Prospero’s Kitchen: Island Cooking of Greece
by Diana Farr Louis and June Marino
I.B. Tauris, 2012
Review by Linda Lappin
The Ionian islands are a string of seven rough gems lying southeast of the heel of Italy’s boot, stretching down towards the mountainous coast of Epirus and the Peloponnese. You see them in the offing as your ferry chugs down from Ancona or Bari on its way to Patras, taking shape in the mist one by one –glistening blackish green above the astonishing blue: Corfu, Paxos, Antipaxos, Lefkada, Cephalonia, Ithaca, Zakynthos. Further to the south, wedged between the middle toes of the Mani, lies the seventh sister, Kythera. Greece is a magic country, where myths, stories, superstitions and miracles permeate the landscape, and, as Patrick Leigh Fermor once suggested, “thicken round the traveler’s path at every step.” The Ionian islands, the birthplace of Venus and the home of Odysseus, are no exception, steeped in stories, ancient and new. Among them is one told by Lawrence Durrell in his memoir, Prospero’s Cell, according to which Corfu was the model for Prospero’s island in the Tempest, and Shakespeare may have actually visited there.
Diana Farr Louis and June Marinos pay homage to this myth in their enchanting literary cookbook Prospero’s Kitchen: Island Cooking of Greece a new, revised, third edition of their pioneering classic of 1995, which was the very first book either in Greek or English on Ionian cuisine. In the two decades that have followed the original publication, there has been a renaissance of interest in local Greek cuisines, previously “unchartered... unknown and unsung.” Ionian food products and wine, such as Cephalonia’ s prize white wine, Robola, now enjoy greater distribution within Greece and Europe and like the islands themselves, today top tourist destinations, are much more widely known. Ionian cuisine is particularly deserving of such interest : it is a melting pot of flavors thanks to the many cultural influences which it received through the vicissitudes of its history: under Roman, Byzantine, Venetian, French, British rule – only Lefkada , so close to the mainland, fell to the Turks. In no other area of Greece is the Italian influence on food felt so strongly.
The first half of this book is a rich compendium of the islands’ history, folklore, festivals and food traditions, drawn in part from the writings of nineteenth- century travelers to the islands, along with a section of detailed notes on basic ingredients and condiments used in Ionian cuisine. The recipes that follow were lovingly assembled from scribbled notes or treasured family recipe troves transmitted by Greek housewives, friends, relatives, and acquaintances of the authors, then tested back home in more modern kitchens. “There was always the fear that some key ingredient might have been left out in the telling,“ claim the authors. In other cases, lists of ingredients were exhaustive, but instructions abbreviated. “We had to cope with such vague directions as ‘add as much water as necessary’ or ‘as much flour as it will take.” Baking times and temperatures, rarely specified in the original sources, had to be laboriously worked out through trial and error to produce these perfect, practical recipes.
Readers will find plenty of simple, hearty everyday recipes for vegetable bake with okra, cuttlefish, stewed rabbit, bean soups, and spinach pudding, along with the more elaborate Venetian Pasticcio, Venetziàniko pastitsìo, with layers of pasta, meat, chicken, hardboiled eggs sandwiched between a leaves of sweet pastry ( pasta frolla), and unusual dishes such as Partridge Pilaf, Woodcock Salmi, Octopus Pie from Cephalonia, Bobota from Zakynthos - a spicey corn bread made with orange juice, walnuts, and currants - and a delicate tangerine cake, all of which bear the stamp of authenticity.
To know a place and its people, you must taste its food, and the authors of Prospero’s Kitchen : Island Cooking of Greece, give you the opportunity to do that whether you are seeking to recreate flavors and textures encountered on a trip to Greece, or simply experimenting with something new. The words “Island Cooking” evoke the pristine if limited ingredients of island life according to season: things that you grow, raise, catch, forage, and preserve yourself; others that must come by sea from far away and then are hoarded for months to be used for a special feast. Much of this cookbook is about the sacred bonds that link people, food, and festivities to the cycle of seasons and the soul of place.
In Peter Greenway’s film of The Tempest, Prospero’s Books, huge, fantastical volumes open to reveal palaces, landscapes, visions, and celebrations happening on the island. Similar magic happens when you open Prospero’s Kitchen - unleashing strong flavors, redolent of sun - honey, goats milk, wild herbs grazed with salt spray, thick- skinned citrus, piquant tomatoes, fresh fish, and charcoal fires; parsimonious winters and abundant summers, the quintessence of Mediterranean life.