I am back at the cottage after a brief sojourn in Greece. I haven’t written here in a while. It has been a busy, heady, magical summer; so much has happened and along the way the blog has been somewhat overlooked – something I feel guilty about neglecting, like a houseplant I have forgotten to water. At the end of each week I vaguely think – oh yes, the blog – and then another week passes, and then another. And now here we are at the onset of autumn.
But Greece always has a way of making me feel compelled to write. The shutters come up and I pick up my pen again. It must be the golden light, or the change of scenery, so very different to home, or the scent of basil and pine, perhaps a cocktail of all combined. I have a great deal to share from this summer - our work in the studio, various projects and events, assisting Sarah Winward in August, a photoshoot in Spitalfields for the Homes & Gardens Christmas feature - and I hope to be able to share more on these soon. Most importantly, though, we have been working on developing our website – it has been a labour of love, and although still in progress (I suspect always in progress) we finally feel that we have something that better reflects our work and who we are. Do visit if you will – there are a number of Jesse’s beautiful illustrations and a new gallery of photographs. We hope you like it.
For now, though, back to the shores of the Aegean.
This was the third year I have visited Hydra, and it was as quiet as I have ever seen it. The bars and boutiques around the crescent-shaped port, usually flooded with holidaying Athenians and European visitors, were winding down after the busiest weeks of the season and pleasantly tranquil.
We stay as usual at Spiti Cameron, a romantic, crumbling tavern-conversion up behind the town that looks over a cobbled square dominated by white fresh-water wells on ancient springs. Supposedly the springs were how Hydra derived its name.
Mostly we spend the days on the beach at Vlychos, exerting as little energy as possible in the heat – reading, swimming, napping. Late afternoon, we take the boat back to the port in hazy light and a wake of pink-white froth and then climb the steep, cobbled hill stopping to do grocery shopping on the way. For a few hours we potter and drink gin and tonics – my husband happens to make the best G&Ts of anyone I know, heavily iced, fragile spirals of cucumber curling around the inside of the glass. We burn citronella and listen to Daft Punk, Johnny Cash, Martha Wainwright, Janis Joplin. I love this time of the day – skin tingling from the sun and dried sea-salt, slow hours getting drunk on Hendricks while the light dwindles and the cicadas sing their scratchy song and strange cats wander around the house, winding through our legs on their way through. Much later, after cold showers, we eventually make our way down into the town and find someplace to eat. The temperature is cooler, then, sometimes there is even the slightest flutter of a wind in the streets, a suggestion of a sea-breeze on your shoulders.
On a couple of evenings we eat at Cat Lady restaurant, so called, husband tells me because when he first came here a decade ago there was an abundance of feral cats - so many, in fact, that when you sat down to dinner there would be fifteen at your feet in a flash. Cat Lady – who is formidable and cougar-like herself at the best of times, with a loud, nasal voice that she uses to yelp at her husband the chef, her waitresses, passers-by, neighbours and customers alike – had openly declared war on the cats and would chase them up and down the street, shooting at them with a large water pistol. So, the name stuck. I am fascinated by the Cat Lady, I’ll admit it. I admire and am terrified by her in equal measure. If Cat Lady does not like the look of you, you’ll sure as hell know about it. One night a couple of tourists sit down at the table next to us and she frightens them off, hollering at them and looking generally menacing, and they hastily retreat down the street - who knows what they had done to offend her! But she seems to like us, probably because my husband’s family have been long-standing customers, and when we arrive she is always warmly welcoming, pulling up a chair (she has a habit of unceremoniously plonking herself down at your table when you least expect it) in order to tell us what she has fresh that day. The menu is never anything to go by, though a pleasure to read for its unusual spellings – ‘smocked trute’ (you guessed it, smoked trout) being one of our favourites.
This year, Cat Lady (who I had always taken to be in her mid-forties) is cradling a newborn baby in her arms. Yours? we ask, and she proudly affirms. Of course having a baby has had precisely the opposite effect on Cat Lady that it has on everyone else. She looks ten years younger, wears a leopard-print Ra-Ra skirt and pink Converse boots, holding the tiny girl in her arms and rocking and canoodling her while running the tables in just the way she usually does – loudly – calling out greetings or insults to passing Hydriots beyond on the lane. The baby sleeps and gurgles, apparently quite content to be lugged around at 11 o’clock at night. We eat calamari and Cat Lady permits a limited number of cats to beg wide-eyed at our feet.
I have only recently discovered the joy in Greek cooking. As a child I couldn’t stand it; endless greasy fried fish and vegetables didn’t much appeal to me as a teenager either - I think I survived on such quantities of Greek salad that I could not bear the thought of it for years to come, topped up with ice-cream and cartons of duty free Marlboro Lights. Even the past couple of years I was dubious of its simplicity and apparent lack of variation – the same menu in every restaurant – so much less sophisticated than French or Italian food, which I love. But I have come to appreciate the roughness of Greek cuisine, and to admire its faith in the local ingredients. The Greek tomatoes, cucumbers and aubergine are divine – misshapen, fragrant, succulent. Lots of garlic, of course too, of which I am inordinately fond (my poor husband) and the seafood is plain, rustic and plump with freshness – best lightly fried or grilled and then drizzled with olive oil, sea salt and lemon. They have a dessert in Greece (perhaps elsewhere too for all I know) called mastika – icecream, essentially, made with the sticky gum of the Mediterranean mastic tree. It is an acquired taste being somewhat herbal, even faintly medicinal – but utterly delicious, stringy and chewy like melted marshmallow. One of our favourite places to end an evening in town is a little café that serves mastika with honeyed baklava.
Having been recently preoccupied with designing Christmas wreaths for a shoot, I immediately notice the dried door wreaths that hang over nearly every doorway in the town. I learn that they are made with wild flowers and grasses during a festival called Protomagia (May 1st), when the locals celebrate spring. The wreath flowers are handpicked by the women and woven together with garlic for the evil eye, a thorn to protect the house from enemies and an ear for good harvest, then they are hung over the doors of the houses to welcome the power of nature into the home. Over the weeks and months that pass, they dry, until all the colour has gone out of them and they are the beautiful shade of burnt cream. According to tradition, they adorn the doors of the houses until 24 June, the day of St. John the Harvester, when all the wreaths of the neighborhood are gathered and burnt in a big fire, the fire of the saint. One year I would like to come at the beginning of May and watch the Hydriot women make wreaths.
At home again at our cottage in Oxfordshire, where it is a warm, autumnal afternoon, I am surrounded by notes and Greek plant cuttings, which I took to find out more about now that I am home. I am still missing the island – the inevitable aching hangover of heat and beauty somehow hasn’t quite left me yet. I miss my four adopted cats – the scrawny tufty apricot matriarch with the persistent purr, my sweet one-eyed pirate cat, Jack, who (I flatter myself) remembered me and the feta cheese I have fed him the last two years and is always waiting at the front door when we arrive, the swarthy black panther who I suspect is a bit of a bastard but is so slinky and beautiful I can’t help myself loving him – and lastly, this year’s recruit – the naughtiest striped grey kitten who never left my side all week. I miss them all.
I pick through dried petals and seedpods and leaves pressed between the pages of my books and think of the narrow lanes shaded by great gusts of pink, apricot and white bourganvillea, azalea, trailing jasmine and wisteria. The lime trees in the square. Fig trees everywhere, heavy with fruit, and the garden at Spiti Cameron, freshly tilled, a glass chandelier hanging from the olive tree by the back steps.