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.