Wednesday, 9 May 2012

On Grapes and a Growing Girth

Mihalis was once more waxing lyrical about plants when I talked to him the other evening. Having made his acquaintance very soon after we arrived here, so that would be almost seven years ago now, I was all of a sudden reminded of how soon the time passes.

He it was (you'll have come across him several times if you've read the books) who first used to give us fresh produce on a weekly basis until, having learned that we intended to try and grow some of our own food for ourselves, he switched from giving us his delicious kitchen-ready produce, to supplying us with seedlings and seeds, along with all the advice needed to make a success of growing them. My biggest trouble in the beginning was that he'd rattle on incomprehensibly and I'd have to hope that I'd picked up enough to get it right. Fortunately, in the early days my wife would step in with her interpretive skills to help out a bit.

Mihalis is probably ten years my junior, but owing to his lot in life he hasn't had the luxury which I've enjoyed of being able to look after himself as well physically. Raising a young son with his wife in Kalathos, he also lives not a stone's throw from his now-aged parents, whom he has to help on a daily basis (a very common situation on the islands), has a substantial plot of land around his house, all of which (with the exception of a few flowery borders that is) is given over to fruit and vegetable production. He keeps ducks, chickens and rabbits and also harvests olives from hundreds of family-owned trees every other November. For the six months of the tourist season, just for good measure, he works from 7.30am until 3.00pm seven days a week as a waiter in a hotel too. He's quite a busy man.

Growing things here it's important first to learn to do it the way the locals do. I am acquainted with several UK ex-pats who are in the habit of bringing seeds from the UK, or trying to follow a calendar of planting which is similar to that which they'd have followed back there, but this isn't a god idea in my opinion. The weather and the soil are both totally different, as are the growing seasons. Plus - and you can call me a bit paranoid here, but - I feel that it's not altogether a good idea for the local environment to be introducing flora from a different part of the planet. Who knows what effects it may have on the environment here in the long term?

Anyway, returning to my chat with Mihalis. As he talked enthusiastically about these courgette plants which he'd lovingly begun raising in nice, rich compost in their little individual plugs (small tomato puree cans! I know 'cos the labels are still on them), he thrust them at me as a gift while explaining exactly what I should to with them in order to be eating some almost marrow-sized fruit in just a few weeks. I told him I really would like him to give me some more of those "Fasolakia" (French beans) which he'd given me some years back. This was the time when we had endured "Hartley" trouble (Ch. 4, "Hares and Hosepipes", Tzatziki For You to Say) before eventually harvesting a bowlful of these deliciously tender slim green wonders every day for quite a few weeks.

I remembered that this variety of bean is best planted during the high summer months. "Isn't it August when you're meant to plant them?" I asked my horticultural advisor.

"No, no, Yianni, the first of July. You put them in on (as he pronounced it) 'Julie' one. Then Avgousto, in the middle, you cut your first beans." At this point he put his first finger and thumb to his mouth and kissed them away in that gesture that says 'yummy!' Once again I was struck by the quite specific day on which I ought to plant these beans. Not, "at about the beginning of July", but rather "July the first"!

I was looking at him with a deal of affection as he talked to me in his "Gre-nglish", which he seems to think I'll understand better, and thought how he'd physically changed since first I'd made his acquaintance. Back in 2005 he'd had a respectable head of hair. Now, most of what used to grow up top has receded to somewhere behind his crown and his girth is considerably larger than it had been then. In a funny sort of way, though, it suits him.

I was suddenly struck by the thought of the vines which he'd given me a few years ago, all of which I'd trimmed and planted according to instructions, or so I'd thought. But when I'd gone through the process of what I'd done with him he'd chided me on getting all kinds of details wrong and shook his head as if to say,"Oooh, I dunno. Maybe they'll survive. Maybe they won't." But they have. This year they've put on spectacular growth and, to our amazement, are sporting baby grapes in an almost respectable quantity. I felt the urge to tell him, since he'd often asked me how they were doing and I'd had to reply that, whilst they were alive, they hadn't given us a single grape. I'm glad I brought it up, since it elicited some more pearls of horticultural wisdom from him.

"Now" he said, an air of seriousness crossing his brow (you don't take such things with levity!), "you like dolmades? You know you can have dolmades without the meat."
"Yes, of course," I replied, "'Pseftikes' dolmades."

"Bravo Yianni, that's right. Well now, if you see the baby grapes it's time to trim the vines to encourage the grapes to fatten up." He now proceeded, with the evident enthusiasm of one who deeply loves these wonders of the creator's handiwork, to tell me how to run my fingers delicately along from the last bunch of fledgling grapes on any particular stem to the next growth of leaves and there to cut off the rest of the stem. This will send all the moisture and goodness into the grapes. Then he enlightened me as to why he'd mentioned dolmades. You never waste anything when you grow food in Greece. The cuttings are of course going to bear plenty of grapevine leaves - which you now trim from the stems to use in making dolmades. I had to admire the infinite, thrifty wisdom in all of this.

As if to remind me of this wisdom, the following day we had to go to Arhangelos to help Josie with her garden and there, right across the road from Josie's house, was a pair of old ya-yas up a ladder, trimming their vines from a canopy on their avli [terrace] which, apart from yielding them their annual grape harvest, also gave shade for a family car or two.

So today I've been out with my trusty secateurs (look closely and you can see the baby grapes, exciting or what?)...

1 comment:

  1. What a nice post as usual! At the moment in great britain it is raining - again.