Taking A New Look At Village Life

Until last weekend, I’ve never been much tempted by village life, in Greece or anywhere else. Give me the wide open spaces, neighbors who are too far away to drop in unannounced, views uninterrupted by houses, and certainly nobody’s cooking smells, party noises, or music choices except our own.

But a visit to a friend’s village a third of the way up the long leg of Evia–Greece’s second largest island and the closest to Attica–changed my mind.

Raptei would never win an award for architecture; you won’t find it illustrating postcards. Red tiles have replaced most of the beautiful old local slate roofs. Several houses droop empty and neglected. Some have been shored up with ugly cement. But because so much greenery camouflages its blemishes, you forget them.

What you don’t forget is its people.

I’d heard about Sophia Eleftherou for years. My friend Annie Apgar, who calls her Sophie, mentions her strength and humor, her kindness, her cooking, and her dexterity with the rolling pin almost every time she comes into Athens. Now we were finally going to meet.

Annie leads me a few steps down her rutted street and opens a gate onto a broad terrace lined with potted plants. On the far side a staircase leading to Sophie’s work area. Although she has a spacious kitchen with an electric stove and all mod cons, Sophie does most of her serious cooking in a tiny closet-like room over a gas-powered hub with two-burners. And sometimes even in the adjoining fireplace. We peer into the room, large enough for one person, and there she is, stirring two pots, one filled with simmering sheep’s milk for yogurt, the other bubbling with frothy apricots for jam.

“Here’s my friend, Diana,” says Annie.

Sophie, an erect figure in a loose dark dress, turns away from her pots and sizes me up coolly. “You’re the one that kanei [makes] cookbooks?”

After 20 years in Sydney but 39 years since her return, Sophie’s in her late 70s but still speaks pretty good English. She and Annie, who’s a Kiwi, chat animatedly in Greeklish.

When I nod in the affirmative, her serious almost stern face breaks into a welcoming smile. But then she sobers up again. “You should have come earlier, you’ve missed the pita. I’ve been up since 6, weeded the vegetables, rolled out the fyllo, baked the pie, and when I finish with this yogurt, I’ll be done for the day.”

Sophie stirring sheep’s milk for yogurt

While she’s stirring, Annie shows me around: the ancient oven with its black halo squatting on top of the empty chicken coop; the patches of corn, tomatoes, and zukes; a small olive grove where chickens are pecking at the earth; an outdoor sink; and a couple of storerooms, where Sophie displays her fyllo-making skills to groups of foreigners who join Annie and her fellow Kiwi, Jude Collins, on Culture and Cuisine Tours of Evia (http://www.cultureandcusineinevia.com/) in spring and fall.

These performances are legendary but though it’s only 10:30 I’ve missed my chance. Instead, we try to drag the recipe for the kolokithopita (zucchini pie) out of Sophie. It’s clear she enjoys telling us, but slowly, on her own terms. And with spread fingers to indicate the size of the zucchini or the piece of cheese. When I ask if I can write about her and take her photo, she looks pleased, not falsely shy or overly modest, a person of dignity accepting recognition.

She then leads the way upstairs to the proper kitchen, which is clearly the main room of the house, and sits us down at a spotless white-napped table with four chairs. Photos of lovely daughters, grandchildren, and a handsome, late husband stand out against the unadorned white walls.

Will we have quince spoon sweet or pita? Both, I say shamelessly.

Why is it we expect such hospitality in Greece but so rarely offer it so spontaneously and naturally ourselves?

After Sophie presents us each with a saucer of glistening reddish quince strips studded with blanched almonds, she takes out the pie.

Annie’s surprised; the pan contains four crispy cylinders instead of the usual full square. Each is made with a single sheet of homemade, hand-rolled fyllo and as I bite into my portion, I realize it is quite simply the best I’ve ever tasted. It’s light and crunchy; so often homemade fyllo is too thick, too heavy, stodgy.

And the filling? Annie asks, “Do you put any onion?”

You’d have thought she’d suggested arsenic. Sophie wrinkles her straight aristocratic nose in disgust, “What, and ruin the taste? Onions and zucchini do not go together!”

I ask what sort of cheese she uses in another dish, zucchini fritters.

“Gouda.”

“But that’s not traditional,” I protest.

“We’re making our own traditions here,” retorts Sophie.

As we’re nibbling and chatting, another woman pushes the beaded curtain that fronts so many country doors here—they let in the air and keep out the flies. This is Mina Apostolou, whom Annie calls the village angel. “She’s always giving things to others, never saving anything for herself.” Younger than Sophie, with an unwrinkled smiling face under fluffy white hair, she comes bearing a couple of empty plastic yogurt buckets. This is the precious local tupperware, always returned to the owner to be refilled or passed on to another neighbor.

Mina and Sophie

After more talk and banter—the two girls love to tease each other—Annie and I drag ourselves away. We still have to fit in a swim before I depart. Annie offers to take Mina and Sophie another day. Annie may not make yogurt or pitas, but she often serves as the village chauffeur.

We’re out the gate when we hear Mina calling her. “Ela, Anna, come back, I forgot to give you your yogurt and eggs.”

“I still have some of the old yogurt.”

“Oh, throw it out. But don’t forget to give me back the container.”

This is the Greece we fell in love with, Annie and I, so many decades ago. And, guess what, it is still here. My bet is that no matter what happens after our election day on June 17th, these enduring values of hospitality, humor, generosity, and neighborliness in the best sense will be even more evident.

I think I could get used to village life with friends like Sophie and Mina, not to mention Annie.

RECIPE

Zucchini-cheese Pie/Kolokithopita

There’s no way I can teach you how to reproduce Sophie’s amazing fyllo pastry. But here’s another version from my cookbook, Feasting and Fasting in Crete. If you can’t bear the struggle, there is perfectly adequate “country-style” fyllo in the frozen food sections of good supermarkets, even in the US (or so I think).

350 grams (2 1/2 cups) bread flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

about 180 ml (3/4 cup) warm water

2 tablespoons olive oil

Combine the flour and the salt in a mixing bowl and make a well in the center. Add the water and olive oil and work the flour into the liquid to make the dough. When all the flour is absorbed, knead the dough in the bowl, adding more flour or liquid as needed, for about 10 minutes. The dough should be elastic and smooth. Cover and leave to rest for at least an hour before using.

If you were Sophie, you have a long pole like a skinny broomstick instead of a rolling pin. You’d also have a round tabletop on stumpy legs that you’d set on a work surface to roll out your pastry. But an ordinary floured table will do.

Separate the dough into four balls and roll out as thin as possible. You’re going to make these pies as if they were strudel, so make them rectangular. And cover the dough balls with a cloth so they won’t dry out while you’re working.

The filling

4 fresh free-range eggs

2 zukes about 7-8 inches long

a slab of feta cheese about the same length as the zukes

chopped dill

and a handful of trahana, rustic pasta pellets made of soured milk and flour, to soak up the zucchini water

Grate the zukes into a colander, sprinkle with salt and allow to drain for 30 minutes. Squeeze dry with your hands.

Crumble the feta, beat the eggs, and mix them together with the grated zucchini, dill, and trahana. If you don’t have trahana, use raw rice or semolina.

Preheat the oven to 375°F/180°C.

Spread a quarter of the filling a couple of inches behind the short end of the pastry square and roll it the pastry over itself to the end, as you would a jelly roll (does anyone make those any more?) or a strudel. Tuck the two ends underneath and press them down to seal. Brush the surface with a little olive oil and place, seam-side down in an oiled baking pan. Repeat until finished.

Bake the pies until the crust is golden brown, about 30 minutes. We ate ours piping hot but they’ll be delicious at any temperature, though probably not quite as good as Sophie’s was.

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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.

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.

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.

That Old Orange Magic

I’m conflicted. My heart — and the heart of so many Greeks and people who love this country — is breaking. Not just cracking in two but splintering like the plate glass windows in Athens when they were struck on the night of February 12th by a sledge hammer or a chunk of flying marble.

I don’t live in central Athens, I’ve never even smelled tear gas, and I try not to watch more than 20 minutes of news a day. I don’t want to be dragged down by scenes of violence and burning buildings, or by politicians pointing the finger at everyone but themselves,

Call me an ostrich, or even a cock-eyed optimist, but I find the best way to cope with this bleak midwinter crisis is to go for a walk in the park near our home.

The Alsos Syngrou (or Wood) is enormous and quite wild in parts. If you ignore the distant hum of traffic, it’s easy to pretend you’re hiking through uncharted territory.

Moreover, getting there is half the fun. Like so many districts of Athens, my streets are lined with bitter orange trees, nerantzies in Greek. In spring, their scent rises above the stink of exhaust. And now their fruit gleams warmly through shiny green leaves, brightening even the darkest days.

If you could eat them raw, the boughs would be stripped. But for marmalade fans, they’re a cook’s bonanza. I always pick them from trees on a quiet street or dead end to get the best quality, unpolluted nerantzia. I’m very selective, only a few from each tree, for you don’t need more than a dozen to make 4 jars.

I recently discovered something more exotic. A kumquat tree. Growing right next to the sidewalk. I only discovered it a month ago and I’ve been quite discreet about pillaging it. But all that ripe fruit is quite a provocation. Lately though, the owner has been gardening. Every time I pass by, he’s there. The little golden footballs hang untouched, leaving me to imagine the crunch of their skin as I bite into one, their sharp, just sweet enough taste, their smooth pips. And how different they are from that garish liqueur sold in tourist shops in Corfu.

They start me musing on the truly incredible citrus family. Never mind the whole orange and lemon family — the sweet oval lemons of Amalfi that you can eat without puckering, the blood oranges that make tangy vermilion juice (I’ve heard that in California they call them by another name — blood being too graphic a word).

What about grapefruit? Lucky me, I haven’t had to buy one this winter. Just when our own tree ran out, a friend delivered a giant canvas shopping bagful, almost too heavy to carry. I saved the peel and candied it. The way I used to do with our “frappa” tree in Maroussi. That’s an inedible grapefruit lookalike, with a thick peel good only for making syrupy Greek spoon sweets or crystallizing in strips.

Now it’s also the bergamot season — pergamonto in Greek. They resemble lemons, but the peel is a deeper, almost sunflower yellow. Last year, when I was making limoncello, I made a batch of bergamo-cello, too, but no one liked it. Another friend who was given a basket of them has been squeezing the juice and putting sliced bergamots over baked fish for a new taste treat that sounds more successful.

Brightening up the market yesterday, glistening through the rain, were still more citrus, heaps of tangerines and clementines. In our house, preference is divided. I love the distinctive sharpness of tangerines and couldn’t care less about the pips, while my husband, a self-confessed lazy eater, sticks to the less interesting but pipless clementines.

Rain poured down on yesterday’s street market, for at least the fifth Wednesday in a row (I’m also counting snow days). But the thought of the condensed sunlight in those mounds of fruit drew me out of my comfort zone.

They cheered and sobered me at the same time. For, with oranges at only 80 cents a kilo, they seemed a bargain. And yet, some people can’t even afford that.

As one vendor said, “We always used to get beggars coming by and asking for 50 cents. Now they’re asking for food. What are we coming to?”

RECIPE

Tangerine Peel Truffles

But I want to leave you with a sweet taste. Another marvelous feature of citrus fruit is that, as with the pig, nothing need be wasted. Here are some simply delicious “truffles” made of tangerine peel.

Peel from 30 unblemished tangerines

450 grams (1lb) sugar

450 grams (1 lb) almonds, blanched and ground in food processor

Boil the tangerine peels in lots of water to get rid of their bitterness until they are soft. Drain. Leave them to dry overnight wrapped in a big dish towel.

The next day crumble the peel between your fingers until you have a “puree” of tangerine peel. Put the peel and the sugar in a saucepan and boil, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the sugar turns to syrup. Be careful not to let it burn. Remove the pan from the burner and stir in the ground almonds and mix thoroughly.

When cool, pinch off bits of the mixture and roll it into little balls and arrange them on a pretty platter.

If you are not going to use them within the next day or two, lay them between sheets of wax paper and store them in the freezer. Makes about 60 pieces.