While many people know Greece for its wine — especially Santorini with its assyritiko — there’s another island offering a completely different drink experience. Actually, it offers two.
On the beautiful Corfu, home to attractions like Sisi’s Palace, Mount Pantokrator and Paleokastritsa Beach, those wanting a sip of the local culture need to savor the flavors of the local ginger beer and kumquat liqueur. I was introduced to these two libations — which are not made elsewhere in Greece — during a visit to Corfu by my island guide, Filippos “Philip” Azzopardi.
Along with kumquat liqueur, ginger beer — also locally known as sitsibíra (τσιτσιμπίρα) — is an island specialty, especially refreshing in the summer when it’s hot, delicious flavors of fresh lemon mixing with the spicy, pepper notes of the ginger. According to Philip, the recipe for ginger beer includes water, lemon, sugar and ginger, and can be purchased at street kiosks or cafes.
To learn more about the local ginger beer tradition, Philip puts me in touch with Maria Cheimarios, who helps to run a small family-owned ginger beer producer with her husband George called Cheimarios Ginger Beer Producers. They’ve been producing ginger beer since 1920 when 1920 when Christoforos Cheimarios, George’s uncle, used to produce it for his village cafe patrons. Today, they are the only ginger beer producer in Greece.
“The recipe was so successful that in 1940 he decided to buy some equipment in order to meet demand.The recipe was a carefully guarded family secret that was passed on to his nephew George Cheimarios (her husband) who eventually succeeded — with a lot of hard work and dedication — in setting up a small ginger beer production plant in 1975.”
If you’re wondering how exactly they make their tasty ginger beer, I unfortunately can’t tell you, as the recipe is still safe-guarded, and the family intends to keep it that way for generations to come. That being said, it does give you a good reason to visit Corfu and try some for yourself.
The history of ginger beer on Corfu dates back to the 19th century, when the British Army introduced it — it originated in Yorkshire, England in the mid-18th century — during their occupation of Corfu. Even after the British left, island locals continued to make the drink, finding it very invigorating in the hot weather.
Today, drinking ginger beer is a way of life, and there are some rules that go with it. According to Cheimarios, it’s important to pour it slowly into the glass, as it’s naturally a fizzy soft drink. If the bottle is shaken then the beer comes out like “foamy bubbly Champagne.” Moreover, one should leave a small bit of the ginger beer in the bottle before gently swirling the bottle to kick up the ginger sediment. And while not a hard rule, ginger beer is typically an after-meal drink to help aid digestion.
Says Cheimarios, “It’s a popular remedy for treating seasickness and upset stomachs.”
Another important drink on Corfu is kumquat liqueur. The history of the kumquat — which means “Golden Fruit” — begins in China, where the fruit originates from, the first reference of the fruit appearing in 12th century Chinese literature. In 1860, an English agronomist named Sidney Merlyn brought the fruit to Corfu, and today you find a tree in almost every local yard.
To learn more I get to chat with Andy Mavrommati of the family owned and operated Mavromatis Kumquat Distillery, established in 1965. The current owners, Aris and George Mavrommatis, were inspired by the work of their grandfather, who owned this small distillery making ouzo and brandy.
Explains Mavrommati, “As the fruit itself has a sour taste Corfiots back then didn’t use the fruit for any purpose. So, they decided to make kumquat liqueur, as Greeks prefer sweet tastes. The first liqueur was an orange color and made from the skin of the kumquat oranges.”
Today you can still sample the classic orange flavor; however, there is also a yellow-tinted variety made from the juice of the fruit. While the orange variety has a stronger flavor and sweeter taste and is typically used in cocktails or to enhance fruit salad and desserts, the latter is less sweet and drank as an after-meal digestive chilled or with ice. On Corfu, you’ll also find a number of kumquat-focused treats like sweet kumquats in drenched in syrup with sheep’s yogurt or ice cream, kumquat marmalade spread on toast or tarts, used to garnish drinks, as fruity kumquat cookies — they’re even turned into perfume!
A visit to the distillery offer the chance to view a small museum showcasing old hand-operated machines. There’s also a five-minute film focused on the history of the kumquat as well as the production of liqueur & sweets in the factory. Tastings are also available, as is the chance to purchase products.
Tasting table at the shop. You’ll find these frequently in the little gift shops around Corfu.
I get to try the traditional orange kumquat liqueur for myself at a local gift shop called “Abundance Delicatessan”, where they have all types of local treats out for tasting: kumquat liqueur, candied kumquat, olives, olive oils, breads and almonds. First I try the candies, so drenched with syrup that as soon as I bite down my mouth fills with sticky sweet liquid. The liqueur itself is not very different, thick and saccharine with a scent similar to orange soda. When I taste it it’s extremely sweet with hints of spice and peppermint.
I’ll admit this isn’t something you would find me drinking back in New York; however, on Corfu it feels right. I’m tasting the island. The myriad kumquat trees I’d been passing throughout the day while touring were now rolling around my palate, influenced by the terroir of the destination and the processes of the distiller.
“Yamas!” I laugh, holding up my small plastic cup of kumquat liqueur and cheers-ing in Greek another taster. It was a quick but enlightening sip of local culture on Corfu.
Have you visited Corfu? What was your favorite taste of local culture? Please share in the comment below.
Photo credits: First photo credit: Jessica Festa, second photo: Ginger is the main ingredient in Corfu’s ginger beer. Photo courtesy of andresmh. Third photo credit: Ginger beer. Photo courtesy of Katherine. Fourth photo credit: Candied kumquats. Photo courtesy of Alpha. Fifth photo credit: Fresh kumquats. Photo courtesy of Lee Nachtigal. Sixth photo credit Jessica Festa.