THE BLOG

This Week I Ate... Memories of Greece

17/08/2014 19:16 BST | Updated 16/10/2014 10:59 BST

I'm having a Grecian reunion with my past. The location is Corfu and a small deserted pebble beach called Kerasia. Here in 1976 my family took a little villa by the shore. There was no access by road so we had to pile into a small boat which ferried us around a few bays and coves before the villa with its little jetty came into sight. The property nestled among olive trees and a little dried-up garden and there we would stay for a fortnight. The holiday became a ritual for the next six years or so.

Stavrula, the cook, came down through the olive grove each morning on her donkey, bobbing gently on a wooden saddle. Her husband Andreas had ferried us from where the road ended and occasionally watered the garden and pottered about the place.

At the far end of the beach, to the right, was a little taverna to which small boats would occasionally ferry passengers, otherwise its habitués were old men who shouted at each other (which I later learned was just polite conversation in Greek) and drank small cups of coffee extremely slowly.

Around the headland was a large castellated villa that sat among cyprus trees and manicured gardens and this is where the Rothschilds, the famous banking family, had their holiday home. They owned the whole little peninsula and from a boat we could look up at the house, try to determine movement from the gardens and listen for noise. But it always seemed silent and we regarded the place as a sort of Bond villain lair.

Our holidays, always shared with another family, usually cousins, were punctuated by shopping trips in the little boat (the 'phut-phut' - which my father would always struggle to get going, pulling the on-board motor angrily, then frantically squeezing petrol into the engine and invariably flooding it), simple dinners of grilled, fish, octopus or chicken, occasional storms and agonising prickly heat.

My fair skin always burned and I wriggled in the evenings, trying to scratch my back and shoulders and behaving, as my father would remark 'like a contortionist'.

We snorkled among the rocks, picking up sea urchin shells and looking at the fish, skimmed pebbles across the calm, warm sea and were occasionally 'treated' to a night in the garden in a tent. Sitting quietly inside unable to sleep because of the heat we would try to listen to the grown-ups' conversation. Occasionally there was noise from the end of the beach where a party was taking place. 'One, two, three yamas!' yelled the English before darting down to the sea and plunging in; some kind of drinking game presumably.

During the day we could look out clearly at Albania opposite, no more than a mile away at the closest point, and we heard tales of people drifting there by mistake on their lilos and being detained by the communist authorities. Sometimes we could hear the sound of muffled explosions, which was either drifting tourists or rocks being blown up.

Those happy holidays cemented a love of Greece for me and as each year passes I always feel the tug to return. I spent some of my early 20s on an island called Leros in the South Aegean but had not returned to Corfu.

This was my first trip since 1982. Jogging my memories of those holidays before we set off I came across a picture of myself from that year looking rather like my own ten year-old son.

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So I thought I'd take him to where the picture was taken and then see if old Stavrula was still with us.

I always remember how she would send my father off shopping in the boat: 'Tomorrow, tomorrow, Mr, Corfu, fish.' And so in due course, the day after tomorrow my father would shop for fish and also bring back treats such as crates of bottled Coca-Cola.

Today the beach is just the same. A few trees have grown up partly obscuring the villa and its white walls have been painted a dull pink. And the taverna is still there. It's just the same, except for about 20 cars parked along the beach and a hundred or so people sunbathing. The taverna is heaving, there's now a bar next door and a road ferries the tourists down to the sea, making our days of phut-phutting to and from the villa seem pretty archaic.

I went looking for Stavrula only to hear from her daughter who runs a little supermarket in the next bay St Stefano, that she had died just last year and spent her last two years mourning the death of her other daughter from cancer.

I showed the pictures I had of myself and my brother with Stavrula sitting on her donkey and others such as her waving us off from the jetty.

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But it just made the poor lady sad, so I didn't linger and with my family drove hastily back to our villa.

This year we're staying with friends up in the hills in the hamlet of Santa, in the lap of luxury in a beautiful villa and with a thing un-heard of during those childhood holidays called air-conditioning.

It's slightly cheating of course but God you sleep well and don't toss and turn all night sweating and scratching your mosquito bites.

A brilliant young cook called Lucy, the daughter of the cookery writer Jane Lovett, turns out amazing dinners of grilled prawns, tuna nicoise (the finest I've had; from locally caught fish, seasoned hard and given the merest charring from the grill), lamb tagine, soft slices of pork in a tuna sauce and chicken with peppers and lime.

When I say words like squid and retsina, my hosts give me a funny look and feel like patting my head and saying 'there, there...'

I bob about in the infinity pool gazing out at the hills and mountains of Albania and in the evening drive up to a monastery above the villa, not to pray but to find the track that winds round the hill and where I jog breathing in the scent of dried grass and shrubs and occasionally disturbing some goats whose musty smell fills the still air. They eye me with the same look my hosts give me when I mention retsina, then dart away, their little bells tolling.

What a way to spend the last few weeks of summer, sucking in new items for the sentimental Greek memory bank. Corfu may be much busier. Bars may heave and throb with people as the sun rises, pirate joy boats may arrive in the most peaceful of coves dispensing its cohorts into the sea, before scooping them up and pouring them into some local taverna, but the place is still lush and beautiful.

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I can go up to the hills for my jog at sunset, look out at the sea below and see Albania in the distance, hear the din of the cicadas and anticipate the excitements and renewal promised by an English autumn.

And then head back to the villa, for a cooling swim, then copious glasses of white wine (some of it very good local Greek, albeit not my beloved retsina) and much merry chat with my entertaining and extremely generous hosts and our families.