The Corfu delicacy shop
Everyone loves the idea of a shop that is exclusively devoted to local produce (it would make a lot of sense in Niagara or Prince Edward County). Here on Corfu, Greece’s membership in the EU means that the island is deliberately flooded with things made in other European countries. For years—decades even—people who wanted to find antique furniture and bric-a-brac that was actually from the island had to weasel it out for themselves from dumps or estate sales or a handful of dark little shops in the main town. It was fun but time-consuming. Local craftsmen also had to be tracked down by word of mouth. Finding local food and wine was much easier—until quite recently one could assume that the produce, meat and fish for sale in the market in the old fosse of the Venetian fortress in town was home-grown. Here in the north of the island, where we have no central market, travelling greengrocers used to show up several times a week in the mountain villages, flatbed trucks laden with fruit and vegetables. (Dimitri was our regular guy—he used to let us weigh our babies in his scales). Everything local; everything seasonal.
Today, the whole island has discovered the pleasures of the supermarket—relatively inexpensive and offering a broad array of food—and few people care that the feta comes from Bulgaria not from a neighbours’ ewes or that the oranges are from Argentina. For those few, there is a new shop called Made in Corfu. In fact, there are three of them, including one at the foot of the mountain where we live. I was pretty excited to find it. Here was a bunch of antiques and eccentric objects such as a wind-up gramophone of the Durrell era, a 1920s ice box, a beautiful old dowry chest—all at prices I could not afford, alas. Here, too, a sawn-off bow from a traditional fishing caique, like a museum exhibit. A local writer, Hilary Paipeti, explained its presence in an article in one of our papers, The Corfiot. It seems the EU, in its efforts to lower the numbers of independent fishermen in the Mediterranean, is offering a generous payment to any of them prepared to surrender his licence and his boat. (Fair enough, I suppose: it gives the fish a chance—though it is destroying a way of life and work that goes back millennia.) The EU did not, however, come up with any plan for the boats (resell them as pleasure craft? Donate them to a third world country trying to sustain not destroy a fishing industry?) and has therefore been beaching them and cutting them into three pieces so they can never be repaired and put to sea again. Bureaucratically efficient but brutally wasteful. Our local shop got hold of the prow of one of the boats and there it stands beside the old olive press—a fascinating cross-section of an EU policy.
The museum stuff is cool but what interested me most about Made in Corfu was the promise of local artisanal food and wine—and indeed I was happy to find a lightly smoked cut of back bacon that a local farmer produces—deliciously flavourful with a nutty porcine sweetness behind the smoky salt. We’ve been pairing it with ripe figs from a neighbour’s tree and enjoying the combination greatly. Other Corfiot meats, mostly sausages and salamis, are less exciting since they are already available everywhere. I had high hopes for the cheeses—all three of them—including a decent kephalotyri, the firm, waxy, well-salted cheese that likes to hang about on the corners of restaurant menus pretending to be parmigiano reggiano. “Where is it from?” I asked. “Where is the dairy?” “Thessaloniki,” was the answer—a city on the other side of the country. Oh. Oh well… At least it’s Greek. And the shop is still only a few weeks old. And they haven’t got around to finding a Corfiot producer yet. Nevertheless, it does rather spoil the point of the store.
Dear Tee, thanks so much for your comment on last week’s blog. In our part of the country, very few people cultivate the wild greens called horta in their gardens, so we have to rely on the plants that actually grow wild on the unkempt hillsides above the olive tree line—mostly wild mustard greens, rocket, pencil-thin wild asparagus and lots of other dark green bitter leaves the English name of which I do not know. There is an abundance of them in springtime and again in October or November after the first rains of autumn, but nothing right now, with the hills covered in dead yellow undergrowth—and tinderbox dry, as the month’s tragic events have shown. We look across at the mainland of Albania and Epirus at night and see wildfires burning—the intense orange flames brighter than the lights of the coastal towns. So far, touch wood, Corfu’s gallant firefighters have kept the situation on the island under control.
And then this morning I awoke to cloud on the northern horizon and a strange haze over the sea. The trees were stirring restlessly and the cats on the patio were restless and watchful. Our neighbours were down in their olive groves, laying the nets for winter before the rain comes. The wind has changed direction and, like Mary Poppins, I must pack my bag and make my farewells. Tomorrow we’ll close up the house and come back to Canada.