The boat reached the drop-off point in Kassiopi on the northeast coast of Corfu, where I exited beneath the remains of a Byzantine fortification and stood shaded by fig trees, scented with swathes of lavender bushes. Damn, it’s beautiful. The trees perfume the coast this time of year, supporting a cluster of swallow nests. This tiny fishing village with its white-washed clapboard houses and a steadfast commitment to maintaining the traditional Ionian architecture, is the Greek postcard image, the magic of the island settling over me ‘as gently and clingingly as pollen.’* The hazy orange horizon in front like a stain on the ocean. I’d have decamped there for the afternoon if I weren’t so hungry.
In Old Perithia, I discovered an island’s obsession with ginger beer, which they call tsin-tsin-birra. Corfiots have a satiable palate for it, almost as much as they do for olive oil
I met with my assigned photographer, the Australian-born Swedish-living Simon Bajada, in a nearby car park. We were commissioned for Jamie Oliver magazine, setting off our own Greek odyssey. Collecting a hire car, we took the road inland towards Pantokratoras, Corfu’s tallest mountain. Named after the 14th century church built on its summit and known locally as “The Almighty One”, the church has gathered infringing neighbours over the years; modernity crashing over Corfu like a great technological wave, all of the hubristic monstrosities of humans. There’s now a tall and obtrusive radio mast as well as other appalling beacons and aerials. The Durrells must be turning in their graves.
The southern approach towards Pantokratoras took us through the mountain village of Spartilas, towards Old Perithia, Corfu’s oldest village. The village also dates back to the 14th century, its cobbled pathways narrow and twisting; suitable, back in the day, for wagons and donkey transportation, but not for today’s wide and clunking automobiles. Unlike the Old Town, the village is empty of people, crowds, tooting bikes and honking cars. It once housed around 1,500 residents in its heyday, but today only a few families remain. There’s also a lone scraggy fox and roughly 7,000 stray cats.
By chance and proving that small world theory, we bumped into Mark Hendrickson, a publisher from London who has worked with his wife Saskia to restore the village’s buildings and protect its storied heritage. Together they run The Merchant’s House, a boutique bed & breakfast located on a corner spot at the village entrance. Mark explains how buildings that “still have life in their bricks” are being restored following a public protection order. “Old families still own some of the buildings,” he tells us. “Others have been left by people who sort work along the coast. Many left the island altogether.”
In Old Perithia, I discovered an island’s obsession with ginger beer, which they call tsin-tsin-birra. Corfiots have a satiable palate for it, almost as much as they do for olive oil. The British introduced ginger beer to the island in the 19th century, importing ginger from India. While there’s no ginger grown on the island, it remains in high demand. Corfu Beer, a microbrewery at Arillas, makes 1842; a ginger beer named after the year the British brought the root to the island. Mark shows us The Old Perithia Taverna, open since 1863, where the family have restored a ginger ale lab once used by the owner’s grandfather. They store it in stone jars, which they dip into a cold water well to cool and help bind the crystal jellies. The results are a robust fizz-tastic smash of tangy ginger and sharp, bubble-popping carbonation. My ginger beer addiction began here.
It was late by the time we finished our tour, and Taverna Capricorn was the only place open, although barely. Old Perithia was dark and vacant, so why and for who they remained open, I don’t know. Inside is a bit of a mess with cranky lighting and a mismatch of wooden tables and chairs. It’s a home, first and foremost. The restaurant part is a bit of an afterthought. Run by Kosta and Corinna, the building sits nestled at the foot of a cobbled incline amongst a garden of roses and Laconian thyme. A black chalkboard outside detailed in smudged white transcript the daily kitchen plates, a smattering of Corfiot favourites and exemplar of traditionally Greek culinary fare. Kosta’s father opened the taverna in 1964 as a kafeneion, a traditional coffeehouse once found in the heart of every Greek village.
The temperature had dropped but remained agreeable enough to sit outside beneath a canvas awning. Simon and I studied the chalky menu, ordering appetisers of Saganaki cheese and the local sausage called lukániko. We followed this with lamb chops and thyme, lemon and roast potatoes called païdákia, followed by tsips – they’re chips, fried in olive oil, not vegetable oil – and a carafe of local red wine that was listed as such.
Plates soon arrived and consumed the table. It’s unsophisticated, peasant grub, food without fuss but high in flavour. The Saganaki, known as the ‘flaming cheese’, had been grilled on both sides so that it bubbled and blistered but remained hot and gooey within. A slice of Corfiot lemon was on top to counter the saltiness and add a needed acidic sting and slap of piquant freshness. The lukániko was a lamb sausage flavoured with fennel and orange peel that had been smoke-cooked and served with long, thick black cannulas of soft, fleshy leeks. And the chops were outstanding; fatty cutlets from the rack of local mountain lambs called oreiná arnia. They are marinated in lashings of olive oil and cooked with thyme, regularly turned in the pan to ensure both sides are well-oiled and suitably supple. I devoured my portion, sucking the oils and marrow from the bone, licking the melted fat from my fingers. The air was redolent of meat and fried onions. People pay hundreds of pounds for food like this in dark and chilly London.
We sat together beneath the awning, watching chickens and that curious local fox surveying the land, finding the protection of a low, tin-roofed bunker where it curled up for the night. Then out came an unordered orange salad from Kosta, a local Corfiot favourite called neratzosalata. Whether it was to impress two weary travellers or just make use of leftovers, we had made ourselves comfortable and were more than happy to indulge in the gratis offering. The soft, tartaric orange segments are pickled in jars of olive oil, salt and red pepper, and served simply; the segments soaking up all of that bottled conserve goodness. There are pischies too, little fried pastry patties brushed with olive oil, sugar and cinnamon that reminded me of Welsh cakes, and then finished with a silky dollop of local runny honey and a side of great, chunky overflowing charm.
We emptied the carafe and finished with a couple of glasses of homemade lemonade because Simon was driving. Both glasses were cold from the fridge with sprigs of mint and more of that brilliant runny honey. Capricorn is not a beauty; it looks more like a jumbled trinket and novelty store, but they’re nailing the whole at-home Greek island ménage. Nothing about it promotes boundary-pushing culinary panache, but that’s not what we were looking for and that’s exactly why it works. Honest people and honest cooking, harnessing original ingredients. If this were my local, it would take an entire village to heave me out.
We left the old taverna and slowly made our way back up the steeped cobbled incline towards the car. And dogtrotting behind, the sleepy fox had awoken, wishing us goodnight and antio sas. C
* “Gradually the magic of the island [Corfu] settled over us as gently and clingingly as pollen,” Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals (Corfu Trilogy, #1), 1956
Taverna Capricorn, Village Square, Old Perithia 49081, Corfu, Greece
(reopened under new ownership as Evdokia Taverna)