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Archive for the ‘Greece’ Category

August on Corfu

07 Sep

corfu plus elle ma dit 002

Three weeks at our mountain hideout on Corfu seemed like a generous run of days when we first arrived but it slipped away all too quickly. Still, the beneficial effects linger for a while – about as long as a tan lasts, perhaps. There was a little work to be done on the house but not much that couldn’t be postponed for another year, so we turned our attention to our land, the steep little acre that drops away from the terrace into a valley, its contours smothered by an unbroken counterpane of olive trees.

We have neglected our own 11 olives shamefully. Indeed, the last time I really got to grips with them was more than 25 years ago and they were badly in need of attention, tall and shaggy as John the Baptist. But first there was strimming to be done, to get through to the trees, wading through a chest-high sea of yellow stalks and plants. Enter Themistocles the gardener, an Albanian from the next village, who knew exactly what needed to be done.

The first day was a strimming day and when we could once again stroll down the slope without fear of vipers I watched him take a hatchet to the forest of shoots that had sprung up from the base of each tree. He was ruthless with our litle grove of plum trees – tall, willowy trees that give little fruit to anyone but the wandering wasps – why would they when they have been abandoned for so long? He pruned them right back, making me gasp at his ruthlessness. We shall see what happens next July. When we lived here year-round, a long time ago, we made vast quantities of splendid jam from the purple plums. I think I wrote about it in A Kitchen in Corfu, my first book about the island, republished this year in England, incidentally, without any fanfare at all.

being cruel to be kind

being cruel to be kind

The second day was the olive tree armageddon. A short back and sides. Themis clambered nimbly into each tree, scampering up and out onto branches that I (plagued by vicarious vertigo) was certain must break. There was dead wood to trim, whole branches to lop off, the whole crown and centre of each tree to be clinically sawn away to let in light and air. In the end there was more olive wood on the ground than growing. “Next year,” said Themis, “they will be bushy with new growth and you will have another good crop of olives.” Even my koumbaros, Philip, agreed that the job had been done pretty well when he came to lunch later, bringing two litres of his own red wine (another very good year) and two bottles of the precious Champagne he makes in his apothiki.

It took me a day to drag the fallen olive foliage into six huge piles, each twice as tall as me. Themis will come back in October, after the early rain of autumn, and burn it all.

My own little project lay in a particularly forlorn corner of the land, where the low dry-stone wall that separates us from the neighbour’s unoccupied property had been tumbled by time. No one has lived there for 50 years and the garden is a towering tangle of brambles, like a wave that threatens to engulf our slopes. Cutting through the brambles, pulling the prickly ropes down out of my olive tree, sawing away dead wood, letting in the sunshine, I found an unsuspected little greengage tree struggling in the middle of it all. I trust it will do better now, with the wall repaired and the brambles (temporarily) pushed back.

As far as flavours go, there was one new highlight this summer. Our good friends Horst and Yutte have a house on the other side of the ridge. (We have the dawn, they have the sunset view.) Retired now, they spend most of the year here. They brought their delightful family for dinner one night and brought gifts, too – a bottle of the dark purple grape juice Horst presses from his vines, and a little jar of dried oregano flowers…

fennel pollen

And something else altogether wonderful. Earlier in the summer, Horst had harvested wild fennel flowers on the hillsides, brought them back to his kitchen and, with a scientist’s care, shaken out the pollen. He gave us a jar of it – no more than two tablespoonfuls of the precious golden dust. I have never smelled anything so aromatic or so quintessentially explicit of the scent of fennel. A princely present, like something out of a fairy story where the innocent hero is warned to use it sparingly and wisely. Its magic was apparent the next day. I was tossing some tiny baby squid in a frying pan with nothing but a little olive oil – just two minutes to crisp the tentacles and bronze the pinky-sized bodies – and I sprinkled on a tiny pinch – a scruple of the pollen. Unbelievable. Its fragrance filled the kitchen; its flavour charmed our tongues. A noble gift indeed.

 

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.

 

Toad in the Hole

07 Jan

One of the things that has given me most pleasure in the last few years is to watch the friendship burgeon between my daughter and my mother. Now that Mae is living in London for most of the year, growing her career as a stand-up comic, they have been spending lots of time together. I never taught Mae to cook (mea culpa, mea gulpa culpa) in the way that my mother (a genius in the kitchen) taught me to cook. Now my mum is doing the honours. In fact, they are considering writing a cookbook together and I am sure it will be vivid and funny and wise and full of invaluable insight.

            One of the dishes my mother has taught my daughter in the last year is Toad in the Hole. Everyone knows, I hope, that this is an English treat consisting (in its most usual incarnation) of sausages smothered in batter pudding (a.k.a. Yorkshire pudding) then baked. The end of the sausage tends to poke out from the pudding like a toad looking out of a hole. The whole affair is delicious with hot English mustard.

            I was thinking about toad in the hole last week when I was in Greece and busy installing a new woodstove chimney through our three-foot-thick stone walls. The guy doing most of the work was Steve O’Connor, an Englishman who has lived in the next village but one for a good 20 years. We were swapping renovation stories while we worked and talking about the things we had found in our very old houses – dowry papers and other legal documents sealed for safe-keeping in an old daub-and-wattle bedroom wall; bits of a stone mortar; bottles of veterinary embrocation; an English gold sovereign that had slipped between floorboards a hundred years ago.

            Steve had the strangest story. His old house, like mine, had a stone pezouli running along the inside wall of the kitchen – like a support wall about three feet high and two feet deep – useful for sitting on or using as a big shelf. I kept mine; he decided he’d rather have the extra floor space and started to demolish his, busting off the plaster and old whitewash then digging out the stones and rubble from which the wall was made. To his surprise, the pezouli was hollow and the inside was rank and damp where the roots of an olive tree had writhed their way in from the garden outside and then rotted. He had almost finished the job when he noticed something in the dim light of the kitchen – something shiny and black that moved amidst the rubble. It was a monstrous toad. Sometime long ago it must have squeezed in from the outside, following the olive root. It couldn’t get out and so it lived in the darkness inside the wall, blind and imprisoned, growing ever fatter on whatever moisture it could suck from the rotting tree roots, eating whatever creatures found their way into that fetid space.

            “It was as big as a half-deflated soccer ball,” said Steve. “Monstrous. I got a shovel under it and carried it outside under the trees. It was heavy and it wobbled. Then I went back in and began digging down, sealing the wall.”

            And now I can’t get the image of the toad out of my mind. Toad in the hole. It has quite put me off my tea.

 

A quiet night out

31 Dec

 

Cold days in the Ionian

 

New Year’s Eve, and there are yellow flowers in the thick wet grass of my garden in Corfu, and snow on the mountains of Albania. The island is extraordinarily quiet this season – as I discovered last night. My koubaros Philip, who owns the bar in our village, and I went out for dinner at nine o’clock, intending to eat whitebait and mussels at The Pumphouse, a venerable and favourite haunt in the town of Akharavi, down on the coast. Or we would go to another place, five miles westward in Karoussades, a grill room where they make the best rolo on the island. Rolo is pork belly stuffed with onion, garlic, masses of herbs, salt, sweet paprika and sometimes feta cheese. You roll it up, bind it with wire and spit-roast it slowly over a charcoal grill. I hadn’t eaten anything but a bowl of soup all day and was thoroughly looking forward to it.

            Well, The Pumphouse was closed, much to Philip’s surprise – and mine, since this was the Friday night before New Year’s, at the height of the holiday season. Nothing daunted, we pushed on for Karoussades and the famous rolo. Zounds! That place was closed, too.

            “Okay,” said Philip. “We can go to a really interesting place back in Roda where they always cook traditional but unusual dishes.” Sounded good and we drove on into the increasing rain, passing an occasional car. Philip turned off the main road into Roda and then started to swear under his breath. The empty restaurant’s windows were dark, the chairs stacked inside.

            “You know, we could go back to my house and I’ll cook spaghetti,” suggested Philip, but we were both looking forward to the conviviality of a busy restaurant. He suggested a more casual grill room back in Akharavi that was always open. It too was closed. By now we were laughing and also sighing. It’s the economy here in Greece that is to blame, keeping people at home, even on festive nights like this one. We ended up at another town called Kassiopi, miles to the east, where one of Philip’s friends has a good, honest taverna. It too was locked and silent. Indeed, the only place open on the entire northern coast was a take-out, neon-lit burger bar by the bus stop in Kassiopi and the only customers were adolescent youths who would presumably rather be anywhere on earth than at home with their parents at half past ten at night.

            We sat down at one of the two or three tables. Five minutes later, we stood up and placed our own order at the counter – souvlaki and a salad, twice, and a half-bottle of retsina to share. The mood of frugality is contagious. The souvlaki were surprisingly good and the salad was fresh and crisp, a jumble of cucumber, tomato, olives and feta. We were soon putting the world to rights. Philip’s view of the current state of this country is that anything would be better than years of fiscal oppression. He has always described himself as an anarchist, an advocate of chaos and revolution as catalysts for change and rebirth. Then the conversation turned to a debate about the merits of pressing green, unripe olives for oil (my position) rather than ripe black ones (his). Despite the bitter recession, it is only the old who still farm olives seriously on this island, the price of oil is at rock bottom. The young have been cutting down the trees and selling the wood. Lorryloads of it leave on the ferry for Italy every day.

            “The trees will grow again,” said Philip. Will the economy?

 

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.

 

 

Tsigari

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.

 

 

Scent of a Woman

07 Mar

 

And all the clouds that lowered upon our house...

Here’s something excellent to do tomorrow, for anyone who may be in the neighbourhood, the news of it passed on by our friend Richard Woods. I have no doubt it will soothe the bruised skies and banish the storm.

The Corfu Chamber Opera is putting on a concert to celebrate the UN International Women’s Day on the 8th of March at the Ionian Academy at 21.00 and tickets will be 10 euros. The concert will comprise music for voice, violin and piano composed by famous women composers such as Clara Schumman, Cecile Chaminade, Fanny Mendelssohn, Pauline Viardot, Amy Beach and Alice Kollias.

The soloists are Rosalinda Poulimenou, soprano with the National Opera and head of Vocal Studies at the Ionian University and Redona Kola, violinist and professor of the Ionian Conservatory and Philharmonic Society. They will be accompanied by Vicky Stylianou, pianist, member of the Orchestra of Colours and professor at the Filippos Nakas Conservatory. This will be a special and not often heard repertoire.

A reading of excerpts from the books by the Corfiot writers Katina Vlachou and Liana Vrachlioti will precede the concert.

 

 

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.