Among Greek Easter’s Blessings, a Very Tasty Baked Lamb
While most folks are kicking back this Easter weekend, we thought we’d have a look at some of the food and traditions of that other Easter – Greek Easter – which arrives next Sunday, April 15th. One of our favourite Greek cooks is Maria Benardis, who runs the Greekalicious cooking school in Sydney and is the author of the My Greek Family Table cookbook, so we thought she’d be a perfect candidate to ask about the holiday traditions and food.
Maria spent most of her childhood on the island of Psara, furthering her love of all things fresh, beautiful, and well… Greek. In Australia, she’s kept up the traditions as best she can, even if the absence of cute little lambs frolicking around Sydney is a bit of a roadblock at times.
“Greek Easter for us is the single most important celebration or festive occasion on our calendar. It’s actually more important than Christmas,” she says. Greek Easter has a distinct lack of furry bunnies hopping around, or Easter bilbies, if you’re willing to swing that way. Instead, it’s the celebration of resurrection and eternal life, a time to remember all the loved ones that have been lost and a time to remember that they’re not really gone, but temporarily around in spirit.
In the days leading up to Easter, Maria says to expect to see excess amounts of basil, roses and pomegranates. The Greek basil signifies blessing, the roses represent love, and pomegranates stand for long life and abundance.
One tradition that many non-Greeks are already aware of – partly thanks to the some informative lessons via the film, My Big Fat Greek Wedding – are red-dyed eggs. “The red symbolizes the blood of Christ and the egg symbolizes the tomb. So when the egg is cracked, it’s like the resurrection,” Maria says. The eggs are regularly found in tsoureki, a sweet bread, which is similar to a brioche. “Tsoureki is made with three strips, plaited together to represent the holy trinity and in the centre sits one of the red dyed eggs.”
One of Maria’s favourite parts of Easter in Greece, aside from two churches that actually point fireworks directly at one another, is the fact that everyone eats outside together. “Everybody takes their barbecue, or their souvla, or anything they’re going to cook the lamb with, and takes it out to the street and they’re all cooking on the street. Could you imagine what a sight it would be if every restaurant or household on your street took their barbecue or their souvla and was cooking outside?”
Another tradition is spoon sweets. Families begin collecting fruits and veggies while they’re in season, often as early as six months in advance, and turn them into sweets. The methods to make various sweets differ, but what they have in common is that they’re preserved, whether using sugar, fruit preserves or another technique. Nothing is ever chopped, so it’s got to be small enough to fit on a spoon, such as baby eggplants, cherries, strawberries, walnuts, and more. When the time comes, the ‘sweet’ is put on a spoon and given to any visitor coming into the house, along with a glass of cold water.
“We always have at least 10 different spoon sweets on hand, and we offer it as love and welcoming,” Maria explains. “In a nutshell, it’s all about sharing love, food, wine and dance. Above all, I think it just grounds us spiritually and makes us realise that life is really short here on earth, so we’ve really got to enjoy it.”
For an authentic taste of Greek Easter, Maria takes a page from her cookbook to share this family secret to making an amazing lamb dish.
Baked Greek-style lamb with spicy pomegranate salsa
“Salsa is the Greek word for sauce, and this is the way I enjoy lamb best: the traditional Greek way with an ancient Greek twist. Pomegranates were often used in ancient Greece and symbolise many things, including fertility, love and death. It is one of the main symbols of the goddess Aphrodite. The pomegranate salsa makes use of the ancient Greek principle of sweet and sour. You can also barbecue the lamb instead of baking it in the oven if you prefer.”
1kg leg of lamb, cleaned, some of the fat trimmed off and butterflied
4 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into wedges
Sea salt and cracked pepper, to taste
1-2 tsp dried wild oregano
Handful of fresh oregano
1-2 tsp dried thyme
2 tsp fresh thyme
3-4 tsp fresh rosemary
6 cloves garlic, crushed
Juice and zest of 1 lemon, plus 1 lemon, cut into wedges, to serve
Extra-virgin olive oil, for cooking
1 pomegranate, seeds removed
¼ cup parsley, finely chopped
4 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp ground cumin
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 Tbs red wine vinegar
Sea salt, to taste
1 Tbs lemon juice
Zest of ½ lemon
1) Pre-heat the oven to 160C. Rub the lamb and potatoes all over with sea salt, cracked pepper, the herbs, garlic, lemon zest and olive oil, followed by the lemon juice. Place the lamb and potatoes in a baking tray and place in the oven. Bake in the oven for 1 hour.
2) After an hour of cooking time, increase the temperature to 180C and cook for a further 15 minutes so that the lamb goes golden brown on top and is fully cooked. Remove the lamb from the oven and let it rest for at least 15-20 minutes.
3) While the meat is resting, prepare the pomegranate salsa. Place the pomegranate seeds and parsley in a bowl. In another bowl, combine the dressing ingredients and mix well. Add to the pomegranate and parsley to finish off the salsa.
4) Place the lamb and potatoes on a serving platter and pour the pomegranate salsa over the lamb and serve while still hot with the lemon wedges.
Story by Allie Meyer
Recipe by Maria Benardis