Monthly Archives: February 2015

SPRING’S POPPING UP!

The weather’s been very unsettled, rather like Greece’s political and economic situation at present; brief periods of brilliant and heartwarming sunshine readily give way to gray cloud and rain. The weather forecasters have been speaking of yet another really cold snap to hit us before spring arrives, and plenty more rain which we certainly do need. These prognostications may of course be wrong, and it can’t be easy to predict conditions for the Pelion Peninsula, as we really do have the most mini of micro climates, given the terrain – gulfs, gullies, headlands, hills and pinnacles. The rain nymphs, known as the Hyades in Greek mythology, might be chucking it down hard on us, while Helios, god of the sun, is beaming benignly on our friends up the hill. Does make life interesting!

This morning brought a sunny dawn, fairly warm with only a little cloud.

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Anemones and daisies, always among the first wildflowers, have begun appearing, but I was thrilled to see a poppy – one solitary little poppy on the whole property.

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Poppies typically begin their exuberant displays in March so perhaps this enthusiastic loner augurs well for the coming days. We’ll see.

Mythos and Raki, never ones to miss any activity, made the very most of the sun which sadly decided to make itself scarce come midmorning and by noon sea and sky had settled into deep pewter, this season’s prevailing colour.

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Can you see me?

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Where’s Mythos going?

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What’s he doing?

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What’s he up to?

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Oh, please! I’m always the one who’s on top of things.

The temperature has fallen quite sharply, and now the rain clouds loom, leering darkly down on us, while Mt Pelion has begun to vanish from view.

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But life is busy in the garden – spring is coming for sure!

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New housing developments

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TWISTED, KNITTED FAIRY TALES #2: CINDERELLA

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The tale of a lovely young girl wickedly abused by the stereotypical witch of a stepmother is one told in various forms in different cultures. Poor stepmoms! They continue to get a bad rap.

It appears that the earliest version lies deep in antiquity with some historians maintaining that a Greek slave girl, Rhodope, so named for her rosy cheeks, and who endured various trials and tribulations until she wed the king of Egypt, is the basis for the numerous Cinderella stories. According to one account of the Rhodope fable, an eagle snatched her sandal as she bathed and it fell into the lap of the aforementioned king, who went quite dilly over it, resolving to find the owner as she was sure to be most beautiful. You can guess the rest.

The enduring themes of all variations are the gorgeous girl of sweet disposition who’s mistreated and unappreciated until suddenly things are put right and she trips off to a life of luxury and ease with a rescuer, usually a prince. Shoes tend to feature, along with dainty feet, rags, ashes, housework and nasty sisters; modern retellings are embellished with magic wands and pumpkins.

My Cinderella had a bad a time of it, like all the classical Cinderellas, and she too finds happiness with a prince of a man, but mine, though uncomplaining like all the others, has a bit more gumption, and in addition is a most accomplished knitter. This is because her poor sainted mother (look, they’re always wonderful mothers in these stories) took the trouble to teach her when Cinderella was very young.

Therapists will tell you this was a good thing for both of them as they bonded very well and Cinderella was able to draw on all her happy memories to sustain her through her terrible situation during the stepma interlude. I do feel however that her male parent must have been quite sorely lacking in that he was either totally unaware of his daughter’s situation or not anxious to do anything about it. Whatever the reason, in my book he was a complete and utter disaster as a caregiver. Anyway, I digress from my story of the motherless, but knitting-empowered Cinderella.

One day, quite early on in the stepfamily relationship while the evil stepma was gritting her pointed little teeth and pretending to be nice to Cinderella who was not yet lumbered with all the chores, she came upon Cinders knitting away at a lovely sock. This impressed her no end for Stephorror and her miserable daughters were all perfectly hopeless at any such dainty arts. Now remember, in those days one could not waltz into a shop and purchase a pair of socks, handknit or otherwise, for the perfectly obvious reason that all articles of clothing had to be made at home by industrious housewives, or if one was lucky, by loving maiden aunties or grannies, or specially ordered from some soul seeking to supplement the family income. Anyway, my point is that Stepmutter, absolutely not slow to seize upon an opportunity, immediately saw the potential in Cinderella’s skills and promptly demanded the finished pair of socks.

Cindy sweetly gave them to her, but of course the ugly stepsisters quarreled most unpleasantly over who was to have them, finally sulking off into separate corners, each clutching a sock, which try as they might, and even allowing for the wondrous elasticity of handknitted socks, they couldn’t possibly tug over their great ugly knobbled feet. But they whinged and they cringed, they snivelled and snorted and generally made themselves even more unpleasant than usual so their doting mama promised they would have socks. She would obtain yarn as soon as she could and Cinderella would knit them socks to fit.

Before long Cinderella was getting stuck with more and more chores, and being not only a very beautiful young woman, but a smart one too, wisely chose not to mention that she had spun the yarn. And on a drop spindle yet, for where would she have been able to find a spinning wheel?

It was something of a bother for the old cow to find someone who was prepared to spin yarn for her, but she managed it and indeed was fortunate enough to find a spinster, who as we all know is an unmarried woman, but probably not all of us know that the unmarried woman in times now fortunately gone by often did the spinning for the household. Anyway, she secured for herself and her miserable offspring a fairly good and steady supply of yarn.

Poor Cinderella now found herself in an even more difficult situation than before, for not only did she have a never-ending work schedule, but knitting, which had previously been such an enjoyable outlet for her, became a burden in that she was forced to use her skills in the service of that horrendously ungrateful trio.

So she cooked and cleaned and polished and mended until she finally could settle down before the fire to work on a pair of stockings for one of the miseries. The spinster meanwhile, also not slow to spot a good thing when she saw one, began to dye her yarns in enticing colours which Stepmonster just couldn’t resist buying.

Time passed, and Cinderella knitted away on socks for the hags, who demanded more and more pairs of the wonderfully patterned ones that her nimble fingers created from the beautifully coloured yarns. She worked late into the night, getting more and more sleep deprived, all the while carefully hoarding the odds and ends of yarns left over. The knitting took on that soothing quality all knitters know. As her fingers flew, her mind raced and her plans grew. She determined, did my feisty Cinderella, that she would run away just as soon as she was able and make her way to a city, there to set up a teensy enterprise knitting gorgeous garments for discerning ladies.

See, her late mama had impressed upon her the need for a woman to have the skills necessary to support herself in the world, and not to be dependent upon a man. In the world in which you and I are fortunate enough to live, there is no question that my heroine would have been a most competent executive woman. She would have worn red power suits and Manolo Blahnik shoes. She’d have jetted about all over the world, sourcing yarns and designs for her multi-million dollar knitwear business, but that time was still far ahead in the future. So, in the absence of any kind of shoes, Cindsy planned and prepared while she turned the knitted heels and grafted the toes of the socks that would greatly improve the appearance of the stepcrowd’s ugly feet.

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Before she could run away, she had to give some thought to suitable clothing, and using the leftover yarns was an obvious place to start. Like all knitters she faced the challenge of how to make the best use of those oddballs, and after careful consideration, she began to cast on stitches for a cardigan. She managed to work on it a little at the end of each long day, content in the knowledge that she would soon set off on her great adventure, until it was done.

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Well, she never actually got to run away. Before long all that stuff you remember, or jolly well should from your childhood, about the great excitement of the ball, the prince and his search for a bride, the fairy godmother (who as far as I am concerned should have shown up a great deal earlier in Cinderella’s young life, though I suppose better late than never) pumpkins, glass slippers, coaches and so on came about.

We’ll fast forward a bit, quite a bit in fact, to find my Cinderella working away happily in her knitting room, in one of the palaces that she and the charming prince occupied at various seasons. With all her tools to hand and every kind of yarn her heart could desire did Cinderella pass her peaceful time. She never got rid of that cardigan. Indeed she kept it with her always as a reminder of how far she had come, even though she now had whole armoires full of the beautiful things she had knitted, very becoming to a beloved, good and kind princess.

It only remains for me to add that the Prince adored her, her mother in law treasured her, and as for her father…well the best I can do for him is that he continues to live with the trio, feeling awfully sorry for himself.

WHAT A MUG!

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OLIVE PRESSING – THEN AND NOW

I mentioned using our own olive oil in “Going Bananas”.   Olive crops are notorious for being unpredictable, vulnerable as the fruit is to a great many factors, and it’s common to have a reasonable harvest every second year as a rule. The farmers, and particularly the older folk, say the trees are resting when it’s clear that no olives are developing on the trees, and who can blame them, the trees that is.

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The olive tree grows slowly, taking its time. It’s been taking its time for aeons and there’s something about its gnarled trunk, its knotted branches knitted into intertwining twists and cables, its roots reaching over rocks and creeping into crevices, that’s very reassuring. Olive wood is extremely hard, the tree is evergreen. We live among olive groves that have been rooted for centuries in a land that has seen everything good and everything ghastly that mankind is capable of.

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There’s much I could write about olives, but for now I’ll contrast the old way of pressing the fruit to obtain the golden oil with the very latest technology.

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Deep in a secluded valley near our home lies a very old abandoned village whose handful of residents attempted to escape the depredations of invasions in times long gone. The few stone houses stand silently derelict amongst wildly overgrown orchards, formerly abundant with fruit, whilst the dense undergrowth strangles the artichokes and a few other vegetables, heirs to earth once cultivated, which have managed to propagate. But the olive trees endure. Untended, unpruned, unfed and unharvested they stand in silent testimony.

Amongst the ruins are the remains of the olive mill which produced the oil upon which the villagers and other locals relied. The olives would have been brought by donkey and stored in the ceramic jars whose design has changed not at all over many, many centuries, until their turn to be weighed and then pressed. The harvest was a busy time for everybody, backbreaking work, even for small children who would collect the olives which were knocked from the trees to the ground. I’m sure all would have been delighted to see the oil flowing from those presses, just as we never fail to be thrilled when we see our oil gushing from the gleaming stainless steel of the very latest equipment.

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Handmade ceramic storage jars

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The crushing wheel in the trough; the spout

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Handcut stone; handhewn rafters

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Hand crafted stone crushing wheel

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The hand-driven olive press

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Balance scales

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Ali Baba oil jar

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A ‘modern’ addition – diesel engine

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Heavy lifting winch

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Engine detail – belt drive pulley

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Among massive old machinery

Today every last drop is squeezed from the olives, although the method of harvesting the fruit is essentially the same – the olives still have to be beaten out of the trees. My friend Petra made this video at harvest time last year and it shows the whole process of olive oil production very clearly.

Video by Petra Nowak; music written and composed by loVeu2 (Nowak, Georgiou, Elliot)

MAGIC BALL COWL

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The weather has indeed turned out exactly as forecast – snow, sleet, freezing rain, rain, and wind. The wind’s not pussyfooting about, making itself known with gales so bad that most of the ferries are docked and not permitted to sail. The gods are evidently much annoyed, and each is trying to outdo the other. The fireplace is doing a great job, the tea is hot and plentiful, and the banana loaf is down to its last little slice.

Colour! Lots of it has been needed these blustery days, with the wind roaring its way through grey cloud and snow flurries to rattle shutters and nerves. I turned to my magic balls of yarn for the perfect quick fix. Cheerful colours almost begging to become a circular knit cowl. Something so simple and easy, it feels like cheating.

Round and round I knit while the yarn colours changed enticingly, and after two evenings glued to the TV drama, it was finished. I gave my cowl a solid colour lining, did a three-needle bind off with the live stitches of the lining and the cast on stitches of the magic ball bit, and there – done! All the knots are neatly concealed, and the cowl is doubly warm.

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They cannot manage without me

GOING BANANAS

We’ve had quite a bit of unsettled weather this winter, including some heavy and very disruptive snowfall. Higher than usual temperatures in the last few days have been accompanied by strong winds from the south which bring us unwelcome Sahara dust. The resulting dense haze usually only dissipates when the wind changes direction, or when it’s finally washed out by rain. Yesterday we were suddenly walloped by a fierce gale out of the west which certainly took care of the dust, but also heralded a big change in the weather.

According to the forecasts, which are often about as accurate as my aim when throwing a ball for the dog, we can expect strong winds, heavy rain, sleet and some snow, starting tomorrow. Seems the really nasty conditions prevailing in Western Europe at the moment have set their sights on us again, as if we don’t have enough problems already with the severe flooding and damage in Northern Greece.

The gloomy weather outlook turned my fancy to thoughts of something sweet. Chocolate perhaps? A biscuit? My eye lit on the bananas in the fruit bowl which were starting to get over-ripe. Banana bread, of course – that sweet treat you can zap out with little fuss but big impact; quick and easy to make, simple and satisfying.

I got to work, first picking oranges and lemons from our laden trees to decide which I’d use for the zest. I’ve tried many recipes over the years; some were better than others. Banana cake is pretty basic, unless you’re really into a highfalutin version. I’m not. I can’t give due credit for the recipe that I finally settled on some years ago as it’s cobbled together from the efforts of many other bakers, but this is what works for me, and as I’ve said, simple banana bread recipes are of much the same ilk.

If you’re interested, here’s how I go about it, with a few hints first:

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The Basics

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Our own oil

I like to use oil rather than butter; orange or lemon zest really does give the loaf that extra something; nuts should be added sparingly and finely chopped if you use them; we don’t like raisins in banana loaf; I must be careful not to over beat the mixture or it gets gooey; it’s better to mash the bananas first.

Cathy’s banana loaf

INGREDIENTS
4 very ripe bananas – mashed (and obviously peeled!)
2 large eggs
½ cup vegetable oil (I use our own organic olive oil)
1 cup sugar
½ tsp vanilla essence
2 cups self-raising flour
½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
½ tsp salt
¼ cup milk
and if desired:
¼ cup nuts, finely chopped (pecans are good)
and/or
the zest of an orange or lemon

METHOD
Cream the oil and sugar
Stir in the bananas and vanilla essence
Add the eggs and mix in well
Sift the dry ingredients together and add to the batter
Stir in the milk
If used, add the zest and/or nuts

When thoroughly mixed, pour the batter into a greased loaf pan
Bake at 350 deg F (180 deg C) for about an hour until well risen and browned.
Cool in the baking pan, turn out and …go bananas!

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Nutty and nice

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On guard duty

A HAT FOR OTZI

That poor man! I can’t imagine what he went through, and how difficult his life must have been by today’s standards.

I’ve lived in the Austrian Alps. I’ve hiked there, even in winter. Not in blizzard conditions of course, but certainly through deep snow, equipped with the proper boots, thermal underwear, ski jacket, hat, gloves and trekking sticks. The whole nine yards. Note, I said hike. Not me for the ski run and all that suicidal careening down gradients designed by Nature for mountain goats to frolic on.

Ah yes, hats. Many and varied did I knit. I’m not convinced that much heat is lost through the head, and apparently scientists have more or less debunked this notion, but certainly a warm, fleecy cover on one’s noggin is a comfort, and so much better if the headgear is bright of colour, in my humble and much-biased opinion.

Back then to my favourite older man. Much older man. I suppose his bearskin hat did ward off the elements to some extent, though as I’ve mentioned before he seemed to have trouble keeping it firmly affixed to his head, given that the leather ties had been broken and then knotted together again.

I’m no historian of Neolithic clothing but although wool was known and used by Neolithic peoples in other parts of the world, it appears this excellent insulating material wasn’t available to Otzi and his folk. Seems sheep had yet to find their way high up into the Alps, or at least trade in fleece hadn’t begun here at that time; I’m happy to be corrected on this point.

Ever since we met, Otzi and I, his lack of a snugly-fitting hat of warm wool has spun its way through my imagination on occasion. A hat for Otzi should surely not be coarse and bulky like skins and furs, but soft and cosy. It should be somewhat waterproof, as indeed his bearskin cap was, but able to hug his head against the vicious winds that whip and rip through the Alps.

Otzi needed the protection afforded by felted fabric. Austria is famous for its wonderful Loden cloth which is not actually felted, but fulled. Wool yarn is first loosely woven or knitted, then subjected to a controlled process of agitation and boiling, until the wool fibers shrink and mat together into a dense fabric. This density makes fulled fabric exceptionally warm and very hardwearing; it does not ravel, it can be cut, and it can be moulded to any shape.

I have quite a bit of oiled Shetland tweed yarn in my stash, a perfect yarn for my tribute to Otzi. Such yarns, spun in the oil, can be unappealing to knitters who aren’t aware that once the finished item is well washed in hot soapy water the oil is removed and the yarn fluffs up, becoming much softer. Tweed yarn for Otzi then. Tweed, with all its inviting little flecks of color, to warm and cheer him.

Two colours, I decided. Two colours, as his clothing had been so drab. Brown for earth and rock, blue for the sky so far above him. To think he perished, alone, all those thousands of years ago, and now esteemed scientists devote their careers to him.

His hat didn’t take long to knit. I used a larger size needle than the yarn usually calls for and knitted an overly big hat. I gave it a deep brim so that it can be worn doubled, or pulled down to cover part of the face. The resulting hat, prior to fulling, was of course floppy and stringy and looked quite odd, but the magic was yet to come.

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Looks rather odd

Bucket of very hot water, bucket of cold water, bottle of dishwashing liquid, rubber gloves, and go… I love this part! The idea is to agitate and aggravate the woollen item by rubbing it hard in the soapy water, plunging it in and out of hot and then cold water. The water has to be changed often so that it remains as hot/cold as possible, and the item must be checked frequently to monitor the rate of fulling and shrinking.

When satisfied with the result, I rinsed it thoroughly and rolled it up in a towel to blot excess moisture. Poor Jason sat outside in the sun all day while Otzi’s hat dried, never saying a word.

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Would Otzi have liked this?

It’s likely that I’ll knit another hat for Otzi – there are so many exciting possibilities.

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I have my own woollies, thank you

COLOUR or COLOR?

Whichever way you spell it, the kilims shown in the last entry radiate with colour. I was almost overwhelmed when I entered the dazzling display area on a rather grey wintry evening. Colour leapt out at me. Colour embraced me. Colour cheered and colour warmed me.

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Magda Karastathis

This impressive exhibit was expertly curated by Magda Karastathis on behalf of the Lafkos Community Association. Magda studied at the prestigious Athens School of Fine Arts and taught at schools in Patras, Athens and Volos before her recent retirement. Her family is from the Lafkos/Milina area: Lafkos, the ancient fortified village on the hilltop, which afforded more protection from invaders and pirates; Milina, now a beautiful village on the Pagasitic Gulf, but only a fishing spot in those very early days.

Summer visitors to the Pelion Peninsula are often surprised to hear that we have a distinct winter season. They’re even more stunned to learn that snow’s not uncommon, and that Mt Pelion has a ski resort. Winters are not usually severe, but there are many dreary days for we have the typical winter rainfall of the Mediterranean climate. If grey’s your colour, take your pick of shades, but it’s not mine and so, still steeped in the saturated colours of the exhibited kilims, I dived into my yarn stash the next day.

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The bobbles and tassels had really caught my imagination!