A Greek Easter Odyssey
From octopus to offal and fueled by firewater, our Greek Easter was a journey of culinary discovery and sacred rituals, starting in Crete's capital Heraklion and ending on the dramatic North Eastern peninsula.
Words by Fran Tehan
When we told people that we were heading to Crete for a long weekend of festivities there was much animated talk of plate-smashing and dancing the Sirtaki à la Zorba the Greek. We weren’t too far off the mark. Factor in some crazy pyrotechnics, nocturnal feasting and dramatic landscapes and you’re there.
Easter, or Pascha (Passover) is the most important event in the Greek calendar and incorporates ceremony, celebration, tradition, feasting...and fireworks. ‘”300 million fireworks were confiscated in Athens alone this year” our host George, an
ex-mayor, tells us. It transpires that even the laid-back Greeks have recognized that the rather lax control over these explosives needs to be tightened.
Food is a major event in the Greek Easter celebrations. When we arrive in Heraklion on Good Friday at the end of Holy Week, the enticing aroma of charred octopus fills the air. Traditionally Good Friday is the strictest day for fasting in the Lenten calendar and no blood or dairy products (or oil) are allowed.
On Easter Saturday night the local church in Palaikastro (near Siteia in the North-East) is full to bursting with families carrying their Easter candles and preparing for the burning of the effigy of Judas in the town square. A small makeshift table in the square offers an array of traditional Easter fare – a basket of kokkina (dyed red eggs), some kalitsouni (Easter sweet bread filled with cheese and honey) and some large bottles of ‘soft drink’; I’m thinking raki, or Cretan firewater, the drink of choice here.
The bonfire is lit and fireworks whizz erratically through the night sky. None of the locals seem particularly fazed. Babies continue sleeping in their prams. We’re wondering whether we’ll make it to the other side of the square. When we do, we celebrate with a shot of raki. It'd be rude not to.
The traditional supper on Easter Saturday – served at 1am after the church service – is an offal extravaganza. The thrifty Greeks
use up all the innards of the lamb that is being prepared for the Easter Sunday feast and create a rich, lemony soup called magiritsa. Or, they just serve it straight up, no frills. It’s a daunting concept either way, the idea of offal at any time of the day but particularly at one in the morning. The belief is also that, after so many days of Lenten fasting, this is a good and gentle way of re-introducing meat to the digestive system.
We eat liver and heart, two types of cheese, sweet bread and a Greek salad, all washed down with a delicious local organic wine from the Toplou Monastery nearby. This, it transpires, is just the starter and sets a precedent for our next 24 hours of Easter feasting. The main course is a delicious slow-cooked lamb and risotto-style rice cooked in its juices. We then roll - quite literally - back into town for more celebrations.
The next day we emerge, bleary-eyed and still replete to the smell of spit-roasting lamb and more gastronomic delights. We are to be welcomed by Abbot Philotheos at the Toplou Monastery, situated just outside Palaikastro in a remote and rugged corner of the North Eastern Sidero peninsula. The Abbot is a local celebrity here, famous throughout Greece for his pioneering organic farming collective and award-winning olive oil, so we are honoured to be his guests.
The atmospheric Easter Sunday service takes place and we are then invited to join the Abbot for lunch in the refectory, decorated with colourful Byzantine frescoes (painstakingly reproduced in recent years by a local disabled artist). We sit on a long table with a group of friends from Heraklion, most of whom are called George, and jokes are made accordingly as we tuck into more succulent lamb, especially as the ‘Name Day’ for George is traditionally the day after Easter Sunday. There is much cracking of red eggs as is customary and - unsurprisingly - more raki.