Saturday, 30 January 2016

A Bikini in my Backpack

Two days ago, I finished my work and headed out for a walk, rather optimistically with a bikini in my backpack, as well as gloves and a scarf. There was a cool wind, but not cold. Down at Eristos, the bay felt sheltered and the sea was blue and clear. Jumping in was hard –no question, it was cold – but after the first few minutes, I relaxed and enjoyed it. Coming out, I piled the clothes back on and had such a burst of energy that I ran half the way home. I’d left bread dough to rise, and I could barely wait for it to finish baking before I was tearing chunks off and eating…

Yesterday was overcast, and after my morning’s work I felt a little tired when I took Lisa for her lunchtime walk; not sure which direction to take, I ended up trying a track off the road towards Ayios Antonis, heading uphill on the easterly, inland side of Profitis Ilias. The track turned into a path that was soon barely perceptible and we were cutting through spiky bushes. Just the kind of thing Lisa loves – at the end of the lead she panted and surged forward on the scent of goats, leaping over thorny bushes and pulling me through stands of dead trees. At one point I thought, I’m not really enjoying this, but going back would have been just as hard as going forward, and ahead I hoped we’d be able to cross the gorge and take a track down. I was wondering how far we should go when I spotted some ruined buildings and an old chapel, so I decided to aim for that. The walk from there on led steeply up the mountain and could have been fun if I’d had more daylight and energy.

The chapel turned out to be typical of the many abandoned chapels all over the hillsides. Crouching to enter under the heavy rock lintel – the doorway was now half-sunk under rubble – I tiptoed over a carpet of goat-dung strewn with the remains of a long-dead goat to see the fallen, simple altar made from a column and a slab of marble, most likely ancient. There was a fragment of another marble slab nearby with old carving, the corner of something much bigger… The secrets these little places hold. The walls were bare stones – but no, when I looked more closely into an arched recess, I could make out very faintly the colours of Byzantine-style frescoes, including the top of a saint’s head, with a tiny forelock of hair.
  


I emerged into the still-grey scene outside, and saw a few spots of sunlight lighting the hills. On the way down I found another chapel, this one built into the rock; the inside had been plastered over at some point, and there was graffiti from the early 1950s. Amid some green terraces dotted with purple anemone flowers there was an old plastic tank and Lisa refused to go near it. The intrepid hound who’d been eagerly pulling me up the hillside was now afraid of an unidentified foreign object in the landscape.
 
When we made it back down to the shore at Ayios Andonis, we had a surprise. First, the sun was winning over the clouds. 
Then, at the harbour, I saw what I thought at first was someone swimming, just a head above water – but no, it was a seal. It flipped, its tail came out of the sea and it dived down; then emerged, flipped and dived down again a few times as it headed out to sea. Lisa was as spellbound as I was. Well, except when she heard a goat behind us... 



In the evening, I went to Kali Kardia with Ed and Maddie. Michalis H was there, wearing his warm fishing hat although there was a good heat coming off the wood-burner. Yorgos from Filoxenia came by, carrying two large oranges, and mysteriously put them on a table and left. As we were eating and drinking, Michalis came over with a few dark insides of shellfish, dressed in oil and lemon, for us to try. Ed and Maddie didn’t like them much, but to me they were as tasty as oysters. Late in the evening the other Michalis, the owner of the restaurant, came out with a fish on a platter, smacking his lips. He put it down at the table he was sharing with Michalis H, who had clearly caught the fish that day. ‘The restaurant’s now self-service,’ he said, grinning, as they started to eat.

Today, the sun won over the clouds again. Again I headed down to Eristos, happy as it was Saturday and I didn’t have much to do. In fact, I hoped to buy vegetables from one of the farms. But at the first farm, they were working in a distant field, and at the next there was no-one to be seen; and at the third, I learned that Dimitris had the scales and so on down in Livadia, and would be heading off on the boat and wouldn’t be back until Thursday.

By then, I was almost at the beach and happy to walk to my favourite spot for a swim. I made the mistake of lying on the sand for a while – enjoying the thought that I was sort-of sunbathing at the end of January, with the whole of Eristos beach to myself. The trouble is, it made it a lot harder to go in the water. It really was a question of mind over matter. But again, after a tough few minutes of cold, it felt great. And drying off and getting dressed in the mild sunshine felt great too. On the way back via the farms, I found Yorgos and a crew of workers (mostly my Albanian neighbours) dusting dirt off potatoes as they loaded them into crates. Victory! Yorgos filled me a bag of potatoes, then went and cut me two cabbages, a head of broccoli and a head of cauliflower from the sunny field. I proffered money but Yorgos didn’t have any change on him. ‘Pay me another time!’ he said, wiping his knife and heading back to work.     


Saturday, 23 January 2016

Sunny Winter Days and Moonlit Nights

A cold, north wind howls around the house today, slipping in the gaps around old doors and windows. But it’s been dry, with a deep blue sky, and a brisk walk to feel the warmth of exercise and sun was just what I needed.


Earlier in the week we had a couple of days of being cooped up by rain (much needed by the farmers). A big storm came in on Sunday and the power went out mid-morning. The sun poked through grey clouds creating a streak of silver across very rough grey and white waters in Eristos bay. I walked Lisa, taking care since the wind had broken branches off the trees, then when the power was still out I crept under the duvet with a cup of tea (the briki and camping stove, usually for Greek coffee, come in handy when there’s no electricity), read a book and then slept for a while. In the afternoon I lit a candle and the fire, preparing for the evening, but the power came back. I rang Angeliki, the artist who lives at the top of the village, to see if we were still on for drinks and we were. She’d prepared a feast of mezes and we sat beside a cosy log fire with the rain pouring down outside.

Our friend Maddie, meanwhile, was flying from Athens to Rhodes. The first flight was cancelled; the second got as far as Rhodes, circled and turned back, unable to land. She made it later that night. Edward had planned to meet her at the airport but his ferry left about twelve hours late. So it can go when you make travel plans in the winter.

The next day the rain continued. Y and I walked to Eristos, skirting deep puddles on the dirt tracks, and found ourselves watching a storm out to sea, wind whipping up the water, waterspouts funnelling down from dark grey clouds, a streak of lightning flashing. It felt like winter was really here. Indulging in a little too much wine and food with friends, walking home in moonlight. Expected parcels are delayed, and delayed - but delayed gratification can be good. Sometimes in the winter, several days can go by when we don’t have vegetables delivered by the boats. The farms at Eristos have potatoes and oranges and broccoli, but other produce was withering badly. Hence my joy at finding plump, fragrant mushrooms at Megalo Horio supermarket one day. Life is full of surprises. 

As Lisa and I walked down to Skafi today, the wind made my eyes water. It was fun to stand above the cove and feel the sea crashing powerfully into the rocks. Funny to think I’d had a long swim here on a calm, warm day just two weeks ago, in the first week of January. The wind will drop again soon and we’ll be swimming again, but for today it was good to see wild, surging, white-capped waves.

When I downloaded photos from my phone, there was another surprise – photos I’d forgotten about. A couple of weeks ago I’d had an impromptu adventure. Climbing up the hill above Harkadio Cave one warm lunchtime to see the medieval chapel and castle ruins, the views had been so breathtaking that on a whim I’d decided to keep walking along the ridge. The sunlight was a dream and the views clear – north to Nisyros and the islands beyond, south to Rhodes and southeast to snow-covered mountains in Turkey. It was a tricky walk, clambering over rocks with Lisa on the lead to stop her chasing goats. I hadn’t taken a camera with me and my phone battery had given up, rather unnervingly – but not before I got a few shots. 




Sunday, 3 January 2016

Stories from the Kitchen

At midday on New Year’s Day we went to gather wood for the fire. The sky was blue and the sun warm, but a bitterly cold wind was blowing the sea into whitecaps and it would be chilly when darkness fell. Back at home, we put some pieces of goat meat in the oven with garlic and oregano and oil and potatoes. 

The goat had been a gift. My landlord has apartments near the sea at Ayios Antonis, but being primarily a goat farmer he doesn’t use a computer and asked me to help him promote them online, which I did through Airbnb. He wanted to pay me for my time but I said he could give me something like olive oil instead. ‘Theleis katsikaki?’ he asked – do you want a baby goat? He said he’d cut it up into portions for me, and when I went to pick it up, he handed it to me in a plastic bag. ‘I put the head in there too,' he said, 'so you can make soup with it.’ The head is still deep in a corner of my freezer. I’m not that adventurous a cook.

While the meat was cooking, Y and I made marmalade from a couple of kilos of mandarins and clementines. We peeled the fruit and quartered it, throwing the skins of five or so into the pot alongside, then covered it with water and boiled it for half an hour. The water poured off, we removed the pips from every segment as the fruit cooled, taking care not to lose any juice. Then we blended it up and, adding sugar and water, boiled it again, hoping it would thicken enough. It seemed very much like mandarin soup so we left it bubbling away, and moved the dining table in front of the fire while we drank and ate and celebrated the new year.

This time last year, I was reading a lot about food. My publisher Summersdale proposed I put together a collection of food excerpts and references from classic and contemporary literature – novels, poems and plays – along with recipes inspired by them. The book, A Literary Feast, was published in summer 2015. A couple of months later, I received a gift in the post from Everyman’s Pocket Classics, who had published a similar book called Storiesfrom the Kitchen edited by Diana Secker Tesdell. I was intrigued to find out how it compared.
                            
The two books complement one another well, as while the main ingredients in A Literary Feast are finely sliced pieces with trivia and recipes, Stories from the Kitchen is made with meaty chunks of literature – a longer meal rather than a collection of mezes. It focuses exclusively on novels from the last few hundred years, and shows how writers use food and meals to explore different themes. Everyman’s budget presumably allowed them to pay for longer excerpts from contemporary (in copyright) works, and among those contemporary excerpts were some of my favourite pieces.

In my book I’d quoted a loveable nugget of Nora Ephron on potatoes and love from her autobiographical novel, Heartburn – ‘Nothing like mashed potatoes when you’re feeling blue’. The effect of the longer excerpt in Stories from the Kitchen is surprisingly different; the way she talks about making complicated potatoes for first dates makes her sound like hard work. But the first piece I really loved was ‘A Bunch of Broccoli on the Third Shelf’, which begins with the narrator's husband pulling a forgotten piece of broccoli from the fridge, because Nina, who’s come to America from Russia, is obsessed with shopping for vegetables. I’d never heard of Lara Vapnyar, but her story was a delight and made me want to read more of her work.

Amy Tan’s ‘Best Quality’ was another wonderful and moving story about the narrator’s relationship with her mother, who cooks crabs for Chinese New Year; the character delineations are brilliant and the story twists unpredictably. And I found T.C. Boyle’s piece about a restaurateur and a reviewer, ‘Sorry Fugu’, thoroughly entertaining. Others will undoubtedly have different tastes, but for me it was less the classic pieces from Proust or Zola, Dickens or MFK Fisher, and more the modern pieces that captivated. Some of the very long excerpts made me wonder if I really wanted to read so much of a novel if I wasn’t reading the whole thing, but an exception was the thirty-odd-page dinner party in To The Lighthouse, which worked brilliantly as a stand-alone piece in the Memorable Meals section – not so much about the food but the relationships between those sitting around the table.


If I had to pick a favourite excerpt – well, call me biased but I’d say Gerald Durrell’s very funny ‘Owls and Aristocracy’ from Birds, Beasts and Relatives, set in Corfu, hit all the right notes. He’s invited to dine in winter – when ‘Everything was redolent with the smoke of olive-wood fires’ – at the home of the Countess Mavrodaki for the purposes of collecting a barn owl. His brother, Lawrence Durrell, is very jealous of the invitation. Gerald dresses up for the occasion in a crisp white shirt and new sandals, only to fall off his donkey into a muddy ditch on the way. But it doesn’t matter because the Countess is a surprisingly eccentric character. The feast is gargantuan, starting with a soup and ‘fingernail-sized croutons floating like crisp little rafts on an amber sea’; proceeding through fish and snipe, to the wild boar with ‘piles of the lovely little golden wild mushrooms… tiny marrows stuffed with sour cream and capers’. Every course has so many delicious accompaniments… Durrell surreptitiously undoes the top three buttons of his shorts.