This autumn we took a holiday in Lefkada, one of the Ionian Islands. It was a blue holiday – in a good way – dominated by the sea and the seductive surrounding islands (Kephalonia, Ithaca, Megannisi, Skorpios) which loomed in a thousand shades of blue, blue-green, turquoise and grey-blue, constantly changing with the weather and the time of day.
Skorpios was particularly intriguing – it used to be the holiday home of the Onassis family, and was where Jackie Onassis was famously photographed nude bathing by a Greek paparazzo. Oh, the ordeals of the rich and famous. The family recently sold it, possibly illegally, to a Russian oligarch’s daughter. It looks like the lair of a James Bond villain, with a yacht the size of a large house in the harbour. We lingered offshore in a considerably smaller yacht, partly because we were fascinated, in a Daily Mail-ish kind of way, but mainly because there was no bloody wind – and were seen off by a couple of goons in a speedboat.
With the help of, or, to be more accurate, with absolutely no help from a charming guide book from the 1950s which was devoid of facts but full of the purest poetry, we made a trip to Englouvi, the highest village on the island, famous for lentils, which are grown on the plateau above. ‘The landscape begins to change,’ says the guidebook; ‘on the one hand vineyards and colourful fields, stone huts so expertly made they might be ‘built by a hand divine’, and on the other, the craters of the moon and strange geological formations… The fields of lentils and the persevering growers working in them keep us company for a short while yet…’ We kept company with the persevering growers, and admired the strange geological formations, before visiting a very excitingly abandoned radar station with a spectacular view over the entire island and the mainland. It was like the lair of a James Bond villain several years after he’s been dispatched by the great man. Knackered and overgrown, it was dominated by several satellite dishes on a giant metal grid that could be climbed by someone with the sang-froid of, say, James Bond. We vowed to come back at night with a picnic, but never did.
At the highest point of the plateau (so I suppose it wasn’t strictly a plateau) was an exquisite miniscule monastery. Inside there was a tiny dome painted blue. It was like a James Turrell artwork, making absolutely apparent the idea of trying to come as close as possible to heaven. Outside a young couple, tourists, snogged, smoked and took scenic photos of each other.
The lentil fields themselves were nondescript, consisting of bedraggled rows of shrubs – wrong time of year. We went into the village and bought a kilo of lentils for a slightly eye-watering €12. Back at our house we discovered that they were mixed with a large amount of grit and tiny stones. We set to winnowing. My son Daniel and I were spectacularly bad at it, making the mistake of winnowing negatively (removing the grit from the lentils). We had to be taken off the job, slightly grumpy, and were replaced by a crack team of positive winnowers, who completed the work in about the time that Handel, had he been around, could have written The Messiah. Or Demis Roussos could have shaved his beard. It was a reminder that, much as we might complain about modern methods of agriculture and food preparation, we have got our lives back. The lentils were excellent, rather in the style of the Castelluccio lentils from Umbria, also, curiously enough, grown on a plateau.
The next day, in the delightful Lefkada Town, we found exactly the same lentils in a supermarket, with all the grit taken out, for €5 per kilo. The persevering lentil farmers of Englouvi had taken us for a ride, though it must be admitted that we were the classic marks – keen middle-class holiday-makers in the relentless pursuit of the Holy Grail of Authenticity. Which can only be a good thing for the ailing Greek economy.
The plfs, says the guidebook, cook the lentils in huge cauldrons, and serve them with salt sardines and olives. Sounds good.
Try this method of cooking them (serves 6):
250g lentils (Puy, Castelluccio, Englouvi)
a small bulb of garlic, cut in half horizontally
1 onion, minced
2 mild green chillies, deseeded, finely chopped
grated zest and juice of 3 limes
4 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp chopped mint
Winnow the lentils for several weeks – unless you’ve bought them from Waitrose, in which case immediately…
Put the lentils and the garlic in a saucepan with plenty of cold water. Bring to the boil, and simmer very gently for about 20 minutes until the lentils are al dente. The timing is critical, so keep testing. The window between grit and mush is quite short. Discard the garlic and mix in the rest of the ingredients. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Good cold.