16 May 2003

Easter mass begins at about 10pm on Saturday. Midnight symbolizes the resurrection of Christ, when the priest lights the sacred candle and shares the fire with the congregation. Slowly, the church reflects a brilliant warmth while devotees solemnly chant, “Christos Anesti” (Christ has risen) 40 times. The Lenten period is also carried into culinary tradition. Dishes made with filo dough like spanakopita, or spinach pie and baklavas, the nut and honey delight, are supposedly made with 40 leaves. Bread dough is kneaded 40 times. Easter cookies are made in batches of 40. Hard-boiled eggs, dyed deep red to symbolize the blood of Christ, are atop sweet yeast breads and are also used in a contest for good luck after dinner, when participants tap both tips of their opponent’s eggs, and the winners emerge with uncracked shells.

In our village after mass, the priests and congregation disperse into the square to greet and kiss fellow villagers and share the sacred light with those who could not fit into the tiny church. If you can keep the candles alight until you get home, you’ll have good luck … Slowly, people disappear into the narrow stone streets for the first feast of the resurrection of Christ. Within the last decade, this solemn yet joyous Holy Day has been disrupted, in my view, by the use of firecrackers and even fireworks at the stroke of midnight. Religious holidays in the States are more conservative and fireworks are reserved for national celebrations and such. It was a little strange and slightly dangerous to witness this new cultural phenomenon. Our parish priests delicately mentioned their dismay in a brochure, but this trend has already spread throughout Greece.

For those who follow tradition in the kitchen, Mayeritsa soup, lamb’s head and/or innards braised in an aromatic broth, is made on Saturday afternoon. Others may concoct variations or koukoretsi, which is lamb innards wrapped in intestines, a delicious gigantic sausage, skewered and grilled over the outdoor spit. The person in charge of preparing the whole lamb, our friend Dimitris in this case, has time for a little nap between this feast and the Sunday afternoon grand celebration of arni, or lamb, on the spit..

In his home village of Lamia north of Athens, Dimitris had a big outdoor space for Pascha festivities. Having moved to Crete for work years earlier, he and his family have adjusted to the small outdoor space they now have. In the corner of his yard, Dimitris set up two stones to secure iron braces that bordered a makeshift wood pyre of pruned olive branches and grape vines. The lamb is skewered with what resembles an old sword, the ancient tradition of spit-style cooking for nomadic shepherds or freedom fighters on the move. No fancy machinery is required, only knowhow. Long before we arrived, Dimitris was at his pyre-post of two beer crates – one to sit on and another to hold his food and wine – while he slowly turned the spit, estimated cooking time was six hours. We sat next to the pyre at a table, eating meze and drinking our homemade wine, entertaining the chef until the arni was ready. Occasionally, Dimitris would bravely break off a bit of crispy-hot layers and pass them around for us to nibble on.

Meanwhile, Dimitris’ wife, Maria, was busy in the kitchen preparing the accompaniments for the grand feast. Maria is an expert in vegetable preparation using a single sharp paring knife and two bowls. She skillfully whipped through a kilo of potatoes in less than five minutes – peeling and pairing them before placing them into a pan of smoldering green olive oil. No cutting boards or fancy food processors in sight. All the while, Maria’s grandchildren were racing around the house, discovering delicate family heirlooms, requiring her third eye.

While the men were outside, deeply involved in the traditional symposium of whether the lamb was done or not, Maria removed her hortapita, the wild greens version of spinach pie, and galatoboreko, a farina-based rich custard layered between filo, from the oven to cool. The first time I indulged on Maria’s hortapita, I asked her where she got the scrumptious, thick filo dough. She went into the kitchen and returned with a long, thin rolling pin and waved it over my head. She invited me to help her make filo the following week, which I eagerly agreed to do at the grueling hour of 6am – it’s too hot in the afternoon for such work, she says. To make enough filo for one pita is hard labor, rolling dozens of tough, small rounds of dough into thin sheets. It takes several hours if you’re an experienced baker …

Finishing touches to our Easter feast were two bowls filled with gorgeous tomatoes, cucumbers, spring onions and wild oregano, along with a few randomly placed chunks of feta and mizithra cheese. Bread and breadcrumbs were already everywhere. Fanta soda bottles containing homemade wine – Greek recycling at its best – were placed on each corner of the table.

After warning the crowd to step aside, Dimitris and his son Makis, carefully picked up the molten skewer holding the lamb and propped it upright against the house wall. There was some discussion as to how to proceed, as Makis is now a chef at one of the big resort hotels, and Dimitris has just been doing this all of his life. Eventually, they carved the lamb as they always have. Dealing with a big, expensive animal like this traditionally prompts opinions of every bystander, and the head-chef always wins.

Dining the Greek Way is at least a three-hour experience, and during holidays or festivals it could last for several days. This means that everything you strive to serve hot will eventually be cold, or verandah temperature. Granted, there’s a danger in leaving perishable foods unrefrigerated for longer than two hours, and the use of little plates that are replenished with the refrigerated stock throughout the meal is the standard. Besides, eating slowly is certainly more enjoyable than the American way of gobbling down meals in seconds flat. Lamb is a different story and cools too fast to be palatable for most everyone. Maria predicted this fact, and kept warming trays in the oven for the long feast.

Meanwhile, the grandchildren were finished with their feast and begging to turn off our beautiful regional Pascha music, so that they could watch cartoons on the television. We usually comply with the wishes of children, but today, we sent them to their apartment upstairs with Panayiota, their mother, to watch all the loud television they liked. A typical day in the life of my friends who juggle traditional and tolerate modern…. ‘Round midnight, filled with food, wine, life and love for our second family, we made our way home. The difference between Pascha in Greece and Greek Easter in America? The opportunity to meet our truly organic lamb, eat Maria’s homemade filo and see fireworks .

Nikki Rose is a pro chef and food writer living in Crete. The focus of her work is the preservation of traditional food ways.

Photo: a slice of spanakopita

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