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Food

The Food and Wines of the Ionian Islands

August 17, 2021

The location and unique history of the Ionian Islands have left their mark of the cuisine on the region. From flavorful fish dishes and pasta to delicious desserts, there is something for every foodie to enjoy on their visit to the beautiful seven island chain.

Bourdeto is a spicy dish from Corfu featuring scorpionfish and red pepper, and with many variations. While some may add tomatoes or tomato sauce to this fish stew, traditionally only pepper is used. In Zakynthos, meat is used instead of fish.

Pastitsada is another traditional recipe from the island of Corfu where everyone seems to have their own personalized version, especially in terms of the spice mixture used to flavor the dish. In fact, the spice mixture can be purchased in shops on the island, but cumin or even curry powder can be added to make the pastitsada your own. One type of the spice mixture contains 15 different spices. Chicken is most commonly used for the recipe, but beef can also be substituted, if preferred. Pastitsada is reminiscent of the famous Italian dish chicken cacciatore or ‘hunter’s-style’ chicken, but the influence of British rule in the Ionian islands is evident in the addition of curry powder in some versions of the dish. The British were introduced to curry through India, first via the British East India Company, then British rule in India. The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse featured the first curry recipe published in Britain in 1747. The British occupation of the Ionian Islands lasted from 1815 until 1864 when the islands were united with Greece.

Riganada, usually associated with the islands of Lefkada and Kefalonia, is a simple dish consisting of slices of lightly moistened bread or Greek rusks brushed or drizzled with olive oil and vinegar, then often topped with diced tomatoes, oregano, and basil. The name refers to the Greek word for oregano, ‘rigani’. Riganada is enjoyed in the summer and is often paired with sardines and cheese.

The best known sweet from throughout the Ionian Islands is probably mandolato, a soft nougat with honey and almonds. Zakynthos is known for the creamy dessert frigania which is made with friganies, also known as Greek rusks.

Wines of the Ionian Islands

Wine production holds a prominent position in almost all the Ionian Islands, but Kefalonia is the leading producer with some of the most famous and superior quality wines. Zakynthos is the birthplace of the Traditional Designation Verdea wine, produced on the island since the 19th century. The red Avgoustiatis variety is also produced in Zakynthos.

The largest of the Ionian Islands, Corfu is known for the white Kakotrygis and the red Petrokorithos varieties.

In Lefkada, the cultivation of Vertzami accounts for the largest percentage of vineyards on the island. It is a late-ripening variety – the high altitudes make it difficult for Vertzami to ripen, delaying the process of sugar formation.

Recipes from the Ionian Islands

Bourdeto from Corfu

10 to 12 scorpionfish, cleaned of scales and offal only, leave heads on

2-3 small perch, cleaned and with heads

1 large onion, finely chopped

1 tablespoon ground sweet red pepper or chili pepper or cayenne

1/2 teaspoon hot paprika

1/2 cup Greek extra virgin olive oil

4 cups water

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

Heat about half of the olive oil in a large deep pot or saucepan over medium high heat. Add the finely chopped onion and sauté for 3-5 minutes. Add the sweet red pepper, the hot paprika, and the remaining olive oil. Continue cooking then add two cups of water, and bring to a boil. Add the fish and two more cups of water until the fish are completely covered. Continue boiling over medium heat until the water is almost completely absorbed. Add the lemon juice and cook for about a minute, then remove from heat and serve immediately.

It should be noted that scorpion fish have small bones, so be very careful as you eat. The recipe can be made with filleted fish, but the flavor will not be as intense.

Codfish or octopus are also made using the same recipe with potatoes added as well.

Serve with a dry white wine from Corfu, such as Kakotrygis Petrokoritho White.

Pastitsada

1 whole large chicken, cut into pieces

1/2 cup Greek extra virgin olive oil

3 onions, sliced

3 garlic cloves, sliced

1 can chopped tomatoes

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 teaspoon sugar

2 1/4 cups red wine

Greek sea salt

Freshly ground pepper

6 cloves, whole

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon red chili powder

2 bay leaves

2 cinnamon sticks, each 2 inches long

1 package bucatini pasta or the long pasta of your choice

1 cup grated Kefalotyri cheese, to serve

Rinse the chicken under cold water, then pat dry with paper towels. Heat the olive oil in a large deep pan or Dutch oven. Sear the chicken pieces until golden brown on all sides. Try not to crowd the pan – work in batches, if needed. Transfer the seared chicken to a plate and set aside. Drain about half the oil from the pan and add the onions and garlic. Sauté until golden and then add the tomato paste and sauté for another minute over medium high heat. Add the chicken, wine, cloves, cumin, chili powder, the bay leaves, salt and pepper to taste, and allow the sauce to reduce by about half, and then add the chopped tomatoes and cinnamon sticks. Add enough water to cover the chicken pieces. Cover and bring to a boil. Then, reduce the heat to medium and allow it to simmer, stirring occasionally, for 1 hour to 1 1/2 hours or until the chicken is cooked through and the sauce has thickened.

Bring a large, deep pot of water to a boil. Add a teaspoon of salt and the pasta. Boil the pasta until al dente. Drain and stir together with the sauce. Remove the cinnamon sticks, cloves, and bay leaves before serving. Serve the pastitsada on a large platter. Sprinkle with the grated Kefalotyri cheese or the grated cheese of your choice and enjoy with a red wine from the Ionian islands.

Riganada

Greek rusks or bread, preferably 1-2 days old, cut into thick slices

Greek extra virgin olive oil

Red wine vinegar

1-2 ripe tomatoes, chopped or grated

Greek dried oregano

Greek sea salt

If using Greek rusks, moisten with water. If using dry bread, toast it lightly. Drizzle the rusks or bread with olive oil and vinegar, to taste. Top with the chopped or grated tomatoes, a sprinkle of oregano, and a dash of salt. Additional olive oil may be sprinkled on top, if preferred. Crumbled feta, olives, or sardines may also be added to the riganada, but if adding any of those salty ingredients, skip the sea salt.

Frigania

10-16 Greek rusks, as needed

For the syrup:

1 cup sugar

2 cups water

1 cinnamon stick, 2-3 inches long

2 whole cloves

For the vanilla pudding:

4 cups milk

1/2 cup cornstarch

1 cup sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

For the whipped cream:

1 cup cold heavy whipping cream

3 tablespoons powdered sugar

For garnish:

Ground cinnamon

1/4 cup toasted, ground almonds

Line the bottom of a 13 by 9-inch glass baking dish with the rusks and set aside. To make the syrup, place the sugar, water, cinnamon stick and cloves in a saucepan, stir together and bring to boil over medium high heat. Reduce heat to medium and simmer for five minutes. Remove the cinnamon stick and the cloves. Pour the hot syrup over the arranged rusks, set the dish aside. To make the vanilla pudding, in a medium bowl, dissolve the cornstarch in about a cup of the milk. Pour the remaining milk into a saucepan, add the sugar, stir together, and place over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally until hot, but not boiling. Add the cornstarch mixture and continue cooking and stirring until the pudding bubbles and thickens. Remove from heat. Add the vanilla extract and stir to combine. Allow the pudding to cool slightly, then cover and refrigerate for an hour. When ready to serve, whisk the whipping cream with the powdered sugar to form stiff peaks. Top the syrup-soaked friganies with the chilled vanilla pudding and spread in an even layer with a rubber spatula. Top the pudding layer with the whipped cream and spread evenly. Cover and refrigerate for an hour or two. When ready to serve, garnish with a sprinkle of ground cinnamon and toasted, ground almonds.

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