Corfu is an Ionian Island that never ceases to intrigue me. The architecture is Venetian, French, British and Russian, and the influence of those peoples on Corfu’s cuisine is profound.
When you wander through the old town toward the church of Saint Spiros, it seems like you are in Italy with laundry hanging from horizontal pulleys strewn across balconies of apartments that are a mere three feet apart.
For the past few months, the chefs of Marina have been accompanying guests on market tours of Corfu followed by a cooking class in the Bon Appétit Culinary Center. It’s always a fun day and one that we all cherish because of the warm welcome we get from the local farmers. They light up when the chefs from the “beautiful ship with the Big O” arrive.
One of my favorite merchants is a little Greek woman who continues to ask me if I will marry her son! Last week she gave me a watermelon for our class, which we quickly turned into our popular watermelon salad with feta cheese, pine nuts and basil.
The market in Corfu is traditional and open.
We usually start our market tour with the fish aisle. A lot of the fish are small, oily fish like mackerel, sardines and herring. Red mullet is the specialty of Corfu, and there are always many of them to be found.
On our last trip, we almost bought a 40-pound grouper, but between Chef Franck Garanger and me, we could not figure out how to lug the beautiful creature back to the ship.
Right next to the fish aisle are the olives. There is only one olive native to Corfu, a small black, salty variety. But there are always lots of olives to choose from with different levels of saltiness and bitterness. We always bring back bags for tastings.
We move on to the produce, which this summer has been spectacular. The melons and peaches are so beautifully ripe that you cannot pass by them without smelling their sweet aroma. We make a tyrosalata in class from the peppers we find each visit to the market by combining grilled peppers with Greek yogurt, feta cheese and cayenne pepper. It’s delicious as a spread on pita toast and a real class favorite.
One of the most rewarding parts of my job is the time I get to spend with the young chefs who are assigned to the Bon Appétit Culinary Center. Daniel, who is from India and an incredible cook (he makes killer lentils), accompanied us on this trip.
He really took to inspecting the quality of the produce we wanted to buy and then bargaining with the merchants on the price. Daniel ended up carrying my watermelon back to the ship as well as many other bags full of zucchini flowers, apples, grapes, fresh dill, beets, beans and wild greens.
Chef Ralph from Germany also helped carry some of the blue produce bags back to the ship, as we gathered in quite a haul from these wonderful markets.
After shopping, we all wanted to walk through the esplanade to explore the cheese and olive oil shops and buy the fabulous kumquat liqueur that is famous on Corfu.
The kumquat is the miniature orange that came down the spice road and was cultivated on Crete. The brightly colored bottles are enchanting, and the taste of the liqueur is a spicy orange flavor – great served over fresh fruit.
I took the time to stop for lunch at a favorite restaurant, Aegli, with a few guests. We had the requisite Greek salad (which I never tire of) and a deep water tuna with a smoky tomato and caper sauce.
After lunch we all piled back into the bus and returned to the ship for a short siesta and then a four o’clock Modern Greek class. There to greet our students was the culinary center team of Daniel, Ralph, Putu and myself.
We started the class with a demonstration of spanakopita. My goal is that everyone who fears phyllo coming into the class is a “gladiator of phyllo” when we finish! We make loads of tasty Greek dishes in this class.
Skordalia (mashed potato with almonds and garlic) and Cretan roasted beets (highly flavored with clove and mace), and figs wrapped in prosciutto with feta and sage are two favorites. Greek food is healthy and flavorful, and everyone loves all the mezze we make and taste in the class.
We took the watermelon from the market and everyone practiced their knife skills, making even-sized cubes of watermelon for their salad in a martini glass. Those nasty seeds – if we could only find a way to make that part go more quickly!
After the class, we all went to the Terrace Café to see what the chefs and staff were serving on “Greek Night.” The dishes were all Greek and so varied and delicious. There was stuffed calamari and eggplant salad and shrimp wrapped in cucumber and the earthy rice wrapped in grape leaves.
The food was, as usual, fantastic, but what I especially love about Terrace Café are the smiling faces of the servers.
As a final note, today I bought a basil “tree” at the market so we could have fresh basil. It is a daily reminder of Corfu and the friendly merchants that welcome us with open arms when we arrive with our Oceania Cruises guests. The next tour is right around the corner. Who knows what that excursion will bring? Lots of great produce and fish I imagine!