Celebrating Greek Easter

Karl Wells
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Fans of the film "Mamma Mia" will not be surprised to learn of the effect it's had on Greek tourism. Apparently, travellers - especially the British - are flocking to Greece for holidays on Greek islands like Skopelos, where "Mamma Mia" was filmed. According to Britain's Telegraph newspaper, business is also brisk because of the "low cost of living in Greece."

Red Greek Easter eggs. Photo by Karl Wells/Special to The Telegram

Fans of the film "Mamma Mia" will not be surprised to learn of the effect it's had on Greek tourism. Apparently, travellers - especially the British - are flocking to Greece for holidays on Greek islands like Skopelos, where "Mamma Mia" was filmed. According to Britain's Telegraph newspaper, business is also brisk because of the "low cost of living in Greece."

I've been thinking a lot about Greece and the Greek islands this Easter. If I were going to spend time in Greece, it would be at Easter because they celebrate Easter the way we in this part of the world celebrate Christmas. They do it up big, really big. For fine weather, it's the perfect time for a celebration in Greece. The sun is bright and the skies are blue. As with many religious celebrations, food plays an important role in the Greek Easter.

Much of what I've learned about Greek Easter celebrations was gleaned from conversations with St. John's resident Leonidas Argyros.

Argyros has been here for the past seven years studying at Memorial University. He'll soon have earned a PhD in maritime history. Easter is the one time of year Argyros misses home. He reminisced with me about family Easter celebrations held in Athens and at his grandparents' home on the Greek island of Lesvos when he was a young boy.

I asked Argyros why Easter is so important to the people of Greece.

"I think in Greece religion and nationality are very close together. You cannot really separate being Greek from being Greek Orthodox. Anything that has to do with religion is pretty important and the Greek Orthodox Church, from the way I understand it, considers the resurrection of Christ the event. It's the foundation of the whole faith, so there's great emphasis on that. And I think also, it's springtime, the weather's very nice, the tradition is very colourful, it's very different. So I think that's part of the reason."

First custom

The first food custom connected with the Greek Easter happens on the last Monday before lent. It's called Clean Monday. On that day, you are supposed to cleanse yourself of everything you've eaten over the past year.

Meat is forbidden on Clean Monday. Typically on that day, the Greeks eat an assortment of foods, including bean soup and shellfish like oysters, shrimp and crab. Finned fish are forbidden. You also eat unleavened bread called lagana, and possibly some rice wrapped in vine leaves, but only rice, no meat.

Most Easter foods are prepared shortly before eating, or just a few days previous. For example, on Good Thursday Easter cookies would be baked for Easter Sunday (some spiked with the Greek brandy liqueur Metaxa) and the red Greek Easter eggs would be prepared as well. Argyros explained the significance of the dyed red eggs.

"Essentially they're just regular eggs that are boiled hard and then dyed red. It's the whole egg and you just dye it red. According to the tradition, when Christ was crucified the Virgin Mary put the eggs underneath him and as the blood flowed it stained the eggs red and they're supposed to commemorate the event of the crucifixion. So I think the proper time to dye them is Good Thursday, and then on Easter Sunday, before supper, everybody takes an egg and softly hits it against the other person's egg and if you crack the other person's egg you move on and the person with the last egg standing is the winner and supposedly has life and health for the whole year."

Good Friday is the day when very little eating happens. Greeks only eat lentil soup with bread on that day. They eat no oils, no meat, nor dairy products on Good Friday. Argyros doesn't eat lentil soup, so he survives on some good, fresh local St. John's bread on Good Friday. On Good Saturday, according to Argyros, food is scarce until after midnight.

Good Saturday

"At midnight on Good Saturday, you celebrate the resurrection, you go home and then you start eating. You first eat what we call mageiritsa. That is a soup and as soon as you come home from church on Saturday night, half an hour past midnight, you sit down and you eat that. The soup is made out of the offal of the lamb, the liver. It has liver, onion, lettuce, dill, the head of the lamb and rice. The lamb's head is skinned and so forth, boiled in the pot and everything falls off the bone, so you don't actually see the head when it's served."

On Easter Sunday morning, everyone goes to church. Following the service they return home to roast the main Easter meal, a whole lamb.

The lamb is skewered and placed over a fire of burning coals in the yard. It takes about three or four hours for the lamb to cook, but during the cooking friends and relatives sit around and drink red wine and wait for the appetizer to be ready. It's called kokoretsi.

"At the same time you are cooking the lamb, you are also making kokoretsi, which is basically the remaining innards of the lamb: the kidneys and all that stuff (except the lungs). First you put the innards in a pot of water with lemon to take away the really strong flavour. Then you put them on a skewer, much smaller than the lamb skewer, and you pack them really tightly together. Then you take the intestine of the lamb and you pull it over the innards like a sausage casing and it covers everything. You roast that over an open fire. It takes a lot less time to prepare than the whole lamb. You have both of these things cooking at the same time, so you need two fires. The kokoretsi is much easier to prepare. You can make that one in your backyard or on your balcony. You don't really need a lot of space. When it's cooked you slice it and have it like an appetizer while you're waiting for the lamb to be ready."

And Argyros added confidently, "The kokoretsi is really, really good."

When the whole lamb is cooked, the red eggs are handed out, cracked and eaten. Then the lamb - seasoned with oregano, lemon, salt and pepper - is sliced up.

The meat is served with salads and washed down with Greek red wine. Afterwards, the Easter cookies, flavoured with Metaxa, are enjoyed.

I commented to Argyros, "I guess all hands are pretty full after that?"

He replied, "Yes, you need another 40 days of fasting after that. It ends with a bang."

Easter Lamb

(Arnaki Paskalino Psito)

Courtesy of "The Greek Mama's Kitchen"

By Rosemary Barron


1 leg of lamb trimmed of excess fat

Juice of 2 large lemons

8 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil

Coarse sea salt and finely cracked pepper to taste

2 tablespoons dried Greek oregano

6 springs of rosemary

115 ml. dry red wine

115 ml. meat stock or water

6 large potatoes suitable for roasting


Heat oven to 400 F. Cut potatoes lengthways into large pieces.

With your hand, rub the lamb with the juice of 1 lemon, 4 tablespoons of the olive oil, salt, pepper and 1 tablespoon oregano. Place in a heavy roasting tin or baking dish, sprinkle the rosemary on top, and add the wine and half the stock (or water) to the dish. Bake uncovered for 20 minutes; baste once or twice.

Add the remaining stock to the dish, reduce the oven temperature to 350 F, and bake for 15 (for a smaller leg) to 30 minutes (for a larger leg).

Remove the dish from the oven. Arrange the potatoes around the meat and turn once to baste. Sprinkle the potatoes with the rest of the olive oil and oregano, and salt and pepper to taste. Bake for 40 minutes longer; baste once or twice.

Remove a spoonful of pan juices and combine with remaining lemon juice. Pour this sauce over the potatoes and bake for 20 minutes or until the potatoes are browned.

Cut the meat into slices and arrange on a warm platter with the potatoes. Serve the pan juices separately.

Red Eggs

(Avga Kokkina)

Courtesy "The Greek Mama's Kitchen"

By Rosemary Barron


12 white eggs, at room temperature

4 teaspoons red food colouring

1 half teaspoon blue food colouring

2 tablespoons olive oil


Half fill a large, stainless steel saucepan with water. Bring to the boil and add the food colouring. Gently lower the eggs into the water, and gently boil for 20 minutes. Add a little more colouring if needed to produce deep crimson eggs.

Remove the pan from the heat and let the eggs cool in the water. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside to dry. Dip a sheet of kitchen paper in the olive oil and rub each egg all over with the oil.

If you wish, red eggs can be baked into bread which is rich in butter and eggs (foods forbidden during lent).

Karl Wells is a restaurant panellist with enRoute and judge with the Cuisine Canada/University of Guelph Culinary Book Awards. He is also co-host of the Rogers TV show "One Chef One Critic." To reach him, log on to his website: www.karlwells.com.

Organizations: Telegraph newspaper, Greek Orthodox Church, Cuisine Canada University of Guelph

Geographic location: Greece, Greek islands, St. John's Britain Athens Lesvos

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