Winter in Kea

Green is the color of our winter; not gray-brown, nor white, as in most parts of Europe and the US. Every few years we may see snow for a day or two, but most of the time our winters are mild, with many bright and crisp sunny days. The rocky island hills fill with all kinds of plants after the late fall and early winter rains. The huge, dehydrated thorny bushes, seemingly carved into the windy cliffs over the sea, bud with tiny, jagged-edged green leaves. The oaks, scattered around the island —mainly on the eastern slopes— as well as the countless almond trees lose their leaves, but the lush green fields around them make up for the missing foliage.

Sheep and goats roam around the hills happily munching the tender sprouts, practically unattended in most parts of the island. Nikos Mavromatis, our butcher, watches his sheep with binoculars on the slope across from his shop in Hora when he expects them to give birth. Occasionally goats climb up the stone fences and feast on roses and other ornamental shrubs that border the gardens and pools of the now empty vacation villas. There is a consensus here that people who spent a fortune buying land to build summer houses are supposed to erect tall barriers because “the goats cannot know where properties end or begin,” as locals explain to the outraged Athenians, who find their gardens ravaged when they return for a spring weekend.

Many Keans spend the holidays in Athens and slaughter their pigs in January and February to make sausages, smoked pork loin, and other traditional delicacies. In the old, pre-turkey days, pork used to be the meat of choice at the Christmas table. My late mother, who had childhood memories of the old way of living on the island, remembered winter as a busy time: people pruned the vines and fruit trees, planted fava, other beans, as well as cabbages, lettuce, onions, and the aromatic herbs that complement the salads and pies.

We are part of the few who still plant a vegetable garden on the island, and we try to grow salad greens, scallions, radishes, spinach, and beets for our table. We buy oranges and tangerines as well as wonderful large heirloom cabbages and cauliflower from our neighbors, and we have yet to try to grow the green broccoli, which is new to our part of the world. The large dark purple broccoli is still planted in a few gardens. Our favas are growing well, and we hope to have plenty of tender pods before Easter –very early this year on April 4. I also planted a few snow peas which, unlike the favas, are not a guaranteed success.

Scallions are the unsung heroes of our winter garden, and we continuously plant new ones as we dig them out. Later in the spring we may leave a few in the ground to fatten and become onions. Frugal Greeks have invented many different ways to use scallions —both the white and most of the green part. I love the winter version of baked —or boiled— meatballs, flavored with plenty of scallions, and served with avgolemono (egg and lemon sauce).

Hortopsomo, the rustic, crustless pie, or ‘bread’ as the name implies, is an easy and delicious snack or mezze eaten warm or at room temperature.

We had to feed our neighbors’ chicken while they were away so we ended up with lots of wonderful eggs. I made cakes, we had them fried and boiled and, after a long time, I decided to make patatopita (potato pie). This is the comfort food I dream of, but I don’t make it often because I can’t stop eating it, and then I regret it…


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