The island of Corfu was part of the Venetian republic for hundreds of years. So when I went there on holiday I expected to see some Italian influences, and there were plenty; Venetian lions, eroded by time; elegant buildings; Italian restaurants everywhere; and dishes with Italian-sounding names, like sofrito and pastitsada. Also, a curiously neon version of limoncello, made in this case from kumquats rather than lemons. I was fortunate to have an introduction to Cali Doxiadis, an expert cook who has made her home on Corfu, and over an excellent lunch on her terrace I plied her with questions.
Cali wasn’t too keen on kumquat liqueur or its history. You’ll find all sorts of tangled accounts of how kumquats got to Corfu. Many of them mention Sidney Merlin, a Greek-born British marksman and amateur botanist, and most of the stories say he introduced kumquats to the family’s estate in northern Corfu in 1860, which would have been quite a feat as Merlin would have been only four years old. One even gives the date of introduction as 1846, ten years before Merlin’s birth, which was actually the year that plant hunter Robert Fortune brought them from China to Europe. As best as I can tell, Merlin’s kumquat’s arrived in 1924, a few years after he had successfully introduced Washington navel oranges. Wikipedia tells me that “to this day,” the Washington navel “is known in Greece as ‘Merlin’,” a fact I did not know at the time and so could not confirm with Cali or anyone else. Who knows, maybe it was introduced twice, once by Merlin and once, much earlier, by an unknown British colonial officer.
- Huge thanks to Aglaia Kremezi for intrdoucing me to Cali Doxiadis and of course to Cali for her hospitality and patience.
- The old town of Corfu really is a delight, and a World Heritage Site to boot.
- Pastissada de caval can still be found in the Veneto. And here’s a once-over-lightly guide to Corfiote foods.
- I snatched a bit of music from John Skolarikis.
- Banner photo by Lucy Clink. Those two little blobs are me and Cali talking. Cover photo borrowed from Mavromatis, purveyors of kumquat products.