Bensoir! It's me, Benjamin. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You may have read stuff I've written elsewhere, but here on my own blog as Ben Viveur I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others, so pretty much anything goes.

BV is about enjoying real food and drink in the real world. I showcase recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. And as a critic I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended. Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!

Friday, May 20, 2016

The land of Durrell (and Moussaka)

On his final visits to Corfu, towards the end of his life, Gerald Durrell lamented the extent to which the island where he grew up had changed.

In many ways I'm in a similar situation. I didn't grow up there, obviously, but I did spend several weeks of my youth holidaying on various Greek islands - the last time more than 20 years ago.

Until last week, when we spent a few days in Corfu as a base for a trip to Sarande, Albania (my 49th country, folks!) and to see if Greece was still as I remembered it.

My Keftedes and other animals

If Durrell was still alive he'd die of shock now, if that makes sense. Greece has changed so much in the 20 years since he thought it had changed, so God knows how much it's changed since the 1930s!

My rose-tinted memories of the country - the warmth, the hospitality, the generosity, the live bouzouki music, the aromas of Keftedes on the grill, the homemade Retsina from small wooden casks - appear to be of a different world.

Beer by the sea...
It's the little things that make a difference, like how Delta ice cream was taken over by Nestle a decade ago. They've kept one or two of the iconic product lines, but the distinctive sign that once dominated the streets have disappeared - a victim of crude, corporate Internationalism.

And unless Corfu is an exception, they've cleaned up a lot of the 'adult' stuff too. Back in the day you could walk into any ordinary shop and be greeted with 69 different decks of pornographic playing cards, and statues of this green goblin thing with a massive, sticking-out cock. All gone.

Of course,  the things which really fucking ought to have changed by now remain the same. One is still asked to put used toilet tissue in a wastepaper basket rather than flushing it, for example. And a large number of tavernas do not accept card payments, more of an issue in the days of the Euro than it was when everything in Greece was dirt cheap.

Yes that's another thing that's changed - you can't have a huge meal with three beers for about £2.50 and get free Ouzo and Metaxa at either end of it any more. I know Greece has suffered a terrible recession, but if only they'd devalued and brought back a weak Drachma, they'd be a far more compelling proposition for tourists.

Anyway, the food. That's one thing that is still pretty good. Greek food has never been considered one of the world's great cuisines by the establishment, but I think that attitude does it a bit of a disservice. It's hearty and tasty with plenty of variety, even if you do slightly tire of the taste of olive oil and Oregano after a few days.

Calimari @ Xagiati
This particularly applies to chips. You will be served chips with most main courses and they will almost always be cooked in olive oil and served with Oregano (and occasionally also Rosemary). This is something you need to learn to like!

A very short Corfu restaurant guide

We stayed just outside of Corfu Town, near the port (for the ferry to Albania) and shortly after arriving via BA (I'm still boycotting Easyjet) we dined at Xagiati, just over the road from the harbour, in the Mantouki district.

This traditional taverna offers a simple menu of seafood and grilled meats and it doesn't disappoint - the lightly battered calamari tasted fresh and delicate, with plenty of tentacles alongside the ring segments. We also tried the lambs liver, juicy and nicely seasoned, and the saganaki (crispy fried cheese).

Most Greek meals will kick off with some bread - usually deliciously fresh - and a dip or two. There's your standard Tzatziki, Taramasalata and Hummous (actually not so common as far West as Corfu) but then you also have the more interesting melitzanosalta (aubergine) and Tirokafteri, a spicy cheese dip.

Pastitsio and Greek salad
Nobody will rush you if you want to spend an hour or so with a cold Mythos beer or a glass of Retsina enjoying bread and dips while you work up an appetite.

The portions were on the generous side, as is often the case in Greece, particularly the Greek salad. Greek salads are ubiquitous and vary very little from one place to another. Tomato, cucumber, olives and a big slab of Feta, usually with a sprinkling of herbs and a drizzle of olive oil.

One thing that will probably never change is the 'Greek salad curve'. When you arrive in Greece you'll order a Greek salad to accompany every meal, then the novel will start to wear off and you'll stop having them, right up until your last meal before it's time to come home, then you'll order one final Greek salad. Trust me, this is a proven scientific formula!

Gyros platter!
Corfu's location is in the extreme North-West of Greece (it's their Isle of Man, basically) and while Albania is only a 30 minute hovercraft hop away, the heel of Italy isn't too far away either.

This may or may not explain why Pastitsio - a pasta bake-type dish that briefly enjoyed faddish stardom at English dinner parties in the early 1990s - is widely available here, when it can actually be fairly hard to find in other areas of Greece.

Off the beaten track - slightly

Express Sarocco - if that is indeed the real name of the place - is located away from the tourist trail, about half a mile inland on the road to the Old Town. But, crucially, the non-coastal road to the Old Town, which nobody would normally take.

May all your grills be mixed!
Their Pastitsio follows the usual formula of long macaroni tubes with spiced, minced lamb and a thick bechamel sauce. While it was clearly reheated, it wasn't at all bad and once again, a generous portion.

However, the main focus here is on Gyros - the Greek equivalent of a Shawarma or Donner kebab. It's the daddy of Hellenic street food, served in a puffy cone of bread with Tzatziki, salad and a few chips thrown in.

Alternatively, if you're sitting down and have a larger appetite (I frequently have a very substantial appetite and one of my favourite pastimes is sitting down!) you may take your Gyros in platter form - which I did!

Gorgeous bread and Melitzanesalata
While we're still talking kebabby things, the Greek equivalent of a Shish-type kebab is Souvlaki, freshly grilled and served on small skewers, almost like satay, they can souvlakify just about any meat, though pork, lamb and chicken are most common.

At Pane e Souvlaki in Corfu old town, they specialise - as one might expect from the name - in bread and souvlaki, which is really all you need for an excellent lunch.

It's reasonably priced, with a mixed grill for two just €13.50 and a half litre bottle of Retsina a mere three euros.

I'm 99% certain the reason the bread here is so good is that once it's been baked, they keep it warm under the roasting meats and allow the juices to fall onto the crusts, which creates an illusion that the whole thing has been deep-fried in meaty goodness.

Time to take a dip?
The souvlaki is excellent too, particularly the chicken variety with its tangy seasoning, and the mixed grill also includes lamb meatballs, sausage and mini turkey burgers, with plenty of bread and a couple of dips.

It's a bit more modern and hipsterish than anywhere I've seen in Greece before (well, it has been over 20 years) but this place is very highly-rated and justifiably so.

The main drag

Also in the old town, just the other side of the square, is Bougainvillea where the Stifado is a must-try.

If you're not familiar with this classic of Greek cookery, it's basically confit veal with baby onions or shallots - the sauce is incredibly rich and oily with an intense clove and cinammon flavour. All of which would, if common sense applied, make it a dish for a cold Wintery evening. And yet it's perfect, sat outside on a balmy evening, with big hunks of fresh bread.

I don't know how that works, but it just does. Let's not question it.

Bougainvillea also serve one of the most famous Moussakas in town with tender lamb and juicy aubergine. Yes, it's in the main tourist centre (though Corfu town is less so than other resorts on the island) but they haven't fallen into the trap of serving crap food for a captive market.

Jamie Oliver could perhaps learn a lesson from this...

Baclava and Metaxa 7

We made a right feast of it here, enjoying Ouzo before the meal and Metaxa afterwards. I'm probably at the stage of life where I'll only drink Ouzo for the purposes of an ill-conceived display of bravado or drinking competitions.

Metaxa, however, is rather lovely, particularly in its mellow 7-star form. It's worth taste-testing it alongside a glass of 3-star to see just how different the twain done be.

What about the beer? Well, back in the day the Greek Islands were flooded with bottled Greek-brewed Amstel, which was better than the original Dutch version. These days the drink of choice seems to be draught Mythos. Fairly standard Euro-lager, but cold and refreshing, and usually only a couple of Euros for a half-litre.

Like the 'Greek Salad Curve', another feature of holidays in this part of the world is that you could always do with a day more. There's always more things you want to see and do and eat and drink, and this is as true today as it was during my childhood.

As such I've only sampled a few of the restaurants Corfu town has to offer, though with a bias towards those which were highly rated (if you're wondering about Albania, don't bother - that wasn't really about the food.)

Anyway, before we flew home I realised we hadn't sampled any Kleftiko (a sort of ultra-slow cooked pot roast lamb) or Keftedes (lamb meatballs) during our trips, so this provided the basis of our final meal in Corfu.

These chips were awesome
The pushy waiter at Ελιά rather annoyingly tried to sell us various set menus consisting mostly of things that we'd had in the previous couple of days, but we stuck to our guns and ordered the dishes we wanted. The Keftedes were enjoyable enough with a spicy tomato sauce, and while the Klefitco could've been bit more tender, the chips here were probably the best of all. Crunchy, potatoey, irregularly-shaped. Everything one would want from a chip and quite possibly cooked four or five times.

I've long had a soft spot for Greek food, so, while I'm disappointed at some of the things that have changed, Greece is still one of my favourite countries.

It was probably the same for Durrell too.

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