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Food & Drink

Rabbit showdown in Corfu

To Corfu for a week of monklike solitude. Thanks to the technological marvel that is Olympic Airways, I reached the island three hours late (sometime around 11 p.m.) and decided to stay in Corfu Town at the Cavalieri hotel, a former townhouse of great comfort that still retains the elegant and world-weary mood of the Venetians who built it 300 years ago. The fabulous rooftop restaurant is closed during the winter, but Greeks eat late and I was confident of finding the Rex or the Aegli open for business. Walking down Kapodistriou Street towards one of these restaurants, I was thinking of a piquant stifatho of rabbit braised with sweet baby onions in a dark sauce spiked with vinegar. Yeah, that’s it—a stifatho! The roads were wet but the clouds had moved on and an inquisitive moon peered down over the citadel, smirking a little, I thought, as I stood outside the dark and padlocked restaurants. These nights between Christmas and the New Year are treacherous with holidays. Some of the bars along the ’Spianada’s stately stone arcades were still open. Too crowded. Instead, I ended up in a café with an exclusively Latin American menu; I made do with a no-name chicken quesadilla and a glass of Chilean plonk. Did the world find Greece while my back was turned or did Greece discover the world?

The next morning (after the Cavalieri’s excellent breakfast buffet, a meal pleasantly shared with an elderly Greek who spoke perfect English and turned out to be the Irish consul), I pointed my rental car north and headed into the mountains through a motionless sunlit morning. Not for nothing is the valley my house faces known as koulouri—the quiet. Standing on the patio, looking across the mirror sea at the snow-capped ranges of Albania, there was nothing to hear at all but my own pulse. At this time of year the insect world is moribund, the vast cicada tabernacle choir in hiatus. The cold sun beamed down from a cloudless sky upon the steep green jungle that my garden becomes when no one is here to take a scythe to the plants. Word had not yet spread among the feral feline community that the sucker was back so only Basa, the grey tabby, showed up, pregnant again and mewing for a helping from the sack of dry cat food she knows is kept in the bathroom. I fed her then went back out to the patio to enjoy the silence.

I finally had my stifatho last night—down the mountain in the next village, at the convivial establishment run by Spiro and his wife, Lola. Twenty years ago, I wrote about the stifatho that Spiro’s mother used to make—a fine version, easy on the vinegar and with a sly hit of cinnamon behind the sauce. I compared it favourably to another local lady’s recipe and it seems the judgement has not been forgotten. Lola’s restaurant creation was just as good as Spiro’s mum’s. Then, this morning, Marina, who lives in this village, knocked on the door and handed me a clay dish the size of a bedpan containing her own rabbit stifatho. She had heard I was here on my own (and also, perhaps, that I had tried Lola’s stifatho last night). So the old game is once again afoot. Tonight I must eat Marina’s. And tomorrow I will be expected to draw comparisons and name a victor. As a food writer I have taken the phagographic oath and am forbidden ever to lie about what I eat. Even for the sake of hypersensitive village diplomacy.

It’s cold as I slip outside into the darkness for a bit of celestial contemplation. The night sky is different in winter. Orion dominates the welkin, blazing away in the southeast, almost as bright as golden Jupiter, high over the black silhouette of the ridge across the valley. All politicians and philosophers should be taken to a mountaintop from time to time and made to look at the stars. It’s a valuable lesson in humility. Not that any advice will be proffered—no answers about starting a land war in Asia or choosing one cooked bunny over another.

And now I’ve eaten Marina’s stifatho. The onions were meltingly soft, the sauce (reductio ad absurdum) heavy and sweet, with the vinegar embedded in this jam like a lurking shadow. The rabbit was not so tender, not falling from the bone the way Lola’s does, nor so juicy and flavourful. The cinnamon was conspicuous by its absence. In a world where stifatho was the only food (and I’m beginning to think I live on such a planet) the differences would seem profound—black and white, chalk and cheese.

“Marina, your stifatho is incomparable, unique: I have never eaten one like it. Oh, those onions. Oh, that rabbit! Thank you so so much for letting me taste it.” It may be enough.

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