Good and Evil
“Put some pictures into your blog,” instruct the powers that be. “Brighten it up a bit!” What next—music? But they have a point. So here goes.
This picture is of my koumparos Philip Parginos and my daughter, Mae Martin, yakking it up during a lunch the three of us enjoyed at a restaurant called Apneia on Acharavi Beach on the northern shore of Corfu. It’s easy to find if you’re walking along the beach, unless, like me, you are distracted by the tiny, beautiful pebbles at the water’s edge—lined and striated and brightly coloured—and the occasional fragment of smooth green sea glass glistening like an emerald in the early afternoon sun. Arriving by car is more complicated. You drive down off Acharavi’s main drag past a hotel and along a back road that winds between fields, then cross a small bridge over a stream and park behind the building. Looking out over the beach is the bar—just a deck and some tables where sun-worshipping tourists are eating spaghetti bolognese and souvlaki. There’s also a covered area, with walls that are removed during the summer, where the locals prefer to sit, enjoying the gentle breeze. Bottles of olive oil and pink vinegar stand on the plain wooden tables. The local rosé wine is served in chilled metal jugs.
Philip is a very old friend who owns the bar in the village where we live and is also my son’s godfather. I value his opinions on many things, including restaurants. Apneia is one of his current favourites, as casual and relaxed a place as one could hope to find, though in the winter, when the sea outside is more restless and the double-glazed windows have been slid back into place to keep out a cold, wet night, the cozy little room can become a hotbed of political debate and philosophical discussion. Today, Philip decides to order lunch for the three of us. He doesn’t bother with the menu, instead entering into a long and involved cross-examination of Yanni the waiter. The outcome: a simple meal of a number of appetizers with the possibility of main courses left open.
Soon the food begins to arrive. First, a salad—the regular horiatiki of coarsely chopped lettuce, green peppers, cucumber, tomatoes, sweet red onion, feta and the tiny local black olives that have very little flesh but a superb, nutty flavour. It sounds banal, overfamiliar, but it’s pretty heavenly when dressed with heavy golden olive oil, salt and the mild vinegar, if only because all the ingredients are so very fresh and juicy.A small plate of marinated anchovy fillets appears—pungent, intensely fishy, with that soft dense texture you find in rollmops. Then a plate of piping-hot courgette patties, crusted a golden brown from the pan but creamy and green inside, as if the grated courgettes had been mixed with a little egg and flour (they may have been or it may just be their natural texture) as well as with invisible nuances of oregano, pepper and mint.Grilled oyster mushrooms are dressed in olive oil and crushed garlic. It’s funny how I enjoy garlic when I’m in Greece but have developed an aversion to it in Canada. The last dish is laden with substantial whole sardines, plump and gilded from the grill. They’re too big to eat in one crunchy mouthful—so big, in fact, that we have to fillet them on the plate before squeezing lemon juice over them. Philip waxes most eloquent on the subject of lemons. “They are one fruit I must have,” he insists. “Always!”
“Because of their antiscorbutic qualities,” I suggest.
“No, man. Because with Greek food it’s all about the balance of oil, acid and salt. The acid may be tomatoes or vinegar or lemons but you need it to harmonize with the oil and the salt.” Then he changes the subject to the matter of restaurants that serve frozen fish and say it’s fresh (the sort of perfidy that enrages him). They make it hard to tell the difference by thawing the frozen creatures in the actual sea, but Philip reckons he can always tell from the consistency of the bones. And so on… A delightful lunch we will all remember for a long time, not because the food was especially heroic or the wine anything more than charmingly refreshing, but because of the fine and happy synchronicity of friendship and place.
By contrast, and switching now to a minor key, there is a restaurant called Demarchio in the heart of Corfu Town that I have been going to for years. It’s quite expensive—a special occasion place—but the tables are set out, under vast white umbrellas, in the middle of the square opposite the Town Hall, a square closed to cars and full of little fountains and delightful flower gardens. A couple of years ago, when my wife and I were made Freemen of Corfu Town, the Mayor of Corfu took us there for a very long lunch, along with his entourage of 30 or so people, as part of the festivities. Now as then, it remains a very civilized enclave on a hot afternoon and in July I wrote a glowing review of the restaurant for The Sunday Telegraph in England. The people who run it could care less, I’m sure, but it’s the last good review I shall give the place. We went there for lunch last week (the food as refined and delicious as ever—especially some juicy fillets of bream in a lightweight white-wine beurre). A few days later, we happened to check our Visa statement and found Demarchio had charged us twice for the meal, changing the amount slightly to avert suspicion, and then charged us a further 10 euros, perhaps as some sort of tip or reward for their guile. A total of 95 euros, to be exact. Presumably they imagined we were tourists who wouldn’t see our Visa statement until we got back home.
This morning, I went back to the restaurant, armed with the bill, my Visa statement and my Corfiot lawyer’s business card, to see what could be done to rectify the situation. I went early, before any customers were there, and found the perp alone in Demarchio’s small bar. He clearly recognized me for a troubled look clouded his face. I began by showing him the bill, and then the Visa statement. His English, normally so suave and efficient, had apparently deserted him, but my pitiful Greek was enough. “Come back tomorrow?” he suggested, but I explained that wasn’t good enough. He fished out a 100-euro note. “Sorry, eh?” he grunted. I left him with my lawyer’s business card—a name he would know well since the advocate in question was, until quite recently, deputy mayor.
I hate confrontation. My hands were shaking as I strolled away. But such tricks smirch the island’s reputation. I don’t think I’ll alert my lawyer. But I might tell Philip what has transpired. He will go down to the restaurant and discuss the matter, using the forceful vocabulary he picked up during his years as a merchant seaman. I wish I could be there to hear it.