My Good Life, Agros, Cyprus

My Good Life,  Agros, Cyprus
My village childhood food
By Mark(os) Dymiotis ©

My interest in and appreciation of food started after my migration to Australia in 1974. It was at this time that I started tracing my childhood culinary pleasures, which, as a child, I had taken for granted. The memories of the actual cooking and other activities are distant, but the memory of flavours and fragrances is vivid and intense. Tracing and reconstructing them is difficult but not impossible. Melbourne’s similar climatic conditions to Greece and the presence of many Greeks who have maintained many of their traditions make this task attainable. My interest in growing fruit and vegetables naturally is also helpful. In the following pages I will share with you my childhood culinary journey and various aspects of life in the village.

The Village

Agros village

The village

Agros (meaning field), the village where I was born and grew up, is high in the mountains of Cyprus, with an altitude of 1,100 metres and a population of just over 800 in 2011 – down from 1,500 in the early 1950s. The region’s name is Pitsilia and was known as an impoverished area but one with tasty fruit and vegetables and hard working people. The village is the regional centre with a small hospital, a secondary school, a police station, a post office and regional administration as well as the district’s agricultural services. In summer the cool dry climate of the village attracted many visitors that swelled the population to well over 2000. Electricity came to the village relatively early, in 1948 – four years before the electrification of rural Cyprus started in 1952. In 1962 Agros was connected to the national grid.

It was a local entrepreneur (Vrasidas Irinarchos) who brought a generator to the village that provided electricity from dusk to midnight. He was our next-door neighbour. Two of his sons were my age and both helped their father. I often helped them and in the process I have learnt a few things electrical. It is not surprising that when it came to university studies I wanted to study electrical engineering but because my older brother was already studying for this, I opted for civil engineering. Two other brothers became electricians.

Domestic water supply was introduced early in the 1950s. Each house had a large tank (about 200 lt) for water storage. It was filled up by a small flow of one “sakorafi” (a packing needle) of water – as the locals called it.

Opposite our house at the base of the cliff is the famous for its digestive water Kaourou spring. Locals as well as visitors fill up containers for their drinking water. The spring was also known for its cool water in summer and warm in winter. However, it was our sensory feelings that were changing – not the water temperature.

Before the Second World War, many people from the village migrated to the capital, Nicosia. Post WW II many more migrated overseas, the majority moving to Melbourne, London and Stockholm. I left the village in 1960 for my university studies in Greece, after which I became a city dweller.

My House

My House, divided in two for Heraklis and Haralambos

The village is nestled in an open area ringed by mountaintops, giving the area the feel of a large open amphitheatre. A few creeks that create small cultivated valleys run through the village, dividing Agros into three neighbourhoods – the upper (Pano) on higher ground, the middle (Mesa) and the further (Pera) on lower ground. The village has an elongated shape and the main road, stretching over 2 km, meanders through it from one end to the other, crossing over a few creeks. Off the main road are several alleys, lanes and even pathways accessing the houses. The close proximity of the houses, and the large families, created communities buzzing with life. On the crest of  the middle neighbourhood is the centre of the village  – with a few kafenia (coffee shops) that were frequented by men, a small supermarket owned by the village cooperative that also operated a small banking service, two tailors, two barber shops, two shoemakers, a blacksmith and two butcher shops that were open mainly on weekends.

On the east is a mountain ridge called Papoutsa (meaning large shoe) that is the third highest in Cyprus. Although not visible from the village, the second highest mountaintop, Madari, is about 10 km away to the north while the highest mountain, Troodos, is another 15 km further to the north-west. Our house faces east and every morning we watched the sunrise coming over the Papoutsa ridge.

The ridge to our north looks higher only because it is closer. On the west there is a lower ridge and to the south, at a distance, there are several even lower ridges with three villages hidden in the valleys that are less than an hour’s walk from Agros. Behind the distant mountains to the south is the coastal town of Limassol, about 40 km away.

My House (from a distance)

My House (from a distance)

Dry stonewall terraces dominate the scenery. Along the creek beds are the irrigated terraced orchards and vegetable-growing plots while on higher land, circling the village, are terraced non-irrigated vineyards. There are not many forest trees around the village but the scenery around the mountain tops is dominated by rocky outcrops and latzia bushland, Quercus alnifolia, which, if not harvested for fuel and goat fodder can grow to a tree. Latzia seems to be unique to Cyprus. Below the Latzia bushland is low-level vegetation dominated by rock roses (called xistarka), Cistus villosus creticus.

Occasionally, in winter, during heavy rain, a dry stone wall would collapse. Sometimes it happened at night and the loud but very distinctive noise woke us up. The following day, with curiosity, we asked around whose terrace wall it was. In a village where many people were routinely working out in the fields it was not a difficult task. The collapsed wall was quickly rebuilt with the help of the extensive network of relatives and friends who helped each other.

In winter, it snowed – sometimes so much that the school would close. Getting a shovel to open a path to outdoor areas gave us a sense of achievement and satisfaction. Usual activities on days like these included playing with the snow, making snowballs and a snowman, and catching birds (using grain seeds, a sieve and a rope) for a soup or to grill over the hot embers. Sometimes, the snow did not cover the lower parts of the Pera neighbourhood and I wondered how this could happen.

My brothers

My brothers – from left Haralambos, Petros, Heraklis and me

Family and life in the village

I was the youngest in the family of six boys: Nikolas (13 years older than me), Haralambos, Andreas, Heraklis, and Petros. My father’s name was George – he died at the age of 82 – and my mother’s Kyriaki – she died at the age of 92.

My father was a carpenter but the produce from our fields was a substantial part of our revenue. In the 1950s, in order to supplement the family income, he worked in the city as a kitchen hand.

According to my brothers I was spoilt.  When I didn’t like the food of the day my mother cooked my special fast food dish – potato chips. Occasionally she turned them into an omelette by breaking our home produced fresh eggs straight into the frying pan. Brother Andreas liked this dish very much.

Throughout the year there was continuous work in producing, harvesting and preserving food. Our small pieces of land were scattered all around the village and moving up and down the steep hills was hard work in itself.

 

 

From an early age I was not very keen on working out in the fields and always tried to avoid as much work as I could get away with. Having said that, I still did a lot of work. The seeds for my belated interest in horticulture must have been sown then. There were no strawberriesin our area but a neighbour acquired some plants and gave us a handful of them. For some reason I showed a special interest in them. I very quickly observed the development of the strawberry runners and with nurturing and care I managed to multiply them. It was with immense pleasure and pride that I passed my young plants to others.

Preparing verigo grapes for the market

Preparing verigo grapes for the market

As a result of taking good care of our grapes, we often got higher prices from the wholesalers. We did not use much of the modern chemicals so we had to go through each bunch for damaged grapes and cut them out with scissors. Our boxes were full with quality produce from top to bottom.

We learnt a lot from our parents and from working in the fields with them. I even learnt how to build a small dam. Every spring my mother would build one in a small creek using stones, gravel, sand, silt and bushy vegetation. It lasted the long dry summer collecting the small quantity of water from a nearby spring.

During severe droughts, which occur frequently in Cyprus, the spring would dry up. On such occasions, instead of building a dam we dug a hole downstream in the creek’s bed and bucketed the water 10 metres up the cliff for the weekly watering of the tomatoes. The following day my mother would send me to lightly dig the soil to get rid of the weeds. When, the following week, she asked me to do the same I pointed out that there were no weeds. She sent me anyway, explaining that the light digging makes the water last longer. (The science: the air in the freshly dug soil acts as an insulator protecting against evaporation.)

The primary school was another source of learning. It had established a vegetable patch and the teachers taught us various aspects of horticulture, including grafting and budding.

Every family in the village had animals. The usual ones were a donkey for transport; a few goats for milk but also for meat; and, chickens for eggs and meat. After the kids were born, we developed affection for them and treated them as pets but without giving them names. When at Easter or other celebrations one or more kids disappeared our parents gave us an excuse and everything was quickly forgotten.

Although it did not mean much to me at the time, I had my first sex education lesson during my boyhood. Early one morning my mother gave me some money and asked me to take one of our goats to a house on the outskirts of the village. It was only when I arrived there that I realised the purpose of the visit – for the billygoat to service our nanny-goat.

I do not know where my father got the know-how, but he made an incubator. We quickly learnt its operation and we used it well. Watching the chicks hatching was a special experience accompanied with immense satisfaction and pride for our achievement.

My eldest brother, Nikolas, has some interesting recollections. One day my mother sent him to a remote field for a small job. She also gave him a small basket to bring home some apricots that had just started to ripen. On his return my mother asked him “Where are the apricots?” His reply: “I ate them on the way home!”

On another occasion my mother prepared the ingredients for one of our favourite but rarely cooked dish called entrada: chicken carved in small pieces, cooked in plenty of water with potatoes and celery for a soup and finished with beaten eggs and plenty of lemon juice. As on other occasions she entrusted Nikolas, who must have been in his early teenage years at the time, to cook it for lunch for my brothers and the family dinner. “Where is the soup?” my mother asked him, as soon as she arrived home after the usual hard day’s work. “We ate it,” he replied – a testimony to the exquisite and appetising flavour of this dish. Since then I have recreated this dish without any difficulty – minus the flavour of the home raised chooks. Nikolas must have learnt a lot about food from my mother’s cooking. No wonder he spent his whole working life with food.

Based on Nikolas’ account I must have been born with a strong sense of my rights. I was about two years old when on the way home he took me off his shoulders. After a few steps I asked him to pick me up again and I started crying. He eventually gave in but I indicated to him the place where he took me off his shoulders and that he should pick me up from there. Nikolas migrated to Australia in 1951 and as I was hardly an eight year-old boy at the time, I barely remembered him. But as soon as I arrived in Australia he had stories to recount.

Nikolas also recalls that he had to look after me as a child; I was born with an acute hernia and when I coughed Nikolas would place his hand on it. I grew up learning to cope with this condition by avoiding hard work and the lifting of heavy objects. It was only at the age of 60 that the hernia reappeared necessitating an operation.

In those days most of the work was out in the fields – not as much domestic work as nowadays. Still, even for a hard working person like my mother and with 6 boys without a girl it was a struggle to cope with domestic work. While Nikolas was helping with the cooking, I used to help my mother with stretching and folding the bed sheets and sweeping and mopping the floor – down on my knees with a wet rag. One domestic chore that my mother never did was ironing. There was not much need for it anyway. Petros recalls that it was a common practice for trousers, instead of ironing, to be placed under the mattress. Andreas came to the rescue some times but very often our next-door neighbour’s daughters helped with this job. It is no surprise that Heraklis got married to one of these girls. However, in line with traditional values it was matchmaking organised by an aunt. Whereas Nikolas, from distant Australia, had asked our parents in the mid 1950s to send him a wife from the village.

Produce

The main saleable produce of the village was grapes, wine, potatoes and nuts (almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts). Apart from figs, pears and apples that were grown for our own use, there was a large variety of both usual and unusual fruit.

We grew a lot of what we needed but we had to buy wheat or flour and other necessities including olive oil. We often exchanged our produce for wheat with family friends from a village in the plains. Also, one of my uncles in Nicosia often sent us mandarins, oranges, lemons, eggplants and okra. In springtime he even sent us tomato seedlings for an earlier start to overcome our cold climate. In return we supplied him with our produce.

This uncle left the village long before I was born. He lived on the outskirts of Nicosia next to Pedieos river, the largest in Cyprus but in name only. In summer the river is dry and in winter it doesn’t always flow. My uncle was a restaurateur on weekdays and a hobby farmer on weekends. He extended the normal village crops to include warm climate ones such as many citrus fruits, loquats and prickly pears. The prickly pears had a special sweet aromatic flavour and my uncle showed me how to harvest and peel them without touching the tiny but very nasty thorns. A windmill on his property gave him access to the river’s aquifer. The water was pumped in a small reservoir with fish in it. I always looked with excitement and curiosity at the windmill and the fish. I enjoyed very much the oranges and especially the mandarins. On the rare occasion I went to the city I stayed with him and his wife. They did not have children and they looked after us well.

Two other uncles in Nicosia had grocery shops and when they visited us – perhaps twice or three times a year – they brought us, among other things, tins of fish. Living away from the coast, we appreciated these very much. My mother stored them safely and we had them as a special treat – often eaten with the usual vegetable salads but occasionally with a legume salad. They sometimes brought Australian butter in tins. We spread it on bread for breakfast.

The cold climate of the area did not allow for watermelons or cantaloupes but city visitors would bring us some. Every now and then, a truck would arrive in the village full of watermelons. We bought at least half a dozen at a time. Provided they were not bruised and kept whole in a cool place they lasted well. For best results, unlike the ice-cream scoops used today, we always used a large sharp knife to avoid bruising and wastage and the chopping of the watermelon was done just before eating.

My father used to tell an anecdote about a traveller who stopped at an inn and asked for something for himself and his donkey. He was served watermelon – the flesh for him and the thick skin for the donkey.

Verigo grape vine pergolas across the creek from our house

As it is customary in Cyprus and the Mediterranean, grape vine pergolas grace practically all the houses in the village. They provide shade in summer for comfortable outdoor living and grapes in autumn. The very typical and perhaps unique to Cyprus grape variety that is grown on the pergolas is verigo – a table hard grape that transports and stores well. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the name of the grapes comes from British visitors who praised these grapes saying “very good” which the locals misheard as verigo. We envied the verigo of the house across the creek from our house. He was the most successful grower in the village and his extensive network of pergolas together with his increased production provided him with a substantial income.

Food and flavours

I grew up eating a lot of vegetables. Never mind that my mother would have seriously questioned this statement. As a child, among other things, I did not like okra, silver beet and beetroot and I used to remove them from the plate.

As with other Greeks, when it came to food, we went for enjoyment. We never talked about healthy food, nutrients, celebrities or master chefs and there were no food labels. Yet, as it turned out, we were practising the healthy Mediterranean diet. As with the rest of the Mediterranean people, our parents were the master creators and practitioners of this diet.

While nowadays even famous chefs use stock extensively, our cooking did not require such additions. Good flavour came from the freshness of our produce, the combination of ingredients during cooking and eating, the naturally grown fruit and vegetables in season and from our own herbs and spices. The customary eating of bread and olives with most dishes brought additional flavours. An extra bonus was that the soil and climatic conditions in our region made for very flavoursome produce. Our region was renowned in Cyprus for this. City shops marked the origin of our produce as a special attraction.

Additional flavours often came from the lengthy slow cooking of some dishes such as legume and some vegetable dishes and from the use of olive oil (called virgin nowadays). The importance of cooking vegetables well is emphasised by an anecdote from Crete. One of my interviewees recalls that when the vegetables were not cooked well her grandfather would tell his wife, “Are you feeding me with goat’s food?”

We learnt from a young age that the best flavour comes from mature fruit. We became skilled in identifying maturity very quickly, just by looking at the fruit from a distance. It saved us from climbing the trees unnecessarily.

If my family did not grow a certain variety of fruit our relatives or neighbours would have it. The large families of neighbours and relatives provided a large network of children to access such trees.

Strangely, I have a fond memory of our long radishes that had a strong hot bite and were very appetising. They were eaten either in salads – including the inside tender leaves – but more often plain to accompany other food. After many years of searching for seeds of these radishes I have recently located them and I will plant them in autumn.

My mother cooked beetroot with pork and home grown celery and tomatoes which provide a much better flavour than the commercially grown celery and tomatoes. As usual, I ate the meat and the celery but not the beetroot. I have now managed to reconstruct this recipe.

However, the most common way of eating beetroot is to cook them in their skins, peel them and have them as a salad. It is also common to cook the beetroot leaves with their stalks and eat them on their own as a salad. Beetroot is often combined with boiled potatoes for a salad. Most importantly, beetroot and garlic, chopped in large pieces, are perfect partners.

Cauliflower, although not used extensively, had a special place in our diet. There are a few distinctly different ways and flavours associated with it. The easiest way is to cut it to pieces, squeeze some lemon and have it raw. Another is to boil it briefly and dress it with lemon and olive oil and eat it as a salad. Blanching cauliflower provides two more options with completely different flavours: Sautee the blanched cauliflower with or without small potatoes and cook them with tomato sauce and olive oil; or, preserve it in fermented plain flour batter (without milk or eggs) adding mustard-seeds.

A popular legume dish, especially favoured by brother Heraklis, was moutzientralentils and rice cooked with the absorption method and finished with plenty of fried onion in olive oil and a generous dressing of lemon. It was always accompanied by a salad.

By today’s standards, some of our practices are now regarded as unhealthy. But, as a senior research nutritionist specialising in the Mediterranean diet in one of Australia’s leading universities says, the diet must be looked at in its totality. She points to the consumption of large quantities of fresh produce, especially green leafy vegetables, legumes and genuine bread that is eaten without any spread and to the drinking of water instead of soft drinks.

The utensils we used were very simple: one glass for wine, water and tea; a fork or a spoon; and a plate. We very rarely used a knife at the table. On the few occasions we had meat, the pieces were small and we could eat them without much cutting. The bony pieces of meat were often eaten using our hands.

Bread was eaten regularly and provided the bulk of our diet – for breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack. Our bread (called sourdough nowadays) was either homemade or from the village bakery. It was plain but tasty and was made with wheat flour, water, salt and a piece of dough from the previous bread making which acted as the rising agent. The bread loaves were made in the old fashioned round shape. Whenever my mother sent me to the bakery to buy bread she always urged me – to no avail – not to eat chunks of the crusty edge.

Our bread lasted at least a week. The best taste came from two, even three or four days old bread. Eventually it became hard but we soaked it in water or, as it is customary, we dipped it in the food’s juices. Occasionally, one of our student boarders from a neighbouring village brought a loaf of homemade barley bread. It was heavy but it had a wonderful flavour. Others in the family were not keen on this bread but I loved it. For variety, we occasionally used to make speciality breads – pumpkin bread, pumpkin pastries, cheese bread, olive bread (with whole olives that included the pits for extra flavour), terebinth (Pistacia terebinthus) seeds bread and bread with crackling. Rusks, called paximadia, made by extra baking of freshly baked bread, was another way of eating bread.

Bread was always on the table, without any spread or toasting, and unlike other food we did not have to wait for it to be served. For shy children like myself, eating bread was an easy way to fill my stomach when visiting friends and relatives. Apart from dipping bread in the food’s juices we also used it to mop up our plate.

Legumes Our main meals were primitive and simple – usually consisting of legumes that are also known as pulses (many types of beans such as cannellini and borlotti, black eye beans, lentils, broad beans, chick peas and split peas). Bread, olives and possibly a salad or plain vegetables and often raw onion always accompanied legumes. One of the simplest legume dishes was black eye beans cooked with silver beet and served as a salad. Despite their simplicity, legume dishes were delicious.

Potatoes were a big part of our diet and we cooked them in many different ways. We learnt from an early age to protect potatoes from light, especially sunlight, to prevent them from becoming green which makes them poisonous. Nothing was wasted. The tiny little potatoes were washed well, a small incision was made on each potato and were then fried whole and finished with crushed coriander seeds and wine. Larger, but still small, potatoes were boiled in their skins and when they cooled down a little, they were peeled and chopped to small sizes for a salad. The typical dressing for this salad was diced onion and garlic and continental parsley. Depending on the season, other ingredients for the potato salad could range from tomatoes, cucumbers, celery, radishes, purslane, fresh coriander and rocket.

Olives, preserved in brine (about 10% strength) without changing the water, were eaten frequently and were another flavour enhancing for the non-animal derived food. In Cyprus, however, olives are often preserved in their own juice that comes out when coarse salt is added to the olives that are turned in their jars daily. Olives were never eaten on their own. A small olive or part of a large one was eaten with each mouthful. As with bread, olives were on the table for self-service. We only spiced the crushed green olives with parsley, garlic, crushed coriander seeds, lemon and olive oil. Black and shrivelled olives were not spiced.

Cheese Sometimes, instead of olives, there was cheese on the table – always our own goat’s cheese, called haloumi. However, unlike western practices, where biscuits are a means of eating cheese, our cheese bite was very small acting as flavouring for the much larger bites of bread and vegetables.

Salads, were a very big part of our daily diet. They were on the table with practically every meal. As with the rest of Greek households, there was no cheese or olives in our salads. The ingredients were chopped in a deep bowl and dressed with salt, lemon or vinegar and olive oil followed by a thorough mixing – without which salads do not develop their superb flavours. Salads were often eaten as a light meal with bread and olives and only occasionally with cheese. The addition of olives and cheese in the salads is a modern restaurant tradition.

Breakfast, depending on the time of the year and on the availability of ingredients, could range from soups (trahana, lentil, split pea or any other leftover soup) eaten with bread and olives; fruit of the season such as watermelon, grapes or tomatoes were also eaten with bread and olives or haloumi cheese.

Snacks could consist of bread, vegetables or fresh fruit and olives or haloumi cheese; dried fruit (raisins or figs) or nuts (walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts) or a combination of dried fruit and nuts. Occasionally, dried fruit and nuts were eaten with bread.

Lunch and dinner meals were virtually the same. Typical meals consisted of legumes or pasta, rice and potato dishes that were always eaten with bread, salads and olives or cheese.

Meat was eaten rarely (once a week and usually less than that) and the portions were very small compared to today’s practices and always served with cooked vegetables and / or a salad. There were no special cuts other than carving the animal (including the bones) into small pieces. Cooked like this, the meat dishes developed extra flavour. Ever since I can remember I was very finicky in removing even small traces of fat from the meat.

Alcoholic drinks (grappa first, if it was consumed and wine after) were always consumed with formal or informal meals but never on their own. There was no fuss with children having a little wine but our parents always advised us to have a bite of food immediately after a sip of wine, to “push the drink” down. As for grappa, one sip was enough to put me off it. On Wednesdays and Fridays, as well as other special fasting times, no alcohol was consumed. It is unfortunate that many Greeks have now accepted common western practices and have abandoned this custom and instead have alcohol without food.

Drinks Fresh water was our most substantial drink. Our teas were made from our own dried herbs – usually sage, mint and elderberry. There were no soft drinks. Although fruits were plentiful, there were no fruit juices. Occasionally, we had a cup of hot milk with breakfast. Alas, soft drinks as well as lollies, made their way to the village in my teenage years.

Desserts had no big place in our diet. If there was dessert it was usually fruit but in view of the fact that we often had fruit straight from the tree we did not miss the dessert. Other desserts included pancakes made with plain batter (flour, water and salt) eaten hot with our home-made epsima (reduced grape must) and finger-sized pastries with crushed almonds or with ricotta cheese fillings, dressed with honey syrup.

It was the enemy that introduced me to biscuits and modern sweets! I was finishing primary school when the four-year guerilla war for independence of Cyprus from colonial rule and for union with Greece broke out in 1955. There was a small British military unit in the village based next to an uncle’s house. Whenever I visited this uncle the soldiers gave us cracker biscuits, chocolates and other sweets. I was impressed by how much the crackers swelled when dipped in milk or tea. This generosity was the good side of the army. As I have learnt many years later our village was a major centre of activity hosting many secret hideouts both in houses and on the rough terrain in remote places. It was also at this time that I first saw helicopters. I marvelled at them but whenever the helicopters were seen on the horizon a curfew followed. It is believed that Agros was the first and last place in Cyprus to experience curfews. The men, including boys as young as me were gathered at the football ground or in the churchyard – in a barbed wire enclosure – and some of them were taken away for interrogation. My next-door neighbour was arrested and taken away several times. Even his 13-year-old son made news headlines when he was arrested and detained for a few days for a questionable suspicion. Following an incident not very far from our house, soldiers came at night to search our house. It was very frightening when a soldier pointed his gun at me from a close distance demanding to tell him who the perpetrators were. I did not even know that something had happened.

Fasting

Fasting is a big part of the diet and it is practised for a large part of the year. It consists of abstention from all animal-derived foods. On some days the abstention includes olive oil and alcohol. Added together, the fasting days are about half of the year.

The Pascha (Easter) fasting starts seven weeks before Pascha. During the first and final week (Holy Week) fasting is stricter as there is no consumption of olive oil and alcohol. However, fish is allowed on the 25 March, Annunciation day; and, on Palm Sunday.

The Christmas fasting lasts six weeks starting on November 15 and finishing on December 24. It is less strict than the Easter fasting as fish is allowed on many days.

For the two weeks before August 15, Assumption day, there is normal fasting.

The period before June 28, St Apostles day, the fasting, depending on the time of Easter, could last from zero to thirty days.

Other fasting days are: the day before Holy Theophany on January 5; the Beheading of St John the Baptist on August 29; and the Holy Cross day on September 14.

On Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year – with minor exceptions – in addition to the normal fasting, there is abstention from olive oil and alcohol.

Did everybody follow this fasting? In those days, a large number, especially women, did, but parents often made an exception for the children. But, despite the exception, parents did not cook meat dishes for us. The only animal-derived food children had during fasting was occasional use of cheese or eggs and a glass of milk.

Spring

Easter, the highlight of the Greek calendar, is associated with spring. There were many customs and traditions to follow before, during and after Easter – many of which were associated with food.

For a few weeks before Easter the strongest of the older teenage boys were busy roaming the fields looking for tree stumps that they collected and stored near the church for the Easter bonfire. The younger of us often watched how they struggled to roll the heavy stumps, very often on difficult terrain. Most of the people did not mind having their tree stumps and odd pieces of wood taken but some did and they created a fuss or went through the pile to take their wood back to their fields.

Holy Week was a very busy time: Church Services every morning and evening, spring cleaning, cooking and dyeing the Easter eggs using wild madder (Rubia tinctorum, called rizari in Cyprus) that we collected from the fields, and bread making. Starting a few days earlier and culminating on Good Friday the Holy Sepulchre was decorated. For this task, we collected myrtle (Myrtus communis, called mersyni in Cyprus and myrtia in Greece), wild lavender (Lavandula stoechas, called myrofores in Cyprus and levanta in Greece) and other local wild flowers. The Holy Sepulchre provided a beautiful and aromatic spectacle. The Good Friday evening lamentation Service around the Holy Sepulchre was very melodic and often chanted by us children especially trained by the priest.

On Holy Saturday we made the very traditional flaounes – pies with a filling consisting of cheese, eggs and local herbs, especially fresh mint. My mother added sultanas to the flaounes, which created a very special flavour. The aroma of freshly baked flaounes was very strong and although it was a fasting day – the last one – I constantly pleaded with my mother to let me taste them. Sometimes she did.

Our outdoor oven – under cover to protect the oven and us from the rain – was used extensively during Holy Week. Neighbours and relatives used it for their bread and other bakery products. On Easter Sunday, as well as on other festive occasions, the oven was fired for our, the neighbours’ and relatives’ traditional roast – goat meat chopped to serving sizes (usually small pieces) with whole potatoes with a slit on them for easier cooking, onion, lard and bay leaves.

Holy Week culminated with the Midnight Divine Liturgy when everybody went to church. The big moment was at twelve o’clock when the priest chanted, “Christ is risen.” At the same time, the holy light that had just been lit, was distributed in a chain-like fashion to the candles held by the congregation, providing a majestic spectacle. It was customary to bring the holy light home. Carrying the burning candle home in the cold and often windy weather was a challenge.

Just before chanting, “Christ is risen”, the priest would ask the congregation whether everybody was present. On the rare occasion someone was absent, people would be sent to bring the missing person(s) or take care of them if they were sick. Cynics would argue otherwise. Those absent might be up to no good i.e. stealing while everybody was in church.

The trahana soup that was eaten after the Midnight Service was the best. My mother could not give me an answer as to why it was so. Our long fast before Easter might have had something to do with it or the rooster stock might have been better at this time of the year. I still do not know.

Easter Sunday was the beginning of festive activities. Although the food on the table was less compared to today’s standards it was plentiful and very tasty. Our parents continuously reminded us not to eat too many flaounes and Easter eggs (real eggs) so that they do not upset our stomach – something that was difficult to observe after the long fasting.

Following the Easter Sunday Service there were several activities to lift the sombre spirit of Holy Week. After kissing the icons and the hand of the priest, the first person stood next to the priest. The second person, after kissing the icons and the priest’s hand, shook hands with the first person and greeted him saying “Christ is risen” to which the first person replied “He is risen indeed” and stood next to him. By the time the last person went through this process a large chain was formed. This custom has an interesting dimension. As it often happens, there are conflicts between people, including relatives and neighbours, where they do not speak to each other. Everybody knew who is not speaking to whom and watched with interest whether they would shake hands. They normally did. When this process was over, group games took place in the churchyard. After the games everybody went home for the Easter feast.

Saint John the Baptist Church

The Easter Monday Service was held in a smaller church at the other end of the village – Saint John the Baptist Church. After the Service, it was customary for the people of this neighbourhood to invite their friends and relatives from the other parts of the village. On Easter Tuesday the Service took place at Saint Mary’s church at the lower end of the Pano neighbourhood (very close to our house) and it was our turn to reciprocate the invitation for lunch.

After a lengthy absence from fresh fruit, cherries were the first to arrive in May and it was time to exercise our tree climbing skills. We ate them fresh, but others in the village also used them for making jam. Loquats (Mespilus japonica, mespila in Greek) were another early spring fruit. There were not many loquat trees but we had access to one belonging to a relative.

 

Many plum trees were found all around the village with a large variety of shapes, flavours and colours to choose from. We enjoyed them and often ate a lot despite the consequences – they must have been a good bowel cleanser. We never dried the plums but my mother occasionally turned them into jam.

 

Rosa damascena for rose water

Mid to late spring was also the time for an unwelcome task, albeit full of a pleasant aroma. Every day – including weekends – we got up before sunrise to harvest the roses (Rosa damascena) and deliver them before school to the village rose water factory – the largest in Cyprus. The flowers open early in the morning in large numbers and unless they are harvested quickly their intense aroma disappears. These roses provided income to practically all the families in the village as well as a useful flavouring ingredient.

The making of haloumi cheese, the famous cheese of Cyprus, was another springtime women’s activity. Since the daily milking of the goats was not enough for each family to make this cheese, small co-operatives were formed – usually among relatives and neighbours – who pooled their daily milk. Three different size containers were used for measuring each family’s milk. These containers were handed over to one family at a time for a number of days – depending on the milk quantity each family contributed to the co-operative. The coagulation took place by using rennet and each family had its own. While still warm, each haloumi was salted and folded with mint leaves placed in each fold. They were then cooked in the whey. After they cooled down on a board, the haloumi pieces were preserved  in the whey. Home made haloumi has a very special flavour and no commercially made haloumi resembles it. An old lady who still makes haloumi cheese for sale using modern powder because she cannot find rennet, reminisces about the old way. “Haloumi with rennet tastes better and lasts longer,” she says.

In addition to haloumi, we also made anari (the Cyprus equivalent of the Greek mizithra cheese and the Italian ricotta). It was eaten fresh within a couple of days -if it lasted that long – often dressed with our own reduced grape juice or, as described earlier, we turned it into pastries. Our anari, is no exception to other food. It tastes a lot better to the supermarket ricotta cheese.  Anari was also salted well and dried for better storage and grating for pasta dishes.

In May I also employed my handyman skills. Using empty tins, a sharp knife and flour for a dough to be used as a sealant, I made my own small still unit to distil acacia flowers for their aroma. Being a young boy at the time, I learnt the hard way to be extra careful with sharp knives, especially the folding ones. The scar on my middle finger is a reminder.

Summer

We did not grow cereals in large quantities but early summer was a busy time with harvesting and processing our wheat (for bread) and barley (for the animals). I was not involved with the actual harvesting but it was backbreaking work for our parents. After harvesting, the wheat and the barley stalks were tied up in bundles and transported to the threshing floor (called aloni) where they were stored for the final drying. The threshing floor belonged to our extended family and we used it in turns. When dried up, the bundles were broken and placed on the threshing floor in a circular strip. A special wooden board (called doukani) with small sharp hard stones attached to its underside was used for the threshing. The board was placed on top of the circular strip and the donkey pulled it around. Our father stood on the board to provide the weight necessary for the threshing. We often jumped on the board while it was moving and it was good fun, except when our not-toilet-trained donkey released its droppings that we had to remove quickly. After the threshing was done, my mother tossed it up against the wind using a wooden fork called thernatzi. The grain fell on the ground and the straw blew a few steps away to be collected and stored for feeding the donkey.

Apricots, followed by peaches, matured in early summer and although they were not plentiful in our fields we enjoyed them very much. Pears and then apples followed. We sometimes preserved apples in a box together with pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium L.) or with straw.

Early summer was also time for the messy but tasty mulberry. The vigorous young shoots were used for feeding the goats and their bark was used as tape for grafting and budding trees, as well as for tying tomatoes and other plants on stakes.

Mid-summer to late autumn was tomato time. Because we had not eaten tomatoes since late autumn our craving for them was very intense. We ate them day after day and never got tired of them. Our tomato salad (often just tomatoes with onion and / or garlic, mint and olive oil) was exceptionally tasty. At the end of the meal my brothers and I used to fight for its juice, either to drink or to soak bread in it. Often, we had tomatoes for a simple meal i.e. a tomato in one hand and a piece of bread and olives or haloumi in the other. In Melbourne, it is only with my homegrown, well-flavoured tomato varieties and with the use of virgin olive oil that I have managed to recreate this salad – very close,  but still not exactly the same. Any excess tomatoes were turned into tomato paste for cooking throughout the year.

Many other vegetables were available in summer. We boiled green beans on their own or with marrow and potatoes and dressed them as a salad (eaten warm or cold). Green beans were also cooked with tomatoes and olive oil but I am still to recreate this simple but very delicious dish – brother Petros’ favourite.

Cucumbers were another favourite. We ate them fresh without peeling, on their own or added in salads. Unlike North European practices, we harvested the cucumbers when they were tender, before the seeds started to grow – a stage when they are at their best. Although my family grew cucumbers we were not very strong in growing them. One of my uncles grew a lot of them and in times of need he came to our rescue. We were always advised not to step on the cucumber plants, as this would turn them bitter. This advice, I believe, has more to do with protection of the plants. Modern literature speculates that the bitterness is the result of irregular conditions such as rapid temperature changes and watering.

Fresh green black-eye beans (called louvia) on their own or their well formed seeds at a later stage of maturation were boiled and served as a salad dressed with lemon, olive oil, onion and / or garlic. For variation we added a little fresh tomato in the salad – especially if it was eaten cold. As with green beans, adding zucchini (but not potatoes) during the cooking was another interesting variation. (Actually, it was a special marrow, called barbaca, that was used – not zucchini. I am still to trace its proper or botanical name.)

Okra and eggplants, as they were not grown in our village due to the cold climate, were not eaten very often. Okra was cooked with a rich tomato sauce. I didn’t like okra on its own but the addition of potatoes and eating more bread than usual made it a lot more palatable. Eggplants were cooked as moussaka but without minced meat. Layers of eggplants, potatoes, zucchinis or marrows and tomatoes (together with the usual extras – onion, garlic, olive oil and spices) were added in a pot and cooked well over the fire on low heat.

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea, called glystirida in Cyprus), now famous for its high omega-3 content, was a common weed found among the summer vegetables. We added it raw to many salads, especially potato salad. Nowadays, this “weed” is an important and much utilised invader of my vegetable garden in Melbourne.

Summer was also the time for dolmades (rice mixed with spices and flavouring ingredients wrapped in grape vine leaves). It was, and still is, another of my favourite dishes. Unlike modern practices, we did not add minced meat to our dolmades. So that we could make dolmades throughout the year, we collected the young tender grape vine leaves and dried them in the shade. Brother Andreas liked dolmades even more when they were cooked with taro, called kolokasi, Colocasia esculenta. This dish was further enhanced by the addition of quinces (in autumn) during cooking.

Taro is also known as elephant’s ear because of its large leaves and as dasheen in the USA. Although it originated in Polynesia, it has been warmly embraced in Cyprus and even regarded it as their own. It is a staple food in many tropical countries. In Lebanon and Egypt it is known as Colcas. Being a warm climate plant, kolokasi was not grown in the village.

Pilaf was another typical summer dish. It was made with burghul (precooked wheat, dried and coarsely crushed, called pourgouri in Cyprus and pligouri in Greece) that was cooked following the absorption method. Its flavour was further enhanced when roasted hand-made noodles were added during the cooking. It was served with a salad and was often associated with yoghurt.

Sun-drying trahana on bamboo reeds

Starting in late summer or early autumn we prepared the very traditional trahana – our equivalent to porridge and perhaps its predecessor. At this time of the year the daily milking of our goats did not produce much milk. Every morning the milk was placed in a large earthen jar where it eventually became sour. When enough milk was gathered we placed it in a large pot and added crushed wheat when the milk was at near boiling point and cooked it briefly for a thick paste. The stirring was hard work and my father helped in this task. When it cooled down it was cut into small pieces that are dried in the sun on bamboo reed mats. It kept well throughout the year. We used it to make the trahana soup. The addition of rice and / or fresh pureed tomatoes during the cooking produced a tasty variation. Occasionally, instead of cooking trahana in plain water, we cooked it in our own fresh chicken stock for extra flavour.

Almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts matured in the late summer or early autumn. Peeling the cracked but still green skin of the almonds, the hazelnuts and the walnuts, prior to sun-drying them, was a task normally done during rest time. Very often, as with other easy jobs, it was done by our grandparents who were too old to work in the fields. Our parents warned us not to eat too many fresh walnuts (before being sun-dried) because they would give us a headache. In order to remove the bitterness of fresh walnuts we peeled off their soft skin. The peeling of walnuts stained our skin but we didn’t mind.

In late summer we enjoyed our first grapes from an early maturing and very delicious variety called malaga – not very common in our region. We only had a handful of vines that were located in our largest, most remote and most productive vineyard. Starting in early August I kept asking my parents, brothers and relatives, who also had vineyards in that area, whether these grapes have given signs of maturity. As soon as the reports were favourable I visited that vineyard – about an hour’s walk up the steep hill and over the ridge of the mountain and down the other side of the mountain that was even steeper.

Often, in addition to this walking, there was a faggot on my shoulder. My mother would very often ask me to collect branches from the bushland, tie them in a bundle and carry them on my shoulder to my grandmother’s house to be used as cooking fuel. While in much earlier times, in England, children made a shilling selling these faggots we missed out – we did it as part of family life. As my mother promised and as is customary, my grandmother gave me her blessing.

Autumn

Autumn was associated with harvesting, drying, processing and storing fruit for winter. The autumn recipes and eating practices were a continuation of the summer ones with some very important additions. Fresh figs and grapes, even though they started maturing earlier, were plentiful. They are my favourite fruits and I ate them in large quantities. These are sufficient reasons to always return to my childhood home in autumn.

Figs were the first fruit I started tracing soon after I arrived in Melbourne. The most dominant memory associated with intense longing, was a fig tree on the steep cliff across the road below our house. It was a neglected tree and not always productive but when it did produce figs they were extraordinarily delicious. Petros had a fortunate misfortune with this tree. He fell down this cliff saved by a “soft” landing on a thorny blackberry bush.

The large Greek migrant community in Melbourne provided me with many fig trees and an equally wide variety to chose from. Everybody claimed to have the best fig tree. My approach was to visit the owners of fig trees in February and March for my own assessment.

From the literature I have read I came to understand that the Smyrna fig is the queen of figs. In one of my trips back home I asked my father whether he knew the Smyrna variety. With a smile on his face he pointed out to the fig tree across the road saying, “That is the one.” By that time I had learnt that Smyrna is the only variety that requires cross-pollination but not from normal figs. In Cyprus the donor tree is called wild fig but its official name is Capri fig. Traditionally, in many parts of Greece, in order to ensure pollination (called caprification), wild figs (called ornos) were hung over the Smyrna fig trees. There were not many Smyrna fig trees in our village and the caprification practice was not followed hence the unreliable production of my childhood’s favourite fig tree. Tracing the Smyrna fig tree in Melbourne was very difficult but I eventually managed to find one.

Fresh figs were eaten on their own but also with any of our nuts – fresh or dry – and for best flavour we ate them early in the morning. What we liked most were figs from non-irrigated trees that were small and not very juicy but they were exceptionally sweet and aromatic. From a young age we learnt to split figs open to check for worms. Years later, a friend from another area gave me his grandmother’s advice: In the morning, figs for your child; at midday, figs for your friends; and at night, figs for your enemy. Is there a nutritional importance in this advice or is it because figs cannot be checked in the dark for worms? Or is it that the laxative properties of figs would make them get up and step our of the house in the dark? In Melbourne we are very lucky – worms are not very often found in figs.

Sun-drying figs on bamboo reed mats

Very mature figs were harvested and sun-dried on bamboo reed mats. They stored very well and often were eaten as a snack on their own or with nuts.

Grapes were eaten on their own but also for a light meal, for breakfast or as a snack with bread and olives or cheese. In addition to eating and selling the grapes we used them to make wine, grappa (called zivania in Cyprus) and vinegar. The grape must was used to make must-jelly (called palouzes in Cyprus, moustalevria in Greece and mostarda in Italy) and reduced grape juice, called epsima in Cyprus, petimezi in Greece and mosto cotto in Italy. (Mosto cotto is also called vino cotto. However, a commercial vino cotto that I saw in the market is made from reduced wine, albeit with dissolved sugar in it.)

Before using the grape juice we had to clarify it. It is done by heating fresh must and just before coming to the boil a special powdered soft rock is added (a flat teaspoon at a time) that instantly creates a lot of froth that is removed. The heat is kept very low. After the froth stops forming the must is cooked for another 20 minutes. This rock contains gypsum that lowers the must’s acidity and makes it “sweet” and bentonite that clarifies it.

Dipping threaded nuts a few times (after cooling down) in warm must jelly produced Soutzioukos

The must-jelly is prepared by mixing clarified must with flour and cooked on low heat with constant stirring. It is eaten fresh within a few days or cut into slices that are dried for later use in winter (called kefterka). Also, while the must-jelly was still hot in the pot, we dipped in threaded nuts on cotton strings. After they cooled down a little we dipped them again in the hot jelly. After a few dippings the threaded nuts eventually got to a thickness of about 25 to 30 mm. It is called soutzioukos and was our special dessert throughout the year. I always helped my mother with this task with pleasure. My job was to hold a plate under the threaded nuts so that the drippings did not fall on the ground. Dipped in this jelly, my fingers tasted extra sweet.

The reduced grape juice was prepared by boiling the clarified must on very low heat for a long time – until it reduces down to about a quarter of its original volume. It is used as a sweetener, the same way honey and carob juices are used. In addition to its good taste it is reputed to have therapeutic benefits (mouth ulcers, stomach aches). Our next-door neighbour used to mix epsima with tahini (sesame paste) and used it as spread on bread during fasting times which is very tasty and very filling. Other foods that were sweetened by epsima included anari and quinces. Sometimes, carob juice was used instead of epsima.

Mid-autumn was wine making time. All the members of the family were involved and very often relatives joined forces for the very demanding grape harvesting. The grapes were placed in large traditional baskets (called kofinia), attached on the donkey’s flanks (one on each side) and, while the rest of the family was harvesting, two of us took the load home, often negotiating narrow and steep terrain where we had to help the donkey by pushing it from the sides. Several trips were made in one day. At the end of the day we crushed the grapes into the large clay jars (pitharia) for natural fermentation. The dry climate of our region together with the cold weather and the absence of irrigation allowed for good wine making without the need of preservatives (due largely to a lower pH of the cold climate grapes). Our storage room was full of traditional large clay jars of all sizes for storing wine, olives, olive oil, and figs.

The Mediterranean medlar (Crataegus azarolus, called mosfila) was another fruit with special flavours that also matured in late autumn. In addition to eating them fresh we made a delicious jelly and jam. Although its fruit is small with large pips and the tree is thorny that makes harvesting difficult, it did not stop us from enjoying them.

The unusual medlar (Mespilus germanica, called polemies in Cyprus) was another late autumn fruit. We had only one medlar tree located in one of our smallest properties just below the mountaintop. At the appropriate time we looked forward to working in that field. Although the look of medlar is off-putting it has a special flavour. Only when the hard fruit becomes very soft (the colour changes from dark brown to chocolate dark brown) is it ready to eat.

Quince was another late autumn fruit. No matter how mature they were, quinces always had an unpleasant taste when eaten raw – although some people had a liking for them but only when they were very mature. They were wonderful when cooked either on their own or with other ingredients. We often cooked them whole in the dying embers. We also used them to make jam and a very delicious quince paste. My mother always needed assistance for the stirring of this paste, and, unsurprisingly, my usual whinge was not heard. As with must-jelly, cleaning the cooking pan with my fingers was something to look forward to. Quinces were also added to other dishes (such as kolokasi and dolmades) giving those dishes a very characteristic flavour.

Many other tasks were waiting for us throughout autumn. We selected good bunches of grapes to hang on the ceiling for later use, we sun-dried the figs and we turned grapes into raisins. Very mature and healthy grapes were selected one by one and stored in a large earthen jar. Eventually, they were covered in their own juice that was fermented making them very sweet and strong in alcohol – called matchies. We often ate them with bread, especially during fasting time, but their intense sweetness prevented us from eating too many.

Children harvested healthy bunches of white grapes to bury in well-drained sandy soil wrapped in vine leaves. We ate these grapes in early winter. Remembering the burial location was difficult at times. We had to develop special secret markings.

In late autumn, shiny green tomatoes were harvested and stored in a dark well-ventilated place to mature slowly so that their natural flavour is developed. (Green tomatoes that are stored in the sun will mature quickly but they lack flavour and colour i.e. while they look mature on the outside will remain green inside and tasteless.) These slow maturing tomatoes were used to flavour salads such as the cabbage and the hot tasting coriander and rocket salads.

Pomegranates were another delicious autumn fruit. We ate them fresh but also hung them from the ceiling in a dark, cool and well-ventilated room. They kept very well. Unlike modern food gurus and celebrities, including famous ones such as Nigella Lawson, we did not bash pomegranates. We quickly learned how to peel them, split them into segments and separate the juicy seeds from the bitter pith.

After the first autumn rains that were followed by a few sunny days, we collected field mushrooms that were normally found near pine trees. We grilled them on hot embers or we fried them with onions. They were delicious, with a very special flavour.

Another unusual fruit in late autumn was zizyfa, Ziziphus ziziphus – another of brother Petros’ favourite. It looks like a date but unlike dates, their flesh is very soft and “powdery” and is attached to the stone. After peeling the soft skin, the flesh is detached from the stone in the mouth. Zizyfa brought an interesting variation to our fruits.

Winter

For breakfast we had the trahana soup, a lentil soup or a split pea soup. Occasionally, for variety, we added small pieces of haloumi cheese into the trahana soup. Other meals included Fasolada (cannellini beans cooked in tomato sauce, the Greek national dish) was eaten very often, as were chickpeas, broad beans, lentils and split peas.

It was only in recent years that I came to appreciate my early childhood introduction to wild chicory. One of our high school teachers with his wife and their young boy were tenants in our house. Coming from the island of Crete they were masters and devotees of wild greens. We took them out in the fields where they harvested wild chicory. It was very bitter and we learnt from them to change the water halfway through the cooking to reduce the bitterness. Surprisingly, I liked them. It was many years later, during my university studies in Greece, that I found that these wild greens go very well with my favourite childhood dish – potato chips. Many years later still, during my visits to Crete for my research into olive oil, I discovered that my mother’s superb potato chips would have been even better and healthier if she had used virgin olive oil for the frying.

Late January and February the pig(s) were killed. We used all of the pig’s parts. The fillets and the legs were marinated in wine and smoked. Minced meat was also marinated in wine and spices and was turned into sausages that were also smoked. The spices used were cumin, mastic tree seeds (Pistacia lentiscus), ground pepper and sometimes coriander seeds. We sold most of the smoked meat and sausages and my father gained a reputation for his quality produce. Certain meaty parts with bones on them were chopped into small pieces and fried and together with the sausages, preserved in lard. These delicacies were reserved for the unexpected visitors that are usual in Greek families. My brothers and I liked such occasions as they provided us with the opportunity to indulge in these delicacies. Even the pig’s bladder was put to good use. We blew it with air and used it as a ball.

We also made pork gelatine (called zalatina in Cyprus and pikti in Greece) by lengthy boiling of the pig’s head and feet. In the gelatine we added odd parts – skin, tongue and ears. Although this gelatine was very tasty, the sight of these odd parts was off-putting. The addition of bitter orange fruit juice (Citrus aurantium, called kitromilo in Cyprus and nerantzi in Greek) made this gelatine very appetising.

The pork fat was chopped into cubes, cooked on low heat (stirred regularly at the initial stages to avoid sticking) and strained to get the lard that was used for cooking, for preserving meat and sausages and occasionally as a spread. Health professionals might read this with horror but we used the crackling (the leftover pieces after extracting the lard) to eat on their own with bread or mixed with dough to make speciality bread. Strangely, while I was finicky in removing traces of fat from the meat, I ate these lard pieces. Although the first few mouthfuls were wonderful, the richness of the fat prevented us from eating too much.

Making the sausages brings another fond memory. As the mincing of the meat was done using two sharp knives, it was not always effective; occasionally there were large pieces of meat that could not go through the funnel. While our parents were filling the casings (cleaned pig’s intestines) we were sitting around the fire waiting for these large pieces to be put aside. Grilled over the hot embers they were extraordinarily delicious.

Our parents often sent us out in the fields for easy jobs. Sometimes though, if I was reluctant, they enticed me with a sausage to grill for lunch – when sausages were available which only happened in late winter. The aromatic smell of the kindling (called psilita, Helichrysum conglobatum) was the prelude to the intense and aromatic smell and flavour of the sausage. We made the skewers in the field from thin branches.

Although Christmas was an important celebration it could not match Easter. Father Christmas never came. Instead, Saint Vasilios arrived on New Year’s Eve but we had to look after him. Before dusk, on New Year’s Eve, we placed a glass of wine and some delicacies in the storage room for him. As soon as we got up on New Year’s Day we anxiously entered the storage room for our presents. Somehow he always knew what we needed most – a pair of shoes, socks or clothing. He never brought toys; he must have known they did not exist in the village.

The inevitability of change

That was our Good Life, with real people – unlike the British TV version. Progress has reached our village in strength. While there are still many good elements of the earlier life, a lot of the practices described have disappeared.

During my last visit to the village (September 2010) I observed some well-grown purslane. I asked the owner whether I could have some for a salad. With a smile and a generosity that is associated with country people, he said, “You can have as much as you like, but I have sprayed it with weedkiller.” The same goes for blackberries that were a delicacy and although the bush is very thorny we managed to have a feast.

And yes, Father Christmas has found his way to Cyprus – with plenty of toys. Television too is now found in all houses. The small grocery shop has been replaced with four small supermarkets full of packaged and refined products. The walking tracks have made way for roads so that cars can replace the donkeys. Many creek beds have been concreted for easy car access to the fields.

Other services and establishments now include a bank branch and a few family businesses. Niki’s Sweets, specialises in traditional spoon and other traditional preserves using local produce; it is the largest of its kind in Cyprus employing more than 20 people with exports to many countries. Another one, called Bio Venus Rose Cosmetics, makes certified Bio-Eco beverages and cosmetics based on rose water; it too exports its products in countries such as France, Germany and Austria. There is also a large, modern and well-equipped plant nursery that supplies wholesalers throughout Cyprus. As a reflection of modern developments in favour of animal-derived foods there are four businesses that make traditional smoked meat products.

Rodon hotel

Added to a small old hotel is a large modern one which is well patronised and dominates the south / west ridge on the horizon. The hotel, named Rodon (meaning rose – the unofficial emblem of the village), was built by a public company of the Agros people of the Diasporas and added considerably to the village’s and the region’s economy. It created a good source of income for many people and it has become the focal point for many functions. It is well frequented by Cypriots, especially on the weekends, and on weekdays it attracts tourists. When I am in the village, I often have coffee in this hotel. The views are arresting and they take you a lot further, far beyond the mountaintops surrounding the village.

Once I had a pleasant surprise when I met a fellow university student and flat mate at the hotel. He often spends the weekend with his wife and other family friends there. While he and his extended family have considerable business interests in large tourist resorts in Cyprus and Greece, they have chosen the pleasant surrounds and ambience of the hotel for weekend retreats. Undoubtedly, such customers make the hotel administrators very proud.

The 1950s and 1960s’ migration deprived the village of many of its younger generation leading to the decline of the village. The population dropped to about 800 and the primary school numbers dropped from over 200 to 45 pupils eventually rising to 65 in 2011. Many houses became empty and neglected with some becoming derelict.

Cyprus’ prosperity, which began in the 1980s, has led to many Agros migrants restoring old houses or building new ones that are mainly used as holiday houses and are often built well outside the perimeter of the village.

Older people, without the benefit of the younger generation to look after them, now populate the village. The same prosperity however, has led to the establishment of a well-equipped house for the elderly.

Other interesting developments are that, as with the rest of Cyprus, there is now reverse migration and a small number of younger people, including university graduates, are now staying in the village. Also, many guest workers from diverse backgrounds (Bulgarians, Georgians, Sri Lankans) are in Agros, working in the fields, the building industry and in catering.

On another positive note, many of the migrants were successful in a diverse area of occupations and the generosity of many of them brought benefits to the village and the region. A pre-war migrant who became a wealthy merchant built a High School in the village in the 1940s. The most well known political family of Cyprus, the Klerides family, comes from Agros. Ioannis Klerides, who left the village early in the 20th century, became mayor of Nicosia in the 1940s. When Cyprus gained her independence from Britain in 1960, he was a presidential candidate against the elected president Archbishop Makarios. Interestingly, Makarios’ right hand man was none other than Ioannis Klerides’ son, Glafkos Klerides, who became president of the Parliament and many years later achieved what his father failed to – become president of Cyprus. Many other members of the Klerides clan, as well as other people from Agros, became government ministers. President Klerides provided a present to the village – a large modern sporting centre of international standard. However, internal politics have led to its underuse, risking it becoming a white elephant.

Although the people of Agros generally like to marry locals, interestingly, the wife of Glafkos Klerides is Indian. Another prominent foreign wife, of Chinese origin, is that of Takis Klerides, former Finance Minister and member of a younger generation of the extended Klerides clan.

2010 Nobelist, Christopher Pissarides, in Agros

As if the people of Agros did not have enough to boast about, the 2010 Nobel awards provided them with another famous son. One of the three recipients of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, Christopher Pissarides, has his origins in the village.

Deep drilling provided access to large quantities of water from an underground aquifer. It has led to the expansion of irrigated land for stone fruits on higher grounds that were previously occupied by vineyards or just arid land. The concern now, is whether this aquifer will be overexploited – as has happened elsewhere in Cyprus. Another benefit from the underground water is that a well-equipped modern factory has been established for the bottling of the very popular in Cyprus, AGROS water.

Terraces are now created by excavators with embankments – instead of dry stonewalls – that do not allow for efficient use of land and are subject to erosion. Dry stonewalls that collapse are now left unattended and become part of the scenery adding to the many neglected vineyards and orchards. More positively is the establishment of a regional fruit and vegetable co-operative for the more efficient collection and sale of fresh produce.

Interestingly, progress brought unintended benefits. The modern lifestyle practices brought a sharp decline in the number of goats as well as in the use of wood for fuel. Both developments resulted in reduced impact on the latzia and other bushland. The area around the village is getting greener and in the long-term the latzia bushes might grow into forest trees.

Finally, it is these fond memories of my childhood that have influenced my ongoing passionate advocacy of the critical importance of traditional practices for health and environmental sustainability. Those wishing to read my views on why such practices could be central to the current health and environment debate can go to the Appendix. Meanwhile I hope you draw from my childhood journey. Looking back into the future indeed.

APPENDIX

Looking back into the future

These traditional lifestyle and dietary practices that I have grown up with have produced the well acknowledged healthy Mediterranean diet as demonstrated by the Seven Countries Study that started in the mid-1950s and lasted for about 15 years. Subsequent studies, such as the Lyon Diet Heart Study, confirmed these findings. The identified staples of this diet were grains and their by-products, potatoes, legumes, vegetables and fruit, occasional meat and fish more frequently and with olive oil as the main fat.

Furthermore, these dietary practices are now increasingly accepted and promoted as beneficial to the environment as well as having financial and social benefits. Such practices lead to a reduction in greenhouse emissions, land clearing, landfill space and water use.

While a return to a traditional lifestyle in its purest form is very difficult and virtually impossible, there are substantial elements that could be considered and implemented. Government authorities could:

  • Increase drinking water consumption by installing water taps in public places and large buildings.
  • Increase the consumption of fresh seasonal produce through improved education.
  • Discourage consumption of processed, refined and unnecessarily packaged foods by introducing tax levies.
  • Reduce animal-derived food products through tax levies and better education.
  • Make better use of suitable urban land, especially backyards, for growing fruit and vegetables.
  • Ban food advertisements – the same way smoking advertisements have been banned. (Advertisements, by nature and intent, are deceptive and image building, highlighting advantages and downplaying disadvantages and hidden complexities. Other than benefiting the promoters of the usually highly refined, processed and packaged foods there are no benefits to society from food advertisements.)
  • Scrutinise policy development. For example, the promotion of wildlife in urban areas, as well as unsustainable, it is counterproductive. Wildlife in urban areas causes considerable damage to buildings, other establishments and to productive gardens. It gives the false impression that it protects the environment and leads many people to feed and shelter wildlife that causes even more environmental problems.
  • Promote reliable information via improved education rather than through the current trend of relying on celebrities and advertisements.
  • Instigate international treaties so that unfair competition is avoided – the same way other international treaties have been introduced.

In Australia, perhaps Greek and Italian Community leaders, supported by authorities, could organise traditional everyday food celebrations, instead of the current emphasis on festive and gourmet type foods. There is a need to move away from the restaurant and celebrity culture and to embrace the practices and experiences of the older people who, together with their ancestors, through time immemorial, created and practised the renowned Mediterranean diet where substantial health and environment benefits reside.

In judging these suggestions the essential question is, how important and relevant are they for achieving sustainable health and environmental objectives?

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