Archive for August, 2011

A figo for thee, then

29 Aug

The clouds showed up last night. Summer nearing its end.

Forgive me for the long silence. Sometimes when I’m here in our old place in Greece I end up posting endless stuff about the minutiae of life and the foodways of rural Corfu. For the last five weeks I have been simply living it, without analysing or reporting, delightfully hedonistic, experiencing the summer through my skin – the sensations of salt water and scorching sunshine, of heat and sweat and showers that should be colder but aren’t because the water pipes run up the side of the mountain and are too hot to touch by the end of the afternoon. We have had good friends to stay, and visited others; we have made new friends who I think will remain friends – which is surprising and delightful at my age. There has been a succession of young people – teenagers or in their early twenties – who have brought charm and innocence and energy to this parched old island.

Tomorrow, my daughter will arrive, closely followed by her friends. Mae has been performing at the Edinburgh Festival and I can’t wait to hear about her experiences. The news I will offer her in return is slightly more parochial. I have replaced the window in the bathroom, built a stone wall on the terrace, built another one in the car park (secretly lined with cement to stop rain washing down the hill and rinsing the topsoil out of the bouganvillea beds). I have been waging a war against wasps.

This requires a new paragraph. There was a time in my life when wasps were no more than a minor inconvenience. I would read with condescending amusement about the last Earl of Traquair in Ettrick, in Scotland, who died, unmarried, in 1861. He was a frugal man with two abiding passions – for personally sharpening his tenants’ razors and for hunting wasps, creatures he particularly despised. I now know how he felt. All summer long, wasps from the olive grove have been swarming up onto the human parterres and waging a cultural war. They want food and water, I suppose, so they are ubiquitous when I set off at sunrise each morning with the hose to lubricate the plumbago and the rosemary hedges, the dahlias and the basil globes, the geraniums and the pomegranate bushes. When people come round at the social hour (6:00pm) and we try sit out on the terrace with wine and figs and smoked pork tenderloin sliced tissue-thin, they make our lives a misery.

I know where they live. It’s a wild nest – a pit like the pits of Orthanc where Saruman breeds his uruk-hai – just a hole in the ground amidst the pale yellow straw on the edge of the olive shadows. I have been watching it for weeks, hatching plans. I have seen how they come and go, ceaselessly, from the first glimmer of dawn to nightfall. They have their own anxieties. Hornets wait close by and swoop in as the individual wasps decelerate to enter the nest. A hornet seizes a wasp in mid-air – they’re so big you can see their grasping legs – and carries it off slowly to an olive tree to devour it. Horrific! But there are few hornets and many wasps.

The fig tree beside the path

I could have left it all alone, ignoring all the Vespidae, if it weren’t for my neighbour. This year I cleaned out the apothiki, the garden shed where we store everything from old building materials to charcoal and tools, from diesel fuel to worked stones and a picnic basket that had been a wedding present, 29 years ago. Our neighbour liked the look of some of the things we were discarding and in return gave us free access to the fig tree that lies on the edge of her property, where the footpath to the village leads through the olive groves. She was going back to Athens for a while, so it wasn’t the most altruistic gift that has ever been offered, but it meant something in the tiny, internecine politics of our particular hillside. The figs on this fine old tree are just ripening now – plump, juicy green figs as sweet as dates. It would be lovely to go down there early each morning, clapping our hands to ward off snakes from the pathway, and gather a dozen or so for our breakfast, rinsing the dust off in cold water, gently peeling back the green skin, breaking open the soft white globes to reveal the complex fig-world of sweet red flesh and tiny yellow seeds. The fig was the first plant cultivated by mankind, long before wheat and the other grasses, long before olives and the other drupes, long before melons. It is a voluptuous fruit, a metaphor for a woman’s sexual organs because it resembles them when split by ripeness and the sun. Its sweetness, almost unmitigated by any of the balancing acidity one finds in peaches or grapes, excites the visceral, calorific sugar-greed of the human ape. The word “sycophant” means “one who shows the fig” in ancient Greek – in other words, “one who gives you the finger” – rather a sophisticated definition that roots out the silent disdain that consumes the soul of people who must live by flattery. The Elizabethan English picked up on that – remember Pistol’s insult to the disguised Henry V – “a figo for thee then!” Buddha found enlightenment under a fig tree. Mohammed recommended them as a cure for haemorrhoids.

So anyway, I had legal access to these fine green figs, swelling on their noble tree. I was planning to pick them, wash them, halve them and set them out on a white cotton cloth, still glistening with beads of moisture, as a pleasing breakfast to those I hold dear. But the wasps have challenged my harvest. There are some versions of the species who lay their eggs inside the fruit so that the hatching larvae can find nourishment as they eat their way out into the wider world. A friend of mine once bit into a fig that had been impregnated in this way and swallowed the juicy treat before glancing down and seeing the writhing, seething brood within the remaining half. How the rest of us laughed as he tried to make himself throw up!

The laugh was on me this week. The wasps have beaten me to most of the best of the crop. So now I must go out at night, when the new moon sheds hardly any light – certainly nothing to challenge the stars – and the silent mountains are the domain of the owls and the cicadas, the hedgehogs and martens, and try to block the mouth of that wasp pit. A large rock might do it. Or a massive slice of the old oak tree we were obliged to cut down three weeks ago. Seal them in! It seems so cruel. But I want to steal a friend’s recipe and serve figs topped with soft blue cheese and a toasted almond as a civil canapé before dinner. And I want to bring cold green figs to the breakfast table with a slightly vain flourish. And to wrap them in the salty local prosciutto and eat them with very cold white wine in the white hot middle of the day.

Of course you realize this means war – between me and the wasps. Who will win? Who can say? The dictionary teaches us that a fig is “a nothing,” “an excrescence on a horse’s hoof,” “a small, valueless, or contemptible thing.” I don’t buy it. And neither do the wasps. We know a treat when we see it.


Gala Pie

17 Aug


English butcher Darryl Bill outside his shop in Peritheia, Corfu. His skills thrill the British ex-pat community.

Darryl Bill is an unexpected sight in the small Greek village of Peritheia, on the island of Corfu. Well over six feet tall, with curly blond hair and a gold ring in each ear, he’s an imposing guy who looks as if he could be useful in a game of rugby. He also wears the traditional long white coat and hat that was once the uniform of English butchers – a pair of sandals his only concession to the 42-degree heat of a Greek summer’s day. The air is cooler inside his butcher’s shop, a large tiled room dominated by a walk-in fridge and two long display counters. On the wall are posters showing cuts of meat, photographs of formal butchery displays from Smithfield College and old framed snapshots of family members.

Darryl’s father was a butcher. So were three uncles. He started learning the trade when he was about six and was managing a high-street butcher’s shop in Basildon, Essex, when he was still in his 20s. They might have had anything between 3,500 and 4,000 customers a day back then – and they were only one of nine or ten butcher’s in the neighbourhood. Today, there is only one. People have got into the habit of buying their meat from supermarkets, where the people behind the counters are more expert at opening boxes of meat than actual butchery. Darryl left the business 19 years ago, when he was 30, and went into farm work – growing peas and then Christmas trees in Denmark, spending four winters managing a farm in the Israeli desert outside Elat. He and his wife came out to Corfu to visit friends, liked what they saw and decided to stay. A couple of years ago, he took over a restaurant in Peritheia and turned it into his butcher’s shop.

There had been a butcher’s in Peritheia before. I remember buying meat there 30 years ago and how different the experience was when compared with England. Customers rarely if ever asked for a particular cut of meat. Instead, they would tell the butcher what they intended to cook and for how many people and he would cut off the relevent piece of meat for them. It was the easiest way of doing things in a culture where the repertoire of rural recipes was extremely conservative. Also, prices were the same for any part of the animal – beef cost so much a kilo whether it was flank steak or fillet. I used to point at the part of the carcase I wanted and the butcher would cut it for me.

Darryl’s elderly Greek customers still shop in the old way, telling him what they’re cooking that night, but he precuts a lot of the things he sells and sets the meat out on trays in his cold counters. Now that Greece is part of the EU the wholesalers in Corfu Town have access to meat from all over Europe – Italian veal, French beef, English gammon, Greek or Dutch pork. Whole ducks come from Germany; duck breasts from France. Lambs might come from Bulgaria or Romania as well as Greece. Darryl also sells the local Corfu lambs but doesn’t think much of them. They are slaughtered too young and the meat is too sweet and bland. Legs are very small and they don’t have proper sweetbreads because the glands haven’t had time to develop.

A pie to remember - three slices of Darryl's excellent gala pie

Some of the things Darryl sells are aimed squarely at the ex-patriate British community – the bacon he cures himself, the Cumberland-style sausages and especially the occasional gala pie. I haven’t had a slice of a real gala pie since I was a child but Darryl’s is a real treat. He makes it out of pork, sausage meat and ham, mustard and herbs cooked into a firm, not-too-fatty matrix in the centre of which is hard-boiled egg. The pastry is perfect – moist, not hard like commercial pork pie crust – and the layer of jelly that is poured in at the end of cooking to fill the gap between the top crust and the filling is made from pig’s trotters and sets to a firm, trembling finish. You can get Branston pickle in the Greek islands nowadays, and Coleman’s English mustard. There is also a very good new English-style real ale being brewed on Corfu, apparently by an Englishman. I am determined to investigate. Meanwhile, it is entirely possible for me to be sitting here in the middle of the Med, with Darryl’s gala pie at the end of my fork and to close my eyes and taste an English childhood.




11 Aug

Our poor dead oak tree

Such a sad arrival at our house on Corfu. Our beloved oak tree in the courtyard was stone dead – black and leafless and gaunt against the blue sky and the vine-covered klimateria. It was a tree of great significance to us for almost 30 years, providing shade and beauty. Its great lateral bough was perfect for a swing when our children were tiny. Owls used it as an observation post when hunting at dusk. A friend with a chainsaw came and took it down over the weekend. Now there is nothing but sky overhead when we step out of our front door.


Driving up into the mountains to Ano Peritheia, we pulled over to watch the wildfire surge along the other side of the valley. We could hear the crackle as it reached a wild olive tree, hear the shouts of the firefighters. In the end, the fire burned all week. Planes and helicopters dropped hundreds of tons of seawater onto it but it kept springing up somewhere else, scorching down to the coast road and burning the roof of the high school outside Imerolia and the astroturf soccer pitch. It was the talk of dinner up at Foros, our favourite restaurant in Ano Peritheia’s ancient piazza – until the tsigari arrived. It’s one of the starters that Vasso, the chef, always has on the menu, a way of stewing greens in oil. Sometimes the greens are wild dandelions or Swiss chard, sometimes spinach – whatever is around. It’s rich and peppery with a hint of vegetal bitterness and goes beautifully with her other star dishes – onion pie, feta baked in the oven with garlic and tomato, fritters of grated zucchini, hugr firm gigantes beans in a loose tomato sauce…


A dish of nutritious tsigari at Foros restaurant

Here’s how Vasso makes her tsigari. Like so many of the world’s great recipes this one begins by sautéeing a chopped onion in a lot of olive oil. When it’s golden, she adds some chopped fresh dill and cooks it until it wilts. Next comes a spoonful of tomato paste, stirred until it almost starts to burn. Then the greens go in, together with a spoonful of paprika (this is Corfu and paprika is used all the time – a relic of the Venetian spice trade) and some salt. No water! (Vasso is firm about that). Cover the pot and let it all simmer down on a low heat. The whole process has taken about 20 minutes. Turn up the heat just before you serve it. Plenty of warm crusty bread will be required to mop up the delectable oil from your plate.



Cafe Fiorentina

06 Aug

Tina Leckie, owner-chef of Cafe Fiorentina, and her partner, Alex Chong

It was the pickled cherries that got me. There they are in the centre of the picture – black and juicy with a peppery, spicy, sweet-sour tang – a brilliant and unexpected condiment to a small collation of Café Fiorentina’s deli delights. The Café is a brand new arrival on the Danforth, taking over the old Dash Kitchen location roughly opposite Allen’s, and is a true labour of love for owner Tina Leckie, long-time sous chef at Célestin, and her partner, Alex Chong. Having two such good cooks in the kitchen takes the place well beyond the average café. The quality of soups, salads, pizza, quiches and panini – all made from scratch – soars. Tina has also been a pastry chef so the sweet side of things and the baking is also first class, from house-made breads served with the soup to miniature brioches. The espresso – espressed from a Faema E61 (a considerable investment for the new business) – is the Danforth nonpareil.

All in all, this is a great addition to the street and I wish the place very well indeed. Café Fiorentina is at 236 Danforth Avenue.

A delectable deli collation from the Cafe - pickled cherries in the centre