Saturday, 30 July 2011

Falling in the honey

Fallen in the honey is a wonderfully evocative expression my friend Dimitris once used to mean caught up in love: ‘I thought you had fallen in the honey with him’. I fell in the honey with the little Greek island of Tilos three years ago, eventually found a way to stay, and now I’m living next door to the honey factory where today, we’re making honey.
No money, no honey, they say… But Ntelos (Delos), born and bred in the village of Megalo Horio, has in the last few years turned his family’s tradition of working with bees into a small family business, Ntelos/Delos Honey. No honey, no money.

There’s a bee on my arm as I watch the process begin. I’ve got used to having bees around, hovering in the flowers and basil bushes, sometimes coming for a curious look in my kitchen when I’m working with the doors open. I can’t see or hear my nearest neighbours in this valley, but I like to think of it as a buzzing place…
Ntelos’ father Pavlos removes the wooden frames from the hives. ‘Don’t write about me, I’m just the worker!’ he says; but without the worker bees, there’d be no honey… The frames are like hanging folders in a filing cabinet, and each holds an uneven slab of honeycomb. The best ones are almost covered in sealed wax cells holding honey.

Pavlos takes a heated knife and skims off the outer edge of wax, releasing the clear golden liquid. It gleams as it pours off thickly. ‘Here, taste,’ he says, and hands me mouthfuls of oozing soft honeycomb.

It amazes me that it’s ready to eat straight out of the hive, this perfect food full of goodness – it needs nothing from us. What we’re doing here is just releasing and gathering it, cleaning it and putting it in jars. The actual making of honey has all been done by the bees. As Pooh bear said to the bee: the only reason for making honey is so I can eat it.
The offcuts fall down onto a mesh and the honey will drain off, while the wax will be cleaned and packed into blocks for making new honeycomb.

Meanwhile, as each honeycomb is opened up, it is slid into a compartment in the centrifuge which will extract all the honey. When all the compartments are full, the machine is closed and starts spinning.
It circles to the left for a few minutes, to the right for a few minutes, slowly at first to protect the delicate honeycomb from breaking as it empties. If you were on one of those fairground rides that spin you round, you’d be saying: that wasn’t too bad, was it? Then it starts to the left again but fast this time, causing the honey to start pouring, thick and caramel-coloured, into the vat. And then it stops and spins fast to the right, at which point if you were on the fairground ride you’d be thinking this was a bad idea.
But it’s only a bee or two that was on the ride, having been asleep perhaps in one of the honeycombs, and now they’ve fallen in the honey and are perhaps thinking ‘But what a way to go…’

The smell of warm honey is intoxicating. It’s thirty plus degrees outside and the hives were standing out there not long ago, the bees happily coming and going, blissfully unaware. Now we’ve taken their food, Ntelos will feed syrup to the bees for a while so they don’t die or leave.
In the old days, the wheel was spun using a hand-crank, and there was no electric heated knife for cutting off the wax. The hives, when Ntelos’ grandfather made honey, were cylindrical stone jars, still standing in the factory.

After the machine stops, the frames with their emptied, intact honeycombs are taken out. They’ll be kept at a low temperature in the big fridge to kill any bacteria, then used again. The new, pale yellow honeycombs are the best – the bees prefer them to the old, dark brown ones, as if preferring the modern IKEA look to dreary antiques. When there are flowers in the fields, the bees can fill up a honeycomb in as little as a week.

‘Here, take some more,’ says Pavlos, scooping up spoonfuls of honeycomb that looks like treacle sponge onto a plate. My hands are getting too sticky to take notes.
‘This honey is made from herbs, votana, flowers that are healthy for your body, and thyme. We don’t use any chemicals.’ (Aha, the word for herbs is the root of botanic!) Tilos was always famous for its herbs that grow wild everywhere, and bee-keeping is popular here: its mountainsides are mostly empty except for hundreds of tiny chapels, plus bee hives and goats. The Koumpanios family grow a lot of food and are passionate about never using chemical pesticides or fertilisers in their gardens and fields: it’s not only bad for you, but the bees and the birds eat from there.

Having become a conservation area some years ago, Tilos is a deeply natural environment with little to pollute it. At the honey factory, we’re surrounded by goats and donkeys, crickets and lizards and birds. There’s nothing added to the honey, nothing that isn’t pure and natural.
Life certainly is sweet when you live next door to the honey factory.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

A couple of days in Rhodes. Ahem.

Fevgeis? asked my landlord Pavlos, who was doing a bit of clearing out around the honey factory on Saturday while I packed my bag for a few days in Rodos, after I'd watered the plants and eaten the fruit he gave me from the garden for breakfast. You're leaving?

'Just for a couple of days in Rodos! I'm taking the bus now and then the Diagoras.' The big ship that comes from Athens and stops in Tilos on the way to Rodos twice a week.

'Ah, we'll forget you again!'

I hauled my bag along the path through the overgrown field, the shorter route to the village. I was early and the driver was cleaning the bus so I went to wait on the bench in the shade. An old man came down and joined me within a few minutes and we got chatting. He said I spoke good Greek.

‘I don’t think so! At the moment I want to say so much and I don’t know how!’ Ever since I got back from England I’ve been forgetting how to say things, too self-conscious, feeling I should know more. I’ve become lazy about opening the grammar books; when I finish work I want to relax. The previous day, I went to Eristos and had a long swim, all the way beyond the headland and around to the red sand beach - completely deserted, and utterly beautiful… The cliffs rust and purple, with splashes of green caper bushes, watermelon-coloured sand, and the water around the white rocks turquoise.
‘Ah, don’t worry, slowly you’ll learn,' said the old man. 'You can’t know it automatically! I’m going to Ayios Antoni for a swim. It gets hot up here in the village at midday.’ I realised that was his trunks he was carrying in a little plastic bag, bless him. Then down from the shop came Irini, closely followed by Pantelis, grandfather of my Tilos family. Irini and I exchanged kisses, she asked where I’d been and I told her I’d been travelling, and was heading back to Rodos with the Diagoras again for a few days.
‘Oh, it’s late! Still in Kalymnos.’ She must have been on the phone to someone.
‘Oh no! So I’ll have to wait a couple of hours in Livadia?’
‘Longer,’ said the young woman with a little son who’d joined us at the bench. ‘How long does it take from Kalymnos?’ she asked the old man, who wasn’t sure but everyone offered an opinion.
‘I could always take the Sea Star at four,’ I said, ‘though it costs more, pio poli…’
Pio polla,’ corrected the old man with a smile. ‘See, I’ve taught you one thing today!’
The bus came and I was wished kalo taxithi and some of us left and some stayed. If I had a car, I thought, it would be so much more convenient. But I’d have missed all of this.
I really didn’t expect to be staying in Rodos quite this long. I worry about the garden, but life’s too short to worry about courgettes when the menu just got unexpectedly interesting. I’d been worrying I was forgetting to speak Greek: now I’m on a crash immersion course here in Domestic Bliss, Rhodes Island. With cooking lessons.
After a big night out in the Old Town on Saturday, Hari and I made the most of a relaxing Sunday at Afandou beach, in and out of the clear blue water. No music, not too many people, just the beach. We laughed at the man next to us who spent half an hour trying to put up his umbrella; in the end we didn’t bother putting up the umbrella or using the rackets we’d brought. Why, when we could relax and pour on the sun oil and make frappe coffee and eat sandwiches instead? We even skipped the planned stop for mojitos on the way back, and instead went home for hortopita: vegetable pie. Hari had finished work early on Saturday and cooked up all the vegetables in advance, adding in some couscous for texture. He rolled out the pastry, spread out the thick vegetable filling and covered it with cheese, layered more pastry on top and baked until golden brown – like the chef.
I haven’t ironed shirts since I left home, but since Hari told his cleaner not to come so I could work at home undisturbed, I thought I’d make inroads into the shirt mountain as a thank you and a break from the desk. I switched on the radio and found ironing not only therapeutic in itself, but it brought back memories of growing up, when I would help mum iron dad’s shirts in return for spending money. Just as cigar smoke makes me happy because I associate it with dad working at home in the study, ironing shirts felt like home.
Then Hari came home and made giouvetsi. First, he boiled the meat to take off all the bad stuff, so in my new role as sous-chef I got to do the scooping of white foam off the top of the boiling pan when Hari got bored with it. The water was then poured off into a bowl to be used later and we cut the meat into smallish chunks. I chopped red onions and green peppers to cook in oil and butter, with mushrooms and two cinnamon sticks and bay leaves, until soft. We added the rice-like pasta, with wine and tomato juice, salt and pepper and sugar. I stirred it as instructed, to stop it from sticking to the bottom of the pan, gradually adding in the meat juice, and couldn’t help grinning at the lovely language: we ‘baptise’ the meat in the liquid, we wait for the pasta to ‘drink’ the liquid. When it was al dente, we switched off the heat and put on the lid and left it to rest. Like the chef.
Meanwhile, with a cold glass of beer to hand, I made the salad – lettuce, cucumber, tomato, avocado, spring onion and of course anetho, always the feathery aniseed herbs. Hari would add loads of balsamico and seasoning.
I was supposed to get the ferry back to Tilos after meeting my friend Andrea in town, so I packed up my things. Hari came home with armfuls of food as usual around midday and stuffed them into the fridge. He laughed at all the empty bags – ‘plastic, plastic!’ – after our ecological discussion the other night. He was playful and happy. We made arrangements for him to come back between meetings mid-afternoon and take me into town.
‘So we eat after you see your friend?’
‘No, I can’t, the boat’s at six thirty…’
‘What boat?’
‘The boat to Tilos!’
‘Eh, what, you go back to Tilos now? Why you not stay?’
‘What, forever?!’ I’m grinning now. And there I was worrying I might outstay my welcome.
‘Not forever but it’s the weekend in a few days, re… What, you go and immediately you come back? Well, you think about it and decide what you want to do.’
As if there was a choice.
Later: ‘So, you didn’t tell me what you decided.’
‘Of course I’m going to stay…’
I’d been protesting that I was putting on weight with all this food, healthy as it is, and sitting at the desk all day. So on his way to work he dropped me off at Zephyros beach. It’s just below the market, the laiki, separated from a handful of fish tavernas by the road out of town. By eight thirty there were already a dozen or so older women and men taking their morning exercise. Women bobbing around in big flowery swimsuits and cotton hats wished me kalimera. Families were arriving, grandmothers and children. I was swimming for the exercise, up and down, and it was lovely to watch.
I walked back via the market: fresh fruit and vegetables piled high along the rows of stalls. I bought a hot pepper plant and a big sweet melon. Then took a wrong turning and a long route home. ‘Eeneh mia eftheea,’ Hari had said, straight, but a twist at the end because of a one-way system threw me. Thankfully Hari had told me the name of the big street, and a lady carrying bags back from the market gave me directions.
Home sweet home. There, waiting on my closed laptop, was a plate of little pastries fresh from the bakery.
In the afternoon he came back hot from driving around in the sun, but singing. He had a bag of big mackerel, kolio. ‘We eat this in August: we say August is kolio because there are many at this time.’ It’s only a week or so until August, but they were still expensive, ten euros a kilo and each one weighed about a kilo. I peeled the potatoes and he chopped them into rough-cut chips and arranged them in the baking tray with the fish. I joked: fish and chips. ‘Ela re, is not the same!’ He scored the fish skin and seasoned with garlic, salt and pepper, and he added cooking wine. Ravenous and tired all day from the last late night and the long early morning swim, I ate my whole mackerel, which fell easily off the bones it was so fresh, and finished off the potatoes later, after I woke up.
Ki-mi-thi-kes?’ Did you sleep, he asked, as we were driving into town later. He’d decided the only way for me to learn Greek was for him to speak to me in Greek but slowly, like a small child.
Then pre-pei na mi-las to-so ar-ga,’ I joked back. No need to speak quite that slowly. Nai, yes, I slept very well. Eprepeh, I needed it.
Nomizo oti archizeis na sinithizeis.’ I think you’re beginning to get used to it. He’s right. We wake up, he says we’re leaving in ten minutes, we get ready and are sitting having an espresso in Kafeneion by ten. We have a chat with Salvatore and whoever else is there.
Thursday: Gemista
Hari came back from the market with five or so heavy bags of vegetables. ‘You know how much all this cost? Six euros!’ We put some in the fridge and kept out the courgettes, aubergines, beef tomatoes, two types of peppers to prepare for making stuffed vegetables, gemista. And he explained how you prepare each one, and what you keep. He’d be back about three to help with the rest.

I’ve said many times life is too short to stuff a mushroom, quoting someone famous; I don’t mess about with food. So it was with a degree of surprise that I lovingly set about carving out the insides of several kilos of vegetables. But it turns out that preparing vegetables this way, a bit like the ironing, can be a huge pleasure. When I first started I was worried about making a mistake and puncturing the skin (the vegetables', not mine, though you never know), but gradually I realised you just had to feel your way around, get a feel for the texture, perfect the technique for each vegetable. I got quite absorbed.

Bravo, re!’ Hari said admiringly of my tray of vegetables when he came home, arranged as he’d asked more or less. ‘If I have a sous-chef like you I will open one taverna!’
Stuffing vegetables isn’t what I thought it was. It’s about getting your hands dirty. It’s messy and delicious.

I’d kept all the scraped out insides of the courgettes and aubergines and tomatoes in a big bowl, and to this we added a big bunch of maindano, parsley, and red onion chopped fairly fine, and I mixed it up with my hands, mashing all the bits of vegetables together. Then Hari got the easy bit of making it a little smoother with the electric blender.

We added bacon chopped into smallish pieces, and a couple of cups of rice, and I mixed it all together again along with some raisins and prunes that had been left to steep in red wine for a while and then stoned and chopped into small pieces, and some pine nuts. Finally, I spooned the mixture into the vegetables, making sure it went into all the corners, watched so carefully by Hari that I made a bit of a mess with it. He added lots of cooking wine to the tray and some olive oil, and some bread crumbs and sugar to the tops of the vegetables, and that was about it – into the oven for about an hour.
Ah, but before we rested: the tzatziki. Now I understood how to get the cucumber fine enough – use a special cucumber shredder. I took off half of the cucumber skin – leaving stripes – then shredded four little cucumbers. Hari squeezed all the juice out of the shredded cucumber into a cup for me to drink. We added about half a kilo tub of yoghurt, pressed a clove of garlic into it, added a good drizzling of olive oil and I was told to mix it dinata, vigorously, with a spoon (wot no hands?), adding in a good splash of wine vinegar and – of course – a bunch of anetho. Gorgeous – the best, freshest tzatziki.
Sitting down in front of the TV news to wait for the gemista to cook, I noticed a fair bit of my new coral (‘Samba in Rio’) nail varnish had come off. I hoped it went down the drain while washing up, not into the stuffed vegetables. Hari laughed. I replaced it with the other colour he bought me, the turquoise.
‘We’re leaving in ten minutes,’ said Hari after he showered in the evening, my cue to get up from the computer and rush around like a mad thing finding something to wear. We had a big night out last night, so I thought this one should be quiet. It’s so hot this week, Hari waits until the last minute to put on his shirt. Then curses as all the spaces are taken where he likes to park near Kafeneion. We arrive for our espresso and it’s busy – I remember it’s one of the nights they have live music. Two hours later, we’re drinking wine (me) and tsipouro (Hari) with masses of ice, eating sea urchin roe and salt-cured anchovies and marinated octopus.
‘The life is too short. You must enjoy while you can! Because who knows what is around the corner? We could leave here and get hit by a train. OK, we don’t have trains here in Rodos, but anyway…’

And so it continues. There was a raising of voice over the making of bechamel sauce on Saturday, but frankly if you can make bechamel sauce together and survive... Anyway, the pastitsio was worth it.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Zesti, zesti...

Still working too hard, but barefoot, to the sound of crickets. Eating decadently delicious papaya for breakfast again, thanks to Pavlos. It’s been so long since I wrote, but I have been gathering plenty of stories which may gradually make it here…

Zesti, zesti! 'Hot, hot!' The local commentary on the weather at the moment can safely be filed under ‘stating the bleeding obvious’. Yes, it’s hot, somewhere between early thirties and forty most days. But then last time I checked, we were on a rock in the Mediterranean, and it was nearly mid-July. Hence the constant sound of bees and crickets. Hence the smell of sage burning to a crisp in the sunlight at the side of the path… And the smell of figs ripening on the tree by Menelaos’ farm, on the way down to Skafi after I finish my work…
Ah, Skafi. There are two couples on the beach when I arrive, but by around five they’re gone and I have it to myself, except for a few goats. There are biting flies but they seem to go too as the heat calms down. In and out of the water to cool off, I’m feeling stronger after a tiring day at the desk, and let myself fall asleep for a bit…
Some tourists have left a beer can and the peel of a watermelon. You carried a watermelon all the way down here but thought you’d leave the peel? On this perfect piece of pink sand, with nothing around? At least the goats will eat it…
Walking back towards seven when the sun is behind the hill, feeling completely chilled out after the rest and exercise, carrying some bits of wood and bamboo cane for my garden, I watch what looks like an eagle but is probably a buzzard, circling overhead.

It was very hot in Rhodes on Sunday. Hari, driving us to Kalathos, put his hand out the window and declared it was burning. He picked up coffees for the road, handed me the sandwiches he had made with smoked salmon and salad, a frozen bottle of water for the beach. He knows the road very well and drives with purpose: to overtake. After the monastery, as we descended towards the beautiful plain of Malona, a goat ran out right in front of us but he braked: ‘Reflexes!’, he said, smiling after a few moments, breathing again, shaking his head. When we got to the beach, the sand was already like hot coals, and Hari stood in the sea and declared: I’m not getting out. We stayed all afternoon in the sun. When I got back to Tilos next day and saw Vangelis I said, ‘I think my face is a bit red’ and he said, ochi ligo, poli! - ‘Not a bit - very!’
But it soon turns to brown... On the weekend before I went away to England, I’d just returned on the bus from seeing a friend in Haraki, and needed to go back to the hotel to try to sleep a little before the evening, but I noticed some nice shoes in the window of a sports shop and decided to go inside. OK, I know… but I have a pair that are falling apart, so… The walking shoes were too expensive at 90 euros but there were some lovely flip-flops with sparkly bits for only 20 and I was wondering how I could justify them, when one of the men in the shop who had been talking amongst themselves asked me:
‘Eisai Italitha? From Italy?’
I smiled. I love being asked if I’m Italian. I said in Greek no, I’m from England.
‘What? No! Impossible! Father Greek? Mother Greek?’
‘No, both English! But thank you. I walk a lot. I live on an island.’
‘Which island?’
General hilarity. ‘What?! You can’t live on Tilos! You’ll go crazy! No re, it’s just it’s very small. Katse re’ – brings out a chair – sit down, sit down, ‘it’s a family shop, this!’
It turned out they knew quite a few people from Tilos – his wife’s family used to live in the house where the pizzeria is now.
When I arrived in England, it was very green and flat and a little strange, and on the first morning, I caught myself looking at photos of Tilos and Rodos. I got drenched a couple of times over there, having forgotten to take an umbrella, the weather turning from warm to rainstorms so fast.
But the week back in England was extraordinary in the end. A week of people telling me I look well, seem well, how much positive energy is coming off me - but also some intense and enlightening talks with friends: when you know you won’t see someone for a few months, you make the most of your time with them. It gave me much food for thought.

And talking of food…  
I came home to see my wooden table laden with fresh vegetables and fruit again - cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, papaya… Yesterday there were more when I returned from Skafi, and just now Pavlos turned up on his michanaki with a handful of dark plums. I've just eaten two and they are firm, just as I like them. ‘I’d have brought more,’ he said, ‘but I didn’t have a bag with me.’ Now he’s gone down to the bottom of the garden, I can hear him breaking up soil.
In the week or so I was away, my own garden has come along beautifully. There are lovely little courgettes – I just hope I can get them before the rabbit does, but anyway the flowers are pretty and the butterflies like them. And there are lots of tomatoes, a couple already turning red. The mystery vegetables are still growing strong, although Pavlos says they're not good. And the melon seeds I planted one day after eating melon in the garden and thinking ‘why throw the seeds away?’ have all seeded and will have to be thinned out. Must try that trick again. I picked some rocket for my salad yesterday,  very spicy, and used lots of basil. You hardly need any oil, as it tastes so great, just a squeeze of lemon and fresh ground pepper. OK, I was a bit put off seeing ants floating like herbs in my olive oil… The olive oil now lives in the fridge.
The ants are poised to take over the house if only I would let them. If I spray to kill flies, the ants are there soon, the undertakers of the insect world, ready to carry off any dead thing.

It’s so hot these days, the sun heats the house over the course of the afternoon, so last night I slept outside, under an almost-full moon that was so bright it lit the sky. The breeze was so warm I barely wanted a sheet over me. ‘Be careful of scorpions!’ said Hari when he called to invite me over to Rodos for the weekend.