The greenest of the Greek islands, it is easy to see why Corfu is widely considered the real-life inspiration for Scheria – the Homeric island of the Phaeacians where ‘tall thriving trees – pears, pomegranates, apples with glistening fruit, sweet figs and rich olives’ bear ‘fruit that never fails or flags’.
Like its imaginary counterpart, Corfu has a warm yet humid climate and fertile landmass dominated by diversely flourishing fruit trees. Its fecundity and position as entry point into the Adriatic have attracted much attention over the years, from the Romans to the Ottomans and Napoleonic France. The Venetians, in particular, left indelible marks on the island’s identity: its culture, architecture, language, and most markedly, its food, bringing with them a range of Eastern influences, from myrrh to pepper.
A culmination of years of political upheaval, Corfiot cuisine is defined by its curious nuances: simple ingredients, decadent designs and full-bodied flavours.
Soutzoukakia—a dish of beef meatballs and grilled peppers served with a spicy tomato and yoghurt dressing—first came to Corfu with Greek refugees from the Anatolia peninsula, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. Afionas-based chef and owner of Panorama Restaurant Aggelos Gialopsos attributes Its popularity on the island to local ingredients. “Our Corfiot-Greek version of soutzoukakia here at Panorama is made with local produce and olive oil produced in the surrounding hills. We grew up with these dishes. The flavours, they are a part of our identity, and remind us who we are and where we come from.”
As its name suggests, gemista (from the Greek word gemizō, meaning ‘to fill’) are vegetables (green bell peppers and tomatoes, mainly) stuffed with rice and herbs. This lathera (‘made with oil’) dish is then baked in extra virgin olive oil until tender, a method which is said to have been introduced to Corfu as a result of population exchange between Greece and Turkey. The Corfiot staple found in restaurants and tavernas across the island is typically served cold on long balmy days in summer.
Fattoush (also known as ‘bread salad’) is a Middle Eastern-derived dish of toasted or fried pieces of khubz (Arabic bread), seasonal vegetables and fresh herbs served with a lemon and olive oil dressing. It found its way into the Corfiot cooking repertoire with the Venetians at the beginning of the Renaissance, when the Republic of Venice was a formidable power and key player in the Levant spice trade. Although originally Lebanese, the Corfiot version of Fattoush has become a hybrid—mixing both island seasonality and Middle Eastern method.
Like Gemista, Imam Baildi (baked aubergine) is a lathera dish cooked slowly while locals carry on with their day. This comfort food of stuffed aubergine (eggplant) with molten feta is served warm, often in a traditional Corfiot crock-pot, with big chunks of freshly baked bread. Cavo Barbaro, situated on Avlaki Beach, elevates this dish further with soft-white twinkling fairy lights; local white wine made using grapes from the nearby mountainside; and the sights and sounds of the sea.
Although more often associated with the Greek island of Crete, kolokithokeftedes (crispy zucchini/courgette patties) are popular across Corfu, offered in the menus of most restaurants and tavernas around the island. This appetiser (or mezze), often accompanied by a honeyed yoghurt dressing, draws from the familiar Greek palate: fresh aromatic herbs, feta cheese and cumin.
Htapodi ksydato—octopus in an oregano infused vinegar and olive oil marinade—is the epitome of Corfiot cookery at its most humble. This seasonal dish imbued with a sense of the coast’s relative proximity is best appreciated from August through late October when the curious task of octopus catching takes place. When eaten at Tavernaki with ouzo (an anise-flavoured liquor produced from grape must – the remnants of wine making), with views of the boats bobbing in Kassiopi Harbour, this Corfiot speciality is likely to go down as one of the most memorable experiences for seafood lovers with a stomach for heady aperitifs.
The manifestation of connectedness with the land and Middle Eastern influence, pastitsada is a dish of slow-cooked local beef (or chicken) deluged by a heavily spiced tomato sauce over pasta—usually bucatini. Following its arrival on the island with the Venetians, this dish has been resignified into what has become known as the traditional Sunday dinner of Corfu. Every family has their own pastitsada spetsieriko (spice blend), with cinnamon, black pepper, nutmeg, ginger and cloves forming the base.
Pita bread, kabab (often pork), tzatziki, grilled vegetables and fried or roasted potatoes come together in this Corfiot mainstay to create souvlaki – a synthesis of island ingredients and techniques. Often, the Corfiot version of souvlaki is served with a robust tomato sauce (or red sauce), the recipe for which is likely to have been passed down through the generations. Unlike Middle Eastern style pita, Greek pita is leavened (made with a raising agent), which transforms it from a flatbread into a softer pillowy bread more akin to naan.
Creamy semolina custard sandwiched between syruped filo pastry, galaktoboúreko (milk pie) is a decadent dessert which occupies a sacred place in the Corfiot heart, traditionally being served at Easter. Galaktoboúreko varies from village to village, but always includes fresh lemon juice and peel as in the recipe from Wake Cup Bakery and Café in Sidari. Considered a meal in its own right, locals tend to eat this one in the afternoon, to allow time for digestion before the evening meal.
Sickly sweet and dangerously moreish, portokalopita (orange pie) is another epicurean dessert, also with filo as a main ingredient. Except, the filo in portokalopita is shredded and soaked in an orange and cinnamon syrup, placing it into a class of desserts known as siropiasta (desserts doused with syrup) alongside baklava and kantaifi. When made using oranges from the quiet Corfu gardens, portokalopita exudes a rustic elegance which belies its purpose: to use up leftover scraps of filo.
Top image: Chicken souvlaki with fresh vegetables in a flatbread with tzatziki sauce © Elena Veselova/Shutterstock