Still in Corfu
This morning we were woken by a peal of thunder so long and loud it might have been announcing the end of the world. I opened the shutters and they were ripped from my hands by the wind and flattened against the walls. Instead of the usual 7 a.m. vision of the sun rising gracefully over the ridge across the valley there was nothing to see but roiling dark grey cloud, lightning and horizontal rain. I was soaked in an instant and dragged the shutters closed again. Given our altitude, we were actually inside the storm clouds and it was all very violent and Wagnerian with garden furniture skittering across the patio and plants bent double. The climax hurled hail into the rain and now there’s not a petal left on the ornamental rose bushes. But the tiny vermillion flowers on the useful mint bush have survived. There’s probably a moral to be drawn in that, but I don’t know what it might be. An hour later, the storm was moving away to alarm the Albanian coast and there was even a glimpse of blue sky above our house. Then the wind changed and the storm has swept back. Weather like this can hang about for days, circling the island, snagged on our mountaintops.
Our friend Philip will be very pleased with himself, having decided to harvest his grapes and press his wine yesterday. It has the making of a very good vintage indeed, he tells me, and he is particularly proud of the quality of his fruit. He stopped using any kind of pesticide or fungicide in his vineyard about 10 years ago, growing them entirely naturally. The first two years were traumatic as the vines cried out for chemical assistance but they toughed it out and have long since settled down, finding a happy balance. Philip’s grapes are white, of a local variety, and last night he led me into his apothiki to see them in the vast open-topped fermenter. In his youth he crushed by climbing in and treading the grapes; now he has a machine to do the job, mounted above the tank on two sturdy olive boughs. He’ll make about 1000 litres of wine this year in the style he most prefers—a clear rosé of a pale coral colour with a slightly bitter, oxidated flavour.
The big question people are asking around here is whether the olive trees will follow the example of Philip’s grapes and settle into an organic routine of their own. Now that Greece is a fully fledged member of the European Community, it has become illegal to spray olive groves with fungicides and pesticides. We used to watch the little crop-dusting planes flying low over the hills and valleys in the old days. God knows what they were emitting. Since the practice was abandoned, successive olive harvests have suffered from a mildew-like plague, exacerbated by the Corfiot tradition of letting the olives ripen until they fall from the trees into nets. No picking at all. The resultant drop in quality has lowered the price of oil to such a degree that there’s now almost no incentive for farmers to spend the winter months in back-breaking labour under the dripping trees, gathering the olives and pressing them. It’s an occupation that already held little appeal for the younger generation, who see a rosier future for themselves than subsistence farming. So, many an olive grove now stands untended and unharvested, the land beneath the trees a tangle of undergrowth, the trees themselves wildly unkempt. Philip still harvests his olives, of course, and makes his own golden oil. He points out that the trees are, for the most part, well over a century old and have survived feasts and famines, world wars and recessions. But, I point out, this is the first time in thousands of years they have had to survive neglect.
The storm has now come back for a third visit. It feels as if someone up there is pouring Lake Ontario onto our house and garden. Water dribbles through a new leak in our bathroom ceiling. Not much chance of a trip to the beach today. Two friends have come over from England for a couple of days and are staying in a hotel on the coast. They have just called to say they have been trapped in their room by the storm. The German holiday makers who comprise the hotel’s other 50 guests rose earlier to secure prime spots at breakfast and have been similarly stuck in the dining room for two hours, none of them thinking they’d need foulweather gear, wellies and sou’westers on a Greek island vacation. By now they will have finished every scrap of cheese, meat, smoked fish, yogurt and granola, every last boiled egg provided for their matutinal meal, and will be growing restless. My friends are safer in their room. I will sit and eat another packet of these excellent oregano-flavoured potato chips.