From the most ancient times, the preparation and roasting of entire lambs has remained a trademark Greek food specialty. On Greek Orthodox Easter Sunday, Greece is blanketed from the mainland to the islands in a cloud of aromatic roasting smoke rising from the myriad of slowly turning spitted lambs. Out here in the Diaspora too, the tradition continues to be passed on to successive generations from father to son, just as it always has been.
As far back as I can remember, there has never been an Easter Sunday celebration in my family that did not include a whole spitted lamb roasting slowly over charcoal. When it comes to Greek food, the spitted lamb roast is the main event. As the Eastertide is a time for family, I thought I might reflect on my own as I make my report on this year’s Paschal celebration. I always get sentimental round this time of year. There must be something in the spring air which stirs memories that run deep in the marrow. As this year was also my son’s first Easter, the occasion had an added element of significance for myself and our family.
My paternal grandfather was a larger than life figure for me as a child. He was something of a cross between Zorba the Greek and a Hellenic Paul Bunyan; an intense mustachioed man who was a legend in the village for his stature and strength. (As an aside, the word mustache derives from the Doric Greek mystax "upper lip, mustache," which is related to mastax "jaws, mouth," or literally "that with which one chews," and is related in turn to mastic - mastiha in Greek, from which we get the English word masticate.) My grandfather was a devoted family man who sired four sons and three daughters. He lived well into his nineties, ninety-four I believe; and even just prior to his death, his hand-grip remained as tight as an iron vise. As though it were yesterday, I remember the first time I watched him slaughter a spring lamb.
It was a solemn affair, and mercifully quick. My father assisted him, and I stood above them on the veranda overlooking the courtyard of our home in the village and watched the entire proceeding. I was 10 years old.
The flagstone paved courtyard had a drainage channel about a hand span in width that ran through the centre of its length and emptied into the kitchen garden. At the point where this gutter passed near to the well, my father laid the lamb down on its side and pinned its hind and forequarters in place. My grandfather lifted the animal’s head and drew the sharp blade across its neck in one quick and deliberate motion. The lamb was bleating loudly when the blade cleaved its windpipe and the sound ended in an abrupt gurgling as the blood sprang from its neck and gushed right into the channel; in diminishing pulses it drained quickly along the slight incline down into the garden. My father lifted the animal’s hindquarters and when the bright crimson stream had ebbed away, he trussed its hind legs and hung it from a hook for dressing. My grandfather washed away the remaining stream of blood in the runnel with a bucketful of water, and then he set himself to the task of skinning, emboweling, and butchering the lamb.
It is a scene that is as vivid in my memory today as it was in the moments the impression was first made three decades ago; an indelible reminiscence, the sights and sounds of which I shall take with me to the grave. Nevertheless, rather than turn me off of eating lamb (or meat altogether), the gravity and ritualistic air of the entire event had whetted my appetite. I was positively eager to taste the flesh of the animal my grandfather had sacrificed for our table.
To this day, I remain a devotee to the succulent flavour of spit-roasted lamb. As much as I enjoy other meats, there is really nothing like it. From the cooking aroma, to the crisped skin basted with ladolemono sauce (olive oil, lemon juice, oregano, salt & pepper), to the mouthwatering meat of the saddle and tenderloin; it is a truly special meal.
In addition to the lamb and kontosouvli, Easter Sunday’s afternoon table included two whole spit-roasted chickens, my mother’s lemon-garlic roast potatoes, my Aunt Dina’s vegetable rice, a small mountain of spiral spanakopites (spinach pies), copious amounts of extra garlicky tzatziki sauce, slabs of feta cheese, and a mixed greens salad tossed in a balsamic vinaigrette with dried cranberries and sunflower seeds. After this, our desserts consisted of an assortment of Greek holiday biscuits, my Aunt Dina’s cheesecake, my mother’s ravani (a syrupy semolina cake), and the star of the show, my chocolate tsoureki! Once dessert and coffee had been served, the egg battles began.
My brother-in-law Kosta’s damaged egg after clashing with my father - Click to Enlarge
All in all, we had a wonderful Easter and there was plenty of good wholesome food to go around. Our company of ten family members welcomed its newest member, our son, Ilias, to its traditional Easter celebration, and a good time was had by all. For my Greek and Eastern Orthodox friends: Χριστός Ανέστη! (Christ has Risen!)
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