Archive for August, 2012

Philip’s mezethes

26 Aug

My koubaros relaxing

So we went up to Philip’s bar the other night for the much-anticipated mezethes. I should begin by explaining that Philip has owned and run the kafeneion for as long as we have been coming to Loutses – 33 years. Back in the ’70s, it was one of several places to find a drink in the village – a long, crowded room that was as much a community centre as a pub, with a wood stove in the winter and peanut shells on the floor. It also boasted the only telephone in Loutses and we would wait our turn to step into the private closet to call home. Sometimes it took half an hour to get through to England or Canada; sometimes it didn’t work at all. Philip befriended us and we befriended him; he stood as godfather at our son’s christening, to the astonishment of the local priest who hadn’t seen Philip in his church for decades. In doing so, he became our koubaros and we became koubaros and koubara (surely the same root word as the Neapolitan “gumba”) to his entire family.

Over the years, that relationship has endured. The bar is smaller now since Philip’s renovation in the 1980s and is decorated with a lifetime of souvenirs including paintings of Philip and his late father, Leonidas, arcane photographs, a lithograph of Hopper’s Nighthawks, a ballerina’s shoe from the time when we lent our house to a group from the National Ballet of Canada, some taxidermical caymans from Philip’s time in the Merchant Navy, etcetera, etcetera… This summer, he decided to add a gastronomical component, building a small but very well-equipped kitchen behind the bar and bringing in Spiros Syriotis as chef and partner in the enterprise. There are smart new blue tables and chairs outside on the terrace that overlooks the valley and a new air of energy as locals and tourists and English expat residents drop by to wile away the evenings and watch the newish moon set behind the hills like a sliver of tangerine in a Martini.

Philip provided a great many recipes that Wendy and I used in our book, A Kitchen in Corfu (about to be republished in England) and we have eaten many splendid dinners with him in his home behind the kafeneion. He has an organic garden and much of the produce that now goes into the mezethes comes from there. I reminded him of an antique method for preserving fish by frying it and then confiting it with vinegar, rosemary and raisins. He chuckled and disappeared into the kitchen, re-emerging with a saucer of the identical fish (firm and sweet and tangy and altogether scrumptious) along with some delicate white anchovy fillets marinated in olive oil, vinegar and garlic.

Chef Spiro’s offering were more in the meaty line – small pieces of very tender pork, some in a piquant sauce of mustard, vinegar and rosemary, others in a different treatment of tomato and hot paprika served with crisp fried potatoes and halved cherry tomatoes from the garden. There was chicken in a sweeter, herb-fragrant tomato sauce, and juicy keftedakia – crisp-surfaced little meatballs of minced beef, garlic, onion, parsley and breadcrumbs. When some of our friends held a mosaic school at the bar over a long weekend in June, Spiro made tiny vegetable pies of pumpkin and zucchini in phyllo – irresistible.

Baked feta with philip's tomatoes and peppers

Why start offering food after so many years of refusing his friends’ pleading requests to feed them? Philip shrugs and cites the economy. “When things don’t go so well,” he explains, “I act. Instead of crying and complaining and lying on a sofa feeling sorry for myself, I adapt. I found someone I can trust in Spiro, and we will see what happens. I don’t know how long the experiment will last. I may get tired of it. For now, it’s enjoyable and people seem to like it.”

To be sure, it adds a delicious new dimension to life in Loutses. My favourite dish was feta baked in a shallow earthenware platter with baby tomatoes and hot green peppers until the cheese was almost liquid. Triangles of Spiro’s homemade pita bread were the perfect utensil for digging in. Tomorrow there will be other things on the menu, depending on what is growing in the garden. To wash it down, nothing beats a stoop of Philip’s own rosé wine or a bottle of his own rosé “champagne” – an entirely unexpected creation aged in his apothiki storeroom that combats the relentless heat of Greece in August to perfection.


On the road

23 Aug

Alongside a quay in Stockholm, this extraordinary piece of art draws attention to the plight of refugees everywhere.

On to Stockholm for four or five days – a city I had never seen but must now place high on the list of favourites. We came upon free rock concerts just across the water from the Parliament buildings, paused to admire the mounted brass band and timpani of the Royal Guard as they played in the courtyard of the Palace, visited some exceptional museums (especially the one built to house the Vasa, that remarkable but unlucky ship that sank after sailing only a few hundred yards on her maiden voyage in 1628) and tasted many delicious things. Best of all was the grilled reindeer at Slingerbulten (incredibly tender, lean, sweet meat) and the mildly salted bleak roe on fried bread at Sture Hof. Almost as good was a dinner in one of the labyrinthine basement rooms of Den Gyldene Freden – a bit of a tourist trap but full of charm. I had heavy cured herring with capers and perfect little boiled new potatoes; delicate, much more lightweight herring with sour cream and a bitter spicy edge from horseradish; sweeter, saltier herring with honey and cherries; and cheese that had been drowned in aquavit for two days. These dishes comprised the first course, to be followed by wild duck (the breast pink and pleasingly tender, the leg frenched and confited).

Wendy and I had hoped to visit our old friend Goran Amnegard who has built an extraordinary hotel/restaurant/vineyard a couple of hours west of the city (his Vidal Icewine wins prizes regularly at the major French wine fairs) but he and his family were away on holiday in Italy. Next time…

Then it was a quick hop to Berlin where we celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary with a lavish dinner at the 2-Michelin-starred Lorenz Adlon Esszimmer. The room was delightful – like a peaceful library in a large country house but with a view of the Brandenburg Gate – and the service exemplary. Chef Hendrick Otto’s cooking is in the very haute modern French-European style – complex and clever and evolved. Every component is orchestrated to the nines but such is his mastery of harmony that nothing is ever remotely dissonant: it’s like listening to Haydn played by the Berlin Philharmonic – super if you love Haydn. A parfait of goose liver for example, was graced with brioche cream, orange, coffee and polenta, the natural texture of each ingredient transformed… Silver salmon received the blessing of a white bean fumé, an escabeche of vegetables, tiny cubes of jellied salt water as well as mango and bell pepper. Scallop and pork belly flirted with a curry emulsion, moments of banana, fennel, artichoke and passion fruit… And so on. The wines chosen by the sommelier were all fine but nothing breathtakingly good and original – things like Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc and Schloss Gobelsburg Gruner Veltliner that seem fairly commonplace in Toronto (I was hoping for some spectacular German wines). But it was all very fine but ultimately not nearly as satisfying and pleasurable as the whole turbot we shared for lunch the next day down on Quarré’s sidewalk tables along Unter der Linden. It’s not a fish one comes across often any more – and I can’t really afford it when I do – but we were still under the anniversary spell.

And now we are in Corfu, at our old house, getting ready to go up to the bar where our koubaros, Philip (aka Pakis) has finally decided the moment has come to offer food as well as drink. He has built a small but impressive kitchen, taken on a business partner in a chef called Spiro, and proposes a small menu of mezethes that will change every night according to the whim of the management. We have been asking Philip to do food for more than 30 years but he has always dismissed the idea, though he is a fabulous cook. How will tonight’s mezethes turn out? Please watch this space.


Olympic report

20 Aug

Eugene (aka Dr. Draw) our awesome troubadour on the pub crawl through the City of London

What fun the Olympic games were! London looked absolutely splendid, everything worked and while Canada didn’t do quite as well as we all hoped, we matched the total number of our Beijing medal haul. I was there to help make sure the Gold Medal Plates guests had a lovely time (though our event experts Lisa Pasin and Cressida Raffin did all the heavy social lifting and organizing) but ended up having a very cool fortnight myself, hanging out with the likes of Jim Cuddy, Marnie McBean, Adam Kreek and Kyle Shewfelt. We were down at Eton Dorney to see Adam Van Kouverden win a magnificent silver and Mark Oldershaw an unexpected and valiant bronze (two medals in the space of 40 minutes) and though I regret the pork and chili sausage I purchased behind the stands it was a great day in all other respects. We had been in the stands beside the Serpentine the day before when our dear friend Simon Whitfield swam so brilliantly then came a terrible cropper on his bike. His mother and his wife were very brave.

As far as restaurants went, I think my recommendations went down well. Excellent modern Indian food at Trishna. Smashing canapés and cod at the Admiral Codrington. And three unforgettable pub crawls thanks to my friend Dr. Kit Barton, a professor at Regent’s College London who knows more about pubs and beer than anyone I have ever met. We started at Ye Old Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street, moved on to the Cockpit (a real neighbourhood pub where the bellringers of St. Paul’s cathedral come to drink on Christmas Day). Then across the Millennium Bridge to The Rake (320 different beers and an outcry from behind the bar when someone asked for a Guinness), finishing up in Borough Market at The Market Porter. Dr. Draw was our troubadour, improvising abstract, pagan music on his violin in the ancient lanes and yards of the City and delighting the crowd in the Porter.

The tubes were like saunas, the cabbies grumbled that business was down, but everyone else agreed that for a fortnight London was generous and merry and astonishingly friendly. Everywhere we went in our patriotic red and white, the Gamesmaker volunteers called out “Hello Canada!” and we felt entirely welcome. I wanted the Games to go on forever.