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How Greeks celebrate Easter: the feasting after the fast
No-one who hasn’t experienced a Greek Easter can imagine the scale of the feasting. Wine writer Ted Lelekas tells all about "the most lavish and important meal of the year".
Ted writes: "It may come as a surprise to some, but in Greece, Easter is much more important than Christmas, when it comes to food and drink. This is mostly because the period running up to Easter and up to Easter Sunday itself is full of local and religious traditions and customs, which, invariably, stem from or lead to food.
The main reason why Easter Sunday lunch is so greatly anticipated and celebrated is that it comes as the culmination of a long – and not always easy – period of fasting that can last 7 or 40 days. This is a very old tradition of the Greek Orthodox church that aims to lead people to share the burden of the trials of Christ that lead to his crucifixion, and to cleanse their bodies and souls in time for his resurrection.
Modern Greek society is, of course, far more secular, even agnostic, than in the past. However, the majority of people are still happy to follow the culinary customs of Easter as they are dictated by religious tradition, while many even choose to fast regardless of religious beliefs, seeing it as a good way to de-tox before the Easter feast!
Easter fasting means mainly excluding meat and dairy products from one’s everyday diet for the 40 days of Lent, leading to Easter. During the last 7 days, the Holy Week, the regime becomes even more strict, as it also excludes fish, seafood and even olive oil.
Everything starts to return back to normal after midnight on Holy Saturday, when the church bells toll joyfully and Christ’s resurrection is announced in each neighbourhood, amidst chants and fireworks. A few hours later, on Easter Sunday, the whole family , as well as friends, neighbours, sometimes even strangers who have nowhere to go, gather around the table to enjoy what is possibly the most lavish and important meal of the year.
As one would expect, culinary customs at Easter vary amongst various regions in Greece. Understandably, in the islands or in certain seaside areas, fish and seafood play a key role at the Easter table. In general, however, Easter fare in Greece revolves around meat, and mainly lamb so I will concentrate on Easter eating and drinking as it’s done in most of the mainland.
At midnight on Holy Saturday, once Christ’s resurrection has been officially declared, the cook of the household (traditionally the mother) will rush home from church first, to start the preparations for the Resurrection dinner. This is not exactly a full and heavy meal, but it is very cleverly conceived, in order to line the family members’ stomachs, a few hours before the huge carnivorous feast that is the Easter lunch.
The resurrection table will feature lettuce salad, feta cheese and hard-boiled eggs whose shells are painted red, symbolizing the blood that Christ spilled as he sacrificed himself for humanity. People around the table will choose their own egg, that they will crack against the egg of the person sitting next to them, in order to symbolize the release of life. The person whose egg survives the night intact is the lucky one of the night, and will keep it to use in the same way the following day.
The centerpiece on the Resurrection table is the traditional soup, “Magiritsa”. This is a hot, hearty soup that contains chopped pieces of lamb’s liver, intestines and sweetbreads, scented with essential Mediterranean herbs and greens like endives, spring onion and dill, on a base of egg and lemon juice. The delicious Magiritsa will deliver a first, “gentle shock” to the system of the person who just finished fasting, and will prepare them for Easter lunch which will follow in a few hours.
There can be two main wine pairing suggestions for Resurrection dinner: a cool white wine made from the Moschofilero grape (PDO Mantinia, in the Peloponnese), with crisp acidity that will cut through the soup’s richness and delicate green – even floral – aromas to match the fresh herbs in the soup and the salad; alternatively a fresh, ideally unoaked, red from the Agiorgitiko grape (PDO Nemea, in the Peloponnese), with a fruity character and young yet velvety tannins, to match the first red meat to make an appearance at the table for quite a few days.
The “star of the show” at the Easter Sunday table is one of the most traditional dishes in Greek cuisine: “ovelias”, a whole lamb, slow-roasted on a spit, over an open coal fire. A great deal of effort goes in its preparation, to ensure that it is properly seasoned and fixed onto the spit, as well as in the actual roasting.
On the morning of Easter Sunday, the person tasked with manning the spit-roast station wakes up very early to start the fire and prepare the lamb. Even though the fire can be in the form of a hole in the ground or through a sophisticated barbecue grill with an electrically-powered spit, roasting will take several hours, to ensure that the main dish will be ready at lunchtime for everyone to enjoy.
Roasters have an enviable set of privileges. They get to nibble on all kinds of special treats (“mezedes”) such as cheese, traditional bits of charcuterie, pieces of hard-boiled Easter red eggs seasoned with olive oil, and various dips with bread, while at various points in time they will be enjoying pieces of lamb skin cracklings and other pieces of the roast lamb, pretending to check its state of readiness!
Throughout that time, they will be downing endless glasses of ouzo (traditional Greek anise-flavoured distillate), diluted with cold water over ice, chilled tsipouro (the Greek version of grappa), or cold retsina (traditional Greek white wine flavoured with pine tree resin).
Alongside the lamb, delicacies which will also be spit-roasted over the coal fire include “kontosouvli”, pieces of pork tenderloin, and “kokoretsi”, a salami-shaped delicacy made of the lamb’s liver and wrapped with its intestines.
Other dishes which will eventually make their way to the Easter table include feta cheese, various salads, red Easter eggs, dips such as “tzatziki” (yoghurt with garlic, shredded cucumber and herbs) and “tirokafteri” (spicy white cheese spread), spicy sausages, roast potatoes and a traditional baked cheese pie, made of feta cheese wrapped in filo pastry.
Desserts will include fresh seasonal fruit, and “galaktomboureko” (traditional dessert made of sweet custard-like cream wrapped in filo pastry and covered in syrup).
The wines drunk at the table will range from fresh, fruity rosés, to match with the fresh seasonal flavours, served chilled to go with the traditionally warm weather enjoyed at Easter time, to full-bodied reds based on Xinomavro, a grape native to Northern Greece (PDO Naoussa or Amyntaion), characterized by aromas of dark fruit, sundried tomato and black olive, producing tannic wines that can hold their ground when served with the lamb and all the other carnivorous delights.
A good modern-style Retsina is also a usual suspect at the Easter table, as it has the magic ability to match the wide range of flavours on offer. Desserts will be served with popular sweet wines such as the Muscat-based “stickies” from the islands of Samos or Limnos (both PDO) or the famous Vinsanto, based on the while grape of Assyrtiko (PDO Santorini).
Easter lunch in Greece is a veritable feast, eagerly anticipated by everyone for months. Coming as the climax of a period of fasting and religious devoutness (for some), it is a happy occasion that brings the whole family, relatives, friends, neighbours, even strangers around the same table, to celebrate and rejoice.
As a matter of fact, tradition dictates that no one rushes to leave the table; even after the food is finished, everyone will still be there chatting and making the most of the opportunity to enjoy each other’s company. Anyone who has the option to spend Easter in Greece, is strongly encouraged to do so. They’re in for a culinary treat they will never forget!
This article is dedicated to the memory of Albert Arouh, esteemed Greek restaurant critic and author, who passed away on Saturday 12 April 2014.
Easter eggs © elm98 - Fotolia.com, lamb and traditional Greek bread © Peter Minaki
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