The traditional Ognistra taverna lies at the entrance to Palaia (Old) Peritheia, a listed settlement 450 m above sea level on the slopes of Mount Pantokratoras, amidst a landscape of great natural beauty.
Dating back to the 13th century, Palaia Peritheia is the oldest village in Corfu and until the beginning of the 20th century it was flourishing, with 8 Byzantine churches and its 130 Venetian era buildings home to more than 1000 people. The locals raised livestock and cultivated olives for a living, but in the 60s they abandoned these occupations as tourism started developing around Kato Peritheia, particularly Kassiopi and Acharavi. The inhabitants of Peritheia started finding jobs there and gradually the village became deserted. Recently foreigners have begun showing an interest in buying up these old and abandoned properties, and four or five tavernas have opened to cater to the tourists who come to visit the historic ghost village, which has been declared a landmark.
It was after a 20 year absence that Nikos Hirdaris returned home after having travelled the gastronomic world spurred by his passion for tradition. He restored his family house dating from 1872 and transformed it into a cosy picturesque taverna. The name Ognistra means a corner of the house where grannies used to light the fire and prepare Corfiot delicacies over the coals.
It is delicacies like these that Nikos so generously and skilfully offers: traditional dishes like pastitsada with cockerel, veal sofrito, bourdeto of cod, strapatsada tsigarelli (sauteed wild greens in a spicy sauce), zucchini pie and last, but not least, a dish I had never tasted before and surprised me by its simplicity and goodness. Nerantzosalata – as I was to learn later – used to be a very common salad in Corfiot homes but it’s rarely seen in tavernas anymore and has been largely forgotten by housewives. The recipe is disarmingly simple, consisting of a few slices of sweet orange (called nerantzi in Corfu, bitter orange in the rest of Greece) olive oil, coarse salt and hot pepper, yet the taste is magnificent!