Some of you may have missed it but it was Easter two days ago. Now you might be thinking ‘hold on no it wasn’t, it was last week - I remember eating five chocolate eggs and passing out’ but this is because there are two Easters. You know how it goes: you insert one word into the creed about how the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son and advocate the use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist and all of a sudden you have a millenia long schism on your hands.
Easter is one of the few dates in the Western tradition that varies according to the moon rather than fixed by the sun, putting it alongside the much more interesting Eastern moveable dates such as Ramadan, Pesach and Qingming. All you need to know is that because of those early squabblings, the church divided into two, one taking their lunarsolar calculations from the Gregorian Calendar and one from the Julian Calendar. The western Easter (which I refer to as the Virgin Easter) did indeed happen last week and reduces the infinite sacrifice of our Lord, his descent into hell and victory over Satan into a theological debate over whether they changed the Cremé Egg recipe. The Orthodox Easter (the Chad Easter) is still taken much more seriously, with proper observance of fasting (aka gastronomical edging) all ending in a blowout feast on Easter Sunday two days ago. They also happen to get the best food traditions, the most significant of which is the “grilling of the meats”.
My knowledge of Orthodox Easter is mainly down to asking questions of my Greek-Cypriot neighbours as a child as to why they were celebrating and cooking in their garden way after what I thought was Easter. My Palmers Green neighbours were serious barbecuers - three brothers, each one with a larger beard than the last, who would dig a pit in their garden and set up rotating grills which had to be turned by hand, each one taking a shift. As I was reading today’s newsletter by Loukia Constantinou, I could smell the smoke that wafted over, the taste of the souvla and souvlaki that would be passed over the fence as an Easter gift. My parents didn’t get any this Sunday - the celebration was diminished and to share food would not be wise. I imagine the scene played out all across Palmers Green, north London, Greece and Cyprus, where the large post-church feasts have all been cancelled, where each family and individual must mark the date in their own way. But as Loukia says “they will endure just as the traditions do” - feasts after all are about people not the food. Although after a year’s wait instead of 40 days, that souvla next year will taste all the sweeter.
"Christos Anesti": A FaceTime Feast, by Loukia Constantinou
I grew up in a close-knit Greek-Cypriot community, where my dad is a Byzantine chanter and his brother, a priest. When social distancing was a recommendation and not an order, the most challenging thing I had to deal with was convincing my elderly and more devout Greek Orthodox relatives that it might not be a good idea to spend their Sundays in a crowded church, kissing icons and people, during a global pandemic. Impossible. While the church doors remained open, even Jesus himself couldn’t stop them from going. “Especially not during Lent” they said.
In his sermon a few weeks before lockdown, my uncle even shared some stern words about how people should greet one another during this crisis. Another futile attempt. Nobody could get their head around the idea of a wave, instead of the double kiss to say hi, and double kiss to say bye that we’re accustomed to. Sunday afternoons are normally spent at intimate lunches with 20 or 30 of our closest relatives. It’s probably not a coincidence that so many Cypriot people I know, my own family included, run restaurants and takeaways. Social distancing may go against our nature, but like any immigrant community, we’re also resilient and adaptable. So, when the order finally came from above, nobody resisted. The church closed its doors and the community stayed home in the hope of an Easter reunion that would never come.
In the Orthodox tradition, Easter tends to fall at least a week after its Western counterpart, and even more than Christmas, it is considered to be the holiest time of year. But my own understanding of the paschal period is primarily through food, not liturgical texts. It begins with a three-week pre-Lenten stage involving a gradual reduction in the richness and volume of what we eat. We then become vegan for the 40-day ‘Great Lent’. On Easter Sunday we break the fast, and for me, ‘we’ means my parents, siblings, grannies, aunties, uncles, dozens of cousins, nieces and nephews.
We gather for a trapezi, which literally means ‘table’, but in this context refers to a food gathering. The Easter trapezi is special because it brings with it not only the promise of forgiven sins, but more importantly, the promise of souvla - lamb cooked on a spit, over fire. Like a lot of families, our trapezi ritual unofficially starts at 3am on Easter Sunday with avgolemoni soup and poached chicken – a reward for those that attended the midnight service. Officially, it starts when an uncle or two appears in the garden around late morning, to help light the coals. Where meat, fire and outdoor cooking is concerned, it’s the men that (think they) are in charge – we’re in no way unique here. There’s alcohol on the go from early. Normally whisky.
Somewhere near the barbecue there should be a knife and fork, salt shaker and two plates. One empty, and on the other, lemon wedges, baby cucumbers, sliced raw kohlrabi, and artichokes cut into quarters with the choke and inner petals removed. This is sustenance for the heroic work that the men are about to undertake. Over one fire we cook cuts of lamb threaded onto enormous spits. Over another, smaller skewers of souvlaki – some with pork shoulder and belly, and others with marinated chicken. Various sausages are also on the menu: seftalies – home-made pork and parsley wrapped in caul fat, loukanika – fragrant with coriander, cumin and wine, and pastourma – my favourite, beefy, spicy and garlicky. And we can’t forget the halloumi of course.
Family members arrive at various points of the afternoon, and greet one another with the customary exclamation Christos Anesti which means - Christ is Risen. We play an Easter game involving smashing together red-dyed boiled eggs, that we ambitiously turn into an unappetising, pink hued egg mayonnaise the next day. One of the grannies is doing the washing up at all times - even though we haven’t eaten yet. And there’s a dishwasher. Outside, the empty plate gradually fills. The uncles must try a bit of everything to check if it’s ok, if it needs more salt, or maybe some oregano. If we’re lucky, we get to have a taste too, and these stolen bites are the most delicious.
In the kitchen there’s potatoes and rice in the oven. The rice is cooked in fatty meat stock, with the scraps of pork or lamb that weren’t good enough for the fire thrown into it, along with ripe tomatoes, onion, dried mint, and bay leaves. An aunty brings along a pasta bake, makaronia tou fournou, because hers is better than anyone else’s in the family. A pile of pitta breads is ready to toast too. Quadruple carbs and quadruple protein, to go with the quadruple kisses. Salad will be cut into separate plates – parsley, onion, tomatoes, cucumber – alongside bowls of strained yoghurt, dips, pickled chilis, a dozen lemons cut in half, plus sharp and salty caper stems, grown and fermented by an uncle in Cyprus.
Then, when it’s finally ready, we eat and talk. Loudly. All at the same time. Often, we talk about eating, comparing notes on the humble things we had over lent, and the indulgent things we look forward to devouring in the coming weeks of food freedom. Someone FaceTimes us from Cyprus. We remind them that Christ is Risen, and tell them how much we miss them, how we can’t wait to see them, and of course, how good our souvla was. Possibly even as good as theirs. There’s enough food for everyone to eat – or more accurately – overeat, and still go home with leftovers. It is a celebration, after all.
But of course, this year was different. We were spread across the country, spending Easter in smaller family units. I had been thinking about how we could keep this tradition intact while being apart. However, with an extended family as big as mine, the logistics are difficult.
I considered trying to recreate the Easter feasts I’ve enjoyed every year of my life so far, as precisely as possible, for me and my partner in our small East London flat. I looked into getting a tiny barbecue for our tiny balcony, where he could put his “innate” masculine meat-grilling skills into practice. But my dad said that he wasn’t going to light the coals until we could all be together again, and this felt important.
It’s not that a souvla can’t be scaled down for two or three people, of course it could be - but it wouldn’t feel right. I would even go as far as saying that it wouldn’t taste the same either. One of the things this situation has reminded us of, is that food is never just about what is on your plate and especially not, where celebratory meals are concerned. It’s the efforts of many hands, for the fulfillment of many mouths, that make these meals unique and special. So, we agreed on a different plan.
This year, in the spirit of staying at home, me and my partner, my parents, my sisters and their families, all cooked the same meal. An “indoors” version of what we normally have, involving lamb and several carbs, that we can enjoy together but apart, on whichever group video app can hold the most participants.
The Greek Orthodox community will struggle with not being able to celebrate the blessing of Easter with their families this year, but they will endure just as the traditions do. And when we’re finally allowed out again, that’s exactly what we’ll do – go outside, cook outside, and eat outside, together.
LAMB FOR GREEK EASTER 2020
First of all, a couple of notes and disclaimers:
Ironically, my recipe is a bit unorthodox – it’s more a hybrid recipe of kleftiko and tava. For me, it’s the best of both.
I learned to cook from women who never measure anything. I mention this because it means the quantities I’ve used here aren’t set in stone. I encourage freestyling.
INGREDIENTS AND METHOD:
Serves 2 people
2 pieces of bone-in lamb (leg/shoulder/shank) – each piece should be around 300-400g
2 large Cyprus potatoes, or any other waxy variety, peeled and cut into quarters
1 large onion cut into quarters with some layers separated
2 handfuls of vine cherry tomatoes or a couple of big ones chopped roughly
4-6 fat garlic cloves left whole in their skin
2 large bay leaves
Small bunch of rosemary
Small bunch fresh oregano (use 2 teaspoons of dried if you can’t get hold of fresh)
Juice and zest of a lemon
2 generous tablespoons of olive oil
Salt and pepper
Take the lamb out of the fridge an hour before you prepare it – you want it to come up to room temperature before cooking.
Preheat your oven to 170°C, 150 Fan, Gas Mark 3/4.
You’re going to cook this in individual parcels so prepare two large sheets of parchment paper, on top of two large pieces of foil. If you don’t have paper you can just cook it all together in a tray covered with foil.
Put each piece of lamb into the centre of the separate pieces of parchment paper.
Add half of the peeled and quartered potatoes around one piece of lamb, and the rest around the other. Do the same with the onions, tomatoes and garlic cloves – half in one parcel half in the other. Then divide the herbs between each too – bay leaves, rosemary and oregano.
Bring the sides of the foil up to make a bowl so you can pour in a tablespoon of olive oil and half of the lemon juice and zest in each. Season generously with salt and pepper and a pinch of cinnamon.
Scrunch up the rest of the foil on the top to close the parcels. Put them both into a baking tray in the middle of the oven and cook for around 4 hours, until the lamb is falling off the bone.
Transfer each parcel onto a plate and let it rest for a bit, open to release some steam. Then serve with salad and tzatziki.
For a real authentic experience make rice, pasta and toast some pitta bread too. And make sure you have a whisky. It is a celebration, after all.
This newsletter was written by Loukia Constantinou, a Greek-Cypriot Londoner. She waived the fee for this piece.
The illustrations were done by Reena Makwana https://reenamakwana.com/ who was paid for her work.