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While Greece has its own distinct cuisine, this little cluster of islands off its west coast has its own individual culture and foods to match. The islands are made up of Kerkyra (Corfu in English), Paxi (Paxos), Lefkada (Lefkas), Ithaki (Ithaca), Kefalonia (Cephalonia), Zakynthos (Zante) and Kythira (Cythera). If you’re taking a trip out to enjoy their warm coastline and colourful landscapes, seek out traditional dishes to get a real taste of the Ionian life.
Don’t leave the Ionian Islands without trying…
This thick, Corfiot pasta dish has the telltale mark of the Venetians (who once occupied the islands). Like many familiar Italian sauces, the tomato sauce is cooked down with veal, beef, rooster or even fish. But in a Corfiot twist, it is flavoured not only with garlic, minced onion and white wine, but also with cloves, cinnamon and bay leaves. Like any good traditional dish, the variations are legion – some use nutmeg, cumin and allspice.
This classic dish from Corfu gets its name from the Italian fritto, meaning fried. Thin slices of veal are dredged in flour and fried, then incorporated into a tart sauce created with loads of garlic and parsley cooked in white wine and vinegar. The tasty concoction is ladled over mashed potatoes or rice.
Corfu’s signature spicy fish dish, bourdeto calls for fresh fish. Locals use what they call stone fish (petropsarra) and preferably scorpion fish, but other fresh fish will do. The fish is cooked in a spicy tomato sauce with liberal amounts of hot red pepper. Some like to add potatoes. The recipe is said to be a descendant of Venetian times.
4. Kefalonian meat pie (Kefallonitiki kreatopita)
Wild Kefalonia is the largest Ionian Island, prone to earthquakes, and peopled with adventuresome folks who are among Greece’s most far-flung explorers. This meat pie from Kefalonia is a perennial favourite for its rich, well-spiced flavours, using bay leaf, garlic, cinnamon, nutmeg and marjoram. Usually it’s prepared with a mixture of veal and lamb, which are cooked in a tomato wine sauce with vegetables like carrots, potato, leeks, then it’s all baked into a pie.
5. Chicken tserepa
This age-old technique found in Kefalonia is thought to originate in Ithaca, Odysseus’ long-lost isle just to the east. The tserepa is a traditional clay cooking vessel used over charcoal. Customarily the chicken for the dish is marinated overnight in a heady brew of oregano, smashed garlic, salt, pepper and olive oil. Then it’s baked in the tserepa with tomato sauce, wine, lemon juice and potatoes, and comes out tender and delicious. No tserepa? You can simulate the conditions in a covered casserole dish.
6. Corfiot ginger beer (Tsitsibirra)
As summer heats the marble streets of historic Corfu town, you’ll find locals sitting on shady porches sipping a homemade (or, now, shop-bought) refreshment made with lemon juice and ginger: tsitsibirra. The ginger beer tradition was actually brought to the island by the British in the 19th century, and then the Corfiots made it their own. Fermented and refrigerated, the final beer can keep in the refrigerator for up to a month, and is said to have digestive properties.
7. Lefkaditiki ladopita
Lefkada is a lesser-known Ionian Island, lined by world-class beaches and with a rough mountainous interior. Their local dessert, Lefkaditiki ladopita, literally translates as ‘oil pie’. But it’s nothing like that name makes it sound! Prepared with olive oil, yes, it is a cake of semolina and simple syrup which is pressed with sesame seeds and almonds on the top, then baked in the oven. Hot from the baking, it’s sliced into wedges and dusted with cinnamon and sugar.
8. Cod with agiada
Corfiots have their own version of the tried-and-true Greek taverna staple fried codfish with skordalia (garlic dip). They serve their batter-fried codfish with agiada, a tart garlic sauce made of almonds, garlic, bread, vinegar and oil. Some prefer to substitute a dash of lemon for the vinegar, and grandmothers always mashed the ingredients with a mortar and pestle. Paired with fresh greens or a salad, this is a decadent treat that shouldn’t be missed.
9. Aubergines skordostoubi
Zakynthos, also known as Zante, is recognised for its memorable azure-rimmed Shipwreck Beach. It’s also home to a local vegetarian dish called aubergines skordostoubi. Prepared in a saucepan – you can’t be too shy with the olive oil – the aubergines are cooked down with tomatoes, potatoes and carrots. The rich red sauce is seasoned with paprika, vinegar and loads of garlic cloves, hence its name, which derives from the Greek word for garlic (skordo). In Zakynthos they also dot the dish generously with cubes of ladotyri, a cheese preserved in oil, but feta is a tasty substitute.
Another legacy of the British in Corfu, the little kumquat has been pressed into service, literally, in making a sweet liqueur that you’ll find glowing a soft orange from many of Corfu town’s shops. Corfiots also use the kumquat to make spoon sweets (glyko tou koutaliou), a candied preserve that is wonderful in a small spoon accompanying Greek coffee, or in a generous dollop over fresh Greek yogurt.
Have you visited the Ionian Islands? Did you sample an irresitable local treat? We’d like to hear your suggestions. For more holiday eating advice, visit our travel section…
Travellers are advised to read the FCO travel advice for the country they are travelling to.