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.
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.