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)

The synagogues of Dublin:
2, Ballybough Cemetery

The Jewish Cemetery on Fairview Strand, Ballybough is Ireland’s oldest Jewish cemetery and one of the earliest Jewish burial grounds on these islands (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The 300-year-old Jewish Cemetery at 67 Fairview Strand, Ballybough, dates from 1718. It is Ireland’s oldest Jewish cemetery and one of the earliest Jewish burial grounds on these islands. It merits consideration for National Monument status, according to a conservation and management plan commissioned by the Dublin City Council.

The fa├žade of the caretaker’s cottage has a shield with an inscription that reads ‘Built in the Year 5618’ – the Hebrew calendar dating for 1857-1858 CE. The inscription is well-known on northside Dublin and has caused mirth among generations of Dublin schoolboys, but the Jewish new year that begins tomorrow evening [29 September 2019] is 5780.

Many Dubliners think the cottage is either a mortuary chapel or a synagogue, so any list of Dublin synagogues must also take account of the cemetery in Ballybough.

A small number of Jews had settled in the Annadale area off Ellis Avenue (now Philipsburgh Avenue), Fairview, by the 1700s. Most of them were Marranos, descended from Jewish families forced to convert to Christianity by the Inquisition. Some had fled from Spain and Portugal, others had arrived indirectly through the Netherlands.

Acting on behalf of the community, Alexander Felix (David Penso), Jacob do Porto, and David Machado de Sequeira, on behalf of the Sephardic community, and Abraham Meirs on behalf of the Ashkenazic community, leased a plot of land for a graveyard from Captain Chichester Phillips (1647-1728) of Drumcondra Castle. Phillips had been MP for Askeaton, Co Limerick (1695-1699) and probably gave his name to Philipsburgh Avenue.

A 40-year lease was signed on 29 September 1717, and the lease was granted on 28 October 1718. The foundation date of 1718 makes this cemetery older than the Alderney Road cemetery in Mile End, London, acquired by the Great Synagogue, London, in 1725.

The Jewish community sought assistance from German and Polish Jews in London to build a wall around the cemetery. At first they failed to receive support from the Bevis Marks Synagogue or Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in London. But eventually the Bevis Marks community not only funded the wall but provided a supervisory agent from London.

Many members of the Jewish community in Dublin had Sephardi roots. By 1748, the congregation was in financial difficulty and was £7 10s in arrears with paying the rent on the cemetery lease. Members of the Bevis Marks Synagogue came to their assistance, and in the name of Michael Philips, a member of the Crane Lane synagogue, bought the freehold of the cemetery from Michael Phillips, grandson of Chichester Phillips, for £34 10s. The title deeds for the cemetery were deposited at Bevis Marks and remain there until the 20th century.

The small site is only about one-seventh of an acre in size. The cemetery has more than 200 graves, and Louis Hyman lists the inscriptions in an appendix in The Jews of Ireland (pp 267-273).

The cemetery has almost 150 headstones with inscriptions in both Hebrew and English, and holds about 200 graves. The oldest legible headstone marks the grave of Jacob Wills (1701-1777). He was born in France, the son of Yochanan Weil, and lived in London before moving to Dublin, where was a jeweller and goldsmith on Essex Quay. In the synagogue he was known as Jacob Frenchman, but in secular life he was known as Jacob Will or Wills. He died on 11 March 1777.

In the past, visitors have shown particular interest in three or four Rothschild family graves – although they are not related to the banking family.

The mortuary house built in 1857 served as the caretaker’s cottage (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The mortuary house was built in 1857, 139 years after the cemetery first opened, as a defence against grave robbery and the theft of headstones, and served as the caretaker’s cottage.

The largest tomb belongs to Lewis Wormser Harris of Suffolk Street, a former alderman, who was been elected Lord Mayor of Dublin. He would have been the city’s first Jewish Lord Mayor but died the day before he was due to take office in 1876. Eighty years later, Alderman Robert Briscoe became Dublin’s first Jewish Lord Mayor in 1956.

The only burials in the 20th century were of members of the Harris family: Juliette Harris, widow of Alderman Lewis Wormser Harris (1908), their son, Ernest Wormser Harris (1946), and his wife, Maude Jeanette Harris (1958), the last burial.

The cemetery officially closed in 1978. Meanwhile, a new cemetery, dedicated to Sir Moses Montefiore, had opened on Aughavannagh Road in Dolphin’s Barn 80 years earlier in 1898. It was established by Robert Bradlaw and the Dolphin’s Barn Jewish Burial Society. Bradlaw was one of the founders of the Saint Kevin’s Parade Synagogue.

Until recently, the cottage at Fairview was lived in by the cemetery caretakers, Con and Gloria O’Neill. Gloria was so devoted to her task that she was even seen handwashing the gravestones.

Dublin City Council took ownership of the cemetery on Fairview Strand two years ago [2017] from the Dublin Jewish Board of Guardians, who could no longer afford its upkeep. It had been a Jewish cemetery for 300 years.

The Irish Times reported two months ago [15 July 2019] that the cemetery is to be refurbished and reopened to the public more than 40 years since its closure, under new plans from Dublin City Council.

However, the fabric and character of the cemetery is under threat due to the overgrown condition of the grounds, the dilapidated state of the mortuary house and encroachment from neighbouring sites.

‘Of particular concern, given international experience, is the risk of anti-Semitic vandalism leading to the defilement of this sacred space’ if its poor condition is not addressed, the plan states.

The conservation report notes the grounds have been ‘colonised’ by invasive plants, including Japanese knotweed, and mature trees are displacing memorials, damaging their stonework and metalwork.

In recent years, the cottage has suffered from break-ins and squatting. While there are ‘no obvious examples’ of anti-Semitic vandalism, the report said, this is a risk, and the house and cemetery would ‘remain a focus for anti-social behaviour’ unless a strategy was put in place to ensure the ‘preservation of the built heritage and the sanctity of the burials, while also making the site more secure and accessible to the public.’

The council has carried out historic research, cleared weeds and secured the house. It plans further conservation and restoration work before the cemetery opens to the public. There have been suggestions the house should be used as a museum or interpretive centre. The report recommends it be restored for use as a caretaker’s house for surveillance of the cemetery.

Most members of Dublin’s Jewish community are now buried in Dolphin’s Barn cemetery or in the Progressive Jewish Cemetery at Woodtown, near Rathfarnham.

The cemetery in Ballybough was a Jewish cemetery for 300 years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Monday: 3, Marlborough Green Synagogue

Yesterday: 2, Crane Lane Synagogue