On how we celebrated Greek Easter

Greek dishes are often plant-based and very varied, but come Easter, the most important celebration of the year, the exact opposite becomes true. The Easter menu boils (or, in fact, roasts) down to one thing only: meat. The schools close for two weeks around the holiday period and families begin preparing the house and the animals for the feast. Our hosts planned to slaughter three sheep — we had known them since coming here. We weren’t entirely thrilled with the idea but at the same time we don’t want to eat meat from animals that hadn’t had a good life.

We have bonded with nature while on Crete. Every day we spend time with the flock, watching animals coming to life and going away. We shuffle manure into the compost pile and from there onto fields that give us produce. Vegetable scraps and leftovers are served to chickens in return for eggs. Nothing is wasted, everything circulates in larger and smaller cycles. At a farm like ours, it’s pretty obvious that animals are a part of these natural cycles. One way or the other, it wasn’t easy saying goodbye to the sheep. The roosters’ cutting was easier to deal with because when there’s too many of them, they abuse the hens terribly. Still, sheep are different, and goats would be even more difficult, since we treat them a bit like we do Lima. Yet the wheels of the machine were already in motion and with us or without us, a whole sheep and a part of another would roast over the celebratory fire.

Easter here begins on Saturday night. Equipped with long candles we visit a church to get the holy fire brought from Jerusalem. The goal is to bring the candles home without loosing the flame. Our hosts decide to visit a monastery build on the top of a hill and for us it’s an enchanting experience. It’s late at night, the walls of the monastery are discreetly lit, while below us we can see lights from villages located below. The atmosphere is solemn but friendly — we light our candles off other people’s candles, while slightly below us a procession circles the church accompanied by rhythmical knocking from a kind of wooden instrument. Everybody has a lit candle. We take our flames to grandma’s house, where the tradition requires us to hit the tops of boiled eggs dyed red. The winner is the person whose egg survives all the trails. It’s late after midnight when we begin eating meat and giblets. This is also the time to finally try the Easter challah, here called tsoureki. We don’t celebrate for long because tomorrow we have to get up early for the main part of the event.

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The Greek Easter specialty is sheep roasted over embers, turned on a spit NON-STOP for at least 5 hours. This is the northern Greek way, and as Ioannis (our host) says, Cretans usually don’t have patience for this. Traditionally, on Crete, the sheep is divided into parts that are placed next to the burning fire. This way it’s ready after about three hours. The bonfire is prepared in the morning, so that in the early afternoon the first pieces will be ready. A few friends come early and we take turns turning the spit while a specialist, Nikos, prepares the offal. Kokoretsi, or offal pierced onto a long spit and wrapped in intestine, is a traditional Balkan dish and an element of Easter menu. Apart from that there’s ribs roasted by the fire, no turning, and potatoes baked under a layer of sheep fat in the outside wood stove. Also salads. And that’s it.

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The rest of the guests come by and everybody is saying “chronia polla” time and time over again. People are either sitting at a table sipping tea and coffee or next to the fire, where it’s incredibly hot. A small table is there, with wine, bread, cheese and artichokes that are peeled on the go. A little macho-corner forms, with men talking and looking after the meat, which means tasting as well and pretty soon the ribs disappear, while the guys get into a good mood. Everybody is getting hungry and whomever passes through the kitches grabs bites of salads that are being prepared. Greek melodies seep out of speakers, the sun burns and the buffet gets ready with food. Guests are leisurely sitting around two tables in the garden. The party can’t be complete without home wine served, as usual, straight from plastic bottles.

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When finally everyone is done stuffing themselves with meat, they begin whining for desserts. So we’re off to the kitchen to get the galaktoboureko and other filo-dough creations, as well as the not-so-traditional roulade, while the wine is substituted with raki. As during the previous fiestas, at a certain hour we stumble to our bedroom to take a nap, while the others celebrate on. When we manage to get up, it’s already dark in the garden and the guests began the second round of eating. I was counting for another piece of the roulade, but in vain. The only thing left was meat and we’ll be eating it for days to come.

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