Sunday, April 22, 2012

Still Life

Last Monday, Orthodox Easter Monday, was D-Day for Distilling. The (rather pong-y) mandora juice was wheeled to the still, pumped into it, and boiled. To the mix was added the failed wine from last year's raisinated grapes, and some other less-successful bottles. Three and a half to four hours later, the first distillate dripped out of the tube at the bottom of the plastic cooling barrel. It measured 70% alcohol at first, but quickly dropped to 60% then 55%, then stabilised at 40%, and Best Beloved distilled in total 15 litres – 5 litres at 50% alcohol, 5 at 40%, and 5 which are a mix of the inital and final distillate and will be added to the next batch.

Easter Monday being a red-letter day for feasting and games in the Cypriot calendar, a goodly collection of male family members and friends were gathered at our house and Bill's, and our garage quickly became a focal point. Small glasses were passed around, sniffed at appreciatively, and sipped. It was rough, but not as rough as some of the zivania that does the rounds, and it had a definite undertone of citrus – fruity but with a bitter tang from the pith and peel.


Saturday, April 21, 2012

Exploring the Tombs

With unstructured time on their hands my Little Ones soon begin to quarrel, and – to my antiquated thinking – the t.v and computer are not acceptable alternatives to more active pursuits So continuing my holiday goal of showing my children more of their own country, the other day I packed Zenon and Leo into the car and drove to the Tombs of the Kings.

Lise and I often took our children when the big ones were small, and Alex and Sophia have a welter of memories of climbing around and exploring the massive site which includes tomb complexes dating from the 3rd Century B.C.E. But as Lise's and my broods increased, chasing small children and toddlers through around the pits and precipices of the area – while carrying babies in backpacks – became too much, even for us. The danger of a serious fall was all too real. I hadn't been since they fenced the place and made it a Must-See For Tourists – a decade ago it was unmanaged: no tickets, no fences, no sign-posts – just wildflowers, trees, the occasional snake, and the flavour of antiquity.

I met the usual grumbles with bland cheer: “Come on, you'll love it! We have a beautiful day and there's plenty to explore...” We joined a scattering of foreigners from tourbusses and rental cars, I paid my 1.50 Euro (the children were free), and we went in. To their surprise, the boys did love it. Leo pretended to be scared (“But there's dead people there, and bones!”) and was consoled with intermittant control of the Lumix, but Zenon's imagination thrived on the idea of ancient gentlefolk buried in the pits and plazas and he was determined to explore every one.

 At one point a camera-toting Frenchman rebuked Zenon for scaling a wall of native rock near one of the tomb complexes. “Hey!' he shouted. “Have a care. This is a place of history!” It was on the tip of my tongue to say something sharp like “As a Cypriot and an archaeologist (stretching it a little, ok) it's in my interest to preserve my children's birthright too!” I wanted to let him know that only recently has the site been fenced; that for centuries the local people came in, looted the tombs, grazed their stock, removed stones to use in their houses, camped and pic-nicked; that I didn't think that one little boy, knocking his foot against an unworked slab, would do a great deal of damage, especially when compared with the willful destruction done by developers when they find a grave during construction (The oldest well in the world was excavated by a friend after the bulldozers had already stripped off the top three metres. He was literally dodging in and out of machines as he catalogued the finds, and a maisonette in Kissonerga has been build over and around the site.) But I smiled benignly and refrained. He was only doing what he thought was right, so I told Zeen to be a bit careful and we went on our way through the fading wildflowers and spring sunshine.

Monday, April 16, 2012


I have had a bed of bladder campion (known here as 'strouthkia', in Crete as 'agriopoupoula' and widely used in Italian cooking as 'stridoli') in the garden for about three years. After the first season– being a 'good' organic gardener and attempting to follow a system of crop rotation – I tried to get rid of it . I cut it and dug it and mulched over it, and it just kept coming back... So I shrugged and encouraged it and now actively enjoy it pretty much year-round.

For Easter Sunday and Monday, we generally go to Bill and Sil's house for lunch with Sil's family and various other assorted friends and relatives. Yesterday my offering was Panna Cotta which somehow failed to set (“Ok, so it's just Panna,” I told the company. “Use it as sauce on the chocolate cake!”) Nobody seemed to mind and it tasted good, particularly with the accompaniment of Irish Coffee Sauce from Darina Allen's Ballymaloe Cookery Course.

Today, bearing in mind that I had harvested a basket of campion yesterday, I decided to make a 'Strouthkiopitta', or pie with strouthkia. This is not a traditional Cypriot dish – Cypriots usually take their strouthkia fried with eggs – but it has become a favourite with Best Beloved and me, and is simple and extremely nutritious. The only tedious part is the stripping of the leaves from the fibrous stems, and I had done that yesterday.

Today all I had to do was wash the greens, blanch them quickly, and refresh them with cold water before preparing the pie. The amount of anari (soft mild cheese that roughly corresponds to Italian ricotta) is variable depending on your preference of the greens to cream ratio – I crumbled in half a kilo of commercial Keses brand, a sheep and goat mix. If I had my druthers, I'd use Auntie Maroulla's homemade, but it doesn't come my way very often, and BB generally eats it as soon as he spots it, so no luck there. To the greens and cheese, I added the grated zest of a lemon, about a quarter of a grated nutmeg, and salt and pepper, and squinched them all together with my hands until they were well mixed.

Usually I use phyllo (though I haven't got around to making my own with the recipe from blogging friend Ivy Liacopoulou's excellent Cypriot food-blog Mint, Cinnamon, and Blossom Water), but the phyllo in my fridge had been there for so long that it was brittle and out of the question. Mili came to the rescue with two sheets of defrosted puff pastry. Butter the dish, line it with pastry, add the filling, put the pastry cover on top, brush with egg, sprinkle with sesame and bake for forty minutes at 180C (350F). Hey Presto, Asproulla's Strouthkiopitta!

I took it up to Bill and Sil's, still hot, arriving just as everyone was passing along the buffet and filling their plates. Interestingly, Mili also brought something with strouthkia, but hers was more on the lines of a Spanish tortilla and included eggs, onions, and potatoes. I found it a little heavy, and because she hadn't blanched the greens, a little bitter. Cypriots like their greens bitter, though, so it had a more 'traditional' taste and probably appealed more to the local palate.

About half of mine came back, so there's plenty for dinner tonight or lunch tomorrow.

Interestingly enough, while searching for internet information on campion, I found that in Canada, it's considered an invasive species!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Few Days Out

The Xynisteri vinyards around Laneia village where grapes for Commanderia wine are grown.

As we left the house heading for the mountain rather than coastal road to our rented villa, Sophia said “You realise that this will be our last family holiday?” referring to her leaving for school in England in September. But she was wrong. Our last family holiday was two years ago when we went to Italy – and this time was not all the family was present anyway. Best Beloved was away on a week's jaunt visiting friends in Berlin and London, and Alex 'didn't want to come.'

Family bonding over a game of Monopoly -- in Greek.  Sophia trounced us.

Realising that I would be working in the house, field, and garden without BB for the first few days of the Easter holidays, and knowing that I would also be fending the Littles off permanent computer time, I visited the websites that we had used to rent self-catering accomodation overseas to check what Cyprus had to offer.  I eschewed the plethora of seaside villas with pools in Paphos, and chose a three-bedroom house in Lania, a hill village not far from Limassol. A quick call from the owner in response to my email confirmed that it was available for three days, and we left as soon as school was over last Friday.

Lania is an artists' roost and a stop on the tourist trail. Every street and lane in the village seemed to have a studio or gallery, but despite the Easter preparations, the narrow lanes were very quiet and we wandered for a while. Sophia and Leo soon got fed up and went back to the house, but Zenon and I explored the playground and the cemetery ('Let's see if we can find the oldest person buried here, and the youngest!' -- we did), and found the rough and ready football pitch.

The trail-head... Not realising that there was so much snow, I had planned a hike... Oooops!

The next day I gave them a choice of driving up to Troodos or over the hills to the village of Lefkara, and they unanimously chose Troodos. I planned to walk the circular trail around Mount Olympos, but we found the trail-head under a metre of snow. “Can we hire snowboards at the club, Mum? Can we, can we!” Sophia groaned – she was wearing three-quarter shorts and hadn't brought a jacket – but when I said yes to the boys, she shrugged and grinned and said “Guess I have to get used to this snow stuff, huh?” and proved adept at jamming feet into boots and doing and undoing bindings.

Leo got the hang of snowboarding quickly.

Nobody takes snow sports seriously in Cyprus. People hit the slopes for the novelty of it without proper gear (yes, you can see women teetering along the slushy paths in stilletoes and we parked the LandRover beside a pair of elegant leather brogues either forgotten or ruined and discarded) or any idea of how to use their rented equipment, and we were no exception. Few people shared the piste with us: Cyprus has had so much snow this year that the novelty has worn off, and even a brilliant Saturday tempted few punters.

View from the top.  The slopes were empty, considering that it was Saturday.

The boys took a while to get the hang of snowboarding, but they stayed for hours with only a short break for an overpriced lunch at the cafe. We would have stayed longer but I took pity on Sophia for her barked shins and sopping feet, and we left at about four. Leo went down from the top of the slope and came to grief through no fault of his own when a skier fell in front of him, but Zenon was more cautious, and having seen the view from the top, opted for a lower starting point.

Zenon's descent from near the top.

On top of Olympos.  Sophia was not the only one unsuitably dressed for the snow.

The next day we went to Lefkara by backroads. I had printed a map from the Internet and traced the line linking the villages through which we had to pass. Handing it to Sophia, I said “Shotgun? Navigator!” and she replied after a quick look: “That's easy, turn right at Trimiklini and keep going...” I kept my own counsel, but thought it might be a bit harder than that.

Heptagonia cemetery.  We stopped here because the church roof was tiled in the old style, and I wanted a closer look, but Zenon found the grave of a very old man.

A few kilometers out of Trimiklini, we passed a turn to Kalo Horio. “Do we go there?” I asked. “No,” she replied. “We go straight.” I told her to check again. “No! We need to turn! Go back!” What looks straight forward on Google maps translates differently in the Cyprus back-country... In fits and starts, asking directions in coffee-shops and with several wrong turns, we found Lefkara two hours later. I had wanted to show my children something of the reality of their country, away from the touristic and Anglicised conformity that characterises Paphos, and the drive to Lefkara – over gravel roads and through a quarry (“How many of the machines from Giant Earthmovers can you identify there, boys?”), through villages were two cars cannot pass the roads together and where happy locals are sipping Zivania long before noon, stopping to visit a cemetery where Zenon found the grave of a 116-year-old – did that. It reassured me that the country that I had criss-crossed alone on a dirtbike twenty years ago was still very much alive in its idiosyncrases despite induction into the EU and Eurozone, and when I met Chrystalla Komodromos, the lacemaker whom I had interviewed twenty years ago in her Lefkara shop for an article in the Cyprus Airways in-flight Sunjet, I felt that a circle had somehow been closed.

Chystalla Komodromos's handmade lace and Lefkaritiko at her Alley Shop in Pano Lefkara.

The children were a little grumpy by the time we found Chrystalla. A snack had revived them, and the village's twin crafts of fine needlework and silver smithing had caught Zenon's fancy, but many of the shops and all of the metal workshops were closed and tramping the steep cobbled streets was fraying their nerves. Leo didn't let me chat to Chrystalla for long – he kept fiddling with her display – but I decided to come back for a longer visit soon, and to bring my mother's silver hairbrush for repair in a workshop there.

We were all hungry by the time that we reached Maria's restaurant on the road to Vavatsinia, and we were the only customers in the huge, airy room that could easily seat 200. Lunch was fresh, local, and delicious, served by Maria herself, and we spun it out over a leisurely hour and a half enjoying the view over the valleys and lighthearted banter with the family.

Lunch at Maria's on the way to Vavatsinia.

The road home was a little faster as we knew the way, and the boys headed to the football pitch for a kick-around after sitting for so long in the car.

The local football pitch.

I had planned a visit to Limassol for the third day: a visit to the castle and the Turkish Quarter where I used to live in a cheap hostel, a walk along the water front and the old shopping street of Agios Andreas, but Sophia and Zenon were desperate to try ice-skating at My Mall, and, once there, I could not face the battle through town traffic again. I caved and we spent two-and-a-half hours at the mall. A leotard-and-floaty-skirt-clad ten year old (“I'm here skating for hours every single day!”) took all three under her wing, dispensing instructions and admonitions with pursed lips and plenty of head-tossing, and by the time we turned in the skates and headed for lunch, Sophia had mastered turns and skating backwards, Zenon was whipping around the rink – comfortable going forwards, but not yet able to turn, and Leo was fairly proficient. All three had a liberal ration of cuts and bruises, Sophia the worst off – a skate blade had cut her leg quite badly and she had also managed to run over her own thumb.

Skating at My Mall.

This little girl, fluent in Greek and American accented English helped Sophia, Zenon, and Leo to master their skates.

By the time we went for lunch, Sophia was getting pretty good and the others were comfortable.

We weren't sorry to get home later that afternoon. The holiday had served its multiple purposes – a break from routine, a celebration of the end of school – for now, a visit to hitherto unknown parts of the country. But plants needed to be watered and Alex had reported that the dog had been depressed since we had left. Time had come to pick up the threads again and begin the run to the Easter celebrations and Zenon's twelfth birthday.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Spirit of the Donkey

“I should have bought that trolley when I saw it,” Best Beloved muttered last Sunday morning. Accustomed to such rumbles, I contributed a “Yes, darling. Which trolley?” at some point, and was rewarded by: “A porter's trolley. Those things they use in English stations to heave trunks around!”

Of course. Why didn't I guess?

“We need to squeeze the mandoras today,” he continued (of course, Spirit of the Donkey lives). “And the steel tanks are too heavy for us to lift to the press...”

“A skateboard?” I suggested, remembering a useful solution to heavy moving in the past. “With some thick marine ply to distribute the weight?”

It looked like some homemade version of a miniature 1950's Cadillac, but the contraption got the job done, though it cornered with difficulty. We wheeled the fermenting mandoras through Alex's room (“I don't want that stinky stuff in here!”) to the big press set up outside his French doors, squeezed them, carted the peels up to the compost, and left the juice to some more fermenting.