From Holland to Greece for a stay at our old house in the mountains of Corfu, carrying on with renovations that have preoccupied us for 25 years.
September is a fine time to be on the island. It’s still summer here and the cloudless days are properly hot, the white light of the midday sun almost too bright to bear, the sea warm. But the sand isn’t scorching to bare feet the way it is in July and nights are comfortable, lying in bed looking out through the window at the Milky Way and listening to the owls. On the orange trees the fruit hang like glossy, dark green balls, camouflaged against the leaves, but the lemons are ripe and sweet—delicious to suck when you emerge from salt water. Peaches are almost over and so are the cantaloupes: the one I bought this morning dissolved into juice when I cut it. But our neighbour’s fig tree is laden with green figs and the nectarines and watermelons are in their glory. We cut them into chunks and carry bowls of them out into the sunshine for breakfast, sitting on the old stone wall, looking down at our neglected land. Which is surprisingly green. The weather in this part of Europe has changed in the last 25 years. When we lived here year-round there was never a drop of rain from May to October. Last month, we are told, three massive storms swept down the Ionian, turning the mountain track that winds onto our property into a torrent. The parched land sucked it up and now the garden is carpeted with new grass and tiny pink cyclamen, blooming where the soil is thinnest, a good month earlier than they used to. There is always a second springtime here in October—now in September, it seems. Up in the high hills above the olive tree line, wild greens—various mustards, rocket, and others I can’t name in English—are pushing through the tangle of dead yellow undergrowth. We pick them, boil them for a moment and eat them with olive oil, salt and pepper, enjoying the bittersweet, chlorophyll flavours.
Down on the coast, the tourists are leaving. Which means the few restaurants that stay open all year are easing a few autumnal dishes onto the menu. Bourtheto is my favourite—an old Corfiot dish of scorpion-fish and potatoes braised with masses of paprika. It’s full of bones so one has to eat slowly and carefully. Stifatho is well known all over Greece: here people like it made with rabbit—slow-cooking the meat and a smotherng of whole baby onions for hours in a rich sauce spiked with wine, cinnamon and the local pink wine vinegar. It really comes into its own when the weather turns but I’m delighted to taste it at any time.
In our village, culinary rhythms ebb and flow. An elderly lady called Maria used to make the most superb feta from her small flock of ewes (in the spring, obviously, when the sheep had milk). Kept in tins of brine for the rest of summer, the cheese would evolve from mild and creamy to sharp and nippy. Maria is too old to get up at dawn and milk her flock now so we have to go to the next village for our feta. It’s delicious but loyalty insists that we say it isn’t as good as Maria’s. A local youth came back from a year studying ice cream in Italy and has opened a gelateria on the coast road—a lovely addition to the local foodscape which brings out my greedy inner child. Coming back from the beach, a ball of apricot sorbet or panna cotta gelato proves dangerously addictive. And the amalgamation of numbers of Albanian refugees into the community means an influx of new ideas from the mainland. I’m trying to get some recipes and will post these soon.
A neighbour just came by with a gift of honey from his hives and a bulging plastic bag full of eggplants from his garden—almost perfect spheres of the deepest purple, firm and without any blemish. We were so pleased and grateful that he came back five minutes later with a bag of green peppers, equally immaculate and giving off a heady aroma of capsicum. I shall have to make papoutsakia—halving the aubergines and stuffing them with a mix of minced lamb, onions, tomato, garic and oregano, topping them with a cheesy bechamel and baking them in the oven until the eggplants are meltingly soft. Papoutsakia means “little slippers” and indeed the finished items do look like gilded Ottoman slipers as long as you pack them into the baking dish so they don’t fall apart during the cooking. The same neighbour obviously had something on his mind, and, when Wendy went inside for a moment, he beckoned me over and led me down into my garden. Out of sight of the house, he paused by a big pile of branches. His face was pale and he rubbed his hands with anxiety before pointing into the wood pile. I thought he had spotted a nest of vipers, but no—it was a severed human foot in the first stages of decay. I managed to salvage it and showed him that it was made of rubber—a macabre toy that a Canadian friend had brought out to the island more than ten years ago. How it had survived so long is a mystery. Our neighbour didn’t think it was terribly funny. When he had gone, I replaced the foot in the woodpile for others to find.