I wanted to visit Corfu eversince I read Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals which was set in Corfu of the 1930s and the spirited character Spiros livened up the writer’s depiction of this seaside town. Incidentally, Corfu is known to have one of the most unique Easter celebrations in Greece, an experience I could not have missed!
I finally met Spiros in Corfu. Infact, I met him everywhere; sipping his Greek coffee at the roadside cafes or tavernas, chattily driving me back in his taxi or selling kumquats, that tiny orange like citrus the size of olives. Most Greeks are helpful and friendly, but the Corfiots add an extra level of warmth and hospitality. Just like Spiros!
Corfu Island’s history dates back to antiquity, where its position on the Ionian Sea between Greece and Italy, attracted a lot of attention and hence, many wars were waged on its turqouise blue waters. The god of the sea Poseidon is said to have fallen in love with Korkyra, the daughter of a mainland River Asopos and a water nymph. Poseidon thus named this island after his beloved and Corfu today, is known as Kerkyra in Greece. Corfu was ruled by many including the Venetians from 1386 to 1797, where repeated Ottoman attacks were successfully fended off, making Corfu possibly the only place in Greece which remained free from the Muslim invaders. Then the French came temporarily, making way for the English in 1815 and Corfu was officially part of Greece in 1864. The Venetians however influenced it most, infusing their cuisine and their architecture into the Corfiot environment and a group of Italian Jews even spoke their own brand of language known as the Italkan. Most Corfiots were thus multi lingual and to this day, their Greek is interspersed with many Italian words. The name however has a more fascinating lineage.
Their cuisine as can be guessed, also possesses elements of all the cultures that have mingled with the locals. A seaside town that later became a part of larger Greece, Corfu served me some of the best food I have eaten here. I suppose I could say the standard of the food and the presentation levels were well above the average. The prices were thankfully not so bad as the tourist season had yet to begin officially.
The day I arrived in Corfu, after a back breaking 10 hour journey on a not-so-comfortable bus, I searched for a coffee shop in vain at 7am but I was told that it was still; 15 days till the tourist season would begin. So I caught a taxi to my hotel which was outside the city as I couldnt find anything in my budget within Corfu city. Agios Giodios was a beach side stay and my first glimpse of the Ionian sea made me forget all my lack of caffeine and sleep!
For lunch on that first day, I simply had to try the much coveted Sofrito of Corfu.
Beef Sofrito: Known as sofrito in Spanish or refogado in Portuguese is a sauce used as a base in Latin American and Spanish, Italian cooking. However, in Greece it is especially consumed in the Ionian island of Corfu. For a traditional Sofrito recipe you need to choose thin slices of good quality stewing beef. Gerald Durrell would have salivated over this famous dish from Corfu which is on every menu and a must try if you ever visit this island.
2 kg boneless beef steak pieces (you can cut the size according to your taste but about 3-4 pieces per kg is a good measure)
250g all purpose flour
2 tbsp ghee
1 cup olive oil
12-14 cloves of garlic, sliced
1 of a cup white wine vinegar
2.5-3 cups beef broth (warm) (boil some beef with salt, sliced onions, pinch of garlic and pinch of celery)
I large red onion, diced
2 cups grated carrot
10-15 peppercorns (whole pepper dry roasted)
1/2 a cup freshly chopped parsley
salt and freshly ground pepper
Take the beef and after seasoning it with salt and pepper, dip it into the flour, tap it to remove excess salt and set aside. Heat the oil and ghee and sauté the steaks in batches until the beef is browned. Now in this oil add the garlic and onion and sauté until they are slightly browned. Add the carrots and peppercorns to cook for about 2 minutes until the carrots get some color and at this point add the vinegar and cook for about 1 minute. Add the beef and once it is bubbling on the sides, add the warm broth and season with salt and pepper.
Turn the heat down to low-medium and simmer until the beef is tender and the sauce thickens. About 5 minutes before removing from the heat, stir in the freshly chopped parsley.
The Sofrito is ideally served over hot rice or mashed potatoes and a fresh green salad
I walked through the glorious old town and as I soaked in the venetian ambience and while I sadly don’t have pictures of the kumquat, olive sized oranges that you eat whole, I dug into a kumquat flavored chicken risotto 😀 This however was backed with the world’s BESt salad ever! Avocado cream, tomatoes, cucumbers and pickled onions!
My next pitstop was the dessert section and I swear I must have gained 2 kgs in that 4 day tour! When the Greeks think dessert, be sure its a tooth destroying, calorie gaining, sugar overdose! But it is obviously so un-put-downable that in the end you just decide that you live only once!
These pastries were mostly a phyllo affair with the layers laden with nuts or syrup and loads of orange and cinnamon flavors. But when my teeth were about to walk off in protest, I decided to go for something savoury and I went for a vegetarian pie.
With the simplicity of tomatoes, zucchini, leeks, mushrooms and some minimal Greek herbs, the pie sent me off into food heaven!! I discovered more food as I rambled through the venetian alleys where the hanging balconies were reminiscent of a scene out of Romeo-Juliet and the ladies sitting in them, sipping their afternoon coffees kept a keen eye on passerby. People call out from across the streets and just when you think they want to sell you something, all they want is to greet you and ask where you are from or sprout the scant sentences in Hindi they might know of.
Easter Sunday arrived and as the festivities in the main part of the city had ceased Saturday night. I was left with no option but to venture up the hill to the villages near my hotel. People passed me on motor bikes or cars and the idea that I really just wanted to walk left them in complete surprise. Given the option of a car ride, most Greeks will never walk! 🙂 Finally I reached the village on top (after an almost 1.5 hr walk) and was greeted by this baby boy, sitting outside his house
As I walked through the villages watching people cooking outside their house or rather, barbecuing lamb on a spit, as the smoke wafted up into the open, people waved at me and posed for pictures and simply invited me over to eat with them.
I accepted three such proposals and by the end of it I could barely walk but I tried the kokretsi, or the innards which are cooked together in the intestines of the lamb. We used to call it osban in Libya and the slight difference in taste and texture nonetheless reminded me of something very familiar…
I was also offered the Tsoureki or the special bread which has been blessed from the church in the morning prayers. It is sweet and goes well with the food.
I ended my trip by taking back something which would remind me of my love of kumquats and of Corfu, that totally lived up to my expectations. I could totally imagine Durrell and his family (and other animals!) settling into this slow paced life with the most friendly faces of this seaside city.