The Blog

This Week I Ate... More Damn Greek food

Our trip ended with dinner on the steps of some backstreet in beautiful Venetian Corfu town. I tried the moussaka again. A near-triumph this time, all that hanging around deepening the flavour. It was only just warm enough and of course the chips were cold.

I have an annoying habit of defending Greek things. The food, the wine, the drains and the shouting. I have often, unwillingly, had to make such defences with Greece well and truly out of my system. Even a couple of years can pass without a visit. Instead I've been lulled to Italy and France (Umbria, the Dordogne) but have managed to successfully fight off such things as Cornwall. I don't buy the concept of staycation. To me that's just nocation.

But this year my son, unwittingly, intervened. Some parents of a school-friend of his asked us to their villa in Corfu. We lucked out. I lucked out. Here was a wonderful invitation and it was to Greece.

A week with our new friends - thanks to Albert - would be enough, I could imagine my wife saying. So razor-sharp, I booked a second week in Paxos. After a first week of amazing food, imported wine and luxurious villa living I would take charge and make sure we all endured a bit of real Greece. The Greece of my past. The Greece of my childhood and the Greece of my early 20s, with many months spent as a holiday rep on that ink splodge of an island in the South Aegean, Leros.

So our week of first-world Corfu vacation up we hopped onto a flying dolphin (which is a boat not a practical circus fish) and nipped to Paxos.

Paxos is a little bit like the Corfu of my childhood and the Leros of those formative years. I was re-united with that good ol' drainage system that means loo paper must be placed in a small bin, with the occasional waft of effluent as you walk down a cobbled street, and of traditional Greek food and Greek wine.

OK so I'm scrabbling around trying to defend the drains. 'But just imagine the luxury when we are back home and can put loo paper in the loo,' I plead. 'But this is a small and beautiful island. They can't dig up the streets and install modern sewerage systems. It would tear the place apart. The cost of Retsina would soar.'

That argument firmly put to bed, I'll take on the wine. So irritated I was by constant sniping about Greek wine a few years back - at the time of the Greek Olympics in 2004 I staged a contest that I hoped would settle the matter.

I hired the Vintners' Hall in the City of London and put on a blind wine tasting that would pit Greek wine against the Rest of the World.

Members of the public bought tickets and we had several rounds in which Greek wines were tasted blind against comparable varieties from France, California, Lebanon and Australia.

Needless to say I was victorious in my premise. Thanks to the public's prejudice in identifying each time what they reckoned was the inferior wine. Greece stole the day.

I handed the Greeks a marvellous PR coup, a story they could market as the world's attention focussed on their country as the games began.

But of course my epic event was ignored by the Greeks who felt that while the result was the right one, everybody already knew that Greek wines were epic, so there was no point in telling the media.

I harrumphed and for a moment considered changing my position. But my contrary nature persuaded me otherwise and I have been defending Greek wine, as usual, ever since.

So, once again, there I was in a little taverna, up a side street, a few yards from Gaios square, the main harbour town of Paxos, pouring a glass of Restina for a friend.

Actually it was worse. I poured the glass for the friend's husband, he acting as some sort of shield. He sniffs, sips, then wretches. 'You won't like it darling. Trust me.'

Exhausted, I'm afraid at the looming battle ahead, I simple desist from my usual rant and keep the bottle to myself.

I savour the first challenging sip, that piney infusion, the bitter attack on the palate. A feeling that for me quickly dissipates and develops into a flavour that simply soothes and reassures.

Then we go through the menu and call it on for Greek salads, calamari, moussaka, chicken souvlaki and spaghetti carbonara (for years as ubiquituous as stifado - Greek beef stew).

And some places do it great, others less so. Several now serve Italian food to cater for the many tourists from Italy. The pasta can be great - especially plates of al dente spaghetti with clams, mussels, prawns, garlic and olive oil. But dishes invariably come not in the order you hoped. Calamari asked for as a starter arriving just as you gear up for an ice cream.

'Too late,' I told the waiter, one evening. 'Sad for you,' he said later when he brought the bill, 'It was delicious.'

There was similarly eccentric behaviour at Klis on the road into Gaios from the south. The taverna looks over cliffs and out to the sea.

We asked if we could order pudding, some ice cream perhaps. 'There are too many people now in the taverna,' said the waitress (from Transylvania, who also spoke no Greek girl thus making one's attempts to speak the local lingo fall onto dead ears). 'So we can't serve you desert or ice-cream.'

I made my first holiday attempt at moussaka at Vasilis also in Gaios. It came in its own little ceramic dish. Usually it's just sliced from a large mother ship of moussaka that's been cooked in the morning and then hangs around all day.

This novel version was as unusually hot as it was tasteless.

Our trip ended with dinner on the steps of some backstreet in beautiful Venetian Corfu town. I tried the moussaka again. A near-triumph this time, all that hanging around deepening the flavour. It was only just warm enough and of course the chips were cold.

But on this trip I had to quit the Retsina and local wine as some internal organs - liver/kidneys - were groaning in acidic agony. At least that was my diagnosis.

But the ice cream all over Greece seems to have stepped up a notch. I can't think of any high street parlour in Britain dishing up as delicious stracciatella, chocolate, lime, or vanilla or vanilla, chocolate and hazelnuts as we seemed to find here, there and everywhere.

As to the wine, I blame the lack of frequent visits. My body has expensively re-tuned to accept gallons of viognier but not Retsina. It's unfair, I still love the taste but Captain Sensible, or whoever the numbskull operating in and around my body is, says no.

And smart villas aside, the residing recent memory of eating in Greece will also have to be of the lack of variety. How lucky we are in the UK now. Back in London I'll be able to lurch from sushi, to pasta, with infinite options in between...Then when I'm back I can dream of retsina and moussaka, defend it all vigorously and not have to actually eat it every damn day.