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Archive for August, 2010

Mrs. Amar Patel

29 Aug

Mrs Amar Patel, chef and owner of Indian Rice Factory

It was with great sadness that I heard today that Mrs. Amar Patel, chef-owner of Indian Rice Factory for an astonishing 40 years and one of the great figures of  the Toronto restaurant scene, passed away early this morning, after a long battle with illness. Her devoted son, Aman, gave me the news, and to him I offer hearfelt condolences.

            The sadness and loss is acute just now but I hope it isn’t inappropriate to remember what Mrs. Patel contributed to this city in her elegant, graceful, quietly insistent way.

I wrote about her in The Man Who Ate Toronto, trying to explain the significant role she played in this city’s evolution…

There were only two Indian restaurants in Toronto in 1967 (India House and Rajput) when Mrs. Patel arrived in Canada, a young nurse from Bombay. One afternoon, she decided to have lunch at the Inn on the Park hotel, at Eglinton and Leslie. The hotel’s restaurant, Café de 1’Auberge, was famous for sophisticated French cuisine, but it was the buffet of the day that aroused her curiosity – a culinary event entitled “From the Chafing Dishes of India.” In those dishes were examples of the curious travesty of Moghlai cooking that European chefs were trained to prepare: chicken, shrimp, or beef in a sort of bechamel sauce coloured with curry powder. Mrs. Patel called the manager and gently tried to explain that this was a little less than authentic.

When the conversation moved into the kitchen, executive chef Georges Chaignet listened politely and then invited Mrs. Patel to come back next day and cook him a meal. She obliged; he was stunned. As Stratford Chefs School instructor Jacques Marie, then Chaignet’s sous-chef, recalled: “She showed us what curry is really about. It was a new world to me.”

To the kitchen’s eternal credit, Mrs. Patel was hired to teach the team all that she knew. After a year, she moved on, first to Julie’s Mansion on Jarvis, working her magic in the casual upstairs dining room called the Bombay Bicycle Club, more famous in those days for the lissom beauty of its sari-clad waitresses than its buffet, and then to the Hyatt Regency.

In 1970 she opened her own place on Dupont Street, called Indian Rice Factory. The tiny room would be considered avant-garde even today. It seated barely a dozen customers who sat around an open cooking station, choosing from a short and frequently changing list of dishes on a blackboard tied to the back of the fridge. Slender, beautiful and always elegantly dressed, Mrs. Patel radiated a soft-spoken confidence as she worked, preparing many items à la minute, and explaining her recipes to anyone who asked. It was the antithesis of generic cuisine, and it also cost rather more than curry-lovers expected to pay, which bothered a few of the customers.

It seemed as if Toronto had finally taken a liking to “curry.” Eleven more Indian restaurants opened in the next three years, some offering the new thrill of tandoor-baked dishes (you can’t go wrong in Canada if you serve chicken and shrimp), but none of them daring to follow Mrs. Patel’s example by breaking the mould of the old generic menu. There would be exceptions in the decades that lay ahead: Sarnina’s Tiffin Room, near the Art Gallery of Ontario, was by all accounts a place of notable cooking, and more than one nostalgic gourmand has mourned the absence of the partridge in cardamom cream once served at Mindra’s on Yorkville.

Only in the mid-1990s, however, did signs of a shift in the status quo begin to appear. Restaurants with regional menus sprang up throughout the city. Rashnaa offered simple Tamil cooking in an ungentrified old house on a Cabbagetown backstreet. On Gerrard Street East, where most eateries compete on price rather than quality, Gujurat Durbar specialized in Gujurat’s inventive vegetarian dishes. Most of the surviving pioneers remained nervous of innovation, but not Indian Rice Factory, still on Dupont, though in larger, less impromptu premises.

I ate there in 1995 and found Mrs. Patel was still cooking. Her son, Aman, was the manager, a tall, serious young lawyer who told me he found the popular image of the stereotypical curry house deeply frustrating. They bought their meat from the same suppliers as the most expensive Italian or French restaurants, but customers expected to pay Gerrard Street East bargain prices once it was cooked. He had assembled a fascinating list of wines that worked unexpectedly well with Indian spicing, and was more than happy to spend fifteen minutes at a table explaining such matchmaking, but customers still felt safer with beer. He encouraged the chefs who cooked beside his mother to put experimental Indian-Western Fusion dishes on the menu, but his clientele passed them by.

I asked Aman Patel to choose our meal. The dishes that arrived were the work of three different minds. His mother prepared the delicious fresh fenugreek greens with soft potatoes and chewy fried onions, and also the bowl of fiery little okra tossed with garlic, onion, and chilies. Debebrata Sana, who had worked at leading hotels in Delhi and Qatar before joining the Rice Factory, cooked the traditional Moghlai recipe of chicken chirurchi, a tender breast stuffed with almonds, raisins, and paneer cheese, in a sauce of yogurt, cardamom, and saffron as smooth and rich as cream. The lamb shank in dark, intense bhuna sauce was made by David Eaglesham, a young Canadian chef who had been cooking beside Mrs. Patel for a year. Learning her secrets and combining his new knowledge with past experience, it was he who created the Indian Fusion dishes of which Aman Patel was so proud: grilled sea bass marinated with kari leaf, ginger, and garlic, served with a green curry sauce; grilled salmon on a bed of uppama (like Indian polenta) with deep-fried ginger and a Goan sauce.

Yes, it was the best Indian meal I had ever eaten in Toronto. No, it was neither generic nor traditional. It was a glimpse of one of many possible futures for Indian restaurants, a future in which creative cooking at last finds a place…

Mrs. Patel continued to play an influential role in Toronto’s culinary culture. A couple of years ago, she was part of a panel convened at George Brown College to discuss ways of integrating South Asian cooking into the province’s gastronomic mainstream and into the College’s syllabus. In a room full of opinionated people, her voice was quietest and yet it commanded more respect than anyone’s. And I am very happy that she was honoured this spring at the Ontario Hostelry Institute for her lifelong contribution to Ontario’s culinary evolution, winning the 2010 Chef’s gold award.

Mrs Patel honoured with the Chef's gold award at the OHI gala, earlier this year

On a personal note, I learned a huge amount about Indian cuisine from Mrs. Patel, and about the Toronto restaurant scene in the 1970s. She was unfailingly generous with her knowledge, her recipes and her wise and inclusive views on her chosen profession. She was also a spectacularly good cook.

My deep condolences to her son, Aman, and my sympathies to the very many people who, like me, became her friends over Indian Rice Factory’s 40 fascinating years.

 

Niagara beckons

24 Aug

Careful with that saw, Eugene... A short back and sides for the holm oak

Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few… September…

Not quite yet, but Maxwell Anderson knew what he was talking about.

Or did he? There is a way of prolonging summer, at least onto Labour Day Weekend. My friend the great wine guru David Lawrason and I are leading our Tour of Niagara again from September 3 to 5, sailing across Lake Ontario on glamorous 40-foot Hunter yachts on Friday morning (it takes about five hours and includes a scrumptious packed lunch) sailing back on Sunday evening. There is no better way of getting to Niagara and inevitably the captains turn it into a race. Acts of piracy are not unknown and those who share the adventure bond into a very happy crew.

            The actual weekend is a non-stop litany of delicious things to eat and drink. On Friday night, after we’ve got our land legs back and settled in to the hotel, David leads a short seminar on wine tasting, just to calibrate our palates and remind people how it’s done. Then we’re off to a spectacular wine-maker’s dinner at Treadwell in Port Dalhousie, tasting a lot of the hot new wines from the hot new boutique wineries, with winemakers present, while Stephen Treadwell provides an extraordinary sympatico banquet, commented upon by yours truly.

            Other exceptional experiences include a slap-up lunch on Saturday at the Good Earth cooking school and (now) winery, where the incomparable Nicolette Novak is facilitator of fun, and another specatcular dinner at Hillebrand. Chef Frank Dodd cooked for us there two years ago and the unanimous opinion of our sophisticated and well-travelled crowd was that it was one of the finest gastronomical dinners they had ever had. He has sent me his preliminary menu and it looks as though he may surpass himself again with an orchestration of Dingo Farm Berkshire pork, Lake Erie perch with wild spot prawns, and of course a fantasy on a theme of heritage tomatoes. Sunday lunch is at Ravine Vineyards – for my money one of the most exciting new culinary destinations on the peninsula. And throughout the weekend we’ll be experiencing the very best wines Niagara has to offer with private visits to top wineries. David has a way of getting winemakers and producers to open their most private cellars, producing treasures unavailable to ordinary civilians.

            That’s what we’ll be doing on Labour Day weekend. The good news is there are still a few places available. If you like the idea of joining us, please click on Coming Attractions (up there to the right) and you can find out how. A wonderful time is absolutely guaranteed.

 

            Meanwhile, I’m starting to pack up the house here in Corfu – always a sad moment – but I’m leaving before autumn is even a twinkle in summer’s eye, so I’m spared the melancholy of the dying year. Another day of gorging on the muscat grapes that are now yellow and heavy on the shade-vine, one more early morning swim when the beach is empty, a last long walk up and down the mountain in the white heat of the afternoon. And tonight, just after dark, the full moon will rise in its splendour from the ridge across the valley, bright enough to cast nocturnal shadows, illuminating parts of the mind and memory that other lights cannot reach.

 

A night at the Opera

22 Aug

 

Tonight I was invited to a lovely dinner at a restaurant I didn’t know, called Monolithi, in the hills behind Acharavi. My hosts were Richard Woods and his wife, the sculptor Katherine Wise, an English couple who moved here four years ago and have restored a stunning house across the valley from Monolithi. Richard is the guiding hand of a new enterprise, the Corfu Chamber Opera, which is seeking to re-establish the island as a centre for excellence in opera. It flourished here for two hundred years under the Venetians (Italian singers would include “applaudito in Corfu” on their resumés as an impressive credential) and on into the 20th century, until a German bombing raid destroyed the opera house in 1942. The artistic director of this exciting venture is Corfu-born soprano Rosa Poulimenou and you can find out more about it and how to become a sponsor at www.corfuchamberopera.gr.

            Dinner was delightful – we all shared half a dozen mezethes: moist, lightly smoked trout with raw onions and tomato; an onion pie that was completely different from the one at Foros, open-faced and using a thin pizza-like crust instead of phyllo; a platter of sturdy lamb chops avec ses pommes frites; a big bowl of horiatiki salad (expertly dressed by Katherine) and some pretty good tzatziki. Crisp little deep-fried oyster mushrooms were the star attraction, needing no more than a quick squeeze of lemon. More than we could finish, as it turned out, but we certainly did the feast justice.

            We talked a lot about the opera company’s latest triumph, a most impressive evening staged last week in the Old Fortress of Corfu Town. My friend Thelma and I had decided it could not be missed. It took us an hour to drive to town and then almost as long to find parking as the traffic police had blocked off certain key downtown streets around the ’Spianada, causing appalling jams and bottlenecks. We finally left the car on the sidewalk a good mile away around Garitsa Bay and sped off on foot through the crowds that ambled along the old stone promenade at the water’s edge. We passed the occasional grilled corn-on-the-cob seller but were in too much of a hurry to pause. In the distance, the great limestone outcrop with its impregnable citadel loomed out of the placid waters. When the British ruled the island in the first half of the 19th century they added quite a few touches to the old Venetian fortifications, including a church that looks (most incongruously) like the Parthenon. I had assumed the concert would be held there but instead the stage had been built in the open air on the vast parade ground in front of the church. The massive battlements rose up on every side, lined with opportunistic opera-lovers unwilling to pay the tiny price of 8 euros for a seat. By nine o’clock, the evening light was fading into night and stars were appearing overhead. Then the stage lights came up and the performance began.

            Over two thousand people had turned out and a murmur of appreciation went through the audience as the musicians took their seats. The players were the Mantzaros Philharmonic band, the beloved local ensemble of brass, woodwind, timpani and percussion under the baton of the dashing Spiros Dolianites – all of them, including the maestro, wearing their white military-style jackets with black and white lanyards swinging around one shoulder as if they were Napoleonic hussars. They opened the program with a selection from Verdi’s Nabucco – a familiar part of their repertoire judging by the satisfied smiles and approving nods of the crowd – then on into the Barcarolle from Offenbach’s tales of Hoffmann. Rosa Poulimenou and Greek-Canadian mezzo-soprano Ariana Chris sang most beautifully but no one could see them! Ah, wait! There they were up on the battlements, tiny spotlit figures in their glittering diva gowns, cunningly amplified. The sound system was the most impressive technical achievement of the entire night – exceptional clarity with just the faintest romantic echo from the towering cliff face beside us.

And so we were off on a three-hour program of best-loved arias and interludes, duets and ensembles from Mozart, Rossini, Mascagni, Verdi, Puccini and Bizet, plus a haunting work by P. Dierig for solo trumpet and band, brilliantly executed and once again taking advantage of the dramatic setting with the trumpeter high and far away on an outcrop of defensive masonry behind the audience. It was odd at first to hear the opera music played by a band rather than an orchestra – the absence of strings particularly noticeable in the Mozart – but our ears soon grew accustomed to it. Odd, too, to hear the audience singing and clapping along as baritone Akis Lalousis gave us the Toreador’s song from Carmen, but why not? This is Greece and we do not stand on ceremony here.

Dolianites conducted with just enough flamboyance to cause a flutter in the hearts of the ladies in the audience. At the end of each aria, in the old tradition, he left the podium to kiss the hand of the soloist (or embrace him if he were male) while the band, abandoned by his baton, found its way to the finish. The singing was uniformly excellent. Soprano Elpiniki Zervou closed the first half of the evening with favourite arias from la Traviata. Albanian tenor Armaldo Kllogjeri disdained the microphone (I could imagine the guys on the sound board pulling out their hair) but rose to the occasion as only a tenor can, closing the evening with (what else) Nessun dorma from Turandot, a rousing rather than contemplative rendering which was just what the crowd wanted.

For me, the performance that outshone all others was that of Ariana Chris, especially in her two songs from Carmen where a little subtle acting and sexy merriment took everything to a new level. The crowd stopped talking; cell phones went unanswered. All attention was on the gorgeous mezzo. I gather that she is now based in Toronto again after some years in New York. I shall be scanning the papers for news of any recital.

Walking back through the Fortress and across the deep moat that separates it from the world, we were pleased to see some of the younger members of the band embraced by their doting parents from the audience. The teenagers were playing it cool, but their faces were flushed with pride.

Next up for the Corfu Chamber Opera is the first ever performance in Greece of Mascagni’s little known opera, Silvano – “a Cavalleria Rusticana by the sea” according to Richard Woods – some of which found its way onto the soundtrack of the movie Raging Bull… The Apollonia Symphony orchestra from Albania will be playing and the production is designed by Mascagni’s grand-daughter. Sounds like great fun, but alas, I will not be here to see it.

 

Pakistan fundraiser

20 Aug

This just in – a letter from Michael Stadtländer. As always, Michael’s vision is slightly wider and deeper than most.

 “My Dear Friends of Eigensinn Farm and Haisai,

It has been a very hot and sticky summer and I want to let you know that the harvest is growing very well. What I really want to say is that we are really doing well. The news about the disaster in Pakistan is making me realize how good we have it here. Even though as Canadians we think we have problems, they are nothing compared to the devastation that the Pakistani people are living through now. So what we are doing, very spontaneously, is organizing a dinner where Adam Colquhoun of Oyster Boy (Restaurant) is donating his restaurant and my friend colleagues are donating their creations and time to cook a multi-course tasting menu for you to enjoy. The fundraiser will be held on Monday, August 23rd. Dinner starts at 7:30 at a cost of $150.00 plus taxes and wine. 100% of the money from the dinner will be going towards the relief efforts in Pakistan. There are forty seats available. Please call Oyster Boy at 416 534 3432 for reservations.

 P.S. I am organizing a Harvest Fest which will be held on Sunday, September 26th at Eigensinn Farm. The event will be revisiting the sculptures of the Heaven on Earth Project. More details to come in the upcoming weeks.

 Thank you for your help

Michael Stadtlander”

 

Bee magic

17 Aug

honey and scrambled eggs

This is a jar of honey. Our neighbours, Yorgos and Kiki, keep bees and I’m proud to say they forage in our garden (the bees, not Y and K). So while I can’t claim to have produced this rich, dark meli with its complex floral, herbal, even malty character, I do see myself as its godfather, after a fashion. I don’t remember the name of the yellow and white flowers – I call them scrambled egg flowers, for obvious reasons – but they too have played their part.

            Our son Joseph was born on this island and spent his formative years in this garden. Durrell-like, he was fascinated by the insect life – he once considered becoming a myrmecologist – but in the end archaeology and then history claimed him and he embarks on his third MA next month. Baltic rather than Balkan studies are his passion now, including a research interest in the medieval Lithuanian beeswax and honey trade. Apparently it was the European hub in those times, thanks to the busy-as-bees Hanseatic merchants. What goes around comes around. I remember hurrying him indoors one day when the neighbours’ bees were swarming – the air thick with them, thousands of frenetic bees intent on some private business, the buzzing extraordinarily loud – to me, it was like a moment from a horror film, but it made a more favourable impression on Joe. An hour or so later, order was restored and we ventured back into the bright morning.

             Honey is magical. Always has been. In the Finnish epic, The Kalevala, Lemminkäinen’s mother manages to bring her heroic but dismembered son back to life with honey’s help. She summons a bee and sends the little guy away to gather it. You remember the moment:

“Tiny bee, thou honey-birdling,
Lord of all the forest flowers,
Fly away and gather honey,
Bring to me the forest-sweetness,
Found in Metsola’s rich gardens,
And in Tapio’s fragrant meadows,
From the petals of the flowers,
From the blooming herbs and grasses,
Thus to heal my hero’s anguish,
Thus to heal his wounds of evil.”

            The bee does his best but regular honey isn’t effective. So he flies off to fetch the magic honey from the Isles of the Blessed. Even that isn’t enough. It’s only when he flies all the way to the Seventh and highest Heaven of God (Ukko/Jumala) himself and brings back the ultimate honey that gives life to every living thing that Lemminkäinen is revived. Such a noble bee.

Now the mother well anointing,
Heals her son, the magic singer,
Eyes, and ears, and tongue, and temples,
Breaks, and cuts, and seams, anointing,
Touching well the life-blood centres,
Speaks these words of magic import
To the sleeping Lemminkäinen:
“Wake, arise from out thy slumber,
From the worst of low conditions,
From thy state of dire misfortune!”

            You’ll notice she speaks in mellifluous trochaic tetrameter, every Finnish rune-singer’s preferred metre. Honey-tongued Henry W. Longfellow borrowed it for The Song of Hiawatha after spending a summer in Sweden in 1835 and picking up a bit of Finnish. Or so Joe tells me.

            The point is, honey is good for you. Around here, in ancient times, the priestesses of Artemis and Demeter were referred to as melissae – bees – while the original Melissa was a gracious nymph, one of Zeus’s nannies, who taught the first humans how to turn honey into mead. Another reason to be grateful.

            Is the honey from my neighbours’ hives the best in the world? Well, there’s some serious competition out there. I still carry a torch for a certain organic Tasmanian Leatherwood honey that some kind soul imported into Toronto, circa 2003. It was sold in colourful little tins and I haven’t seen it for years but it was as pure as thought and heady with the aroma of tropical fruit.

            Lacking that, we have this. I stir some into my thick local yoghurt at breakfast-time and then slice up a peeled, juice-gravid, flavour-bomb of a peach over it. It certainly brings me back to life. Next week, in honour of Lemminkäinen’s doting mama, I shall take the jar in the photograph back to my mother in London.

 

Marinato another way

15 Aug

Marinatos another (more conventional) way

I’ve lost track of the mayoral race in Toronto but it can’t be sillier than an ongoing situation that pertains in our corner of the island. Across the straits of Corfu on the Albanian mainland is the town of Saranda. I have watched it, through binoculars, grow in the last 30 years from a grim-looking seaside resort for Communist party members to a substantial city. And they, I am sure have watched Corfu. Our island is green; their hills are dun-coloured and parched. Countless boats, from hired skiffs to the vast floating, Bond-movie gin palaces of the Russian oligarchs (ironic, no?), crowd the waters around our coast but until the overthrow of the Communists it was forbidden for ordinary Albanians to own boats or even live by the coast. Back in the ’80s, defectors would try to float across on inner tubes (it’s only a mile or two away) and we would watch gunboats with searchlights hunt for them in the night. The would-be refugees had seen the island so tantalizingly close on the horizon, heard tales of jobs and political freedom and liberal attitudes – had even heard the music of the Kassiopi discotheques on nights when the wind was from the west.

            All that has changed now. Now Albania encourages visitors. It also wants to be seen as part of the modern world and to teach its own population that no one needs to envy Greece any more. To do this, a discotheque has been built in Saranda with immensely powerful speakers pointing outwards across the sea directly at Corfu. Disco music plays continuously, day and night, as a gesture of independence and cultural libertarianism. You can hear it quite clearly in Kassiopi. I can even hear it now as I sit on my terrace in the peace of this breathless afternoon – just the bass drum – so quietly it’s an almost subliminal murmur, as subtle and as unrelenting as my own pulse.

            The mayor of Thinalion, the district which includes this village and Kassiopi, has complained to the mayor of Saranda. The mayor of Saranda just gave him the finger and turned up the decibels. Now western tourists who come to Corfu will know that Saranda is cool too. Albania has disco.

            I can’t imagine how loud it must be for the citizens of Saranda itself! Unbelievable. I wonder if any of them ever wish for the silent curfews of the old regime?

             In other news, I ended up using those delightful fresh anchovies in another way entirely – a different version of Marinato that is popular in Corfu Town and much more conventionally Mediterranean. They do something very similar in Spain, and I’m sure in Italy, and probably in Turkey, too, and each cuisine will claim to have invented the technique.

First, butterfly the anchovies by twisting off their heads, pulling out their guts and running a finger along the spine to loosen it from the flesh. The bone picks out quite easily and leaves you with a perfect butterflied anchovy fillet. Rinse them in water then lay them in a dish and marinate them in wine vinegar for two hours. The flesh turns as white as a rollmop’s. Two hours is plenty of time, in my opinion. Some people suggest leaving them in the vinegar overnight – or even for 24 hours – but then you are left with an anchovy that tastes of nothing but vinegar. Think of this more as a miniature ceviche.

After the two hours, drain the anchovies and, to mitigate the vinegar a little more, rinse them once in cold water and let them dry on a clean tea towel. After that, there are options. I gave mine a second marinade in olive oil that also contained a tiny amount of finely minced garlic. Then I lifted them out onto a plate (they are incredibly slippery so you need patience and a slotted spoon) and sprinkled them with chopped up Mediterranean parsley and a squeeze of lemon juice before tucking in. Scrumptious. You can taste the actual fish but the vinegar is still there, deep down in the background.

There were far too many to eat in one sitting so I covered the remainder in oil and put them in the fridge. The oil solidified overnight but melted again with an hour out of the fridge. You can keep Marinato for days that way. Today, for lunch on day three, I managed to finish them off, heaping the last of them over a salad of tomato, onion and small-leafed basil from the bush in the courtyard. A glass of very cold fino sherry would have been an ideal accompaniment but I had to make do with equally chilly retsina. It proved a surprisingly effective understudy for the sherry, the resin in the wine holding its own against the onion and the latent vinegar in the fish. All enjoyed to the very faintest throb of Albanian pride.

 

Anchovy marinato

13 Aug

our rosemary hedge, now officially declared out-of-control

Just before two o’clock this afternoon, when the village was silently settling into its afternoon siesta, I heard the faint noise of a vehicle and a man shouting. It sounded like he was yelling at a bunch of badly behaved children who had thrown things at his car and were now running gleefully away, but in fact he was proclaiming to the world that he had fish to sell. I went outside (the heat hitting me as if I had leaned over a kiln) and climbed the path to the road. It was the fishmonger from the coastal town of Kassiopi in his small white refrigerated van coming to the end of his morning’s work. Normally he doesn’t drive this far – the track ends at our rosemary hedge and doing a u-turn is always tricky – but I guess business isn’t so good for him these days, with so many villas unrented.

            He climbed out of the van and pulled open the rear door.

            “Gavros,” he said in his gruff, hoarse-voiced way and pointed at a white polystyrene box of fresh anchovies – slender, handsome black and silver fish, each about as long as my middle finger. That’s all he had – everything else sold – or perhaps that was all the fish that the last remaining Kassiopi boats could find in our exhausted Ionian.

            I bought half a kilo for 2.5 euros and watched him weigh them in his scales then tip them into a plastic bag.

            Nine times out of ten, I would do what everyone around here does with gavros – toss them in flour, salt and mild red paprika and deep fry them, scrunching them whole, heads and all, with no adornment but a twist of lemon. But walking back to the house past our rosemary hedge I was stricken with guilt. Rosemary grows like topsy in this climate. You plant six-inch shoots of it about three feet apart and in a year or two you have an impenetrable, delightfully fragrant hedge, five or six feet high, that is smothered in blue flowers, come July. You also have more rosemary than you could ever need in a lifetime of cooking. I have some favourite rosemary recipes – with lamb, obviously, and also chopped up and sprinkled on a very buttery open-faced apple tart before it goes into the oven (if there’s time, I make a rosemary syrup to further gild the lily) – but it isn’t something the Greeks use very much, at least not on this island.

            They do have one old recipe, however, that evolved as a way of preserving fish before there was refrigeration. It’s known as marinato (which suggests an Italian origin) and it involves frying the fish as mentioned above and then smothering them in a sauce that is sharp and sweet, the sugar and acid acting as a preservative for up to a week. You can snack on it at any time or eat the lot for lunch – it’s a versatile treat.

Back in the ’80s, when my wife and I were writing our book, A Kitchen In Corfu, we did some serious research into the details of the recipe and found that every household had their own variation – some leaving out the tomatoes or the raisins or substituting fennel tops instead of dill. We ended up using the one we liked best in the book, though I’ve never cooked it since. Here it is – but you’ll need three times as many fresh gavros as I’m looking at right now.

To make Marinato for six, take 1½ kilos of fish (smelt would be an ideal alternative to fresh anchovies), the juice of ½ a lemon, some plain flour, salt and pepper, 75 mL of olive oil, two tomatoes, 4 cloves of garlic, 50 mL of wine vinegar, 100 mL of dry white wine, two big sprigs of rosemary, 3 bay leaves, a generous pinch of fresh dill, 10 mL of white sugar, and a scant handful of raisins.

Clean and wash the fish, let them drain. Dip them in the lemon juice, season with salt and pepper then roll them lightly in the flour. Peel and sieve the tomatoes, chop the garlic coarsely and set them aside. Put the olive oil into a pan and fry two level tablespoons of flour, stirring until it turns yellow and makes a smooth paste. Add the tomatoes, garlic and everything else except the fish, stirring away and letting it all simmer nicely for about ten minutes. Meanwhile fry the floured fish in more olive oil until they are golden and crisp. Lay them close together in a shallow bowl and drown them with the sauce.

That’s how they do marinato in these parts. Some people might gag when I say that it’s just as delicious eaten cold as hot, but if, like me, you enjoy cold pizza for breakfast, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

 

A little too close for comfort

09 Aug

Yesterday's conflagration

Two wild fires in the last week have kept the municipal fire truck from the coast rather busy. Yesterday’s conflagration was on an uninhabited ridge about halfway between our house and the sea. I could hear the crackle of the flames but the wind was blowing towards the east and there was never any danger. Two aeroplanes dropped sea water onto the fire, repeating the show about sixteen times, until there was nothing left but a whisp of smoke. Walking down there today the ground is black, all the undergrowth burned off, but the larger trees – mostly arbutus and oleaster – will survive. Ants are busy in the grey ash. There’s a fire on this particular slope almost every year. Grim-faced neighbours point out that it’s easier for someone than clearing the land with a scythe or strimmer. The owner of the property is away right now. I believe the penalty for arson is now 40 years, after last year’s appalling fires.

            I went up to Ano Peritheia last night to have dinner in the ancient town. It’s a stunning place – a Renaissance village with houses built of grey stone in the Venetian style. They owned Corfu for 400 years and would spend the hot summer months up in this high valley, away from the heat and the malarial mosquitoes. There are about a hundred houses, a schoolhouse and at least a dozen churches. A couple of people still live here – one a beekeeper, the other a shepherd – and there are now four restaurants catering to tourists and locals from this part of the island.

The owner's table at Foros taverna, Ano Peritheia

            Foros is my favourite. It used to be called Capricorn and when my son was a baby we would bring him up here. Now it’s Foros, owned by Thomas Siriotis. His wife, Vasso, does the cooking in a kitchen upstairs from the tiny dining room. The building must be 400 years old and has a flagstone floor and a low beam ceiling but in the summer the tables are set outside in the tiny piazza that was once the centre of town. Last night there were a number of posh English families behaving very politiely, but you never know who might show up. Last month it was a dozen famous Athenian thespians (try saying that quickly). Once, years ago, it was a travelling youth circus from Ireland who put on an impromptu show with fire-eating, acrobatics, juggling, dancing and songs. The outdoor tables stand on gravel so none of them is exactly level, but that only adds to the charm.

            Thomas introduces me to Papous (“grandfather”), a very old brown hound-dog with a grey muzzle and tired eyes. He appeared at the restaurant 20 days ago, all skin and bone, and Thomas has been nursing him back to health. “He’s too old to hunt now,” explains Thomas, “so I guess his master took him up here into the mountains and then left him to die.” Luckily gentle, well-mannered old Papous was smarter than that and found his way to Foros. He won’t go into the building but he does insist on lying across the doorway, so Thomas and his waiter have to step over him when carrying food out to customers. The dog ignores them.

            British chef Rick Stein came here on another occasion to film one of his tv shows, leaning over Chef Vasso’s shoulder. Stein specializes in fish but Vasso puts very little fish on her menu (we’re too far from the sea, she argues (about 20 minutes by car)). She’s great on the grill but her specialities come from the oven – an awesome briyam of baked aubergines, or chicken braised in red wine with olives and red peppers, or rabbit stifatho. I order the lamb shank, slow-roasted and finished with a glossy sauce sharpened with lemon juice, garlic, mint and oregano. The lamb is local, never frozen, so it’s quite firm-fleshed though by no means tough and has a glorious garrigue-scented flavour. But first, some of her other irresistible treats. Onion pie is a flat square of golden phyllo with a filling of onions cooked so long and so slowly they are almost a jelly. Vasso includes finely sliced bacon in the recipe which adds its own fat to bring weight to the trace of olive oil. The more I think about it, the more certain I am that that is the secret to the dish.

            I also order her scrumptious zucchini fritters – grated zucchini and finely sliced onion mixed up with feta, mint, dill, lots of black pepper and a little flour. Deep-fried, they are golden brown, crisp on the outside, lushly soft inside, like a Greek version of an Indian onion bhaji. A squeeze of lemon is all they need.

            Vasso’s and Thomas’s nights are long in the summer. Greek families often show up after midnight expecting dinner. Thomas relaxes in quiet moments drawing tiny sketches of Foros on the back of business cards. Every table gets one when the bill comes – a unique souvenir. My bill, including a couple of glasses of the fresh, simple local rosé and one of a better red for the lamb, is about thirty bucks.

 

Campari Time

05 Aug

The view from the terrace

Sitting here on the high terrace of our old Greek house, enjoying the view of the Ionian and the hazy brown mountains of Albania, delighted by the excellent condition of the garden (cherished in my absence by Angeliki, our treasure), relishing the entirely selfish epidermal pleasure of a clean white shirt after a forceful shower after a salty plunge into the aforementioned Ionian, I sense one final detail might complete my happiness. There is no clock in the olive groves but the heat and the lengthening shadows confirm the whispered suggestion in my mind that it must be getting on for Campari Time.

            How did the old actor put it when the waiter finally reached our table…?

“One thing alone can slake my summer thirst. Find you some water that splashing from a virgin spring is unsuspecting caught by winter’s breath and clenched to crystal, transfixèd by the cold. Tumble four cubes like clumsy dice into a glass. This is your alpha. Then seek that red elixir that the Romans call Campari – scarlet as Satan’s tights and sweet as nectar, bitter as Iscariot’s kiss. Pour on and listen to the ice protest, cracking and squeaking in that thick embrace: incarnadine, the frozen water drowns! So swiftly reinforce the element, add other water now wherein the air itself does seethe and fret at its confinement. And last, in case the battle swings too surely to the wet, take thou thy knife and cut an orange slice to lie upon the top. This is your omega. Can you do this?”

            “Yes, sir. One Campari soda.”

            “Stout fellow.”

            I have always tried to order mine in just such a fashion. A Campari soda is impossible in winter, unheard of in autumn and inappropriate in spring. But when summer clasps this island in its hot embrace and the house martins appear at sundown, darting and dipping down across the valley in aerobatic genius, nothing else will do.

 

St. John’s Burger

01 Aug

Here I am in England for a few days to see family and friends – and to join one of Charlie Burger’s mysterious dinners. This is the first one he has organized in Europe and he could scarcely have chosen a more interesting location – St. John, the restaurant opened close to Smithfield meat market by English chef Fergus Henderson in 1995.

 I’m intrigued to find out who Burger really is. I’m even more excited to eat at St. John. This is the food that changed the way the world thought about English food – changed the way the English thought about English food, come to that. Scrupulously honest cooking, using up every part of the animal, not at all fancy, substantial and satisfying, deeply unpretentious. As is the building where the restaurant is located, right across the road from the meat market, along a short passageway. Famously, it was an old smokehouse and equally famously Fergus Henderson and his partner did very little to it. One enters the bar – like a covered alleyway with a big zinc bar and some tables and chairs. Lots of people in shirtsleeves and jeans having a pint or glass of wine. I realize that I am, as so often, overdressed and quietly slip off my pencil-thin tangerine-and-cream-striped Jaeger tie, quickly rolling it and concealing it in the pocket of my off-white Brunello Cucinelli trousers.

 I’m very early (London traffic is not what it was in my day). I climb the iron steps and into the odd-shaped room – the dining room. The greeting is pleasant, humane, not remotely fawning. The servers – and there are many of them – have the discreet self-confidence you would expect at one of the 50 best restaurants in the world. Even if the room looks a bit like a works canteen with its high ceiling, white walls, painted but scuffed wooden floorboards. A line of coat pegs runs all round the room about seven feet off the ground (the right height given the height of the ceiling, but oddly high). They remind me of my prep school – as does the lack of any art on the walls and the reinforced glass in the windows. On the tables, white paper covers white linen; glassware and cutlery are very ordinary, the hard wooden bentwood chairs as plain as can be. The whole place, indeed, is very plain and under-decorated – aggressively so, or passively so?

 That question is very much at the heart of Fergus Henderson’s position in gastronomy these days. Anthony Bourdain addresses it in the introduction to the 2004 reprint of Henderson’s seminal 1999 cookbook, Nose to Tail Eating. When he first ate at St. John, Bourdain was so overwhelmed and impressed by the simple integrity of the food that he read all sorts of political motivation into it. “I saw his simple, honest, traditional English country fare as a thumb in the eye to the establishment,” says Bourdain, “an outrageously timed head butt to the growing hordes of politically correct, the PETA people, the European Union, practitioners of arch, ironic Fusion Cuisine and all those chefs who were fussing about with tall, overly sculpted entrées of little substance and less soul.” Having come to know Henderson, he now sees there is no hidden manifesto, just a respectful homage to good food. I’m sure he’s right about the place Henderson is coming from. But that doesn’t make his first reaction wrong. This food, and the cookbooks Henderson has written about it, have been incredibly influential, the influence felt in New York, Toronto, even Paris and Sydney.

 The answer perhaps is in the mood of the restaurant-goers tonight. They are merry, casual, unpretentious – just people having dinner, not people making a socio-gastronomic statement. It is all very democratic but not archly so, not cocky or defiant.

 Charlie Burger and the other guests arrive. Our table is positioned right in front of the open kitchen. Burger and Henderson have devised the menu between them – six courses featuring some of the chef’s most iconic dishes.

 The bread comes – thick slices of the crunchy-crusted, fragrant brown and white sourdough loaves that are baked at Henderson’s other place, St. John Bread & Wine. A square of ordinary salted butter on a saucer.

 The first course is devilled crab, served cold – huge bowls of Portland (Dorset) crab broken into large pieces, the shells partially cracked but not removed, cooked in a sauce of olive oil, garlic, ginger, chopped spring onions, fresh coriander leaves, lemon and lime juice and very finely julienned red chilies. We are all given hooks and pliers and a spare napkin. I decide discretion is the better part of fashion and remove my beige Bugatti blazer. Charlie Burger and I consider the snowy expanses of each other’s white shirts and weigh up the merits of tucking a napkin into the collar. Neither of us do it. Let the sauce fall where it may.

 It’s a delicious dish. The chilies are a subtle warmth behind the more obvious citrus and ginger tang. The crab meat is juicy but not watery (because they were boiled in water as salty as the sea). The wine, Domaine Francois Crochet 2009 Sancerre, is an elegant match, undaunted by the sauce. It takes us almost an hour to do justice to the generous helping and there is no possibility of daintiness as we crack claws, lick fingers and pry the treasured flesh from the chitinous chambers of the crabs’ bodies. Several fingerbowls and napkins later, the social ice has been broken and melted away. My shirt and Charlie’s are pristine.

 The second course is another Henderson trademark – trotter gear and quail’s egg. Trotter gear is awesome stuff. To make it, you must blanche pig’s trotters then braise them for at least three hours with onions, carrots, celery, leeks, garlic, thyme, peppercorns, chicken stock and half a bottle of Madeira until they are, in Henderson’s words, “totally giving.” Drain off the liquid and reserve it. Then pick and shred all the flesh, fat and skin off the trotters, add it to the reserved liquid and keep it in a jar until you need it. “You now have Trotter Gear,” writes Henderson in his second book, Beyond Nose to Tail, “nuduals of giving, wobbly trotter captured in a splendid jelly.”

 Tonight we each receive a ramekin of warm trotter gear with a couple of quail’s eggs cooked in it. It’s rich, unctuous, the many subtle textures of the semi-solid gear slipping about in the looser melted-jelly cooking liquid. The eggs are cooked through and provide an island of substance. We all use chunks of bread to mop our ramekins clean. The wine takes a friendly back seat to the experience – a Domaine Jean-Claude Lapalu 2008 Brouilly Vielles Vignes.

 Onto the main course – tripe and onions slow-cooked in milk with mashed potatoes. I have a checkered past where this dish is concerned. My grandmother used to cook the identical recipe for my dad. She was brought up on a farm in North Devon and this was something of a staple in those parts. It was my father’s favourite dish but to me, as a child, it always looked terrifying – the yellowish sponge-like flubber trembling in the gently moving milk. The thought of eating it nauseated me. It was only as an adult that I learned to love the stuff.

Henderson’s recipe couldn’t be simpler. He thickens the milk with a roux of butter and flour, adds chicken stock and a little mace then poaches the tripe and thinly sliced onions. Where his mastery is apparent is the timing. The beige tripe (from Irish cattle) is incredibly tender – I cut it with a fork – but still has that faint soft crunch that you also find in Cantonese jellyfish dishes. Here it is more like eating a giant morel than a sea creature, a morel bathing in chicken stock and bechamel. The firm mashed potatoes are more of a sop for the sauce than anything else.

And the wine? My ideal match for this dish is a dry cider from Somerset or Brittany. We receive Domaine JP Matrot 2007 Meursault Rouge.

 The fourth course is intended to keep scurvy at bay, according to Charlie Burger – a salad of watercress and soft roasted purple shallots, heaped on a platter and wet with a vinaigrette dressing spiked with crushed capers. It’s tangy, rich, moist, delicious – and just refreshing enough to be welcome.

 Onto the savoury – a classic buck rarebit. Melt strong Cheddar into a bubbling pan of butter, flour, mustard powder, cayenne pepper, Guinness and Worcestershire sauce. Let it cool into a paste then spread the paste as needed onto a slice of toast and put under the grill until bubbly. That’s a Welsh rarebit of course. Turn it into a buck rabbit by putting a poached egg on top. Tonight, it makes an ideal contribution – spicy, rich, the crunchy toast beneath the piquant molten cheese a substantial presence. This time the wine pairing is brilliant – Fonseca 1977 vintage port, as rich and spicy in its own way as the rarebit.

 The finale is Dr Henderson ice cream and it splits the party neatly into lovers and haters. This is an ice cream made from two parts Fernet Branca and one part crème de menthe, a drink that the chef’s father enjoyed as a hangover cure. It is certainly a peculiar ice cream – bitter, herbal, minty, sweet, medicinal… Most of our group agrees that crème de menthe is one of the very few alcoholic beverages we hate. Burger points out that the other mass-market French mint liqueurs Jet 27 (clear) and Jet 31 (green – or is it the other way around?) are even more vile and toothpaste-like. As an ice cream, however, the combination works for me, the bitters ruling the roost. A shot of Vieille Prune cuts through it nicely.

 With the bill (an extremely reasonable 145 pounds (Charlie Burger’s events are not-for-profit)) come some freshly made, hot-from-the-oven madeleines. In the kitchen, head chef Chris Gillaud, who cooked for us tonight, is busy shaving a piglet for tomorrow’s service.

 We conclude at midnight – four and a half hours after we began. The tireless Burger leads a group to a drinking establishment he favours in Covent Garden. I head home, extremely pleased with the evening, clutching my copy of Beyond Nose to Tail, signed by Fergus Henderson with a handwritten promise that he will come to Toronto “some day” and cook a Charlie Burger event. That will be a home-and-home I won’t want to miss.