The Joys of Country Life

If you want to get away from it all – all being politics, taxes, pension cuts, PSIs & IMFs, transport strikes, burning cities or runofthemill exhaust fumes, cement jungles and prying neighbors – then I heartily recommend a week at our honeymoon cottage on Andros.

We arrived after three months absence on the first spring morning of the new year at the end of February. Usually December and January are blessed with halcyon days – sunny, mild stretches when the sea is calm enough for a kingfisher to lay her eggs in a floating nest. (Alcyone was a daughter of Aeolus, who threw herself into the sea after her husband drowned. Instead of letting her die, the wind god blew her to him and some benevolent deity changed them both into those quicksilver birds.)

But first things first. We bought a small tuna straight off one of the kaikis tied up at the dock. The fisherman plucked it from a crate where about a dozen glistening porgies (tsipoures) lay breathing their last. Talk about fresh.

We bought the tuna from a kaiki like this one.

And then drove up and over the hills between our house and the port, slaloming around potholes and clusters of sheep and goats, mothers with their sets of skittish twins.

Roadside puddles spoke of recent rains, but the biggest puddle was on our terrace, which meant the guestroom under it would be damper than usual. Unblocking the drain and sweeping the lake away was no biggie. Worse was the fact that we had no electricity. Lightning had knocked out something vital outside the house, and the surge protector had died trying to shield the refrigerator. (It also carbonized the innards of our second phone and we’re lucky it didn’t burn down the house – the electrician in Athens told us yesterday.)

But we didn’t know that at the time and I was far more upset about having to trash the moldy blackberries; I’d been hoarding them for out-of-season crumbles.

My husband dealt with the Public Power Company, while I got out my gloves and secaturs and started pruning.

Short of picking fruit and olives, there is no gardening job I like better than pruning. It’s scary at first, when you’re not sure which branches to cut, but very satisfying and utterly absorbing once you gain confidence.

Our trees are youngish, between 22 and 18 years old, so not unmanageable in size. I start by cutting all the branches that go straight up, the ones that cross over and rub each other, and even the ones that dangle down. They say the center of the olive tree should have enough space for a bird to fly through it without grazing its wings.

Most of our trees were so dense (like the one above) that each one took two to three hours to penetrate and shape. As I sliced away, I was oblivious to everything except the branches and the leaves, the breeze, the sun on my back, the smells of earth and grass and almond blossoms, but mostly the sounds. The countryside is anything but quiet, and the dozens of sheep and goats that surround us kept up a constant cacophony of anxious plaintive bleats and husky, reassuring baaas.

After (the ropes support a baby almond tree, a volunteer)

Believe it or not, we were engaged in a wonderful symbiosis. Sheep and goats find olive leaves the best mezes – a real treat – and we could throw all our branches over the fence for their delectation and clean up our own land in the process.

Our first three days were hara theou – so bright and clear that God rejoices, as the Greeks say. And then suddenly it was winter, ferocious glacial winds and a soot-gray sea, sometimes invisible under a thick fog. On Tuesday it snowed all day and all night and by the next morning everything was covered in white. Not thick enough to be a blanket, but rather rustic lace or openwork embroidery, like the curtains that hang in island windows.

That was my joy, to see the land transformed, even if only for a few hours.

Snowy landscape, island-style

Four days of zero temperatures and then spring sprang back. The plum buds that had been the size of seed pearls opened, slowly slowly, into blossoms, the apricot branches that had been totally bare sprouted tiny red beads, daisies popped up where there had been none, and black bees only slightly smaller than humming birds feasted on the rosemary hedge.

The plum tree on the day we left

I returned to my pruning and would have finished if rain hadn’t drenched our last hours.

But water from the heavens was not our only problem. As if the electricity failure wasn’t enough, our tap water was spurting out black. Literally. Filling the kitchen sink with rich earth. As for the bathroom, the faucets were clogged to a mere trickle. The tanks were not at fault; the filter there remained almost white. Perhaps a rat had gnawed a hole in the rubber pipe . . . under the ground somewhere?

We loaded up the car with relief.  There’s nothing like something screwing up the plumbing to make “civilization” and its discontents look more attractive.

As for the black water, that will provide some fun for next time.


 That little tuna was sublime. All I did was bone and butterfly it, sprinkle lots of lemon juice on the open side and grill it, drizzled with olive oil, coarsely ground pepper and rosemary (all but the pepper, our own, of course).

That’s hardly a recipe, I know. I also made two big pots of soup – lentil and bean – and a new dish, rice with cauliflower, an idea from the Gastronomos magazine that comes with the Kathimerini once a month. Here it is, streamlined:

1 large cauliflower, washed and separated into smallish florets

1/4 cup/60 ml olive oil

2 medium onions, chopped

2 garlic cloves, crushed

hot pepper flakes, to taste

½ tsp rosemary or thyme

salt and pepper

1 cup/240 g Carolina rice or whatever’s on hand

¼ cup/60 ml white wine

1 lb/400 g canned chopped tomatoes

Wilt the onions in the oil, add the garlic and seasonings and cook for a minute. Add the rice and cook, stirring, for a couple of minutes. Pour in the wine, bring to a boil, and then add the tomatoes plus 1 ½ cups (360 ml) hot water, stir, lower the heat and cover. When the rice is half cooked (8-10 minutes), fold in the cauliflower florets and add more water if necessary. Cook for another 10 minutes or until the cauliflower’s how you like it and the liquid has been absorbed. (4 servings)

Gastronomos added toasted sesame seeds to the finished dish, but I didn’t have any. I also intensified my version with a tablespoon of homemade tomato paste, which I make with lots of sugar. This is a surprisingly good way to deal with cauliflower, after you’re fed up with gratins, curries and just plained boiled.


12 thoughts on “The Joys of Country Life

  1. I’ve never had olive trees of my own (well, until last week, my husband gave me a potted olive tree for our balcony for my birthday – I have no idea what to do with the poor thing!) but when we lived on Folegandros, I pitched in to help our friends who had olive trees pick the olives. They were so grateful but honestly, it was something I had always wanted to do and I enjoyed it immensely. The experience of going to the ancient local olive press and watching as they threw wood into the fires and seeing the fine green stream of oil coming out was just magical. They toasted fresh bread on the open fire and dipped it in the oil as it came out of the press and gave it to me. Sometimes when I’m elbow-deep in difficult recipes and techniques, I have to stop and remember that the best foods are the simplest.

    Cauliflower is one of the very few vegetables that I’ve never really developed a taste for. I should give this a try – I would like to have something to do with it beyond steaming it.

    • Heidi, I love the way you write. Just took a look at your blog and you’ve got some amazing recipes and wonderful stories (though the last one is very sad). Have you read my story in http://www.weeklyhubris about picking olives. I attach it here in case you feel so inclined.
      I agree with you. There is something so elemental/almost eternal about collecting the fruit and getting it to the press, hanging around with the guys and watching that green liquid stream out. So satisfying and although our rituals are more modern, they connect us to hundreds of generations of Mediterranean people. In Solon’s Athens, in the 6th century BC, it was a crime to cut down an olive tree. Don’t remember what the punishment was, but even then the olive tree was invaluable.
      You are so lucky to have had that Folegandros experience, a taste of what most of Greece used to be like at a time when so little of that lifestyle remains. Good luck with the kounoupidi!

  2. diana thanks for posting this on the aegean arts circle group page, i love your article…olive trees pruned so a bird can fly through it without its wings touching a branch, winter fog blanketing the sea, blossoms in andros…i must get back there, my creative oxygen is running low x x x

    • Amalia, being on our island certainly helps in terms of creative oxygen, but then I’m so exhilarated by living outside with all those stimuli that I can’t settle down to write! I can do that much better sitting in a flat with the wind howling and the rain spitting icicles. xox

  3. Good writing! Mostly, I am impressed with what aplomb you faced the many difficulties. I am afraid the dearth of electricity and spurting black water would have had me less than chirpy and ready to prune. Good for you!

    • Laurie, Hi! No, on the contrary, with no electricity in the house (at first anyway) and the mystery of the black water, there were 100 reasons to get outside and tackle something that could be solved. Thanks so much for stopping by the blog. Love & xoxo

  4. What a lovely article, Diana. But I am so sorry to read about your electrical woes and the black water. Ugh. Well, as you say, something to look forward to for next time. Happy Spring!

  5. Diana hi.I so enjoyed your article which made me homesick for Greece and I remember the days of thwacking at our five olive trees. Being the smallest producer of olive oil in the village, we found a small olive press owner who would put our olives with his, so we knew we were getting olive oil from unsprayed trees. For years before helicopters would come round and spray the olive trees and the village in general with malathion for the vtakos (some bug whose English name I don’t know). Finally it was decided to return to spraying trees individually so one had a choice. I think our biggest production was 35 kilos, but that made me very proud! The cauliflower sounds delicious.XXXScotty
    ps. how does one subscribe to your blog?

    • Hi Scotty, I wish you’d been there to paint the scene, the dark snow days and the hara theou days with more and more flowers, and the olives gradually being shorn of their exuberant but “inappropriate” branches. The light kept changing but YOU would have caught it. How appalling that helicopters would actually spray indiscriminately. There’s a lovely guy with a modernized stone press above Kissamo who has made the whole area organic.Things are better now (in some ways). I think you can subscribe to my blog by clicking on “follow” but I’m not sure where it is on the page. Was talking about you with Jill Sat.xoxod

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