Empire and Fruit: The Story of the Kumquat in Kerkyra

KoumQuatLiqueur

Window display of eccentric Kumquacello bottles, Kerkyra.

Anyone who wanders the towns of Kerkyra (Corfu) will notice storefronts full of bright orange eccentrically shaped bottles. They will quickly learn that the contents are an island speciality know as Kumquacello (a kumquat flavoured liqueur). In addition to the liqueur, locals make kumquat flavoured sweets, including ‘loukoumia’ (Turkish delights), marmalades and jams, and candied kumquat to name a few. In fact, the kumquat is so popular on the island that some locals even use the kumquat plant to decorate their homes. Kumquat_1904

The kumquat is a small oval shaped citrus fruit that originated in Asia and historically was cultivated in China, Vietnam, Japan, and India. The kumquat is bitter-sweet and the distinctive flavour of Kumquacello comes from the infusion of locally grown kumquats into alcohol. But how did this citrus fruit find its way to a Greek island, and more importantly, how did it become a brand of Kerkyra, spurring on an agricultural industry that cultivates 200 tonnes of kumquat a year (Alm 2008) and the production of thousands of litres of Kumquacello? The simple answer is empire.

The Ionian Islands are seven islands that run along Greece’s western coast, they include Kerkyra, Paxi, Lefkada, Ithaki, Kefalonia, Zakinthos and Kythira. The islands have a long and tumultuous history having been under successive imperial rule from 1362 until 1864. The last being the British who ceded the islands to the Greek Kingdom in 1864, in order to secure the election of an anglophile King in Greece. When Greece elected King George I of the Danish Glucksberg dynasty, the Islands were ceded, marking the first time in history that Britain ceded a territory without a war.

While the British Empire left the Ionian Islands in 1864, the legacy of Britain did not disappear, and the thousands of British tourists that visit the islands annually would suggest that the British never left. While drawn by the sun, sand, food, and drinks of all the islands, British tourists often visit Kerkyra for a bit of imperial nostalgia. As the capital of the United States of the Ionian Islands under British rule (1815-1864), Kerkyra town resembles a living British imperial museum.

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Lawrence and Gerald Durrell Commemorative plaque at entrance of Durrell Park, Kerkyra

Unlike the traditional white marble statues and columns of ancient Greece found in most Greek cities, visitors to Kerkyra town are greeted with a bronze statue of the former British Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands, Sir Frederick Adam;  commemorative busts of the Durrell brothers which greets visitors at the entrance to the park with their namesake; a cricket field that dominates the centre of the town; and let’s not forget the birthplace of Prince Philip, Mon Repos, which today serves as a public museum and park. Additionally, visitors are treated to beautiful Victorian Greek-Revival architecture, most noticeably the former residence of the Lord High Commissioner, which today serves as an Asian art museum and the Ionian Academy-the first Modern Greek University.

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Sir Fredrick Adam Statue in front of former Lord High Commissioner Residence, Kerkyra

British customs have not died out in Kerkyra either, as it is the only Greek region that you will find a cricket team and ginger beer. British soldiers are credited for introducing ginger beer to the island in the 19th century.  Today Kerkyra is also known for making its own brand of ginger beer (‘tsitsibira’).

It was through the British colonial experience that the kumquat came to Kerkyra. While the climate of Kerkyra has attracted and continues to attract British tourists, it has also lured colonial naturalists to its shores.  For instance, Sidney Merlin and Lawrence Durrell called Kerkyra home for many years. The kumquat was first introduced in Europe in 1846 by Scottish botanist and plant collector Robert Fortune.

It took some time but Sidney Merlin, a colonial subject, brought the kumquat plant to Kerkyra in 1924 (Alm 2008). A few years before that he successfully introduced the Merlin Oranges or Washington Navel to the island.  Merlin was a botanist and athlete and he participated in the 1896, 1906 Athens Olympic Games (winning a Gold and Bronze medal in shooting in 1906) and the 1900 Paris Olympic Games.  Merlin represents one of many colonial families that eventually settled in Greece.  His father, Charles L. W. Merlin, served as British vice-consul and in 1868 as consul in Athens, an agent of the Ionian Bank (Galanakis 2012).

The use of kumquats in commercial goods and especially for liqueur took some time. While the Greeks have traditionally used citrus rinds-most commonly lemons, oranges, and nerántzi or kitrómilon- for making sweets, it is hard to find traditional Greek liqueurs made from the same ingredients.  Nevertheless, if we look across the Ionian Sea, we will find that Southern Italians have a tradition of producing citrus flavoured liqueurs.

Limoncello in Italian display.  Notice the similarity between these eccentric bottle styles and the Kumquacello bottles of Kerkyra.

Limoncello in Italian display. Notice the similarity between these eccentric bottle styles and the Kumquacello bottles of Kerkyra.

The formal origins of Kumquacello are not known, but it is difficult to ignore Italy’s influence on the production of Kerkyra’s famous citrus liqueur. The Ionian Islands were a Venetian possession from 1363 to 1797 and continued to have close connections to Italy throughout their history. Young men studied at the University of Padua and Pisa, Italian was the official language until 1848, and the traditional music of Kerkyra is the Kantata.

Southern Italy is famous for two citrus liquor’s, Campari and Limoncello. Both were produced in the 19th century and both use locally produced citrus fruit (chinotto and lemons). Since the cultural influence of Italy on Ionian society is historically evident, it is not far-fetched to assume that Italian tastes for citrus liqueurs may have inspired Kerkyra’s distillers.  The choice of the Kumquat was probably made to gain a competitive advantage over the popularity of Limoncello in the region and to produce a unique cultural product.

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A bottle of Kumquacello shaped in the form of the island of Kerkyra.

The history of the kumquat in Kerkyra is a story of the island’s imperial experience. In essence, Kumquacello represents a creolization of British colonialism and Italian cultural influence on the islands.  The goal of this short article was not only to provide a brief history of the kumquat in Kerkyra, but to demonstrate that the study of commodities is more than just a study of the history of trade and economics. As shown, commodities highlight some interesting facts about the construction of culture and identity.  More specifically, it raises questions about why certain products become regionally designated. Today the European Union has geographic indication laws which give countries and regions trademark protection for specialized products. Under the protection of a designation of origin, regional product gain economic advantage in today’s globalized economy. A closer study of the history of commodities, therefore, gives us insight into why certain goods become specialized and branded to specific regions.

Sources:

Alm, T. 2008: Kumkvat – Korfus gyldne spesialitet (Kumquat – the golden speciality of Corfu.). Blyttia 66(3):198–203.

Galanakis, Yannis. 2012. “On Her Majesty’s Service: C. L. W. Merlin and the Sourcing of Greek Antiquities for the British Museum.” CHS Research Bulletin 1, no.1. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:GalanakisY.On_Her_Majestys_Service.2012

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