Cretan Easter Culinary Traditions

  Goodies for the Easter Festive Meal  After the Great Lent

 Easter or The Resurrection of the Lord, the most important holiday in the Greek Orthodox Liturgic Calendar has an authentic, traditional spirit in Crete. Many lovers of cultural and religious experiences visit the island on this occasion. Approaching the end of the longest and most austere fast of the year, the Cretans follow the rites and church services of Holy Week, in which the passions of Jesus, The Epitaph on Good Friday, and The Resurrection Night are commemorated.

 In the solemn atmosphere of Holy Week, the households are preparing for the great joy of The resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is to be celebrated on Easter Sunday. On Maundy Thursday, women paint red eggs and bake in the oven the "Tsoureki", a kind of traditional sweet aromatic bread, and the cookies that are going to sweeten the Easter meal. Obviously, these tempting goodies are temporarily a joy only for the eyes because they have to wait for a few more days until consumption.

Here are some of the traditional Cretan dishes that are part of the Easter feast menu:

Red Eggs, the Blood of Jesus and the Triumph of Life

 Red eggs (”kokkina avga”) are a central element of the Easter meal tradition, not only in Crete and Greece, but also throughout the Mediterranean Christian area, as far as Central Europe, Armenia, and Russia. The eggs can be painted with handcrafted folk motifs, or coated in cheerful and varied chromatic tones. The red color, symbolizing the blood of Christ, is obtained naturally by boiling onion leaves, this being the traditional method still used in Cretan villages. 

 Often, the eggs are incorporated into the braids of the tsoureki dough, before baking in the oven. In some families, red eggs are the first food eaten on the night of Resurrection, after the service. There is the tradition of clashing eggs, a funny confrontation in which participants choose an egg that they clash at the edges with other partners. As the eggs are broken, one person says "Christ Anesti" (Christ is risen!), while the other person answers  "Alithos Anesti" (He is risen!), symbolizing Christ's coming out of the tomb. After cleaning, the eggs are served simply with salt and vinegar or used for various appetizers.

Tsoureki / Sweet Easter Bread

 Tsoureki is the traditional sweet bread, leavened with yeast, which is prepared on Maundy Thursday and eaten on Easter Sunday. It is rich in eggs, butter, and milk and has a particular exotic scent of Mastic (resin obtained from the mastic tree from the island of Chios) and Mahlepi (an aromatic spice made from the kernel core of a species of wild cherry). It is shaped like a wreath braided of three thick rolls or a wand made of two twisted rolls and is decorated with red eggs, nuts and sugar.

 Tradition says that tsoureki symbolizes the Resurrection of Christ. Similar ritual loaves of bread with a red egg in the middle, called "Kollyrides", have been made since Byzantine times. The name tsoureki comes from the Turkish word "Corek" which means bread made with yeast dough, taken over by the Greeks during the Ottoman occupation. Today, tsoureki is a ubiquitous pastry product in Crete and Greece. It is also on the list of Christmas goodies under the name of ”Christopsomo”, and in the modern version, it can be filled with cream, soaked in syrup, or glazed with chocolate.

Kalitsounia / Sweet Cretan Cheese Pies

 Eminently the traditional Easter cake, the delicious ”Kalitsounia” has become the emblematic cake of Crete in any season. Kalitsounia recipes differ from region to region and there are even several distinct variants. The most popular are the star-shaped tender dough pies with many corners, filled with mizithra (a sweet, fresh, and fine goat cheese, similar to the Italian ”mascarpone”) and powdered with cinnamon.

 Another option is the cheese wrapped in pastry, and deep-fried in oil. For them, it can be used a salted cheese (obtained from the mixture of Mizithra and Feta), over which, when serving, honey is poured to obtain an extremely interesting combination of tastes. Also in the form of pastry fried pie, there is the “Hortokalitsounia”, with the filling made from a mixture of garden greens, from which also a delicious peasant food called “Horta” is made.

Koulourakia / Easter Butter Cookies

 Other traditional sweets associated with the Easter meal are an assortment of butter biscuits, shaped in a ring, twisted or spiral shape, greased with egg, and garnished with sesame, called ”Koulourakia”. Not too sweet, slightly crunchy on the outside, with a fragile core and a subtle aroma of orange and vanilla, Koulourakia has become the favorite festive cookies for all major holidays of Cretans and Greeks in general. Also, nowadays, when pastry shops abound in traditional sweets, they are almost indispensable in Cretan houses, being commonly savored with coffee or tea.

 It seems that these biscuits are among the oldest sweets in Crete, dating back to the Minoan Era. Users of venom in rituals and therapies, the Minoans worshiped snakes (in the Heraklion Museum there is a statuette of the fertility goddess, known as the Goddess of Snakes). That is probably why they used to bake snake-shaped biscuits, a custom which is still found today.

Mageiritsa / Easter Lamb Soup

 Being the biggest holiday of the year, every family in Crete slaughters (or buys) a lamb or sheep for the Easter meal. The meat is prepared to be grilled or roasted by men, while women use the head and offals - intestines, lungs, heart, liver, kidneys - for the traditional soup called ”Mageiritsa”. The soup also contains onions, eggs, broth, and sometimes rice and is soured with lemon juice.

 Usually, the housewives prepare mageiritsa the soup on Holy Saturday, to be consumed after returning from the Resurrection service. In the cities of Crete, there is a tradition that, after the Midnight Liturgy, locals and tourists go to the tavern to eat a bowl of hot and tasty soup. Gourmet and knowledgeable tourists love this food, although the content does not seem to be very appealing to everyone.

Souvlisto Arni / Easter Sunday Spit-Roasted Lamb 

 The symbol of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the lamb is indispensable on the Easter table of many Christian peoples. We learn about the sacrifice of the Passover lamb in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, the latter being mentioned as a new ritual that appeared in the Jewish Passover in the time of the Savior. The lamb represents purity, innocence, and sacrifice. In some traditions, the lamb is a bearer of good fortune and it is said that the Devil can take on any appearance except the lamb. 

 Souvlisto Arni, the Easter lamb steak is one of the oldest Greek traditions with roots in ancient Greece. In Crete, families, and friends spit roast lamb and gather around the festive table celebrating with songs and dances. The charcoal grills are taken out, and the roasting of the meat begins early in the morning on Easter Sunday so that the roast is cooked by the time of the festive lunch. Men usually spend all morning rotating the lamb slowly so that it browns evenly. During baking, the lamb carcass is brushed with lemon sauce and oil. It is added a lot of salt and pepper and some garlic cloves in small holes made in the thighs. The tasty roasted lamb is the main dish of the Easter meal.

 Kalo Pascha! Kali Orexi!  / Happy Easter! Bon Appetite!

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