Thursday, August 31

Dining on Ithaca

True colours will out, and this blog is slowly veering towards the foodie side of life. I have already written about the restaurant Ta Kalamia. But of all the meals we had in Greece, for me the one that sticks out was the lunch we had on the island of Ithaca.

It wasn’t just the food, which was fine, but the associations, and a pleasant sense of a circle being completed.

Ithaca is the home of Odysseus in Homer’s tale The Odyssey. In fact the whole story is Odysseus’s attempt to get back home to Ithaca, and the problems that present themselves on his journey. It is a theme that has been repeated from Lord of the Rings to Die Hard, via Blade Runner and the Wizard of Oz.

For me, too, dining on Ithaca was completing a circle.

I had an unorthodox education, leaving my rather posh grammar school at the age of thirteen. Although I grew up in the inner city, my first school was almost like a village primary. All the children were local, we all knew each other and lived the same sort of lives. My grammar school was something else. We were the cream. In my primary school year of thirty-five children, only two were selected to go there. (We still had the “Eleven Plus”, an exam we all had to take which determined who would be “academic” and who would sweep the streets). The grammar school was all mortar boards, gowns and House Songs.

“Elysians, Elysians, Elysians are We,

The Red, The Green, The Buff, The Blue,

Sons of the Old Oak Tree”…

They played Cricket and Rugger. They wore blazers and ties that would guarantee victimisation by Comprehensive School children. They could just have printed targets on the back….

Not for me.I started missing lessons. I used the excuse of getting lost on the adjoining Hampstead Heath. After a while I just didn’t go back at all…

Eventually the Education Authority realised I was slipping through the net. I spent a couple of years going to a private tutor. She was a pleasantly eccentric Scotswoman with a cut glass English accent who lived in a genuine cottage in Hampstead Garden Suburb. We got on well. She provoked me. I provoked her. Out of contrariness I became the youngest person to pass English “O Level” in London that year, just to show my old school I could.

At fifteen She suggested I might prefer the atmosphere at Kingsway College. This was a Further Education College in Kings Cross. Leafy Hampstead it wasn’t.

It suited me down to the ground. The whole place was full of misfits. John Lydon (“Johnny Rotten”) and Poly Styrene, both leading punk rockers, pierced their first curled lips at the college.

The place seemed to specialise in the slightly rebellious offspring of famous (and rebellious) writers. I was friendly with the children of Arnold Wesker, Fay Wheldon and Alan Sillitoe.

And this makes the circle. The first class I ever took where I felt alive, treated as an individual, and respected, was at Kingsway. “Greek Myths and Legends”. It was an “Extension” course. In other words it was taught to round-out the student. No exams, no hassle. Each week I would turn up and hear Steve Haskell, the tutor, telling stories. Old stories. For the love of words and language. Steve started with The Odyssey. I was gripped….

Thirty years on. I am working at a Further Education college myself. Some of the students can be a bit difficult, but then I remember what I was like at that age.

And just a few weeks ago, on Odysseus’ Island, I felt I had come home. The circle was complete.

Dining on Ithaca.

Sunday, August 27

Ta Kalamia, Nidri, Lefkas.

We found the restaurant on our first afternoon in Nidri. We noticed a few clues from the outside. This was one of the few restaurants on the main road that had turned its back on the traffic – there were a couple of small tables for watching the world go by but most of the tables were inside. The waiter was wearing a long black apron down to his shoes, reminiscent of a Greek priest’s robes. The specials board was the clincher, fresh fish, prawns with basil, and squid stuffed with herbs and cheese. Real cooking. We decided then and there that we would come back that night.

We were not disappointed. The waiter we had seen earlier welcomed us in. The kitchen was semi-open, and led out into a charming and slightly eccentrically decorated garden area where the tables were. At the far end a wooden building glowed with candles and oil lamps. Bottles of oil, preserved fruits and bunches of herbs were visible inside.

The tables, of varied size and design, were covered with paper. Not the standard plastic-backed thin white stuff, but heavy cartridge paper, stiff like damask, grey, with the restaurant name printed through the middle.

At the end, two chairs like thrones dared you to sit at them.

The waiter, who we came to know as Anders, took our drinks order.

“The Chef will be along to take your food order…”

Alarm bells started to ring. Would we be forgotten? Would our order fall between two stools?

We worried needlessly. Along came the chef, also enrobed. We ordered.

“The squid will take twenty minutes, we make it fresh, then cook on the grill…”

Music to a foodie’s ears.

We made our acquaintance with the local wine, nibbling on bread anointed with a fresh cheese paste.

The squid arrived, side fins gently singed and crunchy, milky soft flesh holding a stuffing of peppers, feta cheese and fresh herbs. They were devine.

Over the next few days we returned frequently. The chef was cooking with a whole range of fresh herbs - basil, dill, mint, and rosemary all featured, all used judiciously but with great effect. One evening we saw an Italian almost cry with joy when he sampled the marinated anchovies, bathed in olive oil with just enough garlic and lemon to raise them to a sublime level.

If you ever find yourself in Nidri, don’t fail to eat at Ta Kalamia. The atmosphere and the food are both a cut above anything else in the resort.

By the way, that shed I mentioned sells the oils and herbs, plus a range of jewelry hand-made by the dusky French lady who helps serve when they are busy. You can shop for souvenirs after you’ve eaten. There’s an indefinable sixties vibe to the place, even down to bean bags by the bar for relaxing in after dinner.

Do stop and sign the visitors book too, good cooking like this needs all the encouragement we can give it….

Greek cuisine – Finding it’s feet at last?

Anyone who has holidayed in Greece over the last decades will be familiar with the sinking feeling that the evening brings. You have showered (solar hot water system permitting), survived walking across tiled floors that are so slippy Torville and Dean would have problems, and have managed to dry your not inconsiderable bulk on a towel the size of a postage stamp.

Changed, and Mozzie-proofed, hopefully sitting on your balcony with a chilled glass of something, you contemplate your evening meal.

Twenty years ago even getting an evening meal often proved problematic; waiters with poor English made every order a challenge, and the concept of starter followed by main course hadn’t quite permeated the eating-out culture. Nowadays we find practically everyone speaks the language, and we have picked up some Greek.

The sinking feeling normally comes when you try and decide where you are going to eat. Try as they might, most Greek restaurants and tavernas in holiday resorts seem to find it difficult to raise themselves out of the mediocre standards of souvlaki (shish kebab) and moussaka, both accompanied by “French” fries or easy-cook rice. Non-Greek alternatives that have caught on are pizzas and pasta. When you are on holiday for 14 nights it does not take long to exhaust this basic repertoire. At this point dining out becomes a chore, rather than a pleasure.

Well, I am pleased to say that we have found a resort, Nidri, on the island of Lefkas, where cooking seems to be improving. Nidri, part of the Ionian group, is a fairly large resort which has still clung on to its soul. It was notable how many Greeks ate out in the restaurants. This probably had the effect of keeping standards higher than they otherwise would be in a tourist resort.

We didn’t have a really bad meal anywhere, and we had some really good ones. One of the joys of being on the Greek islands is eating fresh fish. Unfortunately overfishing has normally meant that fish is an expensive dish. Lefkas has worked around this by the simple expedient of fish-farming. The net result (pardon the pun) is that fresh Grey Mullet and Sea Bream are available widely and very reasonably priced. I see from my food log that I had fish for dinner six times in two weeks. (Yes, I know, a food log is a bit sad, but I was keeping one years before Nigel Slater!).

There was one simply outstanding place to eat in Nidri. Tomorrow I will tell you all about Ta Kalamia.

Tuesday, August 22

To tell or not to tell, that is the question…

(Apologies to W.S.)

Well Reader, I married her many years ago, but I don’t recall if I promised to Always Tell Her Everything. I kept quiet.

My decision was based on the following reasoning:

1. The reviews I read may have been biased.

2. If I told my wife SHE would have been biased and viewed the place in a negative manner regardless.

3. We were already booked into the accommodation anyway. At least we were prepared (or I was), and we wouldn’t be able to actually do anything until we got there.

As it turned out, the place wasn’t too bad. It certainly wasn’t as bad as the reviews, but they obviously had some foundation in reality.

I guess there are two morals.

First, prepare for the worst, but hope for the best.

Second, remember that very few people will tell you about a fantastic place to stay, but everyone will tell you what a lousy time they may have had.

We had a brilliant time, and tomorrow I will describe the culinary delights. We have been travelling to Greece for twenty-odd years and we had the best food ever.

Monday, August 21

A little knowledge...

... Is certainly a worrying thing.

About three days before flying to Greece for our recent holiday I was surfing the net.

I typed in the name of the resort and the apartments we were booked to stay at. I didn't really expect to get any hits at all. I certainly didn't expect to find four. The hits were all reviews from previous "guests" of our apartments. The first one I read was equivocal, the rooms were a "good base" if you spent most of your time on the beach. The rest of the reviews got steadily worse. The words "filthy", "squalid" and "insect-ridden" leapt out. The worst review finished along the lines of "Never,ever,ever stay at the ****** studios."

You can image that my gently growing feeling of anticipation for our departure took a severe knock at this point.

Of course, the worst thing was that only I knew. My wife didn't have a clue...

In case you ever find yourselves in the same position in the future, I will tell you what I did tomorrow.

Would you tell your other half what you read, or would you keep quiet and see what it was like in real life?

Thursday, August 17

Hello, Hello, It's good to be back...

Blimey its cold too. My wife and I have just got back from a fortnight on the green and lovely Greek island of Lefkas.

Of course the current "security" alert had an impact. We were sitting in a taverna when a tourist on the adjacent table read out from a text he had just received;

"23 arrested, blow up planes... nothing in or out of London..."

Knowing we had to fly back to England three days later certainly got us thinking...

We flew into Gatwick on Sunday and the airport was already littered with piles of suitcases. It was quite clear that BAA were losing control of the situation. Anyone could have grabbed any suitcase or pack they fancied. We have only ever packed low-value items in our luggage - in future we will be treating our hold luggage as disposable and packing accordingly!