of drought, a threat that this year seems even more ominous than those of years past.

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“How lucky you are, to be able to leave the hectic life behind and spend your days by the sea,” friends often tell us. It doesn’t occur to them that, especially during the summer, Costas and I are constantly juggling gardening, work around the house, and writing. We rarely have time for a quick swim. Things were much simpler in Athens. No planting, weeding, irrigating, or pruning, and somewhat limited cooking in my tiny kitchen. I had plenty of time to surf the web, exchange e-mails, and polish my columns. In contrast, life in the country is very demanding. The day is not long enough for all that needs to be done. But then nothing beats standing between almond trees in bloom on a crisp winter morning, inhaling their sweet aroma as the bees begin to buzz, gathering bitter and sweet wild greens from under the olive trees, or picking fragrant lemons from our aesthetically lacking but prolific lemon trees… (more…)

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HORTA, the Edible Wild Greens

We keep an overused, slightly rusted, wood-handled Opinel knife in the glove compartment of our car. It is there because we never know if and when we will spot some gorgeous edible greens during our rides around the island. Greeks probably foraged for horta —wild leafy greens— because they had little else to eat. We continue to gather and eat them today because we love them.

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During the rainy winter months, and as late as early spring, there are plenty of wild greens in the hills and mountains that surround the villages and the big cities. Middle-aged women and men gather them on special excursions. Armed with a knife and a plastic bag or a basket, the horta-gatherers can be spotted from a distance on a steep hill, but also next to a busy highway. A friend once told me that he has seen Greek-Americans gather greens on a sidewalk in New Jersey. These days, though, most city people buy horta from the weekly farmers’s markets; and they have become quite expensive, a real delicacy. (more…)

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How the Aubergine (Eggplant) became Aborigin

For me and, I guess, for people like me who use quite a few foreign words in their texts, it was immediately obvious that the US English spellchecker transformed the ‘aubergine’ -the British word for eggplant— into ‘aborigin’.

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But the linguists never thought it was that simple, so they created a whole elaborate theory trying to explain why Greeks, Turks, Chinese, and many more people around the world confuse these two words… MORE

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Christmas in Greece

Historically, Christmas was never a major celebration in Greece. Easter is our biggest feast, and besides parading form house to house on Christmas and New Year’s Eve to sing kalanda – the Greek version of carols — collecting money or sweets, there was little else traditionally observed. So when we came out of the hardships of the Second World War and the Civil war that followed, we happily adopted the German and northern European Christmas customs of decorating the tree, stuffing and baking the turkey, and of course exchanging gifts. Going through some of our childhood pictures the other day, Costas pointed out a particularly common shot, where he was made to stand on a chair, next to this pathetic little Christmas tree made from colored chicken feathers, decorated with oversized ornaments and grotesque pieces of cotton-wool snow.

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I, like most Greeks of my generation, and even younger, have similar pictures. Now of course there is a whole industry around the holiday, from growing or importing the Christmas trees, to the more and more elaborate lights and decorations, and many people spend a fortune keeping pace with international trends. (more…)

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OLIVE OIL: the Stuff of our Lives

There used to be a Greek word that characterized spineless young men, particularly the spoiled sons of wealthy families: voutyropaida—butter-boys. Butter-boys are the antithesis of the clever street-wise young men who typify Greek youth. In the past the young were not pampered with expensive butter but fed exclusively on olive oil, like we all were in Greece.

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Calming and Aphrodisiac

A stubborn and rebellious wife, who refused to yield her body to her husband’s carnal desires, was rubbed with olive oil for seven days. On the eighth day — as legend would have it — she became sweet tempered and loving, ready to let her husband make love to her. (If only Petruchio, in the “Taming of the Shrew”, had known of this simple cure…). This is the most exotic of the sixty or so folk remedies in which olive oil plays the leading role. Such remedies, along with other customs related to olives and olive oil, have their roots in antiquity, and are still practiced in rural Greece. To this day, no Greek man would dare relieve himself under an olive tree, fearing supernatural consequences . (more…)

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Blessing the waters

Epiphany (January 6), or Day of the Light –ton Photon in Greek— is an important religious and cultural celebration that marks the end of the holiday season. Up until the 4th century A.D. Epiphany was considered the first day of the year, observed as a three-day commemoration of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. People believed that on the eve of the 6th the skies open, granting the prayers of the devout. Nearly 2000 years ago the first Christians celebrated with long street processions, white candles in hand ( a tradition modern Greeks preserve during the Resurection ceremony, on Easter), hence the term Epiphany, the Day of the Light. Jesus intrinsically blessed the water by his immersion in it, and each year Greek Orthodox priests perform a ritual, casting the cross into the water, replenishing Jesus’ blessing in the water and on the community, as well.

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Some anthropologists link Epiphany with the ancient Athenian ceremony of plynterion, the cleansing of the goddess Athena’s statue. During that ceremony, she was taken to the seaside in Faliron to be washed in the sea, thereby renewing her mythical powers. Similarly, as the anthropologists have noted, the church icons are often washed prior to the Epiphany celebration. (more…)

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