The first time I visited the Greek islands on the Ionian side of Greece was back in ’88 when I took a bus from Thessaloniki to Igoumenitsa and from there the short ferry boat ride to Corfu. Until about a few years ago this trip took a day with a 7 hour ride through winding roads that hugged the Pindos mountains. The ferry boat to Corfu from Igoumenitsa is not even a couple of hours but the road trip killed ya.
Today, the Nea Egnatia highway exists and spans northern Greece from Igoumenitsa and all the way east to the Greek/Turkish border. Today, one can drive from Thessaloniki to Igoumentisa in three hours…now there’s some good news to come out of Greece! When the ferry boat approaches Corfu town one can’t help but think that maybe the captain made a mistake and steered the boat all the way to Italy but nope – you’ve arrived in Corfu (or as the Greeks call it , Kerkyra). Today, much of Corfu’s tourists arrive by air with many charters and regular direct flights to Corfu from throughout all of Europe’s major hubs.
Corfu belongs to the string of islands along the Ionian coast called the Seven Islands. These islands were under Roman rule, then fell under Byzantine rule but protecting these islands all the way east from Constantinople was a challenge so the then powerful Venice was given trading privileges in return for protection from would-be invaders
Eventually Venice ruled the Seven Islands but the island also endured attacks by the Turks, sieges and marauding but the Ottoman Tide that almost reached Budapest could not permanently rule the island. The French also occupied Corfu until Napolean was defeated and…are you ready? Corfu then became a British protectorate until 1864 when Queen Victoria signed the islands over to Greece.
With so many people passing through history to rule this island, one can no doubt also see and taste the varying influences (mostly western) in the Corfiot (and Ionian) cuisine. Many of the Corfiot dishes (and Seven Islands) have Latin names or names derived from Latin or Italian dishes. There’s Pastitsio, Bourdeto, Sofrito, Polpetes, Pastitsada and today’s dish, Bianko.
Bianko’s name simply recognizes the dish as being white – with no tomatoes as is the usual with many saucy dishes of Italy and Greece. Salted cod, whiting (or hake) would be more traditional choices for fish and fresh grey mullet is another wonderful fish to use in this dish. This is a simple, rustic dish relying on few ingredients to drive home the dish. There are lots of onions, selino ( a European celery), some sliced carrots, the very best Greek olive oil, fish, some water and potatoes.
The potato entered Greek cuisine after the rest of Europe was introduced to it (from the New World) via the French but Greeks ignored it. It took a Greek (of Corfiot descent) to re-introduce the potato to the Greeks: Ioannis Kapodistrias ordered-in some sacks of potatoes and have them protected by armed guards by the Port of Nafplio (Greece’s then capital). Greeks can be suspicious and very curious….sacks of potatoes were stolen overnight (Kapodistrias already instructed the guards to turn a blind eye to the thieves) and off the Greeks went with what they thought were a valuable commodity. Greek dishes that contain spuds are too numerous to count but for today, we’ll cook-up some Bianko and raise a glass to Kapodistrias!
Bianko (Μπιανκο) From Corfu
4 white fish fillets (salt cod, sole, grouper, basa)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil + 1/4 cup for finishing
2 large onions, sliced
2 carrots, sliced
1 cup of chopped selino (a European celery), or finely diced celery
9-10 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
4 large potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 /2 inch medallions
1/4 chopped fresh parsley
Juice of 1-2 lemons (to taste)
sea salt and lots of fresh ground pepper
- In a heavy-bottomed pot, add 1/4 cup olive oil, onions, carrots and celery and bring up to a simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce and simmer for 6-7 minutes or until the onions are translucent, add some salt and pepper. When you’re peeling the potatoes, take a box grater and grate the ends of the potatoes until they are no longer pointed (your potato now almost rectangular). Add the grated the potato into the pot and stir (this will help thicken the sauce).
- In a bowl, add the potatoes along with some salt and pepper and toss to coat then add into the pot. Add enough water to just cover the potatoes and simmer covered for (slighty ajar) 12 minutes over medium-low heat (do not stir). Now place your fish fillets over the potatoes along with the remaining olive oil, cover again and simmer over medium-low heat for another 12-15 minutes or until the fish is opaque and flaky.
- Uncover and squeeze in the lemon juice and shake the pot back & forth to allow the lemon juice to penetrate all the layers (do not stir as you will break up the fish and potatoes). Adjust seasoning, (lots of fresh ground pepper), add the chopped fresh parsley and empty into large platter for family-style serving or carefully serve portions with a slotted spoon.
- Serve with good crusty bread and try a chilled bottle of Lefkaditiki Gi white, made with a local “vardea” varietal.
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