24th March 2014
This is the Season of Firsts: The First Tree in Leaf (20 February); the First Judas Tree in Bloom (14 March); the First Swallows (22 March, afternoon); the First Mosquito Attack (ditto). Now we await that unfamiliar creature – the First Tourist. Has one been spotted?Greater or Lesser?
16th March 2014
Nature rewards diligent dog-walkers. The borders of the little road near where I live is bejewelled with wild flowers, with a palette of gems which changes day by day. At present – mid-March – the display is reaching its peak. Emerging just above the background bright green, daisies and marigolds are joined by little blue Anchusa (a member of the Borage family), wild Alyssums, purple Grape Hyacinths, yellow-green Spurge, and the shy white six-petalled Star of Bethlehem.
Straggling higher are purple Cranesbills and a mist of lemon-yellow mustard-type flowers. Drifts of purple Honesty form a backdrop against the hedge, and, tallest of all, spikes of Asphodel are just coming into flower, as is Mediterranean Hartwort with its coffee-saucer lacy spread of white petals. Soon, the fennel plants, currently a mass of feathery leaves, will sprout into lofty yellow sprays.
Anemones abound in the fields. Enjoying open locations, the flower is characteristic of March. When it opens, it is an intense purple, fading day by day almost to white. About the name: It’s taken from the Greek word ‘anemos’ meaning ‘wind’, a reference to the way the flowers on their slender stalks bend and tilt according to the direction of the breeze. Think about this Greek word when you pronounce the name and you are less likely to get it wrong – because many folk mistakenly call the flower ‘Anenomy’. I think this is due to the fact that we are more familiar with saying ‘an enemy’ than ‘anemony’, so we tend to switch the last two consonants.
Higher in the hills, a second native anemone blooms. This is Anemone blanda, so called because its colour is less vibrant than its in-your-face-purple cousin. Actually, the flower is far from bland; its shade hovers somewhere between pale violet and sky blue, close to lavender. It’s a lovely sight to see the two species growing side by side, as we did when walking above Lakones recently.
In the pastures of the valley, the ground is still patchily boggy from recent rains, and the paludal Narcissus is in such abundance that some patches have become islands of tissue-paper ivory amid the ocean of green.
The tree-blossom this year is spectacular. In leaf, hedgerows are anonymous; in flower, they shout. A particular large shrub forms most of the hedgerows along this valley, and the blooms mantle the rows like snow so that the hedges seem like linear drifts. I wish I could fly so I could view the field pattern from the air. But dog-walks will have to suffice.
11th March 2014
For Greeks of the older generation, from an age of about 50 upwards, walking is something you only do if you haven’t the wherewithal to possess motorised transport, or at the very least money for a bus ticket. When these folk were young, walking was regarded as a shaming activity, the preserve of the poorest; locals would use all their resources to demonstrate that they weren’t of that status, to the extent that many village menfolk would go so far as to drive their scooter to the local kafenion, even if just around the corner. My ex only ever joined me on a walk if the venue was a long drive away (‘so no-one I know sees me’), and even then he would spend most of the hike looking over his shoulder.
When out exploring footpaths in the past, I would often be upbraided by some local farming woman, instructing me in no uncertain terms to ‘go by the road’. My reply that I actually wanted to go on foot would be greeted by looks of horror, and the startled question: ‘Why? Don’t you have a car?’ (usually accompanied by a steering-wheel-driving gesture of the hands.) When groups of foreign tourists began walking the Corfu Trail, locals living in villages along the route pitied them because they were ‘too poor to rent a car’, shortly to discover that they usually had much more dosh than the average resort-based visitor.
So, when I joined the Stavros Walking Group’s hike on Sunday, 9 March, it was a delight to find myself in the company of a dozen or more children. Aged from about ten to mid-teens, they were all from nearby Strongili and, together with adult family members and the village president, had come along to view the cataracts on the fast-tumbling stream between Stavros and the Benitses Waterworks.
Following ten days or so of relentless rainfall, the cataracts did not disappoint. I hope the experience engenders in these youngsters a taste for walking that will last a lifetime.
And I hope that stay-at-home non-hiking grandmothers had big pots of Sunday-lunch Pastitsada on the boil for when they got back.
4th March 2014
On the road to Pelekas, the Ropa Valley and Points West, the tentacles of Corfu Town’s spreading conurbation now only cease after Aqualand.
Formerly free-standing villages such as Potamos, Alepou and Kanalia can hardly be distinguished amongst the vast sprawl of housing, shops and businesses, and even proud Agios Ioannis is losing its green belt to development.
But outside village centres, the suburbs expand mostly along roadsides, and behind these built-up strips, rural Corfu still awaits.
Kombitsi and its pine and chestnut forest is a case in point. The village is located on elevated land to the south of the main Pelekas road, just before the new Afra roundabout. The sharply rising hillside hides it from the road, a hillside now defaced by the ‘Legoland’
development – you’ll understand the reference when you see it!
Immediately behind the development, the scene changes drastically:
From the detritus of modern civilisation, you step back a few centuries to the time of Venice. While surrounded by modern villas, the village centre is unchanged. The tall church campanile is a landmark, and close around is a vast abandoned monastic building, a couple of mansions, a traditional kafenion and, down a grassy cobbled way, a Venetian well set in a glade.
Kombitsi is on the edge of the eponymous pine forest, which extends between Viros, Kalafationes and Varipatades. It remains largely untouched and comprises beautiful examples of the Pinus pinus tree (try saying that in company without raising a giggle!), otherwise known as the Umbrella or Stone Pine, mixed with sweet chestnuts, oaks and any number of smaller trees and shrubs. In November and December, the Corfu Snowdrop is in abundance. This is Galathus corcyrensis – Corfu’s own snowdrop species. The terrain is rolling hills and sandy soil is underfoot (plus lots of winter mud in valleys).
When I first explored the forest 20 years or so ago, it took me several attempts to find my way into its heart. Now explorers find it easier, after a local entrepreneur put up rustic signs which, with the help of an accompanying map, allow you to walk several circular routes without getting lost. Since the forest is home to the Silvaland Equestrian Centre, some folk assume the signs are set up for the benefit of pony trekkers. Not so; for while you may meet a horse or two, they were emplaced by the owner of Stamatis Taverna on the outskirts of Viros, presumably as an added incentive for summer visitors to head for the village, and take a walk before enjoying a meal at one of Corfu’s best taverns.
Our Saturday walk on the first day of March started from the traditional kafenion (Paradosiako Kafenion is its name, in fact), and headed down into towards the heart of the forest. We didn’t take the planned route, as a recce had come up against impassable mud. Instead, we turned off the marked trails and took an unused concrete road (at least, we saw no cars) which ran along a ridge between two neighbourhoods comprising Bastouni. At the highest point of the ridge, the tiny blue and white Church of Pantokrator Zaheika enjoys a bird’s eye view of the urban sprawl of Corfu Town’s suburbs. I think Stamatis should add this route to his trail network, linking waymark Y2 with R7 to guide hikers through lovely Kombitsi.
If you can get hold of one of Stamatis Taverna’s maps (ask at the taverna!), two good routes are: 1) R1 (Stamatis Taverna) R2 R3 R4 R5
G1 G2 B3 (sign missing here) B2 B1 R4 R3 R2 R1. 2) R1 (Stamatis
Taverna) R2 R3 R4 R5 R6 (Very muddy) R8 Y2 Y1 R2 R1. From Silvaland, a fine walk is: G5 (Silvaland) G4 R11 G3 G2 G1 R5 R4 B1 B2 B3 (sign missing – it’s the first track on the left after the Kalafationes road
junction) G4 (wet path) G5. All this seems meaningless until you have the map in your hand, or are on the ground – each sign carries its letter and number code and points in both directions to the next nearest one so its easy to find your way. Go for it… but mind out for the mud.
25th February 2014
Sometime between 7.30 and midday on Thursday 20 February, Spring sprung. Though I am not always observant during my early morning brief dog-walk, I would surely have noticed if the trees were in leaf. They weren’t; they carried just the red-tinged fuzz that indicates budding.
But by the time of our later main walk, green had burst forth on some specimens. Isn’t it nice to be able to identify the moment Spring arrives?
The mass leafing makes me wonder whether the arboreal world perhaps possesses an Interoot, an underground Internet, so to speak. It may go something like this:
OldManWillow on Facebark: ‘Shakin’ it this Spring! Have a look at my trelfie *. I’m in leaf! R u yet?’
[* We were unable to post the pic for technical reasons – Ed.]
Twigger: ‘@weepingwillow r u leafing? I am lol.’
Meanwhile, a campaign by 38 Detrees is aiming to better coordinate next year’s foliation. The message read: ‘This Spring, 2014, about a third of our community managed to leaf together. Let’s get it up to 90% next Spring! We can do it! Wiggle a root if you want this campaign to go ahead!
‘On behalf of 38 Detrees, Hawthorn, Sapling, Bush.’
Monday 17th February 2014
A Perfect Day on the North East Coast
Warm sun and a clear sky, and a walk that offered a bit of everything:
A perfect way to spend a Saturday.
Starting and finishing at Kaminaki, our walk on 15 February took in old cobbled paths (kalderimi), high mountain tracks, oak forest, a beach, and a section of the coastal footpath. In the crystal air, Albania seemed within touching distance. On Krouzeri Beach, near the touristless Nissaki Beach Hotel, the dogs took the opportunity to frolic in the gently-lapping waves, while the labradors and retrievers amongst them obeyed their instinct and enjoyed an extended swim. Once the summer visitors arrive, dogs are banned from Blue-Flag beaches.
Since this part of the North East Coast faces southward and is sheltered from chilly northeasterly winds, the spring flowering is more advanced than in other locations on the island. Daisies and Marigolds are already blossoming in drifts, and the first Honesty has bloomed. A few tall spikes of Asphodel have appeared and, by the sea at Kaminaki, Mediterranean Hartwort is displaying its lace-like flowerets.
Asphodels grow in abundance all over Corfu. They have long slender leaves and flowers borne on a spike; white star-shaped flowers with a hint of pale pink around the edges. In Greek legend they grew on the Elysian Fields, and each one is said to represent a human soul.
Hartwort, or Tordillium, has a parsley-like leaf but in a form more softly rounded, and of a gentler green. In Greek it is called ‘Mouscholahano’ (sweet-scented weed) and it is much prized in the mix of wild greens for boiling (horta) and especially when the mix is to be used for tsigarelli, in which the greens are re-cooked with oil and hot paprika. It can also be eaten raw, and indeed has a flavour similar to parsley, only sweeter. I can imagine some sleb chef ‘discovering’ it as a yuppy garnish, except it wouldn’t be commercially viable all year round as the leaves die down after it runs to seed. The seeds are amusing in close-up; they look exactly like a set of dentures.
The characteristic flower of February must be the Anemone, and we saw it in abundance during the walk. When it opens, the flower is an intense purple, fading day by day to pinkish ivory. About the name:
It’s taken from the Greek word ‘anemos’ meaning ‘wind’, a reference to the way the flowers on their slender stalks bend and tilt according to the direction of the breeze. Think about this Greek word when you pronounce the name and you are less likely to get it wrong – because many folk mistakenly call the flower ‘Anenomy’. I think this is due to the fact that we are more familiar with saying ‘an enemy’ than ‘anemony’, so we tend to switch the last two consonants.
Later in the season and higher in the hills, a second native anemone blooms. This is Anemone blanda, so called because its colour is less vibrant than its in-your-face-purple cousin, and less assertive.
Actually, the flower is far from bland; its shade hovers somewhere between pale violet and sky blue. It’s a lovely sight to see the two species growing side by side; but that’s for a later walk.
Monday 10th February 2014
A few years ago, I ran a written survey through the Saturday walkers to see which walks they preferred, and – more importantly – which tavernas. For the life of me, I cannot remember the favoured walks (probably everyone had a different opinion) but without exception Stamatis Taverna in Strinilas showed up in everyone’s top three. When British folk ask me what is so good about it, and I answer ‘the egg and chips’, they look at me with incredulity. ‘Egg and chips?’ they squawk. ‘Why do you want to come to Corfu and eat English food?’ My answer is that egg and chips is a perfectly valid Greek and Corfiot dish. My very stuck-in-the-past ex-husband’s family often served it up
when a quick meal was required. Think of it like this: A friend or relative turns up unexpectedly; a family member comes home from work early; everyone’s been out picking olives and there’s no food ready.
What does the housewife do? Well, she could open a tin of Spam, I suppose (yes, Spam used to be a much-prized luxury food, believe it or not. You can still buy it). Or … she could gather some potatoes from the storeroom, and nip to the henhouse for some just-laid eggs. Then there’s the bottle of olive oil on the kitchen shelf. Hey presto! A great meal in a few minutes. Not as quick as the Spam option, but so much nicer.
Of course, there’s much more to a meal at Stamatis than simply the egg and chips. Beforehand, he serves up taramasalata (his Mum’s unique version, very salty and with back-flavours of onion and lemon), feta cheese dressed with oil, oregano and paprika, a couple of different salads, and possibly a casseroled vegetable dish (though as we found out last Saturday, this may need advance notice). Then come platter after platter of wonderful golden chips and golden-yolked eggs. Even with fruit, walnuts, yoghurt and honey for dessert, and lots of home-made wine, the bill rarely surpasses ten euros per person. A few of the walkers have expressed a wish (tongue in cheek I hope) that we lunch at Stamatis every Saturday. But that means we must walk in the vicinity of Strinilas every Saturday. At present, I have a repertoire in the area of five discrete walks suitable for the group (around two hours), and a couple more much longer and tougher ones which I don’t think they would appreciate! So … I think I’ll get exploring.
Friday 31st January 2014
The frosty spell of early December, followed by Christmas downpours, has provided perfect conditions for Corfu’s flora to take advantage of the current mild weather, and the process has kick-started the Spring Bloom. Just before Christmas, some clumps of purple Cranesbill were already in flower on a sunny bank, and wild Marigolds have been abundant in sheltered spots all winter. The first Anemones made a rather ragged appearance at the year’s turn.
On an early January Saturday walk, we saw our first winter Iris, with its beautiful purple- and yellow-streaked petals. The late Lady Holmes – a botanical artist – was of the opinion that the wild Iris which grows in Corfu is a sub-species of the more general Mediterranean flower, since the configuration of the petal markings are slightly but consistently different. I am informed that the Iris will grow in gardens if the bulb is transplanted, but needs a couple of years to settle before it blooms.
But even with the few early stipples of gold and purple, the ground at January’s end is a vast canvas of green, awaiting the miraculous palette of Spring.
Friday 24th January 2014 Emergency Blog for Saturday Walkers
Sorry, but the weather situation looking as it does (and the
current dreadful downpours looking to be continued), I have cancelled
the walk tomorrow 25/1/14. The walk – and the accompanying terrific
egg-and-chips meal – will be reprogrammed.
Tuesday 14th January 2014
The little valley which is my Corfu home is squeezed between the conifer-covered ridge of the Theotoky Estate and the west coast hills between Ermones and Giannades. The valley starts as a wide grassy plain with the Ropa River as its southern border, and gradually narrows northwards to its apex watershed at Tristrato Crossroads, becoming more leafy and lush in the process. The narrow road along the valley carries little more than local traffic, mainly at this time of year hunters, residents of the half-dozen houses which border it, and Vatos residents transporting their kids to and from school. It’s a pleasant walk along this quiet byway, but for some rambling variety – and for interesting canine scents – I have gradually scouted out a cross-country route through the pastures and plots between the road and the river (on the other side of the watercourse, the Corfu trail takes a parallel line by way of a grassy lane). The entry point for the new route is through a belt of deciduous trees which border a spring-fed brook, then on across fields defined by shallow ditches and wild hedges of shrub, cane and reed. Onward, a vast pasture overlays the fossilised remains of tilled fields; two more hedge-gaps, and the way skirts an olive grove, dives over a band of reeds and winds through a copse, suddenly emerging into an extensive vineyard which slopes gently from the road to the riverbank. At the bottom corner of this demesne (I am guessing it is part of the Theotoky holding). I came upon a way across the river – a glissade down the bank and a scramble up the other side. It gives access to the hunters’ paths in the fields on the eastern side of the valley, and onto the lane which carries the Corfu Trail. This crossing point is a rarity, since elsewhere along the watercourse the banks are choked with dense thickets of bramble and cane.
On the far edge of the vineyard, across a deep ditch and two embankments, new scenes materialise – a mature olive grove, a fenced ploughed plot, and an oak-shady avenue. A sheer-sided ditch blocks the onward route here, obliging one to touch on the road and cross the watercourse on a culvert, after which the way continues through pastures and a maze of vineyards, before hitting the road just 50 metres below Tristrato. On another occasion, I skirted the vineyard maze and sought the course of the river. Working my way along the precipitous bank, I came upon a tramped groove down into its gravelly bottom – and a vague track leading up the far side. Of course, if there’s a track into a river bed with no way out, it follows that the said track comes from somewhere. I thought I knew exactly where, and I was correct – it joined the Corfu Trail lane near its meeting point with the main Giannades road. Thus we come a full circuit, almost asphalt-free. To locate the various through-ways between fields, groves and coppices was the biggest challenge of these explorations. Sometimes a patch of ground appears to be a dead end, with no path out through the bordering growth. But then you spot a vague ground-trail made by hunters’ footsteps, showing the way to another cunningly concealed through-passage. Strangely, the process reminded me of the computer game Bugdom. In this romp through ten levels (I’m on Level Four as I keep getting eaten by a low-flying bat), each enacted in a different part of a garden (the Lawn, the Pond, the Forest etc), you are a beetle whose task it is to free Ladybugs, whilst fending off angry ants, poisonous caterpillars, brainsucking mozzies (nasty ones, these), and ferocious bees. You have to find keys for gates into other sections of the garden, and a coin to pay the ferryman across the pond – and you must search out hidden passages through reeds or stands of sunflowers, taking you into new landscapes, and to new rewards and new hazards. Very like my scout along the valley.
But at least in real life I don’t encounter bigger-than-me ants armed with clubs and zappers, nor giant slugs – and the only peril is ankle-high grass and so-far dry ditches which will gradually fill with mud as the ground becomes waterlogged. Unless there is prolonged rain in the meantime (not forecast, by the way), this will be our walk on Saturday (18 January), returning partly along the Corfu Trail lane and partly through the fields and copses on the eastern side of the river.
Only the odd soggy spot. Meet at 19th Hole Bar for coffee at 10.00.
Well, my weather source was wrong, as it told me the rain would be ‘light’. Ho ho ho. Regarding this Saturday’s walk (18 January), I shall do a recce on Friday, and if it is too wet the alternative walk will be Myrtiotissa (with GREAT views). Same meeting point and same lunch place.
Thursday 12th December 2013
Following some much-needed frosty nights, the countryside is altered.
The cold has prompted deciduous trees to change their dusty green mantle to one of rust; they will soon drop their autumn guise and embrace winter naked.
There’s a belt of these trees bordering a brook which we cross on our usual morning walk. The brook is fed from a spring which, year-round, fills a ditch burgeoning with frogs, terrapins, electric-blue dragonflies and even a very handsome watersnake. It then dives through a culvert under the road and trickles across the plain, eventually disgorging into a feed for the Ropa River near Ermones. To avoid walking along the road, I have scouted out a route across the plain between the road and the main seasonal river in our little valley, through half a dozen fields defined by shrubs and shallow ditches. We shall walk this way until the ditches fill with mud and the spring-fed brook flows too wide to ford (memo to Self: Buy wellies). In summer the way is impassable due to tall grass where snakes might lurk, so Lulu, Bruni and I make the most of these dry early-winter days.
At last the freezing nights have suppressed growth in the garden, so I have escaped having to call in my strimmer man again. It remains to be seen whether the edible plants will continue to flourish. My garden supports mostly sow-thistle and chicory, but I wish some chard was growing too. Chard (seskoulo in Greek) is a cultivated leafy green – you can buy bunches in shops and in the market – but is often found in the wild as a garden escape. It is unbelievably nutritious, being rich in minerals, fibre and protein, and high in vitamins A, K and C.
Indeed, a 175 gr serving contains 214%, 716% and 53% respectively of the recommended daily value of these vitamins.
Chard is less tasty than the true ‘wild weeds’ and, plain-boiled, can be a little bland. It doesn’t need as long a cooking time as sow-thistle and chicory – five to ten minutes for the leafy parts and another few minutes for any thick stalks (cut them off and place in the boiling water before the rest).
You can spice up boiled chard by draining it well and shredding coarsely; then sauté for a few minutes in olive oil and chopped garlic, with salt and freshly ground black pepper. It makes a good accompaniment to pork dishes, and especially to sausages.
Alternatively, you can serve this sauté as a sauce for pasta (robust short cut pasta works best), with crunchy breadcrumbs in place of grated cheese. Add some chopped tomato or a little passata, and/or some chilli to the mix if you like. Some of the healthiest dishes are also highly economical!
Thursday 5th December 2013
I have been harbouring doubts over the last few days about whether I have for the past three decades been misusing a common Greek word. The word in question is ‘ligo’, which until now I thought meant ‘a little’, as in ‘ligo diskolo’ (‘a little bit difficult’).
My concerns were prompted by a hike last Sunday with the Stavros Walking Group. As we started, our leader Yiannis warned us that one of the footpaths we would be taking was ‘ligo diskolo’. Since locals from Stavros and Strongili recently gouged it out of the raw forest, this path was a new one to me, and because of the terrain I didn’t expect it to be a stroll in the park. However, I was emboldened by Yiannis’ assurance that it was only ‘a little bit difficult’. At least, that’s how I translated ‘ligo diskolo’, but I evidently am wrong about the ‘ligo’ – it really means ‘awesomely, stupendously and monumentally’. The very opposite of what I’d believed for years was its correct translation. In future, I’ll be using Yiannispeak: ‘ligo’ in place of ‘polli’ (very).
This ‘only slightly demanding’ path leads down from the chapel of Pantokrator on Stavros Mountain (pictured in an earlier posting) straight into Strongili village. Thus – in theory at least – it offers a new route for the ascending northward course of the Corfu Trail between Strongili and Stavros, spoilt by the completely redundant bulldozing of the ancient cobbled path which once linked the settlements. Last Sunday we took the path in what would be the Corfu Trail’s reverse direction, and descended the mountain – or should I say plummeted off it.
Because the way is a new one and does not follow an established path, it has not been graded for the requirements of donkeys; thirty yards from the chapel across a gently sloping meadow (nice walking here!), it suddenly plunges off the edge. In places I was very glad to have my dog Bruni behind me to act as a belay (unlike his mother Lulu, he has to stay on a lead due to his unfortunate penchant for Following Interesting Scents into the Far Distance if free). The path’s precipitous nature was not improved by the innumerable little tree stumps that remained from cut-down bushes, which you had to be careful not to trip over (although thinking about it, they did provide a foothold in the worst spots). You’d probably have taken off if you did.
Further down at the top of the olive groves, we reached a track – and boy! was I grateful. Most hikers past the first flush of youth prefer to climb rather to descend (I never worried one way or another until last Sunday!), but this path would be a vertical ascent as well – and I can’t see hikers humping backpacks loaded with camping gear being happy to inch upwards on hands and knees, hauling themselves up the cliff face on tree stumps. Ah well! Back to the Corfu Trail drawing board.
I shall be including this path, though, as part of a new hike in my ‘Complete Book of Corfu Walks’ pdf publication. Follow it if you dare. PS Not all of Yiannis’ Sunday Stavros walks are as formidable as this one! Don’t be discouraged from joining. And the grub at his bar, To Steki, is of a VERY local nature and tastes great!
Tuesday 26th November 2013
Our Saturday walk of 23 November was cancelled due to the foul weather. This walk, through the olive groves of the Marmaro Hills, will take place on 7 December instead. As promised, we shall be searching for wild greens, though not gathering them in any great quantity, as the walk would take all day! Between showers, I have just come back from my weekly forage around the garden for the weeds (horta in Greek), and as well as the ubiquitous sow-thistle, I got some chicory (very bitter!) and what I hope is Zachoulia – it looks like the photos I have, anyway!
Once boiled, the weeds are nice as a salad with cubed beetroot and walnut pieces, drizzled with a little olive oil. Since Lidl is selling ready-boiled beetroot at 99 lepta for 500 grammes, it is hardly worth cooking it yourself; just make sure you open the packet over the sink! The beets provide a slightly sweet foil for the bitter greens, while the walnuts give a crunch.
My own walnut store is also ‘food for free’ – windfalls from the numerous walnut trees around here. I’ve not seen anyone else gathering them, so I assume that nowadays locals are taking the easy option and buying packs from the supermarket. If you are at all squeamish, be aware that locally-picked nuts from uncultivated trees may contain a little white maggot; if so, they should of course be discarded. I find that about one in five windfalls are inedible because of maggots or for some other reason.
Another good way of serving Lidl’s ready beetroot and local walnuts is with the soft goat’s cheese called ‘Chavroux’ which is on sale in the cheese fridge at A&B Supermarket. Slice the beets and the cheese and sprinkle with walnut pieces and olive oil.
Talking of food, I have discovered that the wonderful 2006-7 series Rick Stein’s Mediterranean Escapes is available to watch in full on the Internet. The hour-long episodes are divided into four parts – generally, the following episode will show up on your browser. Google ‘Rick Stein’s Mediterranean Escapes Youtube Ep1 Prt1’ and you should find it. The series follows Rick through Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily, Puglia in Italy, and Corfu, before heading for Turkey, then back through Mallorca and Catalonia to finish in Morocco. It’s a feast for the eyes as well as for the stomach.
I have a special interest in this programme as I was Rick’s local gofer both prior to and during filming, and thus I was somewhat instrumental in the choice of many of the featured venues. It was unfortunate that our lovely new market was not complete at the time, but in the temporary one we did find the famous Effie, Aussie-speaking Queen of Horta. Out in the country near her farm, she showed Rick which greens to pick, and cooked a plate for him. If you’d like to buy Effie’s greens – and she offers a variety in a mixed bag – you can find her stall in the open space halfway up the market, in the top right-hand corner. If you ask nicely, she will explain how to cook and
serve the horta.
Our walk this Saturday is one of the ‘stars’ – a circuit of the karst-limestone plateau just beneath the Pantokrator summit cone. It’s a wild region, so very different from Corfu’s usual soft contours. But the highlight, after a good two-hour yomp, is lunch at Stamatis’ in Strinilas – a feast of local products, including genuine mountain feta and platters and platters of the planet’s best chips. If the clouds are low on the plateau, we’ll walk at a slightly lower level. Anything not to miss out on Stamatis’ egg and chips!
Tuesday 19th November 2013
I am longing for a few frosty nights. It’s not that I enjoy being chilly, but only that a little ice is needed to check ground-plant growth in my garden, and thus avert the need to call in my strimmer man. Growth is now approaching early spring level again, and if this warm spell continues I shall not be surprised to wake up one morning and find the grass at waist height.
It’s not that I don’t want a croquet lawn. I wish to leave my grass alone because at this time of year, cutting it would also mow away all the lovely wild edible plants which are supplying me with a regular diet of greens – free! A ten minute tour of the garden with a sharp knife and a big bowl, followed by half an hour of trimming and washing, gives me three or four platefuls of boiled weeds (Horta in Greek). Grown in real soil and not in a hydroponic greenhouse, packed full of vitamins, and without any chemical fertilisers or insecticides, these weeds are one of the most healthy of foodstuffs, loved by the locals. Indeed, the Corfiots’ love of wild greens has been endorsed by research into the so-called Mediterranean Diet (which is mostly Greek and specifically Cretan). They contain vast quantities of antioxidants, which combat the free radicals which are responsible for the aches and pains of growing old and many tumours. Eat the boiled weeds with hunks of good village bread, some feta or a couple of poached eggs, the greens dressed with olive oil and lemon juice – and you have a nourishing and cheap meal that’s also good for you.
Over the last few decades, the food industry has succeeded in turning the population of the West into processed food junkies. This has been achieved mainly through the ‘sweetening’ of foods (as well as through the use of faux fats such as hydrogenated vegetable oils, aka margarine, which in my opinion should be banned). Sugar is addictive. As a result, virtually everything we eat has been made sweeter – and that goes for fruit and vegetables as well. Ask yourself: Do you prefer round or Iceberg lettuces to the Cos variety? If your answer is ‘yes’, then your palate has been sweetened. Our taste in apples has changed, and the old sharp and sour breeds have almost universally been replaced with insipid sweet ones, like Gala.
Most folk fresh to the consumption of wild greens find them inedibly bitter. Well, here’s some news: Bitter is Good! One of the bitterest of any food on sale is being hailed as a possible cancer prevention agent, and perhaps a cure – apricot kernels (they should be eaten in extreme moderation as one of the active ingredients is cyanide). Wild greens are bitter because their healthful elements – the bitter ones – have not been bred out of them to suit today’s sweet tastes.
(An incidental – or perhaps deliberate – outcome of sweetening the Western diet has been a huge boost enjoyed by maize-growers in the USA. Maize is processed to make high-fructose corn syrup, which is almost universally used in the food industry in place of real sugar. Why does mainstream chocolate like Cadbury’s taste vile nowadays? It’s the corn syrup. And since our bodies cannot process it properly, it is harmful.)
There are dozens of leafy plants that can go into a dish of wild greens. I can’t identify all of them, but here are a few, with their names in English, Latin and Corfiot Greek:
Hartwort (Tordylium apulum) Kafkalithra, Moscholahano, Skanzaki. Much sought after for its strong aromatic flavour as an ingredient of boiled greens and tsigarelli, it is gathered in winter and early spring.
Nettle (Urtica dioica) Tsouknidha. Used in cooking since ancient times, it is rich in vitamins A, B and C and has many applications as a remedy. In the old days it was eaten boiled, but today it is not generally used in the Corfu kitchen (though there has recently been a small revival in the making of Nettle Pie).
Sow-thistle (Sonchos glaucescens and S. asper) Zochos, Zochios, Zegounas. This very common weed, gathered in winter and spring, is highly prized as one of the main ingredients of boiled greens. Young leaves can go into tsigarelli or are eaten raw dressed with oil, vinegar and salt.
Chicory (Cichorium intybus) Prikalidha, Agrioprikalidha, Agrioradhiko. Gathered in winter and early spring, it is one of the ‘bitter herbs’ of antiquity. It is a tonic for the whole body and is particularly good for cleansing the liver and kidneys and for purifying the blood. It can be eaten boiled with other greens or raw.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) Rathiki. Another ‘bitter herb’, very common and much prized for boiled greens, it can also be eaten raw. It has cleansing qualities similar to chicory.
Charlock or Mustard Greens (Sinapis alba) Sinapi, Rapanidha. Possessing a mustardy kick when eaten raw, but sweet when cooked, this is gathered in mid-summer. It is usually boiled with other greens, though young leaves can be shredded into a lettuce salad.
Chard (Beta vulgaris) Seskoulo. A shiny-leaved cultivated green with a thick stalk. Varieties in the wild are garden escapes and hence sweeter than most greens. Eaten boiled by itself or as part of a dish of wild greens.
During my Saturday walks this winter, I’ll be pointing out edible greens, and demonstrating how to pick and prepare them. At this time of year, sow-thistle is the most common one (and the most delicious), and I guarantee that regular walkers will be able to identify it by the spring! This week’s walk, in the hills behind Liapades, should offer good greens-spotting. In the photo, sow-thistle is growing in the lower part if the picture, just left of centre.
Tuesday 12th November 2013
The London World Travel Market took place last week, and results seem to be positive for us. My ‘roving reporter’, travel agent Anna Aperghi, who attended to promote walking holidays on the Corfu Trail, came back with this report:
‘The atmosphere towards Greece was a lot better than last time, and everybody thinks that next year is going to be a good one. Pre-bookings at this stage are about 10% higher than last year. Other than that, with Greece in the current situation, nothing is stable, and everything could change.
‘If Egypt was in a better position, Greece would have fewer chances to recover in 2013. There are unbelievable investments underway in Sharm El Sheik [on Egypt’s Red Sea coast] which are going to be completed in 2015.’
I wonder who is making this investment. Can it be Egypt itself? Or are the new world powers taking advantage of the country’s present chaos, and procuring pieces of the action? If the latter is the case, I must admit that I would prefer no such investment here. Massive foreign-owned accommodation and leisure complexes containing (literally) vast numbers of all-inclusive non-Europeans is not my preferred future for the island. Sometime soon I’ll reveal the future I think we should choose.
Meanwhile back at the ranch, Remembrance Day was celebrated in the usual style on 10 November, at Corfu’s British Cemetery and at Holy Trinity Church. The cemetery service was attended by a healthy number of ex-pats, as well as by representatives from Corfu’s military services, an Orthodox priest and Corfu’s Mayor Trepeklis (who typically arrived late and barged to the front).
The grounds were the usual delight, and custodian-gardener George Psailas looked sprightly still. I had heard rumours that the Greek government is poised to take over running of the cemetery when George ‘retires’, but thankfully our Consular staff assure me this is out of the question. Indeed, the gardens – over three acres – are actually the property of the British government. A place forever England.
Saturday 9th November 2013. Photos from the Walk at Acharavi: Konstanti Hill and the Lower Roman Way
Tuesday 5th November 2013
Autumn is not really the ‘second spring’ it is often called, as far as Corfu’s wild flowers are concerned. Appearing in waves over the early months of the year, the sheer variety of species and the abundance of their blooms stuns the eye; gold and pink succeed white as nature’s colour palette changes, culminating in a last rush of purple before all burns to beige and straw. But autumn runs it close.
Our mission last Saturday was to search out autumn flowers. For a few years now, the first week in November has rewarded us with sightings of almost all the blooms of the season, especially when we walk on the mountain behind the village of Stavros, as we did on the 2nd of November.
Stavros is not an actually village, but a string of small settlements which you drive through on the way up the hill to the end of the road at Komianata. These are Makrata, Loukata, Haldiata, Dafnata and (lastly) Komianata. The villages are linked with each other not just by the motor road, but by a maze of footpaths. There are no less than five separate routes down to the coast at Benitses. The main Agii Deka massif is easily accessible, with a variety of options to get over and around the mountain. Not to mention the great inland basin below, which offers another menu of walks. Needless to say, the Corfu Trail passes through the area.
These features lead us to class Stavros as perhaps the best walking area on the whole of the island – yes, even better than the Pantokrator Massif, since it is compact and has more varied scenery. As a result, two local men – Kostas at the top of the village and Yiannis at its foot – are working together to inform walkers and encourage them to the area. Both have snack bars (which serve proper food not just snacks). Kostas Bar is at Dafnata and has fantastic views, unfortunately spoilt at present by an illegally abandoned sewage truck (name and shame time: the Moraitis company). Yiannis’ place, To Steki or ‘Lovers of Nature’, is newly opened in an old way house at the junction where you turn up to Stavros from the road between Agii Deka Village and Strongili.
With these two as motivators, the local community is in the process of clearing old footpaths and opening new ones, so that more walking possibilities are becoming manifest on a regular basis. Last Saturday, I spotted three new routes, indicated by Yiannis’ distinctive red stencil and arrows. That’s why, on Saturdays this winter, we shall be Walking Stavros about once every month. Now to the flowers. It was too late for the butter-yellow Sternbergia, which we saw in profusion at Strinilas recently (most folk think it’s a crocus with elongated petals, but it’s actually related to the daffodil). Too early for the Corfu Snowdrop, which in any case prefers damp woodland to mountain. Nor is it yet time for the lovely winter Iris. But we were hoping to spot Corfu’s only autumn-flowering orchid (Spiralis or Autumn Ladies’ Tresses), and the delicate autumn Narcissus, which we had seen in this area before. Here’s what we did see:
* Cyclamen, Corfu’s distinctive autumn flower – particularly profuse this year.
* Crocus, lovely dense cream petals with the texture of heavy silk.
* Scilla, a tiny blue-purple star-like bloom.
* Dandelions (lots).
* Wild Marigolds, growing way before their season in a sheltered spot.
These grew on the way out to the Pantokrator Chapel which is the turnaround point of the walk. In the tiny churchyard and on the olive terraces below, we hoped to see the rarer Narcissus and Spiralis. Disappointment! Perhaps rainfall has so far been insufficient to sprout the bulb, and no Narcissus was on view. However, we did discover a lily beside the chapel. It has vertical white and brown stripes and looks similar to Monkshood, except that the base of its flower is in the form of a bulb rather than a wrap. We are hoping to identify it. Then, in the olive-shade of the footpath below, was Spiralis, right where it grew last year and the year before. The plant, just a few inches tall, grows in a spiral shape, with the tiny white flowerlets budding from the stem. Except in the British Cemetery and in my garden (growing wild by itself), this is the only location I have found this orchid. We are
Tuesday 29th October 2013
Summer has hardly relinquished its grip on the island, but already nature has let loose signs of spring. Amongst the lush grass on verges and under hedgerows, the heart-shaped leaves of Honesty, and those of various species of Cranesbill, have sprouted, prompted by the first good soakings of rain. In spring, these flowers and others will forge a carpet of ivory and gold, pink and purple.
As the Corfu countryside transforms from its dull, burnt summer shades to its current verdancy, I feel that autumn is the true beginning of the year. The countdown to spring starts here. Many activities, curtained by the hot weather, recommence – like the Saturday and Sunday walks. The first nippy Maestros (NW wind) energises us, and rainstorms produce within days the abundant crop of autumn flowers: cyclamen, crocus, sternbergia, squill, snakes-head lily, narcissus and even an orchid, spirallis. During the walk on Saturday, 2 November we should spot most of these. The ochre flats of the Ropa Plain now display a haze of green as the grass seeds quickly germinate.
Our diet also transforms. Fast-fading are the endless salads of summer, and we welcome hearty soups with beans and lentils and root vegetables. Wild greens burgeon; the earliest leaves can be chopped into a green salad, while larger ones go for boiling almost on a daily basis. Gusty winds cause walnuts to plop to earth like giant raindrops. Leaf-sweeping replaces watering as the main garden activity.
Sometime around the late 1980s, spring and autumn deserted Corfu. First autumn diminished and disappeared; we would fall asleep on a summer night, and wake on a winter’s morn. Then spring abandoned us. No slow build-up in the warm weather, but a sudden heat-wave which would wither all the bright spring flowers. Now the four seasons are gloriously restored.