Dangerous Capers

Last weekend we decided to go caper-gathering. Capers are one of my favourite things to add to salad to give it a special zing. Here in Tilos, as in many Aegean islands, it's not just the little round buds and berries but also the young stalks and leaves that are pickled, which makes sense as they're just as succulent and tasty (not to mention easier to eat). 

Late April is the time to pick them, after the rains of spring. Kapari (Capparis spinosa) grows mostly on cliffs overlooking the sea. The trick is to find a place where they haven't already been picked by someone else, or eaten by hungry goats. Goats are rather more nimble at scrambling down cliff-faces than humans, and cliffs here can crumble away as you make your way up or down. 

Every now and then I'd spot a huge bush of bright green leaves halfway down an impossibly steep cliff, and think of Shakespeare's samphire-gatherers on the cliffs of Dover ('how fearful and dizzy 'tis... dreadful trade!'). After a few scratches, I played it safe. I couldn't bear to watch Stelios reaching just a teeny bit further... 'I came here to gather kapari,' he grinned, 'so I'm going to gather kapari!' Stubborn?


We came home with a few jars' worth. Then later this week, while walking the dog, I found another cache and we gathered some more. We left them in water for five days, changing the water twice a day, which removes bitterness. The smell that comes off them as you change the water is distinctive, not unpleasant. At first we soaked them in tap water, but then changed to using sea water.

Then we put them in old honey jars with a mix of brine and vinegar, and after a few days they turn a duller shade of green and are ready to eat. We tasted them yesterday and they're delicious: our own Tilos capers. Not sure how long they will last in our house... 

Capers have been used in Aegean kitchens since ancient times. I read that in Santorini they're stewed with tomatoes and onions and spooned over fava or yellow split-pea puree, which sounds heavenly. And there's also a Cycladic caper salad where they're combined with potatoes, or you can eat them with fish. But now that we're picking onions, lettuce, rocket and carrots from our garden, for now this lazy cook will be putting them in the salad. 

Well, it's about time to go outside and take Lisa the pup for a stroll. Walking with Lisa these days is giving me a new appreciation for the number of dead lizards to be found at the roadside - though we also have an abundance of live ones, including this fellow who graced our bathroom window.

We'll go to feed the chickens, and probably along the way we'll see some goats with their youngsters. Lisa's about the same size as a baby goat right now. The other day a few big elder goats with beards and horns gathered around and took a good look at her, before turning away, as if to say, 'Naah, not one of ours...' 

Talking of goats, this time of year is also when the islanders make the fresh mizithra cheese. I am a huge fan of cheese, but this has more of a set-yoghurt texture and is, well, extremely goaty. It's an acquired taste, and I haven't yet had time to acquire it, as Stelios eats the whole half-kilo on its own in two days flat, with a spoon. I could have taken a picture at the halfway point but it wasn't pretty. It's the one time when I am delighted for him to smoke a cigarette after eating before he comes close.

Easter-flowering plant outside the Tilos Elephant Museum in Megalo Horio: smells like jasmine

This morning is a special one, as two years ago it was the first morning of my new life in Tilos. So I may have to celebrate with a swim. I will take the precaution of putting my shoes and clothes into my bag so Lisa doesn't take them away somewhere. A lovely acquaintance who visits Tilos every year wrote me a letter recently with some 'words of warning' - oh dear, I thought, what? 

She had read that Lisa was friends with the floppy-eared dog from Livadia, and worried our pup might pick up some bad habits from him. Apparently on more than one occasion old Floppy Ears pinched items of clothing from people when they went for a swim, and went hurtling off down the sea front with whatever he found - for which behaviour he earned the name 'The Underpant Dog'. 

For now there's no-one on our nearby beaches, but if any socks go missing this summer, well, you have been warned...

A handful of Greece-related books (and one not)

With my editor's hat on (and I will never, ever reveal what an editor's hat looks like, as it is very silly... see below*), I was reading a US publishing newsletter the other day and saw that there were not one but two new books being planned about cooking with 'the new superfood' Greek yoghurt. 

Well, it's always good to have an excuse to eat more Greek yoghurt, though I'm not convinced of the need to cook with it when you can just eat it with honey. Or make tzatziki.

Tzatiki for you to say! you may retort. Or perhaps you may not, but that leads me nicely to my next point, as it is the title of a completely enjoyable book I purchased recently, written by Rhodes resident John Manuel. He and his half-Greek wife have lived on the island for many years, and the book has true warmth and depth of knowledge; although each of the chapters is a stand-alone piece rather than part of a bigger story, you build up a picture of what life can be like in a quiet spot on the island. 

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I learned such nifty tricks as how to keep insects off the fruit trees, laughed out loud at descriptions of how to paint trees with lime, and got ideas of places to explore on the island. The piece that affected me most, though, was his poignant illustration of the detrimental effects of big all-inclusive hotels. I'd heard Rhodes residents talk of this before, but he showed how it affects the whole community - and the travellers too, who have a poorer experience. It's a fine book for anyone interested in Greece, has a great title of course, and the good news is that there are several other books in the series, as well as a novel, The View from Kleoboulos. And Manuel writes a blog, Ramblings from Rhodes.

Last week I finished reading a very different book, one not strictly about Greece but which partly takes place during the war in Cyprus in the 1970s. Susan Joyce, an American who lived in Cyprus and Germany and is now based in Uruguay, had a successful career as an artist and her first book, called The Lullaby Illusion (she has a website of the same name) came to me through a mutual friend who noticed we had both written travel memoirs that read a little like fiction. It turned out there were several themes in her book that really struck a chord.

Living in Kyrenia, Susan was among the group of internationals who were caught in the crossfire when war broke out in Cyprus. The account of bullets whizzing past as they hide out near the UN camp is gripping, and I certainly learned a lot. The speculation that her husband at the time might have been a double agent adds intrigue. But what I loved most about the book was Susan's spirit and her ability, in spite of the many difficulties she experienced, to see the positive and to build a new life for herself as an independent woman in Frankfurt, surrounding herself by great friends. 'I lost a child, but found myself. Went through a coup and a war. Lost everything I owned... My married died. But I survived.'

Soon after finishing that book last weekend, I had to take the long ferry journey from Athens to Tilos, and luckily managed to pick up a paperback book for my 17-hour journey: Victoria Hislop's The Thread. Most of you will already know this is her novel about Thessalonika during the first half of the 20th century. I am coming to the party a little late because I struggled to connect with her Spanish book, and it's pure luck that I found this and decided to give it a try.

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It tells the stories of a small circle of people who lived through the through population exchanges that took away the Muslims and brought Greeks from Asia Minor; fires that destroyed homes and livelihoods; and German occupation during World War Two - I can hardly bear to read it at the moment as the Jewish families have been forced to leave and sent to Poland. But I'm wrapping this up now so I can finish it tonight. It is superbly written, an extraordinary work of imagination and memorable details.

But before I go, one last exciting piece of news, just in! OK, it's not a book about Greece, but Kosovo, not so very far away... Elizabeth Gowing, author of Travels in Blood and Honey, has a new book out at the end of May called Edith and I: On the Trail of an Edwardian Traveller in Kosovo. I read a couple of early chapters and it was utterly beautiful, so I can't wait to read the rest! Look it up, and pre-order - you'll be in for a treat.

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Happy reading! And before I go, thank you again to all the people who continue to send lovely messages about Falling in Honey, or who have written nice reviews. I'm enormously grateful. 

* sorry, but that joke made me giggle when I thought of it... I was walking back from Skafi and must have been high on the smell of wild sage 

Wellies on... It's Countryfile Greece

We've been talking about getting chickens for a while. I was thinking maybe two. Stelios was thinking maybe a dozen. I thought we should learn a bit about keeping chickens. Stelios figured it's easy. Three days ago, he was helping out Manolis with some work and he offered him half a dozen chickens in return. Decision made.

And so for the last couple of days, still exhausted after two days of hauling in over a thousand palamithes (small tuna) in the trata nets, Stelios started to build a kotetsi, a chicken house. 

He'd recently spent a couple of days carefully constructing a wooden dog house for Lisa out of reclaimed wood he'd found mostly washed up on beaches, so he could build one like that. She hadn't been in there yet, but we assumed when she was old enough and it was warm enough outside...

There again, we weighed up the likelihood of this dog - who will sneak up on our bed at any opportunity - ever taking to a 'dog house'. There was more likelihood of us sleeping outside in it. Job done - one ready-made chicken house.

Tilos doesn't have any foxes, so there are no ground predators; but the crows and the eagles will go for a chicken, apparently, so the run had to be sealed in well overhead. And, because the chickens would be in the field where we plant all our vegetables and trees, they'd need a strong fence to keep them around their coop. He was just finishing it all off as the sun went down last night.

The chickens aren't new-borns so they would probably be fine overnight, but we were still a little anxious to know they'd survived the night in their new home. It was a cold, windy night (how windy? the Dodecanese Express boat managed to stop at Tilos yesterday, but broke a rope doing so, and everyone on board was sick...) So we all went down to our field en famille first thing this morning. Lisa was jumping up and down with excitement that we were all going off on an excursion together.

The chickens were as right as rain in their new home under the shade of a big old tree. And what a home! He's not just a pretty face, Mr Fisherman-Kantina-Man-Chicken-Farmer. 

We brought Lisa inside while we fed the chickens. As long as dogs learn young, apparently, they won't harm the birds. We needn't have feared: she was more interested in eating their food.

I admired the fig tree and the grape vines with their new leaves, and picked some rocket and onions and carrots from the garden for today's salad, and walked back home in my wellies. Our own fresh eggs soon? Countryfile Greece, indeed.