Come October, after the first rainfall in Greece and Cyprus, wild greens start appearing throughout fields and mountainsides. Called ‘agria horta’ in Greek, these wild greens make an excellent, nutritious salad.
Today, the more traditional amongst us still collect wild greens from the fields, hills and mountains when they are in season. I learnt how to identify the different types of greens when I was just a little girl and I’d help my mother gather them from the fields surrounding our lovely, lonely little house in Larnaca.
Although I learnt only the basics, my mother seemed to know all the aromatic herbs and greens, both the sweet and sour tasting ones. All housewives knew about wild greens at the time, as these would be part of a regular diet – freshly gathered, expertly sorted, lightly boiled and then served with olive oil and lemon juice. My mother’s knowledge, however, stretched further than the knowledge of the regular housewife of the time. She was lucky enough to inherit her grandmother’s knowledge of wild herbs, which was matched by none.
Great grandmother Maria was a tall, green-eyed, song- and dance-loving woman. Married to a captain who was always away at sea trading the sun-blessed island’s wines in exotic, far-away places, Great grandmother Maria had no intention of staying at home alone. She decided, instead, to make the mountains her teacher and to learn all about what the herbs of her homeland had to offer.
With her parents’ blessing, she roamed the hills and mountains of her homeland, the small Cycladic island by the name of Santorini. She would take her donkey, Psiris, and load two bags on either side of him, which she’d fill with the greens that nature offered in abundance. She soon came to know each and every green and herb in detail, not only for their culinary qualities, but also for their medicinal benefits.
Soon, the islanders would come to her for help and advice, and she’d be summoned to people’s homes to help with their ailments. It was like this that she became known as ‘Yatrena Maria’ – or doctor Maria.
All that my mother remembered from her glorious, extrovert, fun-loving grandmother Yatrena Maria was how she was always singing and dancing, and taking her little granddaughter with her on her journeys through the mountains and from village to village on faithful Psiris. Yatrena Maria would always share a drink with the villagers she was visiting before delivering her herbs and advice, while her little granddaughter – also named Maria – would sit nearby eating the figs and nuts she was offered.
Once the drink, the gossip, the song and the dance were over, the villagers would start explaining their problems, while Yatrena Maria and her little granddaughter would listen carefully. The Yatrena always had the perfect green or herb for every problem – there was a herb to help women get pregnant, another to help them not conceive. There was a herb for coughs and colds, another for lumps and warts. Sometimes, the herbs would be accompanied by a recipe, sometimes by instructions on how to administer them.
To this day, I remember my mother – the little granddaughter Maria – using one of the herbal methods she learnt from her grandmother Yatrena Maria. It was a remedy for warts, and it involved a greeting to the full moon.
She took me out to our back yard when the full moon appeared, gathered some earth from the ground and rubbed this on my leg, which was covered in warts. While doing this, she watched the moon, smiling her greeting: "Kαλημέρα φεγγάρι και ωραίο παλλικαρι.. τί καλά μας έφερες..." (Good morning moon and handsome lad... What goodies have you brought for us...). I remember smiling at how silly this was, and I’m sure I wouldn’t have been the only one. How silly to talk to the moon! Most people today would think this absurd, as they would think all of Yatrena Maria’s remedies ridiculous. All I can say is that the following day, my leg was clear of warts – so there must have been something to the practice, as there would have been something to Yatrena Maria’s other remedies, causing her to be sought out and respected in her remote island homeland.
No wonder that I grew up smiling to the moon that had helped me lose my warts! And no wander I once also tried talking to the clouds because I saw in them a lovely godly face looking kindly, straight down at me. For years I thought that this was God, reminding me to behave.
But I grew up and stopped smiling to the moon and talking to the clouds. My childhood had disappeared, and with it my child’s imagination. What hasn’t disappeared, though, is my belief in my mother’s stories of great-grandmother Yatrena Maria. Although I unfortunately didn’t inherit her knowledge or skills, I do believe in the power of nature – and the wild greens and herbs of the Mediterranean.