Greek Lent, or when moussaka and tzatziki are a no-no

Isn’t it interesting how humanity introduces limitations or bans and then immediately gives in to its hedonistic nature and breaks them, finds a way around them or submits to the cravings as soon as the ban is over? Religious fasts seem to me good examples of this. In Turkey, during the Ramadan, we watched in fascination scores of people sitting at laden tables waiting with anticipation for the signal that the sun had set down and then, as if the starting gun had gone off, digging in! Or during a bus journey over a wasteland, first snacks and drinks were handed out at a designated time, then, not much later, when we reached civilization – the outskirts of the city we were going to – a stop was made at a roadside bar, some twenty minutes form our destination. Christians have their fasts too, and too are able to find ways to enjoy food anyway. In Poland it’s not hard at all — even though one ought not eat that minced-meat cutlet, the fatty fish is absolutely ok!

Though at home people presumably finished gorging on meat pies and sweet-meats, the Orthodox Greece is still in the thrall of Lent. It began on the 14th of March, the so called Clean Monday (Kathara Deftera). We felt the wind change when Ioannis, our host, declared he’s making wood oven roasted lamb on Saturday and grilled fish on Sunday. What’s the special occasion, that our mostly plant-based menu gets lamb and fish and the wood oven is burning for the first time this season? It turns out Ioannis is using the time of Lent for his healing fast, so it’s the last chance to eat meat before the coming weeks of self-sarifice.

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On Saturday the house gets flooded with supplies. In come the octopus, little calamari, sepia, fish roe and all kinds of vegetables. The Clean Monday is nearing! In Greece it’s a day off and an occasion for the gathering of family and friends, flying the kites and… having a feast! Though the comsumption of red blooded animals and their derivatives (milk, cheese, eggs) is forbidden, the possibilities are still pretty impressive — apart from legumes, grains and veggies, the seafood offers a plethora of choices, plus the Cretan classic, snails, and later sweets, wine and raki…

On Sunday, the hussle and bustle beginds. From the early morning the hosts are cleaning the house, driving to the shop to get more supplies, running to and fro. In the evening we begin to clean the sea creatures, soak the legumes and boil the beets. The octopus, when put ‘dry’ in the pan it quickly gives water and during the cooking turns a beautiful shade of violet. At the same time we’re making spreads and dips and I find myself watching, as if hypnotized, how copious amounts of olive oil and lemon juice get completely absorbed into a fish roe dip. I’m salivating badly, too, and trying not to eat it before it reaches the table tomorrow.

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The next day begins rather early. The ashes from making the fish are still warm and today it’s time for sepia and the octopus. The menu takes it final form — there’ll be some dishes we’ve already tried, though most we still don’t know how to prepare. Also, mostly seasonal ingredients are used, so no baby tomatoes from greenhouses are present. The guests are coming round, both family and friends and even the parents of the latter, who came visiting from Albania. There’s traditional Greek music on the hi-fi, supposedly with some bawdy lyrics, that puts out hosts into a bit of a naughty mood. Somehow the first day of fast becomes a time of celebration, catching up with friends and obviously, eating a lot.

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The table is full with dishes, some are classics eaten all year round. It’s a good time to look at what the Greeks eat, because it’s not what you may have thought — no moussaka, tzatziki or Greek salad.

FAVA

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An absolute staple of Greek cuisine, both at home and in a taverna. A spread from long-cooked legumes, with olive oil and lemon juice, usually eaten with fresh, chopped onion added to the mix. Traditionally made from crushed yellow peas. Our version, kukofava, which we definitely prefer, was made from dried broad beans.

BEETS

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The best! Cooked until soft and sliced (usually together with stalks and leaves) and served in vinegar and olive oil, with a bit of garlic. One of the most basic and delicious things under the sun, probably due to the quality of ingredients.

TARAMOSALATA

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Prepared in a similar way as mayo, made from fish roe (usually from carp), with olive oil (I might as well start writing just ‘oil’, since it’s ALWAYS olive oil), lemon juice and bread and/or potatoes. Sounds so-so and looks inconspicuous yet the taste’s divine and I’m totally addicted. The version from the shop is usually dyed wild pink. A must try!

DOLMADAKIA

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Rice with herbs wrapped in wine leaves is quite distinct. We like it a lot, and because this batch was made by the grandma-master it dissapeared very quickly. We already much miss it…

PITAKIA

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Pita may be the most common Greek dish. We’re not talking about the flat-bread used to wrap gyros here. Instead, it’s a pie (filo) stuffed with spinach, horta (wild greens) or cheese. Pitakia, or little pitas, are baked filo-dough empanadas.

LAGANA

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A special flat-bread made for lent, sprinkled with sesame seeds.

PASTA WITH OCTOPUS

Bits of octopus braised in wine with orzo or other small-sized pasta. The recipe can be found here.

GRILLED SEAFOOD

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Octopus especially, if not too hard, can be truly a thing of poetry. The bits of
slightly smokey flavor, in oil and vinegar, together with home wine, make for some of our favorite taste souvenirs from Greece.

FRIED CALAMARI

I don’t really have to describe these, do I…?

GIGANTES

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Giant white beans baked in tomato sauce. No meat, just some vegetables and a lot of oil. Enjoyed by everyone, loved by Marcin.

PICKLES

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VOLVI – wild bulbs of a plant from the hyacynth family. These look and taste similar to marinated tiny onions, although they’re slightly more bitter.

LUPINA – lupin beans. One of the few sources of protein during the war, now more of a tradition thing. There was plenty left after the dinner 🙂

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