An Email from a dear friend of our years in a hill village of Cyprus, talking of a well loved taverna keeper, the venerable mukhtar of many years’ standing and various other local personalities, brought back a flood of memories, some of them demonstrating the speed of change in the island in recent years. Others were heart-warming or amusing. I wrote about village life for some years in local magazines and newspapers under the banner of “Village Voice”. From those times, I offer two anecdotes that have never been published and one that was.
Yannis and Koulla lived next door to the coffee shop in the village and they cooked up very good skewers of Souvla and mixed offal (“Kokoretsi”), on a proper old iron barbecue (pictured below) Standing around the yard of a winter’s Sunday morning, whilst enjoying hot and flavoursome meaty chunks, I spied an elderly man tottering down the steep street opposite. He was only clad in thin cottons on a very cold day. “That’s Christos”, we were told. “He’s 91”. Furthermore, he lived alone in an unheated house, tended his goats in the field above the village every day and kept himself alive on his home-distilled Zivania. (See Note below) “He keeps warm by rubbing his legs, arms and body with Zivania and drinking a good half bottle a day”, said Yiannis. As I recall, lasted a few more years after that.
Kokoretsi uses kidneys, heart, liver, lung and sweetbreads of lamb or kid. Cut into chunks, mixed and speared for cooking. The cleaned intestine is used like an edible ribbon wound round the skewered meats. It is not always cooked on a rotating spit. Sometimes it is heated from above, allowing gorgeous juices to be caught by a pan below. When cooked, the skewers are removed and the meat sliced for serving. This cooking method goes back into the mists of time.
Our friend, a Nordic, used to have a number of visitors (most of us did; we were a good holiday venue for relatives and friends from Europe’s northern climes) All, of course, were fascinated by the traditional ways of the somewhat remote village and the villagers. None more so than a woman of about 35, a catering manager from Norway. She loved the Mediterranean and had spent a few years living with a Greek man in Athens, where she learned the language. One sunny morning she walked with her hosts through the village, towards the coffee shop, outside of which the local gentry were putting the world to rights. They looked up and passed various rude comments about the shape and disposition of her anatomy, unaware of her linguistic capabilities.
She heard all the comments, and stopped immediately in front of them and said in quiet, measured tones, words to the effect of: “Thank you, gentleman – you disgusting, evil thinking old men”. Shocked silence prevailed.
Zivania: what you buy now is a pale, factory made, shadow of the glorious, often dangerous, fire-water that used to be made in the villages. For centuries, very many village homes had their own stills. In the autumn, when the new, raw wine had been made in the huge “Pitharia” (clay pots), some would be taken off for distillation. There was no law against this at the time, and the alcohol levels were often very high, sometimes lethally so.
My then neighbour Maria’s Zivania was very clear, very clean and had its own special zing. Quite often in the distilling season she would knock on our window and ask me to keep the fire under the still going and the spirits dribbling into the jars at a proper rate whilst she went to church or the village shop. My “pay” was a bottle or two of the good stuff.
Good as Maria’s Zivania was, the best was made by a lady of mature years who lived a few doors down the street from the then taverna, who had a good sized still, producing a stylish spirit, which people from Limassol, 40 kilometres away, would drive to buy.
In a Proper Pickle – Capers
It’s a ritual you don’t see as often as you did a few years ago, but it is good to see the people doing it aren’t just old villagers. The ritual of which I write is the annual assault on the spiky wild plant that grows over so many of our hillsides – the Caper. City slickers often drive up into the hills and plunder the caper plants at the sides or just off the roads and pathways.
You don’t crop a caper plant like a vine. You have to have successive visits to it because what you need are the buds, which start small, plump up and then open into quite pretty flowers and they don’t all develop at the same time. It is at the plump, pre-opening stage that they are in the best shape for pickling. Watch the pickers! Their eyes scan the plants and their hands skilfully miss the spikes on the stems as they pick only the plump buds. As they move on you’ll see they’ve left the small buds, as if saying “I’ll come back for you in a few days”.
The caper is a Mediterranean shrub which is found wild in Cyprus but sometimes cultivated, notably in France which even has a town in Provence called Roquevaire which is known as “the caper capital”. Despite this, and the capers grown, pickled and bottled in Spain and Italy, I reckon there’s nothing to touch a Cyprus caper. They pickle them well here and they’re not too briny. They add flavour and zest to many cold dishes – potato salad, for example, or Salade Niçoise (a great, classic dish, immensely satisfying), and they can enhance grilled or fried fish and give life to a Village Salad, too. This said, a French epicure will disagree with me – in France it is the smallest buds that are most prized; concentrated flavour, probably.
It is strange that this Mediterranean bud is found in an old and famous English recipe, caper sauce. This is made with a Béchamel sauce which itself is made using half milk and half white (meat) or fish stock. As the stock is made (300 ml / ½ pint) a tablespoonful of caper juice or lemon juice is added, and just before serving a tablespoon of chopped capers is added and stirred in. It then accompanies steamed or grilled fish or roast lamb.
Those buds that avoid the pickers flower and then produce a fruit which look very much like a gherkin. These, too, are picked and pickled – the taste is not heavy and similar to that of the buds. Some of the commercially produced jars you buy here contain both pickled buds and fruits.
Not grapes – capers! A close-up of lovely plump ones enhancing a salad of cooked potatoes, sliced onion and green leaves, dressed with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper.
As well as the English Caper sauce and discreet sprinklings of them over salads, meat and fish, two famous sauces have them as an important ingredient:
Sauce Tartare: Mayonnaise, mixed with finely chopped gherkins, capers and herbs (mint, parsley, chives). There are other variations which may add chopped olives and
spring onions. This is a lovely addition to fried fish or large fried shrimp.
Sauce Ravigote: This is a vinaigrette to which capers and chopped fines herbes are added, and, sometimes pounded hard-boiled eggs. Adds zing to salads.
For the wine lover, care has to be taken with the intake of fruits and vegetables pickled in vinegar or brine – too many can turn the taste-buds against the wine. A cardinal sin.