If you visit Corfu hoping for Greek favourites such as tzatziki and Greek salad, you won’t be disappointed — but the island is home to its own distinct cuisine, too, full of flavours and ingredients that are unusual in the country’s gastronomy.
Thanks to the Ionian islands’ proximity to Italy, and that Corfu was under Venetian rule for over 400 years, pasta features heavily in local menus. Those pioneering Venetians put Corfu on the spice trail, so cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and hot chilli powder are also firm favourites. While the exact combinations and quantities vary, these spices feature in all local stalwarts: bourdeto, a rich, scorpionfish stew; stifado, slow-braised meat with shallots; and pastitsada, octopus, rabbit or beef cooked in a thick sauce and served with pasta. My Corfiot grandmother reaches for every spice when cooking even the most simple of meals, like her arakas, braised peas and potatoes or tsigarellia, wild greens. For her, if it isn’t making your lips tingle, it isn’t cutting it.
Thanks to a new generation of young chefs, who have been raised with a deep respect for the island’s culinary heritage, Corfu’s food scene has flourished in recent years. Beyond the pretty seafront tavernas serving simple but delicious grilled fish with ladolemono (oil and lemon), a number of restaurants are reviving old recipes.
Chef Yiannis Vlachos at The Venetian Well, a gem hidden behind a maze of alleyways in the old town, serves classic flavours with a fine dining finish. This year, he’s sharing the kitchen with Spyros Agious, Corfu’s hottest cheffing talent, who cites his grandmother as one of his biggest inspirations. Just out of town, meanwhile, Kyria Vassiliki at Ambelonas vineyard and restaurant delves into private and public archives to unearth long-forgotten recipes like zorka, a vegetable pie. Without chefs like these, many traditional dishes might well have been lost with our grandparents’ generation.
Yiayia: Time-perfected Recipes from Greece’s Grandmothers by Anastasia Miari will be published by Hardie Grant on 25 May (£27).
Originally a poor man’s lunch, owing to the fact that fish, lemons and olive oil were abundant around the island, bianco is a silver fish stew with potatoes and plenty of flavour. Try it at Toula’s on Agni Bay.
Packed with spices, sikopita (or sikomaida) is an oval-shaped patty made from sun-dried figs and spiked with plenty of ouzo. It’s perfect for chopping into yoghurt for breakfast, snacking on during long hikes or simply enjoying with a mid-morning Greek coffee.
Purists will say a pastitsada needs no extra spices beyond a hot chilli powder, but this hearty dish of slow-cooked meat served with pasta can include cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, depending on the cook. It has the ideal balance of sweet and savoury, with a spicy kick.