Corfu For You: A Taste of Greece in Sights, Sounds and Grape Leaves

If you sat down and had a glass of wine with him during these last summer weeks of  August,  he’d tell you a story. It would be slim but impactful – a snippet of colorful life that was mostly true and partially painted with imagination. He’d tell you about his pet pelican, about his distaste for rules, about the lunchtime hospitality of his toothless neighbor. He’d tell you about a splendidly shabby house that overlooks the sea, and about the sounds of an orchard buzzing with bees. He’d tell you about a turtle and a magpie and his devoted dearheart Roger – the scrappy canine co-conspirator that was twin in both spirit and scouting.  He’d share stories about his sister Margo, vain and funny, about his brothers Larry and Leslie, who were the hunters of words and birds, and he’d tell you about his mother, Louisa, after his father died.  There would be mention of the houseguests that came to stay, the disapproving aunt that refused to leave, and the naturalist that taught him to care above all for every creature great and small. He’d tell you about the heat-haze, the green sea, the drunken olives, the magic garden, the flower-scented air. He’d tell you how he fell in love. How he came to know himself. If you sat down and had a  glass of wine with him he’d tell you his name was Gerald, and then he would tell you a captivating story. He’d tell you about Corfu.

Situated in the Ionian Sea, the small Greek island of Corfu shimmers like an emerald gem.

Welcome to the Vacation Edition of the International Vintage Recipe Tour 2020. Whose ready for an international adventure that involves a relaxing getaway, a Greek island, and all the stuffed grape leaves you can eat? Pull out your market bags dear kitcheners, this week we are taking a restorative trip to the Greek island of Corfu courtesy of Gerald Durrell and his entertaining, enigmatic English family.

Here we are in mid-August, just five weeks away from the first day of Autumn. This summer our passports aren’t stamped. Our road trips aren’t long. Our hotel rooms aren’t booked.  We may not be filling up our suitcases and hopping on airplanes this pandemic year but that doesn’t mean that we can’t explore the world in other ways that are equally engaging, and equally satisfying. Through a book, a television show and a cooking adventure, this post highlights a travel trip to an exotic destination that can be enjoyed without ever leaving home. Thanks to the captivating real-life story of Gerald Durrell who lived with his family on the Greek island of Corfu from 1935-1939, we are traveling to a beautiful location fit for summer fun. Like any good vacation, this story contains all the great hallmarks of an exciting new experience. There’s an exotic destination, a foreign language, a bevy of interesting people, a sense of escapism and authentic traditional food. It may not be an actual real-life trip to Greece but this experience offers the next best thing – a true mental break from the state of our current affairs.

Before Gerald became an influential 20th-century British conservationist, naturalist, author and zookeeper he was a small boy called Gerry, living on a remote island in the Ionian Sea with his mother, sister and two brothers. Having, on a whim, moved from England to escape a dreary, uninspired existence following the death of his father, Gerry and his family entered into a colorful world where the sea shines turquoise, the landscape is kissed by the sun and the air is clean, clear and curious. There his family discovers life, love and importance.

Gerald Durrell (1925-1995)

A Robinson Crusoe type experience, life on Corfu was rudimentary, wild, and sensational. Seducing the entire family, the spell of the island during those five years, comes to profoundly affect and mean something different to each member. To Gerald its the start of his wildlife career and it is through his eyes that we discover the magic of an island. In 1956, Gerald chose to publish his account of that pivotal time in a book titled My Family and Other Animals. In 2016, PBS released a televised version of the book called the Durrells in Corfu. The show aired for four seasons, finishing in May of 2019 and now all the episodes are available on Amazon Prime and PBS Masterpiece. Here’s a trailer from Season 1…

This show happened to not only be my introduction to the Durrell family but also to the island of Corfu. Located just off the west coast of Greece, Corfu sits close to the mainland in the Ionian Sea. It is nicknamed the Emerald Island because it has a large amount of green olive trees and lush vegetation. It is also home to the an array of interesting architecture. In the very first episode, I fell in love with the Durrells new (old) house…

which is perched on top of a ledge overlooking the sea.  I won’t share any details here about the storyline, so as not to spoil the characters and their adventures. But I will say the entire series is so beautifully produced and whimsically told that it is truly a vacation on its own. Pair it with the book and then an authentic Greek recipe and this becomes a break from the modern-day world that truly feels like a trip away.

The definition of the word vacation means a period of time spent in leisure and recreation, a temporary vacating of one’s mind and familiar surroundings. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to pack a bag, physically go somewhere else and stay away from your familiar comforts.  Each episode of the Durrells in Corfu is roughly 45 minutes long. With four seasons and 26 episodes in the entire series, that translates to roughly 20 hours of visual splendor set in Greece. If you were committed you could watch it all in a weekend. If you paired it with the book, which is 275 pages long, then you could stretch this Greek affair into an entire week. Add the recipe and you’d have a 10-day sojourn into Corfu life lived long ago and far away. Altogether this time spent with the Durrells is a trifecta  – a perfect cacophony – for a vacation state of mind.

The book follows a similar trajectory of the show, but there are descriptions that Gerry writes about that a camera could never convey with the same amount of vivacity…

“The goats poured out among the olives, uttering stammering cries to each other, the leader’s bell clonking rhythmically. The chaffinches tinkled excitedly. A robin puffed out his chest like a tangerine among the myrtles and gave a trickle of song. The island was drenched with dew, radiant with early morning sun, full of stirring life. Be happy. How could one be anything else in such a season.”

I can’t even begin to describe what it meant to read words like this during our unusual pandemic summer. In Corfu, it’s the 1930s, and there are no mentions of viruses or masks or political upset. There is no terrible, tragic news, no copious deaths, no bleak day to day uncertainty to digest. Instead, there is light, hope, optimism. There is a rambunctious family, a humble island, a wild world, all appreciated. Spending time with Gerald, in his childhood state, with his expressive descriptions and his curious words,  felt indeed like a true vacation. A flight of fancy flown far away from the state of struggles that currently enshrouds the world.

Food features quite a bit in the book and the show, with both Louisa showcasing her cooking skills and Gerry always searching to satisfy his belly. Seeing and reading about both the culture and the landscape of the area really offered up a unique appreciation when it came to the preparation of this week’s recipe.  On the menu we are making stuffed grape leaves also known as dolmadakias, a traditional lemon, onion and herb-infused rice wrapped inside a simmered grape leaf.

I struggled with scouting the main ingredient – the grape leaves – for close to a month.  I searched as far away as Sparta, Greece where the lovely Jehny of The Spartan Table, relayed the unfortunate improbability of getting fresh Greek grape leaves to the US in a timely fashion. I searched locally through two different friends that have vineyards in two different states, but the time of the year here (high summer) makes for a tougher, less tender leaf (FYI: spring is the ideal season for cooking leaves like this). I searched the grocery stores (four in my city) for a brined version that the recipe recommended. My only luck were tins, in the international aisles, of already made and stuffed grape leaves – the finished end result of this homecooked project. My last resort was to order them on Amazon where they were always available but never with an interesting story.  Luckily just before resigning to a mail-order shipment, I discovered a Greek market that was just a thirty minute drive away.  Here I found the prized treasure! Grape leaves, sitting pretty on shelves – all brined in a line in jars of mass consumption. Success at last!

Like both the book and the movie, shopping at the Greek grocer was a bit of an adventure. Most of the packaging was in other languages – Arabic, Greek, Turkish. There was an entire aisle devoted to rice, goat heads in the freezer, big blocks of feta cheese in the fridge, bulk quantities of spices, an array of dried citrus, and towards the back of the store, there were bags of homemade bread still warm and soft from the oven. I came home with bread, a box of chocolate cream-filled cookies (made in Croatia!), a jar of olives brined in olive oil,  and the prized grape leaves. Next time, I’ll shop for coffee, spices and rice.

In Corfu, the Durrells remark often about the languid air and the slower, more sleepy pace. This recipe felt very much the same. Nothing is rushed in preparation. The hands-on wrapping of the grape leaves can be done at whatever pace you choose. It also makes enough for a feast. But it’s one of those dishes that you don’t have to devour all in one sitting, as it can last for days in the fridge. I’m including the exact recipe here as it appeared in the New York Times International Cook Book, but I will forwarn you – this makes ALOT of grape leaves. I had half of the rice mixture leftover (which I wound up adding to a chicken soup later on) so you could still make two dozen grape leaves, as the recipe states, while cutting the rice mixture in half. Other than that, everything came together easily and with a sense of fun.

When the brine gets rinsed off the leaves once they are removed from the jar, they become cool and slippery to the touch yielding a fun tactile experience of folding, and rolling and wrapping. Over on Instagram, I demonstrate in a featured stories video how to wrap a grape leave, so if this is your first time too, visit this link (it will be the clip all the way at the end – Week 19!).

how to make homemade stuffed grape leaves dolmadakia

Dolmadakia (Stuffed Grape Leaves)

Makes about 2 dozen

1 cup olive oil

3 large onions, chopped

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 cup uncooked rice

2 tablespoons fresh snipped dill

1/4 cup finely chopped Italian parsley

2 tablespoons pignoli (pine nuts)

6 green onions, finely chopped

1 cup lemon juice

3 cups water

1 8oz jar grape leaves in brine

Parsley and lemon wedges for garnish

Heat 1/2 cup oil in  a skillet and saute the onions and garlic until tender but not browned. Add the salt, pepper, and rice and cook slowly for 10 minutes, stirring often.

Add the dill, parsley, nuts, green onions, 1/2 cup of the lemon juice, and 1/2 cup of the water.

Stir to mix, cover and simmer gently until all the liquid has been absorbed, about 15 minutes.

Rinse the grape leaves under running water, separate and place shiny side down (aka backside of the leaf up) on a board. If the leaves are small, put two together. (Note: It’s easier to roll and wrap the leaves if they are wet. They’ll dry out fairly quickly, so if you want to go about this project leisurely I recommend stacking the leaves one on top of each other to keep them moist.) 

Place one teaspoon of the rice filling near the stem end of the leaves and roll up jelly-roll fashion, toward the tip, tucking in the edges to make a neat roll.

Place the remaining oil, lemon juice and one cup of water in a large skillet. Arrange the rolls in the pan.

Place a heavy plate or weight (I used the lid of my dutch oven) on top and simmer for 25 minutes.

Add the remaining water and cook about 10 minutes longer or until the rice is tender.

Cool and serve at room temperature with lemon wedges.

Tender, lemony and bright these stuffed grape leaves are like little gifts from the Greek gods. Delicious and surprisingly filling, they are light yet full of flavor, hitting all the taste bud notes between sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. It is a refreshing, well-balanced dish that is ideally paired for this time of year. Traditionally, dolmadakias would be served with a whole table full of other Greek dishes, but I think it makes a lovely choice for a late afternoon snack with a glass of chilled white wine.

In the show, there’s a great tradition that the Durrells start in the heat of the summer. They carry their dining room table out into the shallow water of the sea and set up their mealtimes – a la ocean – with their feet swirling around in the water. I love this idea! If you don’t have access to a waterway like them, then perhaps you’ll enjoy these stuffed grape leaves with Gerry’s book as a companion or the show as your meal mate. All three options are festive and support the ideal vacation state of mind. After being immersed in Corfu for a few weeks, I came away from the whole experience feeling rested, relaxed and inspired by the aesthetic of Corfu and the interesting experiences of this fascinating family. If you are struggling with your summer vacation plans (or lack thereof ) too then I hope this post and its recommended activities cast a little spell over you as well.

Cheers to the Durrells, to Corfu and to the Greek grocery for making this staycation feel like an actual vacation. Fingers crossed, that by next year, the pandemic will be behind us and we’ll be able to hop that plane to Corfu where we can experience first-hand the heat-haze of summer, the drunken olives, the sunbleached landscape and that magnificent beauty of a turquoise sea.

In the meantime, catch up next time for Week 20 of the International Vintage Recipe Tour when we head to Haiti, via the kitchen, to make an attention-grabbing dessert and to discuss kitchen designs in the tropics. See you then!

4 thoughts on “Corfu For You: A Taste of Greece in Sights, Sounds and Grape Leaves

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