Thursday, 6 December 2012


The last time I went into a LIDL supermarket branch in my town, after paying for my purchases at the cashier with my credit card (LIDL Greece used to accept only cash in the recent past, but I guess old dogs do learn new tricks after all), I was given a voucher to take part in a draw for five 'lucky' winners (from all over Greece, mind you) who would get their liquid heating fuel paid for that year. All I had to do was fill in my details on the ticket. Since we aren't using liquid fuel for heating any more, I offered my voucher to the person standing behind me in the queue.

 The picturesque character of this scene relies on keeping olive trees trimmed, so that their shape and size makes it suitable to harvest the fruit efficiently.

"Oh, I don't need it either," she said to me. "We've got a fireplace." We both laughed, and I offered it to the next person. Same thing; I don't know who got it in the end, and it really doesn't matter anyway; the point is to show how useless prizes can be, and how cut-throat competition is between supermarkets.

It sounds 'obscene' (as one reader put it) that "(a) in the 21st century we're burning trees for heat, and (b) in Greece, land of the burnt-our-arsoned countryside, we would actually deliberately burn our last trees for short-term benefits". To put it bluntly, it also sounds absurd that this is what Greek citizens have been reduced to - burning anything flammable just to keep warm. The greenest and most noble among us will be burning nothing and keeping warm by wearing coats under our blankets (this is not a joke; it's quite true, no matter how difficult to believe it may sound). Calling Greeks arsonists is not far from the very common habit of the mass media depicting Greece as a country full of lazy, cheating, violent, rude, racist, tax-evading, troublemaking, thieving vandals, all part of the latest trend in 'crisis pornography'; η κρίση πουλάει, as we say in Greek.

Long branches of olive trees with many twiggy tops (known as φούντες - tufts) make up the bulk of what is burnt on the field. Only logfire wood is marketable. Olive leaves are also used as fertiliser, but the twigs and branches do not have further use in Crete at the moment (they may eventually  be worked into pellets for pellet-burning heaters). It is too costly to remove them for burning elsewhere and they are difficult to dispose. But they need to be cleared from the field because olive trees need regular trimming - things grow quickly in Crete.

Olive wood burns very easily, so once a fire starts up in an olive field, it could easily get out of control if not watched properly. But lighting fires in olive groves is actually very common all over Crete. As long as there is no wind, a fire can be contained easily. The remains of a clearance come in as useful cooking apparatus: the barbecue. Pork steaks are the bbq meat of choice in Greece. Lamb chops are much more expensive, and beef is never seen on a Greek barbecue. Barbecues nearly always consist of charcoal - gas barbecues are simply not very common. The wood-scented aroma of the meat is particularly fragrant - and very tempting.

When my husband clears wood from the field, he thinks it is a waste not to use the remains of the fire. It's a perfect time for pork steaks and sausages.

You need
the charcoal embers of an open fire 
a folding barbecue grill that holds meat securely 
a rake
some rocks 
heat-resistant gloves
4 pork steaks
4 sausages
2 lemon halves 
salt, pepper and oregano


Place the rocks on the ground and rake the embers between them. Make sure there are no flames. Secure the meat and sausages in the grill. Rub the grill on both sides with the lemon halves. Place the grill on the rocks above the embers. Sprinkle salt, pepper and oregano over the meat. Wearing heat-resistant glove, check the meat and turn when it is cooked on one side. Season the meat on the other side and cook till done. 

If it's warm enough, you can stay at the field and picnic around the fire. We just made it back to the car when it began raining heavily just after the meat was cooked. At any rate, our olive grove is located on a hill and there is just enough standing room on the terraces where the olive trees are rooted. Not very comfortable - one wrong move and you could end up rolling down.

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  1. I live in a valley known for orchards and vineyards. In the fall months it is very common for orchardists to burn waste and in the Spring they set fire to areas to encourage growth, not trees of course. I wonder if they have impromptu barbecues, if so I want to be invited.

  2. Maria, I'm intrigued by the person who believes it "obscene" that we use trees for fuel. What I find obscene is that over the last two hundred years we have "spent" the worlds supply of fossil fuels that took millions of years to build up. I find it obscene that in the 21st century people are perfectly happy to allow the petrochemical industries to poison our waters, destroy our land, endanger our environment, threaten our food supply. Wood burning is probably the most sustainable source of heat that we have available to us, my partner and I care for around 1300 trees, when we have harvested the fruit, the trees are pruned, as with your family Maria, what can't be used is burned in the field (to help minimise the impact of summer "wild fires"), everything else is laboriously cut, carried and stacked to provide our fuel for the winter. No waste.

    We all have to realise the implication of our choices, if we burn wood then most of us understand that conservation and the care of woodlands and trees is important. If you want a house in the hills away from the poisoned air of our cities (especially in a country with no land registry) then it's not that unlikely that a fire has been set in order to clear the land, the same goes for many new road builds, this is pretty endemic throughout the whole of southern Europe, as are certain bad, livestock "farming" practices.

    Obviously we can't just take the earth resources for short term gain (even though that's what we have been doing for the last few hundred years) but burning trees and the replenishment of woodlands for future generations is something that is within our control if we have the will. Sorry to go off on one but really! I'm cold now, just off to light the fire in which I shall bake the bread, and on which I will make the tea.

    1. i was particularly riled by that comment, but i like to try to work out why people make such comments - here is my judgment:
      burning wood to keep warm sounds primitive, and the person who made the comment is from the, er, western world, which you and i came from, and er, you know, they are really environmentally freindly over there (in the commentator's country, they use nuclear power stations)

      since this post went up, i also found out that the person thinks that athens has been a forested paradise for centuries and the bad greek people burnt their forests on purpose - i did inform them that they were quite wrong: technological innovation (machinery and irrigation) is the only reason why greece has forests nowadays (he couldnt believe that the pine was an introduced species to greece!) and he thought the rocky greek coastline was a process of erosion due to forest fires (it's actually pristine greek landscape!)

      by checking out the photo here you see bare hills surrounding the temple of Zeus, while in this PDF on pages 26-27 you see find out that athens was never really forested, and it was only fromt he beginning of the 20th century that such work ever took place - fire wasnt even the cause of bare mountains: athenians ripped out the trees during ww2 to keep warm - but the mountain was still re-forested with 2.5 million trees...

      and just one more bit of interesting info which debunks myths about greek forests - these days, there are simply more trees to burn, which is why fires often break out: i read a student's thesis about two weeks ago, which aimed to prove, through aerial photos of cretan terrain (specifically platanias, hania - from photos taken as far back as the 1940s), that the cretan landscape has changed dramatically due to the planting of more trees in later times, and that this is specifically due to the subsidies people received (they are about to disappear now) to plant trees - just look at the photo of the moutnain that i post here - were there ever trees on this mountain until irrigation and machinery helped the farmer plant them?! (this topic interests me a great deal, becos it hinges on our identity - most people confuse ancient with modern greece, due to lack of hisotrical knowledge)

  3. Maria you raise lots of issues and this is an emotive area for debate. Yes there are more cultivated plantations of olive trees due in part to subsidies and that at one point we got a living wage for our harvest, but those gains are being rapidly undone. Our ancient trees are being uprooted for firewood (with no thought for the consequences and no replanting), small farmers can no longer afford to collect the harvest and daily whole fields are being uprooted, cast in concrete and "planted" with photovoltaic panels. We will never be able to reclaim this agricultural land, in one of the food baskets of Greece ( The Messara ) On the whole fires don't spontaneously break out. Arson is a problem (but as I said not one confined to or particular to Greece) and painful as that might be it needs to be acknowledged. But you're right, people spouting off about things they don't know much about is not very helpful

    1. maquis is the typical mediterranean landscape (just thought i'd post this becos the word eluded me at the time i was writing the post)