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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Sunday Surprises in Kifissia

It’s been snowing for days. Practically blizzarding. We can’t open the windows or huge flakes come right into the flat and litter the rugs and tiles with thick white balls. Of course, I’m not talking about real snow. This is the end of April, the season for poplar fluff, which comes right on the heels of the pine pollen, which turned our cars and balconies yellow a few weeks ago.

Nobody really minds. The messy fluff that piles into grubby grey drifts on our sidewalks and gardens gives us a chance to complain about something other than our upcoming elections, plethora of unworthy candidates and worries about the day after when no one wins. And we lose.

We’re not often stuck in our apartment on a spring Sunday. But Joy of the People was feeling too unwell (nothing serious, don’t worry) to even accept a lunch invitation from dear friends for “more lamb if you can stand it.” So he collapsed on the sofa with the paper and I sat at the diningroom table with my laptop.

Our own lunch was a nonevent. The perfect looking avocado I’d hoped to serve proved impossible to cut through; the center was hard as wood even though the outer flesh was squshy. In fact, it rather took away our appetite so we contented ourselves with yogurt and strawberries.

At about 5 pm I decided to go out for a breath of fluffy air and walk up towards Erythraia for a change instead of circling the park, which I’d done Saturday.

I threaded my way through quiet streets to Kefalari Square, where every single café throbbed with animated talkers hunched over half-drunk frappés (the Greek version of iced coffee). A clown was teasing a giggle of children in front of Fridays. A Porsche and an SUV-sized Minis had stopped at the news stand.

Then I turned left and a couple of blocks on I stopped to stare at a crane tilted over a collection of unfinished maisonettes. Lined with blue insulation, fenced with dented aluminum, abandoned buildings are no rarity in Kifissia, but the crane swaying in the breeze added interest. So I went around the corner to get a better look.

And forgot about the construction site. The skeletons of nine burned cars, still reeking of charred rubber, their hoods opened to reveal fused engines, stopped me in my tracks. A few people, similarly dazed, were commenting across the street. “It’s a message.” But from whom to whom? The cars were not particularly luxurious or provocative. Sure there was an Audi sportscar, but the others, a Smart, an aged Cherokee, a battered red van, a tired Golf seemed inadequate targets for enemies of extreme wealth.

One of the charred cars

We got used to hearing about torched cars in Parisian banlieues, but it’s a relatively rare form of vandalism in Athens, and unknown in our suburbs.

A tall mustachioed gentleman with a friendly face approached, so I asked him in Greek what had happened. “They say that around 3 am some hoodies rode by and poured gasoline over the cars and set them alight.” I nodded and asked where he was from. “New York,” said he. “Me too,” said I, so we continued in English, amused at the coincidence.

Back to the joys of spring!

When we parted, I kept walking north, stopping to take photos of a flower standand then on to my destination: a new vegetable garden in a plot attached to an abandoned house. A friend had alerted me to the beautifully tilled soil, neat-as-a-pin rows and the promise of organic veggies for sale. The gardener was absent but a sign gave morning opening hours and a number to call for orders. I’ll go back to find out more. Watch this space.

A welcome addition to our community

Heading homewards, I noticed a new shop. Veneti, perhaps the capital’s best and largest chain of bread and sweets, had moved into premises vacated by a deluxe auto showroom. And this was their inauguration day. An eager employee gave me a tour and I promised to be back.

Veneti's shop window. Doesn't this make you want to taste their bread?

I ambled past Zillions ice cream parlor—with every seat occupied inside and out—and the price per kilo reduced from 19 euros to 16.90. Still pretty expensive. I’d deliberately set out with no cash to avoid such temptations.

Zillions gave way to trillions of roses, their perfume vying with the orange blossom. Some sidewalks were pink with “confetti” from the Judas trees, which had lit up the streets before Easter.

Roses to gladden the heart and the senses.

Back in Kifissia center, where I go almost every day, yet another new shop had opened–a café called Bellini, tucked as close as a Siamese twin to chef Christoforos Peskias’s Π Box, which looked dead.

What? Toppled from its fashionable perch? I went to the back courtyard. There three cafés, Π Box, Bellini and the Muffin Shop, were enjoying capacity crowds. Not an empty table. At 7 on a Sunday afternoon.

Conclusion: The crisis does not seem to have hit café/frappé society; gilded youth, young families with double strollers and rambunctious toddlers, even older couples filled Kifissia with life and ease.

And yet, how would they have reacted to the sight of the burned cars? Or to the news I learned only this morning (Monday), when we ran into a friend outside yet another new bakery on the same block as Veneti’s?

“Did you hear,” he said, “about the car bomb that went off under my grandmother’s apartment a few nights ago? That one was aimed at the Uruguay ambassador!”

I don’t know what to think, how to react. So I’ll brave the fluffy air once more and make a foray to the organic farmers’ market. We’ve run out of strawberries.

RECIPE

And just so you don’t go away with a bitter taste or a feeling of foreboding, here’s the recipe for the Chocolate Cloud Cake we swooned over at Easter.

250 grams dark chocolate (70%)

120 grams unsalted butter

170 grams fine sugar

6 eggs, 2 whole, 4 separated

2 tablespoons liqueur (I’d put mastiha or cointreau)

Line a 22 cm cake tin with baking parchment. Melt the chocolate in a double-boiler or in the microwave. Add the butter and remove from heat when melted.

Beat the whole eggs and 4 yolks with 75 grams of the sugar until thick and creamy. Add the chocolate mixture and fold in until no streaks remain.

Beat the egg whites until thick, gradually adding the remaining sugar until peaks form. Fold them into the chocolate gently.

Pour the mixture into the cake pan and shake a little to even the surface. Bake at 170 C (360 F) for 35-45 minutes until set and small cracks have formed. Cool in the tin. Don’t worry if the middle sinks a bit and the rim cracks some more.

When cold, spread whipped cream over the top and decorate with chocolate shavings or as inspired.

Back to Basics in Athens Basements

“I know a place where we could have lunch,” said my friend J last Saturday.

We’d had a meeting in Theseion, a colorful district near the Acropolis, and decided to wander back to the train via the Central Market. Neither of us has the chance to do that often, so we enjoyed every step of the way. We passed a church I’d never seen before, perched on a rock;

neoclassical houses in every state of repair from freshly painted to crumbling; a thick stream of peddlers selling everything from original handicrafts to complete junk; half-excavated antiquities; outdoor cafes and restaurants;

Plateia Avyssinias and its flea market; and the miscellany of shops on Athinas Street, where I stopped by a favorite Cretan bakery to buy gritsinia studded with 8 seeds and J “threw an eye” into the tack and saddle emporium next door.

A bit of the Flea Maarket

By the time we reached the Market, we had no appetite for dangling meat carcasses or even mountains of glistening fish on ice. But we were hungry.

So J led me down the street with the vegetable booths, around the corner and across the street. She stopped outside two scruffy brown doors, thick with layers of chocolate paint, and said, “This is it.”

I peered into the darkness. In this neighborhood, there are dozens of basements, but most of them are shops stocked with dry goods, sacks of beans and grains, textiles, ropes. . . I didn’t expect the black hole to conceal a restaurant. And yet, as I negotiated the uneven steps, I could see massive wine barrels lining one wall and about ten tables, all occupied.

A typical basement shop

I followed J to the “kitchen” next to a second set of cement steps, which let in a little light. It was about the size of a galley on a small sailing yacht, separated from the main room only by a till enclosed by a wooden grate. Pots and baking pans filled a counter near the wall. I saw no other kitchen, and no place to prepare the food, but perhaps there is one hidden off limits.

A grouchy looking older man stood by the till and supervised the youngish waiter. He nodded at us to sit at the adjacent table for five, which had two empty seats. Then we realized that two of them were old friends.

It seems Diporto (Theatrou Sq. & Sokratous 9) is an institution. Everyone knows about it but me, and I’ve been here 40 years. How did it escape my notice!

It has obviously escaped the attention of the Board of Health and Brussels hygiene rules, but no matter, we ate extremely well. A big bowl of fava for J and a big bowl of spicy cuttlefish stew for me, though I was tempted by the chickpea soup, which seemed to be the most popular order. The remains of fried fish, salad and something with tomato sauce decorated the plates of our friends, who called for another half kilo of retsina and some fruit.

The waiter obliged, squashing the plate with sliced apples onto the one with the fish bones. Yuck. Our Swiss friend V took the situation in hand and cleared the table herself. And we went back to discussing pension prospects, architecture and synchronicity. When they left, three men, strangers this time, joined us. Our bill was minimal.

History repeated itself on Thursday night. I’d gone to hear the Athens Singers, my old choir, sing John Stainer’s The Crucifixion in St. Paul’s Church near Syntagma. The performance was excellent and there were lots of old friends to catch up with before and after. Including J, who said, “I know a place where we could have dinner.”

She invited another couple and off we went into Plaka, where there was no sign of any crisis, just flocks of young people having a good time. And half way down marble-paved Kythathinaion Street, she steered us into another basement institution, where three laughing women of a certain age were hauling themselves up the uneven steps.

At least, Ta Bakaliarakia (The Little Codfishes) (Kydathinaion 41, 210 3225084) was no surprise to me. It’s been open since 1865, and though repainted a few times, it hasn’t changed much from the early 70s, when I used to visit often.

It’s bigger than Diporto, with two rooms and a kitchen tucked behind a big display case fogged by the steam from simmering pots and pans. And it’s brighter and swankier, with B&W photos and yellowed certificates on the wall, but the same old-fashioned rush-seated wooden taverna chairs and tables.

We didn’t speak much. A guitar- and bouzouki-playing duo were seated next to us. They were singing old favorites, classics that Bithikotsi made famous in the 60s and earlier. But the four of us lapped up the nostalgia, along with the retsina, which is becoming extinct, while dining sumptuously on zucchini croquettes, horta (greens), cod brandade in spicy tomato sauce, fabulous fried potatoes and, of course, fava, J being addicted to it.

As she said, “Basics in the basement, what more could one want?”

And for a couple of hours, we reveled in the illusion that Athens has not changed and all was well in the capital of Crisisland.

RECIPE

Fava

In Greece, fava are split yellow peas, usually served pureed and at room temperature. They are quite different from Italian fava (broad beans). The Diporto fava arrived with a topping of chopped onions, olive oil, black olives and pickled peppers. The Bakaliarakia version was even better. It was made with peas from Santorini, which were noticeably creamier and tastier. The dish is a taverna staple year round, but particularly during Lent.

Here’s how I make it.

2 cups (500 g) yellow split peas

1 large onion, cut in chunks

2 tablespoons olive oil

salt & black pepper to taste

Wash the peas well and place them in a pot with the onion and oil, cover with cold water and bring to the boil. Skim off the scum and simmer for about an hour. The time will depend on the quality of the peas. Test them for tenderness and add more water if necessary to keep them from sticking. They should be quite soft, the consistency of loose mashed potatoes.

You can eat them as is, without zapping them in the food processor, but I prefer the smoother texture. Like split green peas, they will solidify when they cool.

Fava is usually served in tavernas at room temperature with onions, plenty of extra oil, fresh lemon juice. But I like to add capers and sliced sun-dried tomatoes. The other day, though, I made it looser as soup, topped with concentrated balsamic vinegar, hot pepper flakes and some finely sliced fried sausage. Delish.

Fava soup

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.