The Flowers that Bloom in the Spring, tra la . . .

When you’re anxious about the fate of your country, when you have no idea whether you’ll have a pension, a home, food on the table or gas in your car a month from now, how do you keep from biting your nails to the quick, drinking the wine cellar dry, or stuffing all the delicacies you can afford into your freezer?

Answer: Go outside, don’t listen to the news or read a paper, and make a pact with your companions not to mention politics or finance for as long as you’re together.

Last weekend, for four days, about 30 friends and strangers followed this advice and had a magnificent time visiting gardens on, of all places, “my” island of Andros. We – members of the Mediterranean Garden Society – stayed at a hotel, so I did not have to come home to my indomitable patch of thistles and weeds and moan about the impossibility of having it look even one half of one percent as kempt as the places we’d seen.

It is such fun being a tourist in a place you know well, feeling pride in others’ reactions to the secrets you already possess and elated at the discovery of new ones. For this is no ordinary island. Andros is the second largest of the Cyclades and the only one blessed with water. Watermills, albeit abandoned, are as plentiful as windmills in Mykonos. Streams, springs, rivers make some parts of the island as luxuriant as the pluvious Italian Riviera, and one of them, full of desirable minerals and bubbles, gushes through a bottling plant.

Not your everyday Cycladic island

Even in the drier areas rivulets of pink oleanders betray the presence of underground veins, while in May normally drab gorse and broom spatter all but the most barren hills and roadsides with daubs of bright yellow.

Soothing though unfettered nature can be, the focus of our tour was gardens, the cooperative efforts between people and plants. We visited 12 in all, ranging from the palatial to the intimate, busy to minimalist, relatively flat to precipitous, and even one set amidst the boulders and torrents of a ravine. The owners were both Greeks and foreign (British, Canadian, American), permanent residents or seasonal. Virtually all had some kind of help, whether a team of six gardeners or a once-a-week maintenance man. All of them represented enormous thought, passion and respect for the plants they had chosen or found (some properties had centuries-old trees or indigenous rock roses).

One of several venerable olive trees.

Although some gardens had exotic touches – a stand of sugar cane, white peonies (unusual for this far south), flamboyant orange and yellow succulents – they all relied on native Greek stalwarts: lavender, rosemary, salvias, the big family of grey-leaved plants that love the sun and don’t need water . . . And roses, especially white ones arrranged in bushy banks or climbing up trellises. (Even I have them, enough to keep envy at bay, for once.)

Mediterranean colors and textures featured in all the gardens

Besides 101 kinds (a conservative estimate) of flowers and ornamental plants, eight of the gardens had impressive vegetable beds, which will be able to feed many more than the owners in the coming crunch; three raised poultry, including guinea fowl, pheasants, exotic chickens and geese (better than dogs as guards); there was one vineyard and one apiary and even a small flock of sheep.

All the exploring, question-and-answering, photographing and talk consumed a good deal of energy. So even though most of hosts offered refreshments ranging from local wine and cheese to crunchy cinnamon bisquits and sour-cherry-ade, there came a moment when lunch and dinner assumed more importance than identifying a shrub or analyzing compost.

“When are we going to eat?” You could feel the concern simmering through the group as meal time approached.

Here too I was pleased. Andros may be uniquely green and beautiful but its gastronomic reputation falters in comparison to Mykonos or Sifnos.

But we chose well. The traditional tavernas – Yiannoulis near Agios Petros beach outside Gavrio and I Parea in the main square of Andros town – served island specialties that had us wiping our plates spotless. Among them, the tenderest of artichokes stewed with broad beans or peas; the robust omelette, froutalia, bursting with piquant homemade sausage and fried potatoes (and thankfully lacking the pork rind of old); zucchini, tomato, and fava croquettes; fresh white cheese simply called “doppio” or local.

The famous Andriot froutalia

Our hotel, the Andros Holiday, known for its kitchen, not only set us up with a great breakfast – including one of the best bougatsas (flaky custard-filled pastry) I’ve ever been tempted by – they prepared special menus for the MGS at dinner. A salad of delicate greens, zucchini & cheese pie, pork fillet and sliced fruit the first night; rice-stuffed tomatoes and peppers, excellent hamburgers with mushroom sauce, oven-fried potatoes and a tangy lemon pudding that had us exclaiming with every mouthful. (The chef kindly gave me the recipe, see below.)

Our most memorable meal was lunch in the ravine garden. We had to walk down 190 steps to reach the house. Which raised the logistical question, how do you deliver supplies for 40-50 people and how do you dispose of the noncompostable garbage afterwards?

190 steps down and then some. Once there you never want to leave.

I wouldn’t want to live there but it was exhilarating, a jungle of surprising plants, water everywhere, a gaggle of small children anxious to serve as guides, roast lamb, grilled chicken, Epirot cheese pie, more froutalia, tzatziki, eggplant salad. . . and a feisty hostess of a certain age who keeps young and fit with all those steps. (Exemplifying the principle that what doesn’t kill you makes you strong.)

Home alone (with Joy of the People, of course) for the next five days, I started thinking about what one friend had said, upon seeing our land: “Well, it has lots of potential.”

We haven’t changed anything for so long, it looks like a very entrenched status quo to me. But maybe a little innovation would be just what’s needed to divert our attention from things over which we have no control.

RECIPE

Lemon Crumple for 8 people

With thanks to chef Iordanis Koubousis and the Andros Holiday Hotel

For the Crumple

50 g confectioners’ sugar

75 g brown sugar

80 g butter, softened

100 g cake flour

pinch of salt

75 g hazelnut or almond brittle

For the Chamomile Syrup

100 ml water

10 g chamomile (about a teaspoon)

50 g white sugar

100 g brown sugar

For the Lemon Cream

150 g butter

150 ml lemon juice

grated zest of 3 lemons

170 g white sugar

6 large eggs

1 squirt vanilla essence

pinch of salt

Make the crumple and the chamomile sauce 24 hours before you want to serve the dessert.

For the crumple, put all the ingredients, except the nut brittle, in the food processor and zap until smooth. Add the nut brittle and zap until homogenized. Refrigerate for 24 hours. Then, grate into large crumbs onto a baking sheet and bake for about 5 minutes at 180° C.

For the syrup, place the water, chamomile and sugar in a saucepan and boil for about 5 minutes, set aside for 24 hours, then strain and pour it over the cream before you add the crumple.

For the cream, put all the ingredients into a saucepan or heatproof bowl and warm up, whisking, over a bain marie (double boiler). Keep whisking until the mixture is smooth and thick or reaches a temperature of 80° C. Remove from the stove and pour into small bowls or glasses (we had it in champagne glasses). Top with the sauce and crumple and savor every mouthful.

Note: I think the chef meant to write crumble, but I’d never tasted a crumble like this, so I’ve left it the more distinctive ‘crumple’.

The marble lion at the top is part of the famous Menites fountain, one of the more watery spots on Andros.

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Pre-Easter Thoughts from Andros

It’s raining. I wouldn’t be here sitting at the kitchen table with my laptop if it weren’t. Since we arrived on Andros on Friday (the 6th), we’ve been outdoors from sunup (well, more like 9:30) till sundown close to 8 pm. Quite apart from our thirst to be in the embrace of nature as much as possible after a month in Athens, there’s been so much to do.

Taking first things first, our dear friend and neighbor Costa Fixit kept his promise and really did solve the black water problem (see Joys of Country Living). It took about two hours but he cleared out the accumulated sludge of 23 years with a pump that forces water through the pipe at high pressure.

What a relief and what a blessing to have a wizard at plumbing and electrical conundrums so close at hand. My husband, whose name translates as Joy of the People, is a surgeon. Since retirement he has picked up many new skills—painting, plastering, digging, strimming, even carpentry—but doesn’t do elec/mech jobs. His first DIY table would have walked with a severe limp, but he found himself putting the panels on the sides of the kitchen counters when the tiler said it was the builder’s job and the builder maintained the opposite. That was just the beginning. He also was forced to install a whole false ceiling, beams and all, in the guestroom when the carpenter refused to help after he delivered the pieces. And he dismantled it years later when termites threatened to bring it down inch by inch.

The spring where we get our drinking water never runs black.

But once the water was flowing freely again, we could dedicate ourselves to prettifying the property for Easter. JotP got out the hoe and started carving passages through the weeds to various essential points, like the water tanks, electricity meter, vegetable patch. The grasses, usually wheat and wild oats from the previous owner’s farming days, are only mid-calf height but the thistles are thicker and thornier than we’ve ever seen. I’ve been pulling oxalis, a clover-like pest, from the veg and flower beds, and doing my part in the losing battle against the thistles. I know we could drip Roundup on them but besides being death to bees and everything else who wants to help Monsanto?

Last Sunday was Western Easter. I watched the moon waxing and pondered as I do every spring why the Orthodox and the other Christian persuasions arrive at different dates (most of the time) when their calculations stem from the same rule. For, as Ezra Pound once told me in Rapallo in 1972, “Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox.” I suspect it may have something to do with the Orthodox Church’s adoption of the Old Julian Calendar for this particular holiday.

Spring has sprung.

But to return to Ezra Pound. We happened to have dinner at mutual friends, who’d known him for years. The controversial poet retired to Rapallo after his release from St. Elizabeth’s hospital in Washington DC, where he’d been committed in punishment for his infamous pro-Fascist radio broadcasts during the War, instead of being shot as a traitor. It was thought preferable to treat his actions as mad rather than criminal.

After that, EP made a vow never to talk about anything meaningful ever again, which meant he was largely silent. So our hostess, in an effort to engage him, asked him the Easter question. He was distinguished looking, with his shock of white hair and his pointed white beard, but he did not seem the genius who had helped Eliot rewrite The Waste Land and inspired countless younger poets. He replied without elaborating and the light had gone out of his eyes.

So, our Easter this year falls a week after everyone else’s. We’ll do a lamb on the spit, and I can see it grazing in the field next to ours. Fortunately, I cannot guess which one our neighbor has selected for us or I might feel some qualms about eating it. I’m grateful that Mihalis has not introduced us but that I can still vouch for its free-rangeyness. From past Easters, I know that it will taste of wild mint, oregano and salt air, better than the gigot du pre salé de Normandie so prized in Paris.

Goats grazing nearby. The sheep are even closer.

I’m also grateful that we’re already here on the island. That the sudden seamen’s strike on Holy Tuesday and Wednesday did not blight our travel plans (as they did thousands of others, Greek and foreign), That we didn’t have to venture out of the house today for provisions. That being here takes the edge off our fears that Election Day, tentatively scheduled for May 6th, will plunge Greece into an anarchy far more serious than the disorganized uncertainty which prevails today. And that I can indulge in a little reminiscing.

Now I will put the laptop on a chair and throw together a fasting cake.

Raisin and Walnut Cake from Eastern Crete

This is really easy. It has no eggs or milk and uses olive oil for shortening instead of butter. The inside is dense and moist, the outside crunchy and almost toffee-like.

300 grams (2 cups) golden raisins

60 ml (1/4 cup) raki or brandy

about 420 grams (3 cups) all purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

240 ml (1 cup) olive oil

200 grams (1 cup) sugar

120 ml (1/2 cup) fresh orange juice

1 tablespoon baking soda, dissolved in the orange juice

grated peel of one orange

120 ml (1/2 cup) soda water

150 grams (1 cup) chopped walnuts (optional)

Preheat the oven to 190 C (375 F).

Soak the raisins in the brandy for about 10 minutes and then chop them in the food processor.

Sift the flour and spices together into a bowl. In a separate, larger bowl, using an electric mixer if you have one, beat together the olive oil and sugar until creamy and slowly add the orange juice along with the grated peel, soda water, brandy-soaked raisins and chopped walnuts. Stir in the flour, a little at a time, until you have a thick batter.

Slide it into a lightly oiled springform cake pan (24 cm /9.5 inches in diameter)  and bake for about 1 hour. Serves 10.

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.

Recipes

 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.