Saturday, 28 September 2019

A unique taste of Corfu
in a traditional tipple

The Vassilakis distillery and winery … the home of the kumquat liqueur in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Port in Porto … Guinness in Ireland … whisky in Scotland … limoncello in Sorrento … retsina or ouzo throughout Greece … and (if I may say so, even after this morning’s rugby match) sake in Japan.

But in Corfu, Kumquat is the traditional tipple.

It is everywhere in Corfu … on the supermarket shelves, in souvenir shops, and even as an aperitif … before and after dinner. And there is kumquat syrup, kumquat marmalade, kumquat sweets, kumquat biscuits ... for all I know, there is even kumquat soup.

It was a little too sweet for my taste, but I was in Corfu and I had to taste and to visit a kumquat distillery to learn how this unusual orange-coloured liqueur came to be one of the trademarks of Corfu.

Corfu is the only place in Greece where this fruit is cultivated. The tiny orange fruit is originally from China and South Japan, and the name means golden fruit. In Asian countries, the kumquat is also favoured as a bonsai and is sometimes given as a gift.

A large barrel at the Vassilakis shop (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The kumquat found its way from China and south Japan to Europe in the late 18th century, and it was introduced to Corfu by an English agronomist in 1860. Since then, it has become one of the main agricultural products of the island. The fertile soil, abundant water and mild climate favour its growth in Corfu, and there are 6,000 kumquat trees throughout the island.

The kumquat, or marumi kumquat, is part of the citrus family and looks like a small orange. The leaves are dark green, the blossom is white, and it grows either in bunches or separately. The tree is about 2-3 meters high and the round fruit is about 2 cm in diameter. The thick, fleshy peel is yellow-orange in colour and is sweet inside. The fruit ripens in December, changing colour from green to orange, and the harvesting season lasts from January to May.

It can be eaten as a fruit, and can be used to make sweets, jams, syrups, and liqueurs. The liqueur can be made by macerating kumquats in vodka, gin, brandy or other clear spirits.

The colour indicates whether the liqueur has been made from the rind or from the fruit itself. If the colour is bright orange spirit, then it has been made only with the skin. It is very sweet in taste and extremely fragrant as well. Being also quite strong in taste, it is the favourite choice for making cocktails, as well as for adding flavour to creams, puddings, and other desserts.

The white liqueur is considerably less sweet and local people often serve it after meals, the same way they serve ouzo, tsikoudia, and tsipouro in other parts of Greece.

The vats at the Vassilakis distillery and winery in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Earlier this month, I visited the factory of the Vassilakis distillery and winery in the area Agios Ioannis area of Triklino. An exhibition area offers visitors an opportunity to taste and buy a variety of products throughout the year.

The Vassilakis Distillery and Winery, known for the ‘Corfiot Lady’ or ‘Corfiot Dame’ brand, was founded in 1960 by Theodore Vassilakis. The distillery makes and bottles traditional kumquat liqueurs, as well as ouzo and several wine labels. The company products also include traditional sweets such as mandoles, mandolato and loukoumi, as well as extra virgin olive oil.

Vassilakis took his first entrepreneurial steps 60 years ago when he opened a small shop selling dried nuts and sweets in the San Rocco area in the centre of Corfu Town in 1959.

He opened a shop in Athens in 1960 and this became his centre for delivering his products throughout Greece. At the same time, he obtained his first distillery licence for kumquat, and opened a small distillery lab.

He built the distillery and winery at their present location in Corfu in 1966, and with love and passion the family overcame the financial and economic difficulties they faced.

Vassilakis expanded the business to Kephallonia in 1980 with Vassilakis Vineyards and a winery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Vassilakis expanded the business to Kephallonia in 1980 with Vassilakis Vineyards and a winery. The labels include well-known varieties such as Robola, Moschato and Mavrodaphne, and some more special labels, including Protogonos and Grovino.

Vassilakis opened a new shop at the Achilleion Palace in 1990, with an exhibition area, cellar and snack bar inside a beautifully landscaped garden.

He began exporting kumquat liqueurs from Corfu in 2000, first to the Netherlands and Germany. Today, kumquat liqueurs are known well beyond Corfu, and the Vassilakis Distillery and Winery continue to create new products.

Grapes on the vine at the Vassilakis Distillery and Winery in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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