Guest writer Diana Farr Louis takes us on a journey. She spent 3 days in Corfu rediscovering the historic Ionian island, which resembles one enormous olive grove. Come along!
By: Diana Farr Louis
3 days in Corfu
Last month, I headed back to Greece’s Emerald Isle, for the first time since 2000. After 3 days in Corfu, I rediscovered the joys of an island that I’ve visited at least a half a dozen times over the last 30 years. There’s always something new to explore.
Coincidentally, every time I’ve been there it has been for work. Poor me, having commissions to write two guides to the island and a cookbook on Ionian cuisine. What thrills me about my jobs is that they allow me to penetrate below the surface, to get to know the people and listen to their dreams and stories. This has allowed me to, over the years, become truly enchanted with this island.
Last month’s visit was full of revelations and surprises. I went as a guest of the Palma Boutique Hotel in Dasia to begin the process of setting up a cooking holiday package for the newly-renovated enterprise. The first surprise was that it’s situated exactly behind a larger hotel complex where I’d stayed in the late 80s while editing a magazine for that company.
Follow me on my adventures — 3 days in Corfu.
The Palma Boutique Hotel
The garden/pool area behind the Palma is a sanctuary of repose — ancient olive trees and lush flowering plants. Though a busy road separates the Palma from the sea, the beach is but five minutes’ walk.
While talking to co-owner Roula Palli, I discovered that the plot had been her mother’s family’s olive grove/fruit orchard. In the early 60s, well before the tourist boom, her father, then in his late teens, used to walk up from his home closer to town to ogle the French girls basking at the brand new Club Méditerranée. One day he spied Roula’s mom watering her trees and forgot about the demoiselles. Their tumultuous love affair almost splintered the family, but three children later, rifts healed. In 90s, all members got together to build a hotel on the property, which had become prime real estate.
Twenty-five years later, they got a generous grant to renovate. The result is an attractive lobby/dining room dressed in white, red and black. There’s a fully equipped spa and comfy-chic sitting areas at the front and back. The bedrooms are decorated with wall-sized photos of sailing races and light-filled paintings by Roula’s sister and co-owner, Yota Palli, who lives in Pennsylvania. And the staff could not be more welcoming.
It’s also conveniently situated between Corfu town and the sights and beaches of the North, the more spectacular and “classier” half of the island.
Poolside at the Palma Boutique Hotel. IMAGE: DIANA FARR LOUIS
“The Durrells” connection
Perhaps the convenient location is one of the reasons why Christopher Hall, producer of the highly popular British ITV series, ‘The Durrells’, chose it as a base when he was reccing the island for locations, and what has kept the cast and crew there for filming the first, and now the second series.
As I chatted with Roula, she whispered.
“In fact, that’s one of the actors sitting in the corner.”
I’d thought the woman looked familiar, having seen the series last summer. “Leslie Caron?” I wrote on my note pad. Roula nodded a yes.
By Sunday evening, Ms. Caron invited me to share her table at dinner (she made the initial gesture; I wouldn’t have dreamed of invading her privacy). I learned that the production is also a family affair — Christopher Hall being her son (with Sir Peter Hall), and her grandson Ben Hall, one of Margo’s dishy suitors on the show. She also said that the house where her eccentric character, the Countess Mavroudaki, lives, is actually Mon Repos, the former Greek royal summer residence where Britain’s Prince Philip was born.
‘The Durrells’ are to Corfu what sunsets are to Santorini: a thriving industry.
But I had come to seek out food-related destinations that would complement a week of cooking classes. So it was time to get out and explore.
My first stop was the Mavromatis Kumquat showroom – kumquat-related delicacies and liqueurs top the list of local products. Brought to Corfu from China in the 19th century by a resident Englishman named Merlin, whose name in Greece is synonymous with navel oranges, the little citruses have become an island trademark.
After some reluctant sampling, I have to admit they are more tempting than I’d thought. Be sure to stop in to sample.
The next day, we headed to Arillas on the northwest coast, the home of Corfu Beer , the oldest microbrewery in Greece (which means it hasn’t completed a decade yet).
The eight beers and ales under their label bear no comparison to the big names we know from Amstel to Rheingold. They are fresh and their blends different grains, yeasts, and flavorings, giving them a short “shelf life.” This means they must be kept in the refrigerator.
Corfu Beers may be found in the US. Their annual “October Fest” draws crowds from the mainland and abroad as well as locals, extending the tourist season. Come in for a pint.
Next, I traveled down to the southern half of Corfu. There, on the steep slopes around Agios Mattheos, the Olive Fabrica, another ambitious young company, is winning unprecedented awards for the world’s finest olive oil. ‘The Governor’, an olive oil produced here by Spyros and George Dafnis, recently won the Gold Medal for Best Olive Oil with Oleocanthal at the Olympia Health and Nutrition Conference in June.
Every Greek maintains that his local oil is the best, but up till now, Corfiot oil has received only booby prizes. Although the island is literally one enormous olive grove, the trees grow so tall and the terrain is so uneven, that harvesting the fruit has largely been a game of patience. As the Corfiots are fond of boasting, “we don’t beat either our trees or our wives,” they have traditionally waited till the olives plopped into the nets spread under the lofty trees.
To speed up the harvesting process, the Dafnis brothers use a new (Italian) machine that shakes the trees briefly and causes the olives to spin off. The high phenols in these early harvest olives give it a more bitter taste than the average supermarket oils, but also increased antioxidants.
Corfu’s culinary delights
Inspired by such positive, innovative producers, I next turned my attention to places where one could taste Corfiot specialties as well as learn to cook them. But you’ll have to wait till next article to find out where I went.
We hope you enjoyed “3 Days in Corfu” with Diana Farr Louis. Stayed tuned for more of her adventures on Corfu.
Image: Petros Ladas