“Your very vivid description of the house last week reminded me again why I NEVER wanted to own a house in the country (although I am very happy to have relatives and friends who do).”—Diana Farr Louis
Eating Well Is The Best Revenge
By Diana Farr Louis
ANDROS, Greece—(Weekly Hubris)—June 2019—“Your very vivid description of the house last week reminded me again why I NEVER wanted to own a house in the country (although I am very happy to have relatives and friends who do).”
So wrote a beloved Athenian niece when she finally heard from us after a long silence over the Easter break.
We hadn’t been able to get to our house in the Andros outback since late October, so we weren’t anticipating a pristine welcome. Still, the spectacle that greeted us surpassed expectations.
After a year of drought, in which the island’s rivers (Andros is the only Cycladic island that actually has rivers, waterfalls, and even a bottling plant) dried up and most people we knew had stopped flushing their loos and watering their gardens by July, the Aegean had a winter of torrential rains, gale-force winds, and even snow.
On the drive up from the port, we noticed hedges of wind-blasted oleanders and desiccated eucalyptus trees among the more sheltered swathes of emerald grasses and startling-bright yellow plots of wall-to-wall daisies.
Our own little acre looked lush, speckled with wildflowers and blanketed with thistles, more every year. Only the lemon tree reflected the dual qualities of the long winter: the rains had blessed it with hundreds of lemons, while the wind had stripped it of almost all its leaves. A thick layer of mud turned to clay covered half the terrace—or was it sand? —blown in from the Libyan desert?
Still, all the potted plants looked healthy and the apple tree was a mass of blossoms.
The fun started when we opened the door of our little house. We’d expected some damp; there are always some pretty yellow crystals bursting through the white paint on the south-facing wall. But this year, our kitchen (north-facing) wall had turned 50 shades of gray while the tile counters, the wooden cupboard doors, and the fridge were all coated with greasy black mold. More crystals had erupted on both sides of the fireplace and the bathroom had its share of mold, too. In fact, the wooden toilet seat had become ebony instead of pine.
I picked up the phone. Dead. Not even the usual crackling sound. “Joy of the People” (a literal translation of my husband’s name) checked the plug. Dripping wet. I turned on a faucet in the bathroom basin. A trickle of brownish liquid. At least the kitchen faucet trickled with more enthusiasm.
Four hours later, I’d managed to make the fridge and half the kitchen counters sparkle. So we then took time out and called our neighbor and good friend on our cell phone. We knew “Costa Fixit” would come to the rescue. And indeed, over the course of the next few days, he had sorted out the phone (whose plug was completely rusted) and used a magic pump to blow mud out of our plumbing so both communications and water were suddenly cleared.
I continued scrubbing surfaces—doors, windows, shelves—while JotP grabbed his hoe and started carving pathways through the thistles to the water tanks, compost heap, and downstairs room, creating a vegetation-free parking area for prospective guests, but making sure to respect the daisies, mallows, and our favorites, the slim elegant gladioli, so much more refined than their cultivated relatives. To my delight and surprise, when I finally had a moment to explore the property, they had gone walkabout and set up new colonies so that we have gone from three groups to nine in just one year.
But the joys of spring would have to be put on hold until we got my son’s room habitable. It has always been problematic since our illiterate (and sometimes lazy) builder decided to construct it employing a dry-stone wall with no cement. That we remedied early on, but water still gets in. So, the mattress was not merely damp but as sodden as if it had been floating in the sea all winter. We dragged it out into the sunshine, along with the bed frame, itself, and left the windows open by day and the dehumidifier on by night, hoping to rid the room of its appalling, musty odor. We had one week to get it right.
And we made it. Just. If we could have convinced the hibernating geckos to seek another habitat, it would have been perfect.
We had hoped to harvest some crops, the broad beans, leeks, spring onions, and potatoes we’d planted just before leaving in the fall. But they were barely enough to make a meal for two: 20 broad beans, three leeks, and two handfuls of potatoes, some pea-sized, others as big as ping-pong balls, while the onions were so straggly, nearly invisible among the weeds, that we left them to fatten.
For a proper meal or meals, we would have to wait till our friends arrived with their garden’s abundance: about 50 artichokes, a big bag of broad beans, spinach, lettuce, and a huge bottle of their own olive oil.
We always spend Easter with F & E, friends for as long as I’ve been in Greece, but sometimes I wonder why they’ve made it a habit. They work so hard, it can’t be a holiday. Besides putting up the awning over our sitting area, E always fixes whatever needs fixing—this time, the holey front-door screen, the lock, and my son’s bed, which collapsed during his first night in it. (We discovered that part of the wooden frame was actually particle board and had succumbed to mold and extra weight.) And E also takes charge of putting the lamb or kid on the spit. F, on the other hand, is always a huge help in the kitchen, fingers blackened and stiff from preparing too many artichokes, and is the queen of mageiritsa, Greek Easter soup, made with innards, spring onions, and dill.
So, by the time everyone arrived, we had a decent house and even real spring weather, not the English-type rain and gloom that have made this April truly the cruelest month, exacerbated by reports from London of temperatures in the 70s and full sunshine. And we were relaxed enough to enjoy them, play the ritual backgammon duels between E & JotP, eat too much, drink even more, nap, sit by the fire, and watch old James Bond movies on the telly.
It turned out that our timing was ideal. As the two weeks unfolded, so did the mauve irises, the white roses, the potted geraniums, and a host of other blooms. The apple tree went from full blossom to green, the lemon tree began to produce tiny reddish-brown spears that would eventually grow into green leaves, and the daisies continued to brighten our field. The downside was the blankets of thistles; in the sun, they rapidly expanded into thick prickly duvets, often blocking access to our olive trees, which this year show promise in the form of embryo flowers that ought to turn into fruit. (Last year, we had a record for our 28 trees of precisely one olive!)
For our last few days, JotP mounted a concerted attack on the thistles, but sometimes got distracted by his special foe, the giant fennels, which we have nicknamed triffids, as they seem to be sneaking up on the house, multiplying like rabbits.
Finally, despite all the work, we enjoyed almost every minute of our Easter break, which ended with the first Monday in May. Most of all, I am grateful that, even though we are no longer spring chickens, we still have the stamina and ability to cope with those myriad tasks, indoors and out, and that we have such wonderful friends to help us get by. And wouldn’t it be splendid if they happen to be around this summer to help us tackle the leaking roof, the rotting pergola beams, and the mottled kitchen wall?
Savoro, or Marinated Red Mullet
After our friends left, we were approached by a fisherman who has his own caïque. “How about some barbounia (red mullet)? Fresh from this morning’s nets.” How could we resist? The price was right, Grigoris would clean them, and so we bought some, more in fact than we could eat at one sitting. Which got us talking about Savoro, which JotP remembered from his childhood when fish were much more abundant and cheaper than they are now.
It’s a fascinating dish, that may hark back to Byzantium or even Rome, where sweet and sour, currants and vinegar, were a popular taste sensation. And it was a way of preserving fish long before the invention of the refrigerator. Shops in towns used to make it by the barrel and a friend once told me that the women of Ithaca used to ship it off—an earlier form of a CARE package—husbands and sons working on the Danube riverboats.
It can be made with any small fish that you’ve fried, not only red mullet, but also sardines or goppes or bogues, and is surprisingly good.
Assuming you know how to fry fish, I’ll only give the ingredients for the marinade.
For 2 pounds of fish, dredged in flour and fried in oil:
¼ cup (60 ml) olive oil
½ cup (50 g) black currants
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
a couple of sprigs of rosemary, chopped
1 tbsp black peppercorns
1 cup (240 ml) white vinegar
After you’ve fried the fish and eaten, say, half of them, drain them and let them cool, even overnight.
In a clean frying pan, heat the olive oil and saute the currants, garlic, rosemary, and peppercorns for 1 minute until the currants puff up. Pour in the vinegar. When it comes to the boil, add the fish and cook for one minute. Remove from the heat.
Pour the contents of the pan into a Pyrex or bowl, making sure the marinade covers the fish. Cover and keep in a cool place. This should stand at least 48 hours for the marinade to penetrate the flesh. It will keep for at least a month—or so they say; apparently it gets better and better, but I have never been able to wait that long.
Serve with slices of fresh brown bread and butter. About 4-6 servings.
This recipe was adapted from my book, Prospero’s Kitchen, and is a typically Ionian dish. It is also known in Venice as sardelle in saor.
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