“What is this life if, full of care
We have no time to stand and stare”
Or something very much like that. I guess the poet , William Henry Davies , knew what he was talking about and I’ve certainly come to appreciate this most sedentary of occupations of late. I’ve been toddling off to the groves to see to things, mostly the trimming out of dead wood from the trees, a little watering of the new “Nebbiola” grape vines we’ve planted, whilst Anne has stayed at home to murder the “Cretan Lurgy” with bleach. (The Cretan Lurgy is our name for the black mould that grows on one’s ceiling over the winter here if you’re “lucky” enough to have a property built by an engineer who thinks that a concrete roof is a good idea and has never read up on the benefits of insulation. For those of you that have the lurgy and don‘t know the remedy, can I suggest a paintbrush and neat bleach. Wear suitable protective clothing and keep the windows open.)
Having the freedom allowed by being out of sight of the boss has granted me a certain lassitude, and so “standing and staring” has become something of a hobby just lately. Still, I pretend to be worn out when I get home, which say’s something I guess about the casual dissemblance one gets into after nearly 30 years of marriage! Not that I’m fooling anybody.
The groves are quiet at the moment. The picking season is well and truly over, the fertiliser is spread, the major pruning is done and the weed control ( if you use herbicides-which we don’t) is over, At other times we can hear the conversations of other farmers across the valley and their machinery at work, but now we are entering the summer the company we’ll keep is with nature. Hence, I guess, the propensity to stand and stare. It starts with the bees. We’ve a bee man close to us who, at certain times of the year ,relocates his hives to a plot close to our groves. He moves the hives about so that his bees are always where there are wild plants in flower. When the bees arrive at their new stamping ground the first thing they do is go on an extended “recce” of the surrounds. You can tell that’s the mode they’re in because they come out in great swarms, hugging the ground and identifying the flowers, but they don’t stop to feed. The data about the best places then gets taken back to the hive and communicated in that weird an unfathomable dance they do at the hive’s entrance. After a couple of days they’ve got it all sorted out and the pollen gathering begins in earnest. (Is this the best honey in the world? Probably.)
The effect on me is interesting. I’m there, pruning away, lost in a very pleasant world of my own, when suddenly my subconscious pipes up. “Hey”, it says, “what’s all that buzzing?” It usually happens around three in the afternoon, which tells me that the bees keep to some sort of schedule. The noise is really something. It’s truly amazing how thousands of bees arriving on their hunting expedition all at once can command the attention. I’ve never been frightened of buzzy things, ever since when a child back in England a six year old girl who lived in our cul-de-sac showed me how she could catch a bumble bee in her hand and it wouldn’t sting her, and I’m a big fan of honey so thousands of bees going about their business is nothing but good news. Except, as I find a branch to sit on and enjoy just listening to this lovely cacophony of industry, nothing is getting done.
Then there’s the view. Back home we lived in a very pleasant avenue of 1920’s houses, but all we could see out of the windows was a very pleasant avenue of 1920’s houses (and our neighbours washing their cars). One of the reasons we bought our olives was the view. We can see for miles in most directions. Firstly there’s the macro view, across the valley to the village of Agios Georgios. It’s an area renowned for the health giving properties of it’s natural springs and the water thereof gives life to deciduous trees, which give us autumn colour that is reminiscent of Blighty, and to cypress which spire upwards in a very Tuscan way from the deep clefts in the mountainsides where there is more water in the summer. Then there are the distant views. To the south the mountains grow in height towards the south coast of the island, layering one on another as they go, growing greyer and more misty, the odd church in pristine white picking itself out here and there, built on the mountain tops so as to be closer to God. To the north, the valley weaves down to the sea at Sitia, spur after spur of olive grove covered hillsides interlinking until they meet the blue of the sea. You just can’t help but stand and stare. And stare. Then take time out to stare a bit more. There’s always something to catch the eye and keep you from the job in hand.
For selfish reasons I guess I shouldn’t wax lyrical about Sitia and it’s environs. We few Brits who live here like to think it’s our little secret. It’s a farming community with it’s economy , and I guess it’s soul ,rooted deep in the red earth and the traditions, music, drinking habits, family values and hospitality of old Crete. The last of the Minoans ended up here, the mountains in between Sitia and Agios Nikolaus acting as a barrier between them and the rest of the world then as they do know, so I guess the genetic and possibly even the socio-cultural embers of that particular fire of civilisation still exist here. Like all small places, it has it’s share of small mindedness and gossip, but it’s a place that majors in generosity, especially -as is so often the case- from those who haven’t much to be generous with. It’s also a place that is not too far removed from the days when most of it’s inhabitants were self sufficient, living off the land and it’s bounty. Most people grew their own food and olives, made their own wine and raki, kept a few hens and a goat, collected snails and gathered mountain greens. Many still do. It’s a way of life that has gone out of fashion but is almost certainly the way of life that created the legendary longevity of the Cretans.
A few days back Anne and I arrived at one of our groves only to find some people wandering about with little knives in their hands and bags of green stuff which they’d obviously been picking. Now an English farmer would be reaching for his shotgun and shouting “git orf moi laarnd” but here in Crete there isn’t much in the way of trespass law, quite rightly, and anyway we had no idea what they were picking so if they hadn’t it would have gone to waste. As it turns out one of the group was Malarmo, a delightful lady who once lived in Australia and consequently speaks English. They were picking wild asparagus. When she showed me the vegetable in question, and told me how my groves were full of the stuff, I privately wondered how come I had never seen any before. Of course, the reason is I’m too slow. The same is true of the little yellow narcissus with the beautiful scent. We once met an old lady on the groves with three carrier bags full of them that she‘d gathered “up there“ (I.e. on “ower laarnd“). We‘ve never seen one of those either, being in all probability too late! We guess she was about 90 and probably knows within a day or so when anything good to eat or otherwise worth having appears in the countryside and where it is to be found. And good luck to her. We often ponder the enormous wealth of knowledge of their surroundings that these elder Cretans have and wonder what will become of it as the younger generations head for a different and newer life in the cities. I guess we might one day find that no-one has picked the wild asparagus, and I guess that might be a sad day, marking the passing of an age and a way of life.
As I write the olives are becoming heavy with their millions of tiny white flowers, the branches starting to bend a little with the extra weight. Olives carry an abundance of flowers, but only about 5% of them eventually become fruit. They are wind pollinated rather than insect pollinated, so one rarely sees the bees taking an interest. The olive tends to bear fruit in alternative years and this year, barring climactic or other disaster, should bring a heavy crop. Certainly those of our trees which had little or no fruit last year are covered in flower now. In an abundant year the olives weigh so heavily on the branches that the tree assumes the habit of a weeping willow, elegantly sagging under the weight. Our best tree last year yielded 100kg of olives, so you can understand the forces at work.
Some of those olives we hand picked to preserve for eating. To do this, soak the olives in fresh water for about ten days, changing the water daily. Then soak them in brine, using about 100grams of salt for each litre or so. After a few weeks, (having kept an eye on them and changed the brine when murky or if mould threatens), have some fun with flavourings. We’ve put our olives in jars of oil, adding bay leaves, peppercorns, coriander seeds, rosemary, chilli flakes, salt and dried thyme. We reckon they’re the best in the world, but of course we are a little biased!