Zambolis apartments

Zambolis apartments
For your holidays in Chania

Thursday, 13 March 2008

The rape of the countryside

UPDATE: As of July 24, 2013, the foraging of malotira and diktamos for commercial purposes is prohibited, within a five-year ban, until 31/8/2018. No surprise really, when you read the following post, written more than five years ago. 

Stamatis is a good solid Cretan bloke, a family man who takes great pride in the working of the land. Every weekend he goes up to his mountain village with his family, and works the land, where he grows vegetables for his daily needs and olives for oil (which he also sells). He keeps a few sheep and chickens, which are looked after by neighbours when he's at work in town. He loves to wander around the hillsides and pick wild greens; he brings home the horta, and his wife cleans and prepares them. He also likes to collect snails. He finds so many, that he calls his friends round and parties on them. If they didn't come round to eat them with him, they wouldn't get eaten up, because, as Stamatis says, he gets tired of eating them, what with having access to so many.

While he's foraging in the woods for all the edibles he can find, he might also chance on something that he doesn't eat himself, but that he knows is precious and highly sought after, so he picks that too. One day, he came to our house, carrying a huge sack - the kind that would hold 10 kilos of potatoes. It was full of malotira (Cretan mountain tea). At the rate we drink the stuff, we wouldn't need to procure any more supplies for the next five years. We suggested he take some back and give it to other people who may want it. "Nah," he said, " I've given away heaps already, I've got no one else to give it to. "So why did you pick it all off the mountain?" I asked him. "Well, it was there, so why not? Someone else would've got to it if I didn't." Makes sense, doesn't it?

If Stamatis hadn't picked it all himself, someone else would have got to it. It's a Greek thing to have it all for yourself, and share only with whoever you like. I know for a fact, that if he had left the malotira tea of Crete just there where he had found it, since he wasn't going to use it himself, grazing animals would have eaten it. If he didn't intend to use it himself, and he didn't have anyone to give it to, he would have thrown it away. How wasteful. Hania already has a grazing pasture problem, which is why animals are fed on manufactured feed. This is one way of destroying the food chain, without even realising it. This kind of greed - keep it all for yourself, share nothing, chuck the excess - is found mainly in the agricultural sector: my husband likes to go hunting, but can never pick up enough game, because poachers get to it before him. They hunt during periods in which hunting is forbidden, and if they can't carry everything that they kill, they leave it on the mountains to rot away.

Not all nature lovers are so thoughtless. My bachelor uncle lives in a property on the land that he works. He likes to cultivate wild greens, but he always procures his seeds and cutting via legal and more sustainable methods. His garden is filled with stamnagathi which he had once bought with the roots, and re-planted it in his garden. It seeded, and now the field is covered with patches of thorny cpiny chicory, which he picks whenever he wants to have "wild" greens for lunch, to go with some fresh fish from the local fishmonger, or eggs from his own chicken coop.

He is also a lover of mountain tea. A few years ago, he bought some cuttings of diktamo, another mountain tea herb from Crete, and planted them in flower boxes. As time passed, the diktamo bush grew, and he took cuttings of his own and planted them in the classic Greek cheese tins that tourists often see planted with geraniums, basil, and other aromatic flowers and herbs. Apart from its decorative aspect, diktamo is used with malotira to make a very aromatic tea drink. He didn't have to rape the countryside to get his fill, like Stamatis.

I still have Stamatis' malotira and my uncle's diktamo, and here's how we make our tea with it, which by the way, is very good for soothing sore throats and the common cold. Place a heaped tablespoon of dried diktamo, a heaped teaspoon of matzourana (marjoram) and a fistful of malotira into a saucepan. Fill the pot with water. The malotira will sit on top of the water, but not for long - as the water boils away, it will soak it up. Let the water boil till it takes on the colour of tea. Strain it into a cup, add sugar (I never do), but not milk (I know of only one person who adds milk to it, and this is considered highly unusual). The really good thing about this tea, is that you make and drink it one night, then leave the pot with the remining tea and leaves in it for the next night, and simply top it up with water and heat it. It may be good enough for a third day, too (albeit weaker), so it really isn't necessary to rape the countryside to get access to it.

This post is dedicated to my uncle Nikos.

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Kalitsounia fried
Kalitsounia in the oven
Wild asparagus
Hortopita (spanakopita)
Horta in winter
Horta in summer
Swiss chard (silverbeet)
Spiral pie
Eggs with mustard greens


  1. Your uncles way is best, no doubt about it. My father-in-law used to bemoan the attitude you're describing. He called those people the "I've got mine, you'd you make out" crowd - those people who can't think beyond their own personal interests. As for diktamo (dittany), I've read it's an aphrodisiac...not that a Cretan ever needs such a thing, mind you! :-)

  2. Very interesting. I'm currently reading "The Omnivore's Dilemna" which gives some pretty alarming information about the results of giving manufactured food to animals that ought to be grazing, so this struck a chord with me.

    On a happier note, your post gave me some extra enthusiasm to get out of the house and hit some fields around here to pick up vrouves.

  3. Hi Maria-- I am looking back at some posts while you are on your staycation. Enjoy! I could use some dictamo since I have a summer cold. I had a bag of it but I think I might have sent it off with my sister. Thanks for the nostalgic look at tea. --Sif

  4. As a great tea & infusion lover, I'm very interested in the aromas of these herbs (malotira & diktamo). In case you read this, Maria, how would you describe them? I hope one day I can get my hands on these herbs although I guess they might be difficult to find outside Greece (Crete)...

  5. I was just browsing for Cretan tea and came across this post. The reason I was looking, well, in 65/66 I lived in Matala in the caves for a couple of months, The village was tiny then and did'nt even have an oven. We walked to another village to buy bread, and occasionally a little meat. The meat was hacked from the hanging freshly killed sheep carcass and you just waited til the vendor was approaching the area you wanted a piece of! We survived on snails boiled with wild greens, potatoes chopped up fried and covered in egg. Tiny fish dipped in batter and eaten whole. These were all served in the living room of one of the tiny houses by the beach. An enterprising local ran it as a very casual and probably first cafe in Matala. The tea was the only non alcoholic drink as there was no electricity, so no fridges !! We drank Retsina and Ouzo, but the tea always stayed in my mind. I was 22 years old, but I can still conjure up the sweet spicy tea in my mind. We thought it was made from twigs, but I now realise they were the stems of Malotira. Perhaps some cinnamon too. So deliscious. I am now going to try and buy some, and some Diktamo, I already have Marjoram and Cinnamon. I do so hope I can re create that wonderful taste 45 years later.. Thankyou for your article.