Friday, August 31, 2012

Cats of Limnos

Last year we were surprised and disappointed to find very few cats on Limnos. The prevalence of stray dogs seemed to have increased, and dramatic stories were going around that the dogs were eating all the cats.

This year there appears to be a turning of the tables between feline and canine. The cats are on their way back and now horrid stories are being told of people poisoning the stray dogs.

Interestingly, more and more Greek people now have pet dogs, mainly small, easy-to-look-after terrier and chiuaua types, but their owners are noticeably new to pet ownership, not knowing how to walk their dogs properly (in fact holding them most of the time) and some not walking their dogs at all, keeping them tied to a rope all day. Some of the lucky pet dogs are allowed in shops and get to ride with their owners on motor scooters. Remember the Pharmacist's chow chow walrus dog? It's still around. There will be more on the dogs of Limnos in a separate blog entry coming soon!

So while the street dogs are much fewer (last year's "lanky dog gang" wasn't to be seen anywhere this year), it seems the cats are making a comeback. Perhaps they were just in hiding, waiting for the dog phase to pass!

One of the most likely places to find cats in Limnos is on Kyprion Agoniston Street, near the Afrodite Hotel. Every time we've been in Limnos, even last year during the cat drought, we were guaranteed to be approached by a friendly cat on Kyprion Agoniston Street. Our theory is that the owner of the hotel is a cat lover and keeps them as pets. These cats are so affectionate and relaxed, not like the skittish scaredy cats you see at the tavernas.

Kyprion Agoniston Street happens to be the road we take to walk from the house to the beach, so patting the Afrodite Hotel cats was a daily occurence for us. This year the family of cats living there consisted of the mother cat, with teats so overused they almost touched the ground, two tiny kittens presumably from her most recent litter, and three young cats, perhaps from her previous litter. The kittens were particularly gorgeous, as all kittens are, and we'd often see them playing together in the street, oblivious to crazy Greek drivers, much to our distress! We were very relieved to notice after a few weeks someone at the hotel (perhaps the owner) installed a large makeshift playpen on their balcony to house the kittens. No more pats from us but they seemed very happy in their new home and protected from the various dangers of Limnian streets!

Greece has always been known for its beautiful cats – everywhere you turn there is a rack of Greek cat postcards and calendars featuring cats of the Greek islands. But real life cats no longer fill the streets of Greece the way they used to. Some people consider them pests, and its those few that have probably campaigned to lessen the cat population of Greece. But with more cats appearing in the streets of Limnos this year, and in Athens too, perhaps these clever little felines are organising a campaign of their own – to help the Greek economy by bringing back one of their country's biggest tourism drawcards!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Quick update

Don't tell anyone, but we're already back in Athens, after a whirlwind last few days in Limnos and three days in Scotland. I have been dying to write about everything we've been up to but we've been so busy and without proper internet access for the last few days so it's been difficult to update the blog.

So as you would imagine, we still have hundreds of stories to tell, recipes and reviews to write and photos to show you. I will endeavour to keep posting on this blog after we return to Melbourne which will be in a few days time. Until then, andio!

PS. They have cats in Scotland too!!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Koula's Limnian-French Potatoes

Last year Tony and I experienced these crunch and melt-in-the-mouth potatoes of Koula's for the first time and they were absolutely YUM. I asked her to tell me how she made them and in a few sentences of broken English she gave me the recipe. It was a fairly simple recipe so I didn't write anything down. Back in Melbourne I tried to replicate this dish of potatoes, golden and crunchy on the outside, soft and fluffy on the inside, and failed miserably.

This year I wanted to make sure I documented every detail in the making of these beautiful potatoes as there were obviously some techniques that went astray by the time I tried to do them again at home in Melbourne. One of the big mistakes I made was misjudging the quantity of cooking fat to use. I'm not used to using great deals of fat in cooking and when Koula said to me last year "You fry the potatoes in a little fat" I assumed she meant about a tablespoon. Watching closely this year I discovered that her idea of "a little fat" is more like a whole cup. Now, don't be put off by this. It is true these potatoes are not ideal for the diet conscious, but they are so good you'll need to put the diet on hold for a day. Koula kept warning me throughout the process "Don't be scared when you see this" each time she added more fat. "It will go away" she continued to reassure me.

Koula and I have lots of fun cooking together in the kitchen:

The type of fat to use is a little ambiguous. The product Koula uses looks like butter but she says it's not. She wasn't sure what to call it but with some translation help from Takis it was determined that it was some kind of margarine. Koula says she uses this product because it doesn't burn, so I guess clarified butter would work just as well.

Koula's Limnian-French Potatoes (serves 8)


2kg potatoes
250g margarine or clarified butter
2–3 teaspoons of salt


Peel and cut the potatoes into bite-sized pieces. Use a potato peeler to round the edges and corners of the potato pieces so there are no sharp edges or pointy corners. It's a bit time consuming but helps the potatoes to cook a lot more evenly.

Preheat oven to 175 degrees.

Melt about a third of the margarine or clarified butter over medium to high heat in a heavy-based pan and fry the potatoes all over, turning continually, until they are just starting to brown.

Transfer the potatoes to a baking dish and add the rest of the margarine or clarified butter and salt to the dish. The heat of the potatoes will melt the fat. Stir thoroughly to completely coat the potatoes with the fat and salt.

"Don't be scared when you see this. It will go away."

Bake in oven for 1 hour or until golden and crunchy, testing a potato with a skewer to make sure it is soft in the middle.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The house, the garden and the people

One of the reasons we come to Limnos is to spend time with family and to enjoy the Limnian lifestyle in the beautiful family house known as the "Mavrellis House", located in Androni, a 20-minute walk from Myrina. Marvrellis is my father's mother's maiden name. Her first name was Artemis and her father's name was George. George Mavrellis was the original owner of the house and a marble bust of him (originally from his gravesite) now sits proudly in the Mavrellis House garden.

Takis (my dad) and his wife Julia live here for 8 months each year, working on the house, tending to the garden and relaxing with their Limnian friends. For the remainder of the year they come back to Melbourne for the Australian summer months. For almost ten years now they've been experiencing an endless summer thanks to Greece's consistently warm temperatures for most of the time they are here.

Takis' brother George and his wife Koula also spend the summer here in Limnos. They live on the Dodecanese island of Rhodes in the far south where it is very hot in the summer, reaching the low 40s every day. Coming to Limnos gives them some relief, and the opportunity to spend time with Takis and Julia.

Tony and I are here in Limnos for four weeks this year and the six of us are all together during this time, staying in the three-storey house that has been in my dad's family for over 150 years. The personalities here are all very different, but somehow the dynamic works.

A typical day might begin with a gathering around the marble and iron table setting for breakfast, outside on the terrace under the pergola of grapevines. The mornings here in Limnos are perfect for outdoor breakfasts, it's about 25 degrees with light winds, the sun is still low and there are many birds about. Takis will have already taken a trip down to "Krysafi's", the local bakery, to collect a loaf of fresh crusty bread and a couple of rings of the sweet "Koulourakia" bread covered in sesame seeds. We sit and we eat and we talk about what we will do for the day.

After breakfast Julia will spend the next hour or so watering the expansive quarter-acre garden with water sourced from the original well in the centre of the garden. Four or five months can go by in Greece without a drop of rain so having a source of water is essential if you want to maintain a garden. Less than ten years ago the garden at the Mavrellis House was just a large plot of weeds with a couple of ancient almond trees rearing their gnarly heads through the jungle and a struggling olive tree in desperate need of some TLC. After a few years of hard labour, Julia has transformed it into a garden now abundant with mediterranean vegetation as well as some native Australian plantings, fruit trees and of course rows and rows of vegetables such as tomatoes, aubergines, capsicums, potatoes, onions and herbs. The garden supplies us with plenty of fresh produce to inspire many cooking feasts, and the old almond and olive trees are still bearing fruit.

In the meantime Takis is usually working with Anesti on some project around the house. At the moment they are installing a second bathroom on the top floor of the house. Our bedroom is also located on the top floor and we were hoping to have this bathroom finished in the final week that we would be here however it's not looking likely. There have been a couple of setbacks with the plumbing being delayed and Takis falling ill last week, but things are moving again now, slowly, but that's how things are done in Greece.

The renovation of the entire house has been a work in progress for eight years now. In the beginning there were major structural repairs needed just to keep the house from falling down. The roof was sagging, walls were deeply cracked and floors were sloped. All of these components had to be removed and rebuilt. In recent years the house has undergone many cosmetic improvements, including a brand new kitchen, the restoration of the external wood oven and outhouses, extensive rebuilding of stone walls and paving around the property and the discovery of a beautiful old stone fireplace behind a plaster wall on the second floor.

George enjoys spending his days relaxing under the shade of the pergolas tossing his comboloi (worry beads). When Koula is not cooking up a storm in the kitchen, she sits with George with her own set of comboloi, and will often be joined by Tony who delights in having Greek conversations with both of them.

Unfortunately this week George has been in the hospital with liver problems, however he's recovering very well and will be back at the Mavrellis House tomorrow to join the family for a belated celebration of the most important Name Day of the year in Greece, St Mary's. Traditionally celebrated on August 15th, St Mary's Name Day honours the names of Mary, Maria, Panayotis, Peter, Despina and Takis. In Greece Name Days are even more important than birthdays, and here at the Mavrellis House we are hosting a big party tomorrow night for the neighbours.

For the last few days I have been spending a lot of time in the kitchen documenting Koula's dishes that she is preparing for tomorrow night, in between trying to catch up with the blog entries, while Tony has been helping Takis with some of the work around the house. On other days we might take a trip on the motor scooter, walk down to the beach for a swim, enjoy dinner at a taverna by the sea or take a boat or bus tour to one place or another.

As I summarise our days here in Limnos I realise just how much there still is to write about on the blog. We are only in Limnos for six more days and the weather has been so glorious that staying inside to update the blog hasn't exactly been a priority. This Saturday Tony's mum, Sandie, will be arriving in Limnos to spend the last few days with us here, then together we will all fly to Scotland for three days. After that, Tony and I have one more night in Athens, then another night in Singapore before we arrive back in Melbourne on 29 August.

I imagine the opportunities to update the blog will diminish significantly during that time as we will most likely be without internet access. So I will try and update as much as I can between now and leaving for Scotland, but anything I haven't been able to write about by that time, I will post here on the blog upon my return to Melbourne.

Once again, it's now time to head down to the beach. It's 7pm right now and the best time to be wading in those beautiful warm waters. The sea is flat, the sun is beginning to lower into the orangey-red haze of the horizon, and there's nothing more meditative than floating in the shallows of our Riha Nera beach.