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Tuesday, 15 April 2014

In Search of a Roman Repast



Beetles, Bugs, Birds and Bees on Kakkos Head

A Seed Bug flies in through one window of the car, settles briefly on the dashboard, and flies out of the opposite window. Seconds later a Flower Chafer Beetle alights on the door beside my elbow. A Blackbird streaks across the bonnet with a strand of Tamarisk trailing from his beak. I think we’re going to have an interesting walk this morning – I haven’t even got my boots on yet! This is Kakkos Headland which juts out into the sea between Ferma and Koutsounari and at the end of it is something rather special I want to show you. But let’s not rush things, take a look around as we push our way through this little line of recently planted Oleanders. Down on the beach a Yellow-legged Gull is calling to us and at our feet the Violet Carpenter Bees are busy pollinating the Sea Figs. It’s a beautiful warm and windless day so we’ll sally forth and see what we can find.




Purple Salsify
We are, in fact, in search of a Roman Repast for reasons which will become clear later. When you think of Cretan history the Minoans automatically spring to mind and true, they were the dominant civilisation here between two and four thousand years ago. But after them the Romans held sway for a while and they had a rather cunning method of fishing so I thought we’d have some fish for lunch today in celebration of our Roman forebears. But first we need something to go with our fish and here, nestling between the lower branches of this Lentisc bush, are just the thing. These seed heads, the size of tennis balls, belong to Purple Salsify. This is also known as the Oyster Plant as its roots supposedly taste of oysters which seems appropriate for a fish dish and the flowering shoots can be used in place of Asparagus.




Common Blue butterflies dance around the flowers
We’re coming down towards the centre of the headland now and notice how, not only are the plants thinning out but they’re also clumping together for protection against the fierce winds that ravage the head in winter. In this low growing clump of Lentisc we have the purple tufts of Cretan Ebony, little yellow heads of Phagnalon which almost look like dried flowers when in full bloom, a clump of yellow Immortelle and the whole ensemble topped off with Thorny Broom. As if that weren’t enough we have a corps de ballet of Common Blue butterflies dancing in attendance. Nothing edible unfortunately but what a splendid table decoration it would make – maybe we’ll have our lunch right here.




A World in Miniature
But first we must collect it so let’s go on towards the end. At this end of the head, which gets the worst of the winds, the whole world goes miniature with tiny plants wedged into protective crevices. They have tiny insects to pollinate them such as that bee fly in the top right inset picture. Despite appearances it is not a bee but a fly using visual cripsis to confuse would be predators and entomologists. (There’s no room to go into detail here so I’ll say more about the inset pictures in the Naturalists Group on facebook which anyone is welcome to visit or join.) What we’re after today is those succulent leaves in the main picture. This is Rock Samphire and we can boil those up to go with our fish. 




Sea Salt
Nearly there now and our final ingredient before the fish. These white crystalline deposits that you see in the dips and hollows is sea salt. Salt, as we all know from schooldays, is composed of sodium and chlorine (NaCl Sodium Chloride). Sea salt may also contain small amounts of other elements such as Magnesium, Calcium and Sulphur as well as traces of algal products which give it its ‘sea’ flavour. The inset picture shows two grains of salt under a microscope. The one on the left is ordinary supermarket table salt and the one on the right is a grain of sea salt sampled from the main picture.



Roman Fish Trap
And finally, right at the tip of the headland, the thing I’ve brought you down here to see. A hole in the ground. OK, it’s not just any hole in the ground, it’s a carefully excavated Roman fish trap. This left hand edge here, which is open to the sea at the bottom, would have had a wooden gate attached which could be raised to allow the fish in on the incoming tide. Then, when the tide turned the gate would be lowered trapping the fish inside the tank. The steps at the back are steep and narrow so I’ll nip down first and get lunch then you can go down whilst I start cooking.





Sea Urchin and tests
Unsurprisingly, as the gate disappeared centuries ago and it is now low tide, there wasn’t so much as an anchovy to be seen. However all is not lost as I did find some sea urchins down there, the roe of which will go a treat with our boiled Rock Samphire and Salsify. You sometimes find the skeletons of these animals (their ‘shells’ are called tests) washed up on the beach so I’ve inserted a couple of pictures in case you’ve come across them and wondered what they were.There are two types of sea urchin common in this area: red sea urchins cover themselves in debris but black sea urchins do not.



The one thing I can’t put into words is the sound down there. If you can imagine sitting in the sound box of a musical instrument whilst waves crash over you then you’re not even close. The best thing is to listen for yourselves:
 



Ah! There you are, grab a plate. Impressive wasn’t it? I might use it is a screen saver. I thought we might go out to Bramiana again next week and see how it’s looking in Spring. What do you think?
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With special thanks this week to Petr Bogusch et al at the Hymenopterists Forum for putting me straight about bee flies.

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