For many of us (definitely for our family), food is the biggest and best part of any holiday. Greek Easter is just around the corner- it’s the most important and celebrated holiday in Greece and the associated food traditions from egg cracking contests to spit roasted whole lamb are well loved and widely celebrated. Being half Greek, (and with a Greek mother who is an amazing cook), I grew up loving many of these food traditions.
This time last year we happened to be in Greece during that auspicious holiday and were lucky enough to enjoy a Greek Easter feast at the beautiful Hotel Melenos in Lindos, Rhodes, a breathtaking, whitewashed Greek idyll perched high upon the hillside in the shadow of the Rhodes Acropolis.
The white village of Lindos is beautiful and starkly empty in early April. High tourist season begins the week after Easter, so the two weeks leading up to the big holiday are the perfect time to go. When high season hits however, it hits hard and really fast. One day the street stalls are whitewashed and empty, and the next they are plastered with souvenirs, and the narrow cobblestone streets are teeming with people, donkeys and (watch your step) lots of steaming donkey dung. (I suggest making your escape the day or two after Easter.)
We arrived the week before, in time to see wildflowers blooming all over the island hillsides- an apt metaphor for the rebirth that Greek Easter represents. Our eating and drinking began the moment we arrived. For breakfast every morning there was freshly made yogurt with local thyme honey and herbs, as well as Bougatsa, a custard filled phyllo pastry drizzled with honey. Lunch would usually be a cold Greek salad, simple and bold, bright with flavors of local olive oil, salty feta and briny olives. At one of the handful of beachside tavernas with wooden tables and chairs right on the sand, lunch offerings usually included a whole fish of some kind, just off the boat that morning, stuffed with lemon and fresh herbs, or octopus, charred on a wood fired grill with sliced potatoes swimming in butter and olive oil, all refreshed with a crisp, cold carafe of Greek white wine.
Normally, dinners were taken late, and offered choices like traditional moussaka, richly layered with eggplant, ground beef, bechemel sauce and spices, topped with cheese. Also popular were wooden skewers of grilled lamb, chicken and sausage served with Greek oregano potatoes, and Beef Stifado, a hearty beef stew scented with cinnamon.
But it was the Easter feast that was most memorable and one that I will try and recreate this year at home in VT. The meal was a parade of flavors that recalled childhood taste memories for me, and that also introduced us to some new and unique preparations of traditional favorites.
On the afternoon of Easter Sunday, while climbing around on the rosemary covered hillsides of Lindos, we came across our dinner roasting on a spit. Our lamb roasters had fashioned a basting mop by tying wild rosemary, thyme and oregano to a stick and used it to brush fruity local olive oil all over the slow roasting young lamb.
Salivating, we booked it back to The Hotel Melenos to get ready for an early dinner. Our feast began (as most Greek gatherings do) with Ouzo, a traditional Greek welcome aperitif that has a strong anise flavor that turns milky white when served over ice with a splash of water. Carafes of red and white Greek wine graced our table, along with baskets of Tsoureki, a traditional sweet Easter bread that’s braided and decorated with red-dyed, hard cooked eggs, colored red to represent the blood of Christ.
The meal began with platters of meze- delicious little bites of marinated cucumbers, tomatoes and Kefalotyri cheese, local olives, dolmathes (herbed rice wrapped in grape leaves), keftethes (tiny meatballs), and little fried zuchinni fritters with tzatziki, a yogurt and cucumber sauce (for which I will include a recipe in my next post) for dipping it all into.
The main course, of course, was that beautiful lamb we came across earlier in the day. It was crispy and smoky, served with lemon, herbs and olive oil, tzatziki and thick coins of potatoes with peppers and garlic.
Finally, dessert. Greek pastries are so very good. They can range from simple to quite elaborate. We had yogurt sweetened with honey and studded with walnuts, and Baklava, a layered phyllo pastry filled with walnuts and soaked in syrup. Also served was Kataifi, a pastry made with a shredded wheat-like dough, filled with walnuts and spices with a honey syrup poured over top.
After the feasting came to an end, everyone slowly emerged from their homes, made their way to the village church where the priest, chanting, led a candle light procession through the narrow, cobblestone streets and into the main square.
If you want to know more about the Melenos Lindos Hotel (think Greek island meets Arabian nights meets Moroccan fantasy) -check out their website here.