Friday, 30 April 2010

Strange Fruit

When I was a TV researcher (or at least, an employed one), I filled the inevitable lulls in my productivity with arguing with strangers on the internet and writing arcane articles on Wikipedia (a compendium of my interests can be found here ).

Apart from its strange but compelling written-by-a-dispassionate-alien tone, the best thing about Wiki is its seductive randomness, whereby the reader is drawn, despite himself, into a world of utterly inessential marginalia. In the excellent recent C4 doc where Boris-featured media ogre Rachel Johnson took over The Lady magazine, her first act was to remove the random articles (on the history of the cucumber, or alien abductions) that seemed to jar with the title's readership. But the readers protested, en masse, in a flurry of lavender-scented post. They loved the randomness, it was hastily reinstalled, and really, it was the most modern thing about The Lady. It was Wikipedia pre-Wikipedia.

Anyway, clicking lazily around from the excellent article on Corfu (and the equally readable if historically dubious one on the Corfiot Italians), I came across this strange fruit: the Greek Citron, or Corfu Etrog.

I say I came across it, though I spent a large chunk of my post-A-level holidays chopping them into slices for bad bomba-laced cocktails in a hopefully-now-defunct Ipsos "Irish pub". At the time, I thought it was just a hideous, over-pithy lemon. But apparently not:

It's a fruit in its own right, and a rather precious one. It's considered essential to the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, and until the mid-nineteenth century, Corfu cornered the market in their production and sale. It's barely remembered now, but in the 19th Century, Corfu was a central spoke of the Jewish world. Rabbinical conferences were held here, and 1/3 of the town's population were Jewish, a polyglot mixture of 'Italkiot' Calabrian-speakers, post-Reconquista Spanish expellees and Greek-speaking 'Romaniotes' dating back to, probably, Hellenistic mass conversions.

But relations with the Orthodox peasantry were, at times- especially Good Fridays- fraught, and a Campiello pogrom in 1891 saw the rest of the Jewish world boycott Corfu Citrons. So Corfu's unique fruit trees were grubbed up, and replaced by vines, or kumquats, or yet more olives. Yet a few feral stragglers survived...

I only know this because a couple of trees survive, whether by accident or design, in my family's tiny smallholding in the 'unwritten' Northwestern hamlet of Pigi. So when I rather snottily corrected the Wiki article to disprove the claim that 'citrons are no longer grown on Corfu', I was rather surprised to receive, within the day, a business offer from a Colorado businessman to export them, for profit. Apparently, a good etrog can sell for $80-150. Each. Gosh.

Further haggling by email has proved inconclusive. He wants them approved in the US after shipment, after having been individually wrapped in bubble wrap and flown over; I'd rather have them graded by a rabbi in Corfu then sent; he disputes the rabbi's bona fides... It's probably too much hassle, despite the (Gerald) Durrellesque comedy of errors it would no doubt entail. And yet... there's something weirdly compelling about the idea. $100 for a single fruit seems an incredible business margin, but then the majority of fruits are too imperfect to stand muster.

Either way, it's a fascinating example of the way history cannot be overwritten; how even after Nazi genocide, a long-lost community's ghost is still visible in feral trees, standing forlorn testimony to a forgotten past. Like anywhere in Greece, Corfu's history is stranger and more diverse than the statist narrative allows. Perhaps a future Ipsos tourist reading this will forgive his G'n'T's over-pithy slice.

On a slightly different note, I've just finished (re)reading this, and I recommend it heartily.

The takeaway fact: mid-19th century Corfu had Europe's second highest murder rate, after Corsica. After dealing with local 'professional renovators', I'm beginning to see why...

The Business Plan

... is melting my brain. So here's a picture of our cat instead.

He's six months old now, and we still haven't settled on a name for him. So far he's been called:

*Shere Khan
*Sir Alan
*Alan Dershowitz
*Camilla Catmanghelidjh

There may be more, I can't keep track. Everyone shrieks with horror when we say he still hasn't been named, as if he's a neglected baby. He's a cat. If we'd chosen a sensible name from day 1 and scrupulously called him it every time we went near him, he'd still ignore us whenever he wanted to stalk birds, climb trees, make inscrutable gurgles or indeed browse social networking sites.

Cattyman is currently the second item in Katie's inevitable Durrellesque Corfiot menagerie, item one being Abu Hamster (currently incarcerated in the loo for his own safety). Once in Corfu, I've been warned to expect a goat, a tortoise, a puppy and a baby donkey.

They might not make it into the business plan, though. But maybe a Nativity-themed Christmas card..?

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Exhibit 1. The Lesser-Spotted Katie in Corfu.

After many evenings of wondering just what Aris had been poring over, typing frantically, smoking endless Davidoffs and scratching his increasingly 'rustic' beard, I have finally been allowed a peek at the future literary success that is the Corfu Olive Oil Blog.

Allow me to introduce myself. I was born 21 and a half years ago in Belfast, the youngest child of star-crossed parents (Romeo and Juliette never had petrol bombs...). This has embued me with an innate sense of balance (I'm also a Libra, which speaks reams to those who follow the spewings of Shelley von Strunkel) and the ability to see things from all angles. Without allowing this to become a Curriculum Vitae, I am an avid reader of both The Economist and Heat and my most visited websites are BBC News and Perez Hilton. I was a straight A student, and until recently was studying French and Spanish at the illustrious (and dour) Kings College London. Having completed two years of my four year degree, I balked at the idea of transposing all my worldly possessions to Madrid and Paris, respectively, and decided instead to 'find myself' which has resulted in becoming the PA for an effervescent (read ADHD) North London Jewish Businessman and transposing all my wordly possessions to Corfu...

But enough about me, now to discuss the 'we'. I am the yin to Aris' yang, the Remus to his Romulus, the... Czech Republic to his Slovakia... the... you get the deguerrotype...
Essentially, I will temper his boyish enthusiasm with my harsh Irish ways (cf. The Famine) and infuse his stoicism with enough whimsy to put Elsie and Frances to shame.

So just for an update: Aristide and I have moved into the glorious Hertfordshire countryside with his oft hilarious but always affable mana and the future awaits...

"It's as stressful as a bereavement, you know..."

Yikes... Well, we're moving, slightly earlier than anticipated. Until this week, we lived in a poky couple of rooms carved out of a rambling, crumbling townhouse in Notting Hill's last scuzzy street; a sort of West London Yacoubian Building stuffed with hippies-turned-pensioners and, bizarrely, a professional kickboxer. But no more... a Russian oligarch has bought the place up, and no doubt we'll see our impeccably gentrified homelet in Elle Decoration in months to come.

I know this because, while ploughing through The Flight of Ikaros in a Ladbroke Grove launderette, a gravelly-voiced Russian rang me on my mobile.

"Aris? It's Dmitri: Aleksandr's father."

As a semi-Greek, this could have been half my gene pool calling, so I pressed him for more details.

"Aleksandr. Sofia's husband. We own your house."

Ah, right. The landlord had changed over the summer, from an East End artist to a Cayman Islands post box, and this'll be why...

Anyway, it transpired he'd lost his (our?) keys and wanted to potter about the house for a bit, marking out spaces for a plunge pool, home cinema and vomitarium. Possibly. He seemed nice enough, actually, but it was time to box up our lives and pack them off to Corfu.

It's odd working out what matters and what's dispensible:

Shipped: a dozen boxes of books, a wardrobe, a desk, a Victorian Gothic bookcase literally picked up off the street, two muskets and a bundle of Turkmen rugs.

Dumped: all our crockery, cutlery, most of our clothes. And a career in TV.

More to come once in Corfu, hopefully...

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Tintin au Corfou

Sadly, the Belgian boy reporter never made it to the Ionian, but the above picture, in Hergé's inimitable-if-oft-imitated ligne claire style helps us imagine the result if he did...

The pic comes from this excellent article in the New Yorker, revealing Italy's ongoing and massive fraud on olive oil consumers, a subject I can (and do) bore on about for hours...

When I left Oxford in 2006, girded with an MSc in Social Anthropology and an ironclad sense of my manifest destiny, I spent a few months chez famille in Corfu writing my novel, a deeply adolescent fantasy of the 1930s Balkans and ghostly goings on. The novel was stillborn: of the two agents that liked it, one was sacked and the other died, but in its painful birth I spent long hours wandering around the familial olive groves.

The one thing that pained me more than anything- and made me want to return to Corfu- was the sight of bulldozers grubbing up 500-year-old trees to fire Calabrian pizza ovens, sponsored no doubt by some some fat mafioso.

It could have been a job for Tintin, plus-fourily besting his Greek arch-rival Rastapopoulos.

As a child in Corfu, I spent many happy hours with stacks of Tintin books, but I'm not sure he ever actually made it to Greece. King Ottokar's Sceptre (like my own poor, poor novel) was set in a Balkan fantasyland: part Kosovo, part Albania and the Macedonian borderlands, and the flyleaves of the hardback editions prominently displayed the Thompson/Thomsons in deeply Byronic Greek national dress, but that's the closest we ever came to a visit.

Maybe my increasing likeness to Captain Haddock is the nearest we'll get.

A random post: but I recommend this book to anyone who disputes Tintin as being the single most imprtant figure in 20th centruy literature. Ish.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

I'm in love with a machine...

Don't worry. That's not a cruel comment on Katie's borderline-obsessive replaying of the Lady Gaga Telephone video. Well, not entirely. Rather, it reflects the fact that if we're going to mill olive oil, we're going to need a mill.

So in between scrabbling around for freelance work and packing endless boxes of books for the imminent move back to the patridha, I've been firing off constant emails and phone calls to Italian mill manufacturers for pricelists (incidentally, why mills and not presses? Presses sound so much nicer, if only for images of me cranking away like an oily Caxton).

Anyway, now I've found the mill of my dreams: the Buonolio Top. She's a beauty, like a giant Dualit toaster, all brushed steel and 50s curves. Think Monica Bellucci in a remake of Metropolis. And unsurprisingly, she doesn't come cheap: in Corfu terms, she's worth about 5000 cups of coffee in the Liston, or 10,000 souvlakis in San Rocco square.

During a surprisingly wide-ranging chat with the manufacturer's sales rep, Dario- during which I fancied him leaning back in his swivel chair and gesticulating in mid-air as he spoke- I realised how much of a leap in the dark this all is.

What's your voltage in the factory, he asked. It affects the price, you realise, by around 1000 Euros?

I ummed and erred unconvincingly, shy of revealing that the factory is still the earth-floored stable of a crumbling village house and that we haven't quite got round to reinstalling the electricity yet. But still, we need to know the costs for the business plan, currently sulking neglectedly in my laptop like an unloved Tamagotchi.

There's a video on the manufacturer's website, showing Bonny in operation:

A white-coated miller (I bet he knows his factory's voltage) tips a basket of olives into Bonny's possibly eponymous top and waits contentedly as a thick rivulet of green oil pours out of her nozzle, along with an extruded turd of green olive cake. All this to an odd digital funk soundtrack, which made me mute the video in case the neighbours thought I was obsessively watching porn. But in a strange way, I guess I was...

Note: the above post was not sponsored by Campagnola, makers of the Buonolio Top. But if they'd like it to be, hey, you've got my email address Dario. Just saying...