Friday, October 11, 2013


Up until a few days ago I wasn’t really sure. And then. as always, with that reassuring inevitability, a belt of storms raced in, turning Corfu into a meteorologist’s exotic dream with inspirational water spouts

And stunning lightning strikes

Any lingering doubts I might have had  vanished with the arrival of the yellow light and muddy skies that accompany weather sweeping in from the south – sand-infused rain, gusty winds, temperatures that hover in the muggy range. I think we can safely assume that autumn is really here. There are of course soothsayers who insist that there will be a ‘little summer’ in a week or so. I hope they are right.

The date of the actual transition of the season varies slightly according to where you live. The Americans and Canadians have already welcomed Autumn with the September Equinox and Fall Foliage Tours are well underway and popular with Leaf Peepers as the North Americans, with their gift for inventing apt names, refer to this seasonal activity.

In Kyoto, Japan, also a lure for leaf-lovers, the blaze of colour reaches its climax in mid to late November,

Every leaf speaks bliss to me, fluttering from the autumn tree. So wrote Charlotte Bronte.

Here in Corfu, with its preponderance of olive and cypress trees, the messengers of Autumn are a little more elusive. Autumn is more a thought, an anticipation, than a highly visible announcement of a change of season.
The ‘squirrel instinct’ returns, and here on the island we start cutting and storing wood for the winter heating, moving the furniture around in an orgy of nesting similar to that of animals preparing to hibernate. The country women of the island used to start the insulation process about  now, spreading Flokati rugs and goat skins on the floors, hanging thick curtains, pursuing their children with jackets and scarves every time they ventured out. In the kitchens, the season of soups was, and is,  with us again.

I always loved the autumn puddings but living in Corfu and eating a diet that follows the Greek pattern rather than the traditionally English one, puddings are on the whole a thing of the past and, with our strong links with Italy, more likely to be a tiramisu than a Spotted Dick! Autumn fruits do lend themselves to comfort eating though – apples, plums, blackberries - all make perfect partnerships with flour, sugar, butter and a sprinkling of spices, and result in glorious pies, puddings – and crumbles.
Crumbles, once considered the poor relation of a stately pie, have suddenly become fashionable in England, with the most renowned chefs lending their names to new and sometimes startling versions. I hear that the French have discovered le crumble - whatever next! Me, I go for that unbeatable combination of apple and plum or apple and blackberry or, indeed, just apple, with a few sultanas, brown sugar and a subtle pinch of vanilla, cloves and nutmeg. Perfection. And easy to make here in Corfu! I would leap at the chance of a portion of Nigel Slater’s gooseberry and ground almond crumble but if you ever see a gooseberry in Corfu  na mou tripisis ti miti’ ’  as the locals would say (you can make a hole in my nose),

People say that we no longer get a real autumn, a true Spring; that we bid a sudden farewell to winter with temperatures soaring overnight and that we beat a hasty retreat from high summer into winter, In fact we are lucky enough to get a gentle but insistent Autumn, ushering us delicately but irrefutably into winter.
On the mainland, in Epirus, where there are still vast expanses of mountain bush and forest, the change is about to occur. There is a lightening of the hues of the deciduous trees. The dense foliage of the great trees that stand at the heart of every village is sparser now, the blue of the sky that is no longer hidden from view by the ancient branches is sharper and somehow just a little less settled. Kids and dogs scuffle in the huge, brittle leaves that have fallen with an audible thud from the plane and fig trees.(This photo was taken in Corfu's oldest village, Paleo Perithia)

In our Corfu gardens, the ripe pomegranates begin to split their rosy skins and spill their seed wantonly; figs left on the trees are as sweet and sticky as only sun-dried fruit can be. Untended land, of which there is too much on the island, is covered with brambles. Why is it that these are thicker and thornier than they are in Britain? Here the only fruit worth picking is deep within the over-protective, prickly embrace of the rampant brambles and the blackberry and apple pies of my youth in England can only be achieved by suicidal forays into the thorny thickets of Corfu .

There I go – thinking of comfort food again. The ripe fruits of October, however, are not only alluring to human foodies, they attract  the wasps that have survived the summer. These brutes  are fat, lazy, drunk, out of work and aggressive, as I recently read somewhere. The queens no longer require their services and they take out their frustrations on humans, making this the worst time of year for wasp stings. The locals place a little Greek coffee powder in a ‘dish’ of aluminium foil and set fire to it. The acrid smoke is the most effective wasp deterrent known to Man!
Now it has rained heavily the wasps are also mostly dead, drowned and swept away in the streams and brooks that have suddenly come to life once more.

It is grape harvest time, too, and while Corfu is no longer covered by vineyards as it once was (Homer refers to this and every traveler of the nineteenth century commented on the ubiquitous grapevines of the Corfiot countryside) the local people are pressing grapes – their own or bought from local growers or from the huge trucks that arrive from the Greek mainland at this time of year. Ho household in Corfu is complete without a stock of home-brewed wine and oil made from your own or a friend’s olives.


Autumn in Corfu may not arrive with a display of blatantly gorgeous autumn foliage, but the sunsets and sunrises are second to none.

It makes its presence felt in the sight of cyclamen amidst the shriveled leaves of summer; in the call of the buzzard on morning patrol; in the breathtaking sight of migrating  flamingoes on Lake Korission.

And it makes its presence felt in the curious and premature offerings of Christmas progtammes on TV. Similar I suppose to the Christmas decorations already apparent in the big stores of London and New York and just as irritating.

Bah humbug as Mr. Scrooge might have said.

My daughter has just phoned to ask what she should cook on Sunday and to say she is making apple muffins. At last! No more Sunday sandwich lunches while everyone else goes to the beach. No more supermarket cakes. Welcome back to the Food Fairy!

If there are typos in this blog - blame the kitten who has arrived in out home like an autumn windfall. Not the one in the photo though just as typical of the cats of Corfu.

Most of the photos in this blog were taken by my friend Frosso. Others by Katy, me, Min and Rita, and some are the work of local photographers who always seem to be in the right place at the right time!

October 2013

Friday, August 16, 2013


A few random thoughts on August


Yesterday was  the Fifteenth of August, a very important festival in the Greek Orthodox Church and a  public holiday. Even though it is the height of the holiday season, and Corfu is full of visitors, there will be many who will observe that holiday, however much it may inconvenience the holidaymakers, such is its importance.

On this day, the Orthodox Church commemorates the Dormition (death or ‘falling asleep’ ) of the Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus. Women especially are expected to observe this day by not working or performing normal tasks.
Times change and necessity impinges, but when I first lived in Greece, with my mother-in-law and her own mother, I was ordered not to do any housework that day. When I brought some crochet materials out into the vine-shaded courtyard in order to do something with my hands, I was severely reprimanded.

Non-humans welcome a day off too.

On the island of Tinos there is a huge annual event, with a pilgrimage to the Church of the Holy Virgin, a white wedding cake-style edifice, home to a sacred ikon that is believed to have miraculous powers.

The devout come from all over the eastern Mediterranean for this celebration and many of them crawl on hands and knees the 800-metre distance between the ferry dock and the entrance to the church.

In Corfu, there are many churches dedicated to the Virgin and each will have had its own festival.

I always think of this time as midsummer, but of course it is not. Midsummer occurs on or around 21st June, the summer solstice. It is celebrated in many countries, often in ways that have come down to us from the old pagan religions. Scandinavia is well-known for its midsummer festivals; Stonehenge, Maypoles and flower festivals are examples of midsummer madness in Britain and men jump over blazing bonfires in Greece. In Britain, it probably heralds a re-run of the old and well-loved TV series ‘Midsomer Murders’. (was there anybody left alive at the end of that corpse-strewn series?)
There is bound, surely, to be a performance in London of Shakespeare’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ – when I was very young my grandparents used to take me to see it every year at the Regent’s Park Open-Air Theatre.

Magic, pure magic.

Mid-August on the other hand cannot but remind us that the end of summer is approaching, and I have a funny feeling – that rain is on the way, that we may soon have more than the few drops that tumbled out of the sky a few days ago.
In fact, editing this blog prior to publishing it, I discovered, thanks to Facebook, that in some parts of Corfu last night there were indeed a few flashes of lightning, rumbles of thunder and a scattering of rain. My family and I, on the other hand, sat on the hot, dry balcony and talked about the possibility. Wishful thinking!

Here in Corfu, the humans on the whole seem to love August, with its strong sunshine and intense heat, though the only place to walk in town is in the shade.

Not all the other inhabitants of the island derive the same pleasure from the heat…

The bays and blue waters of Corfu play host at this time to pleasure-craft of all sizes, from the vast

To the merely big

And the realistic

My front door knob, on the other hand, plays frequent host to the gifts left discreetly by our neighbours and friends - welcome gifts, in bags or laid out with artistry in a basket on the doorstep.

It's a great month for visitors, as long as they make themselves useful -

There are always, of course, a few visitors that you can't stand -

The Americans celebrate National Back to School Month in August but Greek kids have another month to go. As for me, I have to confess that I have ordered two new winter sweaters on line. I have this funny feeling you see...
Not quite the end of summer, then, though one of my grandsons seems to share my premonitions…

 Some of the photos are my own, for the rest, thanks to Katy, Jo and Frosso.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013


August 2013
A few nights ago I watched an old film on TV. Nothing unusual about that – in Greece the TV channels (those that are left) wallow in the doldrums during the summer. The good series have drawn to their conclusions, news programmes rely heavily upon interviews on beaches or on city pavements that, together with the pedestrians who are trying to avoid the facetious questions of the TV  interviewer, are about to melt.
Two of the Greek channels spend entire weekday evenings on Turkish serials that are immensely popular and seem to have had an inordinate amount of influence on the current fondness of the Greek male for heavy beards and bald heads, others show the same foreign series that are showing at the same time on satellite channels.

It all gets very confusing especially when you remember that Greeks are supposed to hate Turks, but then few people really bother with TV in summer and it is too hot to carry on with the hatred anyway..
Me, I am going to pause here for a granita.

The old film, however, was one of my favourites.
‘You’ve Got Mail’ with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.
The plot is quite Shakespearean in its way. Two people, carrying on an email correspondence that becomes a cyber romance. In real life, they have met and don’t much like each other, do not realize they are getting quite cozy with each other on the Internet and each is involved in an unhappy relationship. See what I mean? Very As You Like It. He owns a chain of giant retail book stores, she owns a tiny bookshop that is threatened by the opening of one of the superstores round the corner from her premises. True love prevails  and he learns that life is not all about huge profits. Charming.

I adore films about bookshops. Remember the one in ‘Notting Hill’? Hugh Grant never managed to convince me that he really cared much about his shop until Julia Roberts walked into it. His assistant was much more true-to-type. A man with a real knowledge of books.
A favourite film of this genre was ‘ 84 Charing Cross Road’. Starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins it was adapted from a book of correspondence  exchanged between an American woman (Helen Hanff) and a London antiquarian bookseller during WWII . The book became a classic, adapted for stage, film and TV, but sadly not available in Kindle format. This was the original bookshop.

Yes I know – I always said I would never buy a Kindle. But then one was bought for me, and I have rediscovered the infinite pleasure of browsing for books. With a Kindle, you can get samples of books – and quite generous samples too – delivered to your own device, to be pored over in comfort and at leisure. You don’t even have to buy them if they prove to be less interesting than you expected, or too expensive. Two thirds of the fun is in browsing the virtual bookshelves, just as it was in a real bookstore. Imagine the joy of browsing in one of these bookstores, in Portugal and Holland respectively.

But in the old days, sampling the books meant leaning uncomfortably against the shelves, or squatting on the floor, or perching on the bottom rung of the handy ladder. Kindle lets you take the samples home and keep them too.
It’s almost as good as this:

It’s rather like re-living the days when I joyously discovered the modern bookshop.
Books were always a big part of my life – at home we had books everywhere including in the loo, and my first job after leaving school was in a public library.

When I first lived in Greece, books were for many years not top of anyone’s list of priorities; it came as a revelation to visit Canada for the first time and discover Chapters.
Chapters was the appropriate name of a chain of bookstores across Canada, that offered not only a huge selection of books, magazines and computer software, but the opportunity to browse in comfort at one of the many convenient tables, or lounge on a comfy old sofa and read for hours without being moved on or urged to buy anything. (There was even a fireplace – albeit fake – to add to the sense of homely relaxation). You could select as many books as you liked and take them to a seat, read for hours or make notes on your laptop, and return the books to the shelves when you had finished. You could get coffee, soup or tea and a muffin and there were toilets. Members of staff would read to kids. You could also read magazines, with the proviso that if you stained, creased or removed pages, you would have to buy the thing.

Chapters was and I hope still is, highly popular with seniors, the unemployed, and students. They do also sell quite a lot of books.
Similar user-friendly bookstores opened in the UK and there are even some in Greece.In Corfu there are some amazing book collections, mostly in private homes. I had the great pleasure some years ago of cataloguing the many books belonging to a very wealthy man with a superb villa (or two) in Corfu. I was able to handle antique books of great value and scarcity. Corfu was at one time a repository of many ancient and historic books and documents but so many of those were destroyed or looted during the Second World War. Other books. including valuable Venetian tomes, have literally mouldered away in abandoned mansions or have 'disappeared'. That makes me very sad, but them I am a devout booklover. I cannot bear to see them mistreated.

What a fascinating world that of books is. And now there is the Kindle, a boon to those with deteriorating sight, a gateway to that world that was in danger of becoming lost to someone like me who simply does not see as well as she once did but still hasn’t lost all her marbles.

Time for a classic Greek frappe methinks!

Friday, June 14, 2013


Sweet and sour reflections on the fruit of Corfu gardens

Fruit doesn’t often come any stranger than this (above) but it is merely the fruit and flower of the banana plant, here seen growing in a small Corfiot village garden.
If, as so many of us think, Corfu is one big garden, then a walk through the verdant landscapes of the north-west will appeal to you.
Last Sunday. 9th June. the Arillas Trail re-opened in Corfu. Eight and a half kms of serene Corfiot scenery, through olive groves and across flower-filled hillsides, with sublime views. Signed, mapped, and with its own Facebook page and website, the fact that it ends at a microbrewery with a free sample of beer just shows how well-planned it is.

I used to be quite a walker and even led walking holidays in Corfu. These days wobbly legs have turned me into a different kind of rambler – one who wanders the cyberhighways and takes special pleasure in the cyberbyways.
I don’t need boots or Langdale socks for this form of exercise, just a computer and an enquiring mind.
My latest jaunt began with wondering what the island of Corfu might have looked like when Odysseus (Ulysses) was washed up on its shores of what was then  called Scheria, and taken home to meet her father  by the Princess Nausicaa.

Judging by this painting, Odysseus was swept by the tempest on to a part of the island with soaring white cliffs and spear-like cypress trees. Wagnerian in its stark beauty, this spot has the look of north-western Corfu. But claims have been made for Paleocastritsa and  Ermones to be the legendary landfall, not to mention the eastern shores, where the Halikiopoulos Lagoon was said to be the site of the ancient city of Scheria itself.
Does it matter? Of course it does, if you are curious about such things, and my search for information on the primeval vegetation of Corfu led me into some fascinating places.
More of that in another blog, and more about the gardens of Corfu – Nausicaa’s father was said to have created some fabulous gardens – as well.

My googlings and wiki-wanderings this time led me to the discovery of something that I had never before heard of with regard to Corfu. The discovery concerned the strange history of a not-so-very strange fruit commonly found in the gardens of modern Scheria and undoubtedly found in the gardens of King Alkinous too.

The orange groves of the island are not as extensive as they once were. When I first visited the island I used to ride a rented bike along the quiet road that led from Corfu Town to Dassia. (Yes – a quiet, narrow road with many bends!)

The artist Sophie Atkinson wrote in her charming account of a stay in Corfu in 1911 that the best way to explore the island was by bicycle, In those days of long skirts, before the advent of the mountain bike, that was no mean feat, but she explained jauntily that there was no shortage of young boys willing to push the machine up the hills for a small fee.

Dassia was full of orange groves and the air in April and May was drowsy with the scent of orange blossom. Above Kontokali, where I now live, there are acres of lemon groves, seemingly unharvested. Dassia, of course, was and is home to the great Merlin Estate, where the unique Merlin oranges were ‘born’.
Every old Corfiot garden has its fair share of orange, lemon and mandarin orange trees. And the famous ‘trademark’ citrus fruit, the koum kwat is grown both commercially and for private consumption.

But the gardens of King Alkinoos, and certainly the gardens of today, are host to so many other lesser-known fruits.
No wonder Odysseus was reluctant to leave!

Let’s forget for now, the figs, mulberries, loquats, tzitzifies trees, the prickly pears, the strawberry trees,  the banana trees, the lotos tree, the cherry, pear, apple and quince trees, wild and cultivated. Ignore the carob tree, the pomegranate tree, the almond and chestnut trees.
Many, if not all, of these fruit trees would have been growing both wild and cultivated in the equable climate and fertile soil of Kerkyra (Corfu) in ancient times, and still do.

I want to consider the citrus fruits for now though.
What a variety we have here!
Few gardens do not boast at least one orange and lemon tree, and perhaps a ‘mandarini’ tree. Some have grapefruit trees, occasionally an old orange tree has had a grapefruit grafted on to it and the tree bears both kinds of fruit, as I have seen in an old and sadly neglected garden in Kanoni. (not the one shown here !)

I have mentioned the koum kwat but Corfu gardens bear other fruits too – most of which find their way, or did when Greek housewives spent more time in their kitchens, into the famous ‘spoon sweets’. Allow me to digress here. As a raw recruit to the ranks of  foreign wives in Greece, I was persuaded to have a go at making a spoon sweet myself. Our very old garden, hidden behind high walls in the Old Town, was full of trees bearing small oranges that were otherwise inedible, called nerantzi. (These were the same orange trees that grow throughout Greece in public places, amazing the tourists who cannot understand why no-one picks – or scrumps as we would say – the fruit. You try one straight off the tree and you will know why they remain inviolate).
Anyway, with my sister-in-law’s instructions ringing down the phone line from Athens, I picked the fruit, washed it, peeled it and threaded the peel onto cotton  strings and left them to soak overnight in large bowls of water. Thirty-six hours later, after a great deal of rinsing, squeezing, simmering, adding copious amounts of sugar, allowing the syrup to thicken, applying Windex – no, I mean Germolene – to the burns on my hands, and bottling, I was the proud owner of several jars of incredibly sweet and sticky orange preserve. Was it worth it? Yes, if only to help me understand the psyche of the Greek housewife a little better. Will I ever do it again? Doubtful.

Digression over. .

Older Corfiot gardens may still have a bergamot tree.

Bergamot also makes an incredibly fragrant spoon sweet, and its oil of course is widely used in aromatherapy and the blending of perfumes. The peel is used to make candied peel and is the source of the unique flavour of Earl Grey Tea. In my case, it was an added reason to visit the dear old yiayia who once lived upstairs from me and used to make the beautiful bergamot glyko just for the xeni on the first floor.

Blood oranges have always been popular in Corfu, perhaps because of the island’s connections with Italy where the dark red flesh of this type of orange features in many recipes for salads and desserts. They are called ‘sanguinia’ in Greek – not hard to see linguistic connection there.

There used to be another kind of orange that was much-loved by Corfiots, called Dolce. Due to its very low acid levels, the fruit has  a bland and extremely sweet flavour. I haven’t come across it for many years – not a good keeper or traveller, it has perhaps lost its popularity in favour of more modern fruit. The Dolce oranges were another favourite with Italians and perhaps came to Corfu with the Venetians or even the Sicilians.

I see no reason why limes should not grow in Corfu and I am sure they do, but while so many Corfu fruits find their way into heady liqueurs and other potent potions, I am certain there is no local equivalent to Robinson’s Lime Cordial! . Pity, for where would the British ex-pats be  without their gin and lime?
The health value of the fruit is huge and varied, and oriental cuisine would be lost without it. Strange to think we have always paid highly here in Greece for imported limes when they are probably hiding in your neighbour’s garden, overlooked and unnoticed.

Writing about the citrus fruits of Corfu has made me incredibly thirsty! (Remember the old game of sucking a lemon in front of a bandsman? Maybe those days of seaside band concerts, piers and bandstands, are not part of your childhood memories…)
I’ve got a bottle of homemade Limoncello here – see what I mean? –it may be wickedly delicious but it is hardly refreshing. Van Gogh had the right idea…orange presse

Before I sign off with my ‘discovery’ of something I never knew about Corfu, let me mention an ’orange’ that can be seen in Corfu’s gardens, public and private, but cannot be eaten.
It is the ‘Osage Orange’

The fruit of this tree is inedible for humans but squirrels seem to like it. In America, where the tree is grown for use in hedging, the fruit was, and still is, used as an insect repellent. One fruit placed under beds or in cupboards has been proved to have natural repellent qualities  as efficient as DEET,
The wood is tough and dense and makes good tool handles, while the straighter varieties have been used for centuries for making bows.
Not an orange then, only in name. In fact it belongs to the mulberry family.
How did the tree find its way to Corfu? Perhaps one of those ardent British gardeners of the time of the British Protectorate brought one to adorn his villa garden? Or maybe the Kaiser had them imported for his Achilleion garden project?

Now we come to my ‘discovery’.
For several centuries, Corfu was one of the chief suppliers of etrog (esrogim) to Jews all over the world.
Let me explain:

Etrog is a type of citron, now grown primarily in Israel, that has a special role in Jewish ritual during the week-long holiday of Sukkot.
"And you shall take on the 1-st day the fruit of beautiful trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God 7 days!" Leviticus 23:40.

The etrog is one of the Four Species used in the ritual, the others being the date palm frond, the myrtle bough and the willow branch. 

The Corfu esrogim were indeed very beautiful and therefore very popular in Jewish communities. Rich Jews in Corfu spent considerable amounts of money on the smooth and flawless fruit, which was picked and packed into small boxes made for this purpose, and sent to friends abroad. (Antique etrog boxes of silver or wood are highly valued and sell for several thousand dollars).

Ironically, the very beauty of Corfu esrogim caused Eastern European rabbis to doubt their kashrus (that they were kosher) early in the nineteenth century. They suspected that the growers in Corfu were grafting the esrogim with other citrus fruits to enhance their appearance, thus rendering them unfit for use in the Sukkot rituals.
True or not – and probably not – the importance of Corfu’s crop of etrog declined for many reasons, including the depredations of World War II and the resulting decimation of Corfu’s ancient Jewish community.
The citron still grows in quiet Corfu gardens. It is called kitro  and the tree is  a kitria.
Corfu, home to some strange fruit indeed, and some beautiful fruit too.

Now I really am thirsty. My saunterings along cybertrails ought to end at a microbrewery too, but an ouzo and lemon would be nice!

Thanks to Kate,Frosso, Corfucius, the Arillas Trail and others for use of photos. Some of them are even my own.