Easter in the Country and in the City
The red eggs, the Easter bread, the spit-roasted meat, the kokoretsi, and of course, the traditional Easter wishes Christos Anesti (Christ is risen). There is no doubt that Easter, as celebrated in Greece, is something utterly unique.
In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Lent lasts for 40 days (hence the name given to it by Greeks: Sarakosti, meaning 40), from Clean (Ash) Monday until Easter Sunday. During Lent, normal food is not allowed for those who observe the Eastern Orthodox customs, and since virtually every piece of food contains one or other of the forbidden ingredients, it is easy to see that eating can be quite a challenge. However, the truth is that these restrictions only provide a wonderful opportunity to explore other Greek culinary customs, a bit on the vegetarian side to be sure, but equally mouth-watering as any of the traditional, well-known dishes famous the world over. These Lenten dishes are mainly based on vegetables, pulses, greens, potatoes, pasta, oil, and all kinds of sea-food plentiful throughout Greece. For a culinary treat during that period, there are the Lenten sweets, loukoumades (pastry made of deep fried dough soaked in sugar syrup or honey and cinnamon), semolina halva, fruit preserves called glika tou koutaliou (spoon-sweets) in Greek, chocolates, sesame paste cakes, and skaltsounia (Lenten cookies) filled with walnuts, a sweet that you can find all over Greece and one that is prepared by adding a small quantity of ouzo, for that extra touch. The fast starts in earnest with the coming of Holy Week and on Holy Wednesday there are two separate Communion services, both of which begin at dawn. As for Holy Friday, the day commemorating the burial of Jesus Christ, even water is proscribed due to the solemnity of the commemorated occasion. Most children are not very keen on observing these customs and, as soon as the Paschal Vigil is over on Holy Saturday evening, they rush to secretly help themselves to the traditional tsourekia, (sweet Easter breads) and the red-dyed eggs adorning the serving platters laid out in the dining room.
If you want to sample some of these dishes yourselves, then go to: Kallisti Gefsis, 137 Asklipiou St., Athens, 210-6453179 and Miniature, 21 Romvis St., Syntagma, 210-3233459. If you want to enjoy the traditional Lenten sweets, the places to go to are: Fresh, 21B Loukianou St., Kolonaki, 210- 7293453, Ktistakis (famous for its loukoumades), 59 Sokratous St., Omonoia, 210-5240891 and Karavan, 11 Voukourestiou St., Athens, 210-3641540.
The Night of Holy Saturday
The preparations for the festive meal that takes place after the Midnight Mass of the Greek Orthodox Easter begin on the morning of Holy Saturday. Greek housewives put their best efforts into preparing the mageiritsa, a traditional Easter soup made of the lamb's finely chopped internal organs in rice and egg-lemon sauce (in certain areas they use tomato sauce instead) and fresh seasonal herbs. This late-night meal is meant to prepare the stomach after the long Lenten period for the huge feast to follow on Easter Sunday. The meal starts with the ritual knocking of the eggs, which have already been dyed red - a symbol of the death of Christ - on Holy Thursday. This day is also known in Greece as Red Thursday.
The first tsourekia (sweet Easter breads) and the Easter cookies are also made during that day. Many women also prepare gardoubakia, a gourmet appetiser that is made with plaited lamb intestines and egg-lemon sauce, but roasted in a pan in the oven, along with kokoretsi (a traditional and very popular dish, typical of Easter celebrations in Greece, that is made of chopped intestines and organs marinated in lemon, olive oil and oregano or thyme, seasoned with salt and pepper and roasted over an open fire). Right after the exchange of the wish Christos anesti ("Christ is risen") at the church, the whole family gathers around the table and, with one candle still burning (this candle never goes out during the entire meal) all the family members start filling their plates, while exchanging wishes. Wine flows freely and the traditional foods of the day are served with all kinds of salads and fresh cheese. If you want to sample some of these dishes yourselves then go to: Butcher Shop, 19 Persephonis St., Gazi, 210-3413440 and Pano Kato, 14 Lycavittou St., Kolonaki,
The Easter Table
It is virtually impossible to imagine the Greek Easter table without the spit-roasted lamb and the kokoretsi. The lamb has been prepared from the day before (Holy Saturday) - the intestines of the lamb from which the various traditional Easter appetisers are made must be cleaned thoroughly and seasoned with salt. Then the lamb is skewered on an iron rod, or spit, (souvla) ready to be roasted. The roasting starts very early in the morning as it takes at least 10 to 12 hours for the lamb to cook. Early on Easter Sunday, every home prepares the fire for the roasting of the lamb and in Roumeli (Central Greece) the custom is that dozens of skewers are all lined up in a massive celebration that lasts until the next day and where they offer free wine along with roasted lamb and mezedes (appetisers) to visitors. The kokoretsi, also prepared from the day before, is roasted on a separate spit.
The Greek Easter table also offers tiropita (cheese pie), red eggs, a great variety of regional cheeses, and christopsomo (Christ's bread - a kind of sweet Easter bread). Whoever visits a Greek household during Easter Sunday has to knock his egg against the eggs of the members of the family for good luck (it is believed that whoever is left with an uncracked egg will have good luck throughout the year). Then guests are treated to all kinds of hot appetisers as everyone wishes Christos anesti and gets the reply Alethos anesti ("Indeed, He has risen"). If you want to sample these specialties for yourselves, then go to: Mamacas, 41 Persephonis St., Gazi, 210-3464984 and Vlassis, 8 Pasteur St., Mavili Sqaure, 210-6463060.
There are certain sweets that are made specifically for Easter Sunday (although all sweets are welcome on the Easter table). Sweet Easter breads, or tsourekia, special biscuits and chocolate eggs are to be found in every Greek household. In Greece, the custom is for the godfather of every child to offer them a sweet Easter Bread, a chocolate egg and, of course, the Paschal candle with which the child will receive the Holy Light at midnight of Holy Saturday. You can try some of the Greek Easter sweets in these places: Agapitos, 7 Voulis St., Syntagma, 210-3258110 and Sarayli Saray, 105 Aiolou St., Athens, 210-3253463).
The Easter Basket
This is by far the greatest pleasure for old and young alike during the Easter season. They are sold in every sweet-shop and contain tsoureki, Easter cookies and chocolate eggs. These sweet treats, along with the fine spring weather, make Greek Easter or Pascha, as it is called in Greece, a unique religious celebration.