While rediscovering Corfu, Guest Writer Diana Farr Louis was treated to lots of delicious local specialties. Join her at Ambelonas Restaurant, and meet its proprietor, Vasiliki Karounou.
By: Diana Farr Louis
Readers will recall, last month, I spent 3 days rediscovering Corfu. I spent time researching possibilities for a food holiday package for a local hotel. While exploring, I sought places where one could taste Corfiot specialties as well as learn to cook them. I’d heard about Vasiliki Karounou and her Ambelonas Restaurant. It’s frequently cited as one of the island’s best and yet the woman behind it, Vasiliki Karounou, has only been in the food business for less than a decade. Though she’s not even a Corfiot, she has become an authority on its culinary history, traditions and flavors. And her background, including studies in the US and a career as a systems analyst, seemed to prepare her for a radically different profession.
The morning had been stormy, typical of a Corfiot autumn, with flooded streets too dangerous to drive on, but by midday the sun reappeared and by the time I reached Ambelonas Restaurant in the middle of the island, not too far from Pelekas, where Kaiser Wilhelm II installed his throne to admire the sunset, the estate was already drying out.
Surrounded by olive trees and the vineyards that give the estate its name, the faded ochre one-story buildings housing the restaurant and kitchen look much older than they are. While the tables for outdoor dining shaded by leafy arcades invite the visitor to take a seat and relax.
Vasiliki, dressed in a loose fitting grey top and slacks, greeted me with a generous smile and told me first about the property.
“It’s been in my husband’s mother’s family since 1600, when they emigrated here from Venice. Now it’s half the size it was back then and a big fire in ‘99 destroyed the vines and the farm buildings but it was decided to rebuild exactly as they were, with the original equipment – olive press etc – and plant new grapevines.”
Before Vasiliki starts on her own story, she brings out a bottle of Ambelonas red wine and we sit down at a small table outside the kitchen. And because one never drinks without nibbling in Greece, her assistant Maria Rapsomaniki brings us a platter of smoked pork fillet (noumboulo, a specialty of Corfu), salami, Jerusalem artichoke pickled salad, homemade liver pate, and mostarda, an Italo-Corfiot type of chutney.
Vasiliki has only been living on the island permanently since 2004. She began selling her own sauces and preserves in 2008, and opened the restaurant in 2011.
How did she get here?
“I was born in Mystra, in the Peloponnese, in the village below the ruins of the medieval town, and then went to school in Sparti. I graduated from the Economics Gymnasium in ’74 and left almost immediately for New York. My brother was already studying there. I enrolled at Baruch College in the Bronx and got a BSc in Computers, Business Administration and Systems Analysis. Then I went to Purdue University in Indiana to get my Master’s and at the same time married a childhood sweetheart who’d followed me to New York. I was headhunted by IBM and until ’83 I worked in their Princeton office.”
They didn’t stay long.
“Our daughter Rosa Maria was born there, but my husband’s career wasn’t doing as well as mine, so he proposed that we return to Greece. In the meantime, I was doing a bit of cooking – vegetarian dishes for the wonderful woman who was looking after my little one and other babies. I had adopted some of America’s New Age culture by then.”
A new life in Greece
Back in Greece, regretting that “she’d left IBM too soon as she was on her way up,” Vasiliki found jobs in various government ministries and her marriage foundered. With each job less satisfying and more frustrating that its predecessor, she finally accepted a position with the Ministry of Health in Corfu, to coordinate its regional healthcare systems in 2002.
Then she met Sotiris Vlachos, fell in love, and changed her life.
“I moved to Corfu permanently in 2004, quit my job and Sotiris and I started to think of ways to use his family’s estate. I started with making preserves from everything the gardens and orchards produced, from sun-dried tomato paste to lavender jelly, mostarda, and especially pickles and sauces using the ubiquitous Jerusalem artichoke [the tuber from which black-eyed Susans grow]. Whatever was available. I couldn’t bear to waste them.”
Opening Ambelonas Restaurant
Vasiliki revealed the story behind opening the restaurant.
“The preserves sold well under the Acordo www.acordo.gr name, and I was having fun experimenting and researching, but finally I decided I wanted to use them myself in my own cooking. We had been thinking of turning the estate into a kind of museum with old photos and exhibitions. But in 2011, we opened the restaurant as a kind of response to the economic crisis. Taking traditional recipes with my own interpretations, I cook only baked and stove-top dishes three days a week in the season and for private gatherings of all kinds by appointment.”
Vasiliki is also a cookbook author. Corfiot Cuisine, In Search of the Origins, was published in Greek and in English in 2014. She now gives cooking lessons.
Vasiliki spoke about her fascination with Corfiot cuisine.
“Corfiot cooking is among the healthiest in Greece because it calls for such a huge variety of herbs and spices, ingredients and colors. This makes them higher in antioxidizing phenols, while of course lending such interesting tastes. We only use local products at Ambelonas Restaurant. If we can’t find something – cheeses or lamb for example – we order from suppliers across the water on Epirus.”
Ambelonas Restaurant: “Worth a detour”
In a short time, Vasiliki has become more knowledgeable about her adopted island than many Corfiots. Her Ambelonas Restaurant is on its way to becoming an institution. In winter, apart from November, it opens for Sunday lunch. As they say in Michelin guides, “it’s worth the detour.”
Diana Farr Louis, a New Yorker who has made Athens her home since 1972, writes about food and travel. She is the author of two books on Greek cooking, Prospero’s Kitchen, about the Ionian Islands; and Feasting and Fasting in Crete, as well as several guidebooks. From 1997-2007, Diana was a travel correspondent for the Athens News. Currently, she writes a monthly column for Weekly Hubris, called “Eating Well Is The Best Revenge” and is a contributor to Culinary Backstreets. Most recently, she co-edited A Taste of Greece, with Tatiana Blatnik (HRH Princess Tatiana), a cookbook in aid of the Greek anti-food-waste charity, Boroume.