Features & guest posts | Here's to Clean Monday!

Features & guest posts

Here's to Clean Monday!

The start of Lent is cause for gloom for many people faced with the prospect of giving up something pleasurable like wine or chocolate Not for the Greeks however who kick off their fasting with a splendid celebration called Kathara Defter or ‘Clean Monday’.

According to Greek friends and contacts it involves a slap-up lunch - usually out of doors - and the flying of kites - the day is a national holiday. “Clean Monday is a time for friends and family to get together, especially out of Athens if possible” says my friend Marianna Cosmetatos of Gentilini Wines in Cephalonia. “Kids fly kites that they make themselves and then the big lunch follows (it is always lunch).”

But it is the food that is particularly fascinating. As part of the cleansing process that accompanies lent nothing that contains or is derived from an animal that contains blood can be served - so no meat, fish, dairy or eggs - and that includes sweets and pastries with eggs in them. But shellfish, octopus and squid are fine and there are many special vegetable dishes which are served during lent. There is also a special unleavened bread called lagana which is baked only for Clean Monday.

Typical dishes that would be served today are taramasalata, melitzanosalata (aubergine or eggplant purée). fried squid, marinated grilled octopus, lobster, gigantes beans (large butter beans) cooked with tomatoes. black eye peas mixed with fresh onion and parsley and boiled greens. “There are also vegetables like cornichons, roasted red peppers, hot green peppers, pickled cauliflower and carrots" adds Mary Irene Triantafillou of Emery Wines of Rhodes.

"For dessert, people traditionally eat halva, which is made from tahini." Marianna told me. "The best is thought to come from Macedonia. The texture is similar to Spanish turron, but less greasy. It sometimes has nuts or cocoa in it, and can be coated in dark chocolate. Homemade halva can also be served, but this is a different sweet, made from semolina. Other desserts can be made from fruit, nuts, plain chocolate or jelly. Pastry can also be used as long as it is not made with butter."

I wondered if this feast must all be washed down with water but apparently not - far from it. "Wine is freely consumed and in vast quantities!" says Nikos Panidis, the sommelier at one of Athens' top restaurants Milos. "Retsina would be the traditional wine to drink but nowadays many Greeks would drink modern Greek whites such as Assyrtiko, Roditis or the more floral Moschofilero. A Fume Blanc, Pinot Gris or a European Chardonnay are also good alternative." Ouzo and tsipouro (the Greek version of grappa) are also served. (The meal is generally followed by a nap or a walk!)

"I remember discussing with my Uncle Theordore how ironic it is that all these amazing dishes - some of the best fare in Greek cooking - were born out of a need to be abstemious." writes Theodore Kyriakou in The Real Greek at Home, which includes some nice recipes for lent. “If this is ‘spiritual and physical cleansing’ we should all do more of it."

If you’re interested in knowing more about these fascinating traditions Mary also recommends "The Festive Fast" by Marigoula Kokkinou and Georgia Kofinas, "an excellent source of information on how Greeks are supposed to fast and the foods and recipes for the Lenten period."

And if you’d like to try your hand at an authentic recipe here is one from Marianna’s mother-in law Irini, who, she tells me, is a very good cook. “It’s time-consuming and somewhat fiddly, until you get the hang of wrapping, but well worth it.”

Irini’s Lahanodolmades (cabbage rolls)

Makes 35-40 dolmades

1 large white cabbage
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion, grated
5-6 spring onions, finely chopped
1 carrot, grated
1 bunch parsley, chopped,
1 little dill, chopped
2 cups short grain rice
2 lemons
Olive oil, salt and pepper

With a sharp knife remove the base and heart of the cabbage, creating a cone shaped hole on the underside. Place in a large pan, hole up and add cold water to come about half way up the cabbage (without floating). Put on the stove over med-high heat. As the water approaches a simmer, the leaves will start coming away easily. Remove them one by one with your fingers as they come away and place carefully on a tray or baking sheet. They should be soft but not soggy. Remove the hard base of the larger leaves and cut in half. If very large, they can be cut in three.

Place some of the leftover inner leaves that are too small and trimmings in a large pan (you can use the same one you boiled the cabbage in) to cover the base. This will prevent the parcels from sticking, and give a better result (they are also delicious for the cook to eat at the end!).

Mix all the ingredients from the garlic to the rice together. Season with salt and pepper. Place a teaspoon of filling in the middle of a cabbage leaf. Fold over the bottom, then the sides and roll into a parcel. Pack the parcels tightly in the pan, on top of the bits of cabbage. If you have any leftover bits of cabbage, use them to divide the layers. Pour over 2 cups of water, drizzle over some olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place a large, flat plate on the parcels, cover the pan and cook over medium heat for 20-25 mins until the rice is cooked-sacrifice one parcel to make sure (you deserve it anyway!), then add water and cook a little longer if necessary.

Remove the plate and pour over the juice of 2-3 lemons. Remove parcels carefully to a plate. These can be eaten warm, but are just as delicious at room temperature.

Variations: You can add some cooked baby shrimp to the mix if you wish, but this is not traditional.

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