What is Easter like in Greece?
By far, Easter is the most important holiday of Greece. Its celebration goes back to the earliest days of Christianity, and some traditions precede even that.
The Lent season is harsh in Greece – the last days of winter, in the days before modern refrigeration, food stocks were depleted, farm animals yet to bear their young were too precious for slaughter, cows produce no milk in this season. The Lenten foods reflect this: dairy products, eggs, meat, and chicken are proscribed. Even bread should be unleavened: one can picture the difficulty of raising bread in the cold days of late winter. Beans and lentils, olives, cabbage, and ever-abundant fish, including cod preserved in rock salt, are the basis of the Lenten diet.
Then – spring bursts on us, sudden, bright, and verdant. Sheep, cattle, goats produce their young, their milk, chickens return to roosts to lay. Suddenly there is an abundance of food after the last months of want.
The traditional Easter lamb is one of many of the young males culled from the flock at this time of excess.
Traditional Greek Lamb and Feast
Gather all your relatives for an enormous outdoor picnic. The Grandmothers will bring hard boiled eggs painted red that represent the blood of Christ. Tsoureki, sweet bread, is the first leavened bread of Easter. The earth itself provides young lettuce, chives, garlic sprouts, and wild greens for salad. Wine is, of course, always present, traditionally each family making its own and storing it in wooden barrels.
The morning starts with a wood fire to provide coals, usually set out by the men. During the several hours they nurture the fire, some small frying of lamb liver and other organ meats keeps the crowd appeased; Kokoretsi is a meal of organ meat tidbits, sprinkled with oregano and salt, wrapped in intestine, and roasted on a long skewer over the fire to provide the appetizers to the main event.
The lamb itself is very young, milk-fed, and weighs only 20 to 40 lbs. Skinned and cleaned, the entire lamb is placed on a thick iron skewer of about 5 feet in length, with a turning handle on one end. Sprinkled with rock salt, oregano, brushed with olive oil, the lamb is slowly roasted over the coals, continually turned, each member of the family taking turns turning the skewer. As the lamb roasts, its own cooking fats and juices baste it as it turns, turns, turns, the juices dripping around the lamb. Roasting is a slow affair, so it pays to have a large family to take turns at the skewer, and perhaps some folk music playing to keep time, and to dance to between turns at the rotisserie.
The lamb is done, after much consultation among the elders of the family, when the meat is soft, plush, and falling off the bones.
There is no better place to celebrate the rebirth of spring, the Resurrection of Christ, than the green, flowering, countryside of Greece – either with your own family, or as an “adopted guest” of Greek hosts.