It was Easter recently and along with Easter comes all of the tradition and ritual that you would expect from a displaced Greek family.  We have always celebrated Easter in a major way, and as children attended Church more often than the priests around this time of year.  I have stopped the church attendance part but everything else is present and accounted for.

So a traditional Easter will include the following:

Arguments with my parents about why I don’t attend Church.

Preparation and cooking of foods we only eat once a year.

Fasting

Egg dyeing.

Breaking of the fast in a spectacular and indigestion-inducing manner (Saturday night through Sunday evening)

Chocolate.

The chocolate is in fact a foreign addition.  Greeks don’t do chocolate.  They do meat.  Lots of it, in soup, on the spit, in sandwiches, innards, flesh, essence of meat, whatever it is as long as it is crispy, tasty, shiny and high in saturated animal fats, we approve.  Chocolate is for wusses.

Traditionally, the first day of Lent is Kathari Deftera (clean Monday) and is six weeks  before Easter.  On that day, you are supposed to avoid meat, fish, (anything containing blood), dairy, eggs and probably a whole host of other things I can’t think of at the moment.  This is supposed to continue for the next 40 days until Easter.  Some people do it for the full Lenten period, but others just do it for that one day and then forget about it until Holy week.  Others pick one or more thing that they would find hard to be without and give that up for the 40 days.  I do that and this year I picked cheese and chocolate, I know, what was I thinking? I clearly wasn’t, and 40 days on, having eaten pasta without cheese, burgers without cheese and a risotto without cheese, I have seen the error of my ways and won’t be doing that again in a hurry.

Anyway.  The Easter period begins to get serious again on Palm Sunday which is the Sunday before Easter.  This year, as with many years, Greek Orthodox Easter was later than Catholic Easter (as we call it in Greece – in our family it was always English Easter as we lived in England).  Anyway, English Easter was the weekend before, so we had a wonderful long weekend which we enjoyed thoroughly.  The reason for this is because Eastern Orthodox Churches do not celebrate Easter until after Passover and Passover was the same weekend as English Easter.

So on Palm Sunday, you are supposed to eat fish, and start fasting meat and dairy.

This sounds so simple, right?  Don’t eat meat, eggs, fish, dairy.  Everything else is fair game.  Including shellfish which means that in the week where we are all supposed to be suffering to emulate Jesus’ 40 days and 40 nights in the desert with no food at all, we are eating lobster, crab, prawns , kalamari, etc. as if it is going out of fashion.  If our regular diets contained anywhere near as much shellfish as we eat during this period, we would be a) on our Doctors’ shit list and b) bankrupt.  As simple as it sounds, and even though it is only for a week.  It becomes incredibly complicated.  I remember when my sister was little, she would go to school with strict instructions not to eat meat.  She would come home and we would ask her what she had for lunch.  Proudly she would announce that she had remembered not to eat meat.  She didn’t always get it right, once she said: “No meat.  Only sausages.”  Another time, she said she had avoided the meat and eaten turkey burgers.  Generally though, it was ok.  I went to a Greek school, so we weren’t at school from good Thursday anyway, and the food they served during Holy week was always ‘nistissimo’ (Which means ‘acceptable during a fast’ when literally translated, but now that have seen it written down, looks like it might be high end underwear or a coffee machine).

I recently told a Jewish friend that I was preparing food for a fast and she looked at me completely perplexed.  “What do you mean food for a fast? Fasting means you don’t eat food at all.”  That is true for many cultures and religions.  However we are Greek.  One must be realistic.  Not eating is just not possible and – more to the point – difficult and downright unpatriotic.  We eat.  We just eat different things.

Anyway.  We fast.  We ‘give up’ stuff.  And all in anticipation of the night and day of feasting that is to come.  On Thursday we dye eggs and the whole house smells of vinegar.  The eggs look lovely and shine brightly in the specially designed ‘egg plates’ that we obviously have for the three days of the year that we display boiled eggs in the house.  On Saturday, I start to cook for Sunday.  All week I had been practising and trying out recipes for Tsoureki, a sweet Easter bread.  Eventually I found one that works.  I baked a few and handed them around to various friends and relatives.  We were going to my brother’s on Sunday for a BBQ so I was taking salads, tsoureki  and magiritsa.

Midnight Easter Feast complete with tsoureki and the boiled egg display plate.

Midnight Easter Feast complete with tsoureki and the boiled egg display plate.

Magiritsa is a lamb offal soup.  It is eaten traditionally at Easter time only and I assume it came about to use up all the parts of the lamb that do not get used when it is spit roasted.  Traditionally the soup contains liver, heart, intestines and other organs.  I used to make it the (more) traditional way until family members started getting pregnant (and thus had to avoid eating offal, it wasn’t the soup that was getting them pregnant)  and so now I use a slightly different recipe that avoids most of the offal.  I know many people consider this not real magiritsa and I can totally live with that.  I am not entering Masterchef, neither am I competing for the regional nose to tail cooking finals, so the soup, such as it is, gets eaten and enjoyed.

I don’t usually make loads, but this year I was taking it to my brother’s house for Easter lunch, so I couldn’t exactly make two bowls of soup for them only.  I therefore made a huge vat of the stuff. Just so you know (and there is a point to this)  Magirista soup takes about 4-5 hours.  Admittedly, you aren’t standing there the whole time, but there is a lot of work, and fiddly stuff involved.  The ingredients include Lamb neck, lamb shoulder, lamb’s liver, lettuce, rice, dill, lemon and egg.  It is a yummy soup, and one of my mum and my sister-in-law’s favourites, which is why I make an effort to make some every year.  Making the soup involves boiling, skimming, straining, shredding, dicing, chopping, squeezing, stirring and whisking, to name but a few.  What I am trying to say is: there is some effort involved.

We loaded up the car blearily on Sunday morning after a midnight feast involving tsoureki and eggs , and set off to leafy Barnes.  It was a beautiful day which is always nice, because it means that the kids are happy to be able to go outside and there is more space in the house.  There was a huge spread, my sister-in-law (who is not good with numbers) had miscalculated and there were fewer people than she had thought were coming.  This means that we had far too much food.  So nothing unusual then.  My brother J, was manning the BBQ and the smell of cooking halloumi and sausages started to fill the air, opening up our appetites and activating our salivary glands.

After the halloumi and sausages had been consumed, we could have all gone home, happily replete.  However they were just the nibbles.  There followed lamb cutlets, a huge roasted lamb joint, and steaks, along with all of the salads and roasted veggies you can think of.  At some point, as we were all groaning and clutching our bellies, someone exclaimed

“We forgot the magiritsa!”

Obviously we were in no shape to start eating soup at that point.  I comforted myself with the knowledge that the soup would get eaten by my brother and his family and their 5 houseguests.

I rushed off early feeling completely stuffed to go to the pub quiz I attend semi-regularly which I am pleased to announce we won that night.  £31 shared between the two of us: result!

A few days later, on the Wednesday, feeling like I had just digested the Easter meal, it was my nephew’s birthday.  A few friends over for dinner at my brother’s rapidly escalated to 25 adults and children at my brothers for takeaway Chinese.  Perfect, again, it was a balmy evening and I headed off to Barnes at 5pm to enjoy the celebration.   Despite the fact that we ordered enough Chinese food to feed the population of a small island nation – say Tonga – a friend JJ was at the BBQ cooking halloumi and sausages to tide us over from 6pm to 7pm.  And I wonder why I am generously proportioned.  I am going to go out on a limb and guess that it is because I am powerless in the face of sausages and cheese before a meal.

In the days between Easter and L’s birthday, my brother and his family acquired a dog.  It was a loaner.  I think they are contemplating sharing custody of this dog which belongs to a family which is out a lot.  Anyway, Barclay was a cutie, and very well behaved dog.  When he started to get hungry, my sister-in-law went to the fridge, got out a container and put it into a pan to warm.  10 minutes later, she turned off the heat and put it into a bowl to cool down.  Imagine my surprise when I walked past the stove and saw a dog bowl full of magiritsa.  Yes.  I was so glad I had spent so much time finely chopping romaine bloody lettuce, for the dog’s gastronomic pleasure.

Barclay.  Apparently he doesn't like his dry food any more.  He has requested  slow roasted pulled pork next week.

Barclay. Apparently he doesn’t like his dry food any more. He has requested slow maple and mustard roasted pulled pork next week.

“Are you giving the dog magiritsa?  I asked, incredulous.

“Yes! He loves it! He’s been eating it every day since he got here.”

Seriously?  Unbelievable.

She put the bowl down in front of Barclay who ate it all quickly.  The bowl, licked clean, was then presented to me.

“See?  He loves it!”

I glared at my sister-in-law.

“Next year, I am bringing you one bowl of magiritsa and you can decide who wants it more:  you, or the dog.”

“But dogs love meat with rice” she said, “we always used to boil up rice with meat for our dog when I was growing up.”

“I am sure you did, but it probably wasn’t then finished with dill and avgolemono.”

She found it all terribly funny, as did all of our friends.  And I suppose I did too, I told her I was going to blog about it though.  So here it is.

Happy Easter, Barclay.

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