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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Greek Easter Lamb Roast 2009

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.

The cooked rear haunch and lamb saddle (loin) of our family’s 2009 Easter lamb - Click to Enlarge

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 brother-in law, Kosta, my aunt Dina, my son, Ilias, and my wife Sophia, look on as my father (off-camera) carves lamb meat off the spit - Click to Enlarge

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.

My grandfather (left) and my father (right) dressing the spring lamb in 1978 - Click to Enlarge

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.

Due to (wrong) forecasts of inclement weather, we roasted our lamb & kontosouvli just inside the shelter of the garage - Click to Enlarge

This year, we ate at my parents’ home and my father prepared the lamb along with the kontosouvli (essentially a giant pork souvlaki, the recipe for which can be found here). We had mayeiritsa (lamb offal soup in an egg-lemon sauce) which is the traditional meal eaten to break the fast after Lent; typically this is served upon return home from the Easter weekend’s midnight mass, very early Sunday morning. It is really quite an excellent soup if you don’t have any issues with organ meats, as among Greeks no part of the lamb is wasted. The lemon juice is the key ingredient.

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

The egg battle (tsougrisma in Greek, pronounced TSOO-greez-mah) is a typically Greek thing as it is a competition, and Greeks love contests of any kind. Heck, we invented the Olympics! Anyway, the challenge involves each of the guests selecting one of the many (typically) red-dyed hardboiled eggs that are brought to the table to act as their ‘weapon’. Then, turns are taken by pairs in smacking each other’s eggs together in order to crack your opponent’s egg without damage to one’s own, thereby ‘winning’. The winners continue to challenge one another until there is only one egg left unscathed, and its handler is declared the victor. It is considered good fortune to hold the final un-cracked egg in your hand and the honour is sought in good-natured earnest by all. Smiles abound during these egg battles, and fun is had by everyone, even the vanquished.

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!)

Pánta Kalá (Always Be Well)!

Sam Sotiropoulos
Greek Gourmand™
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.


Rosa's Yummy Yums said...

That lamb roast looks fantastic!



Anonymous said...

A fantastic description of a lovely Easter weekend that brought a tear to my eye and a smile to my face. The highlight of the Greek calendar. I lived in Athens for many years with my Greek partner and have never forgotten those meals under the lemon trees in her aunt's back garden, with Uncle Yiorgos turning the spit. Those tastes haunt me and the joy they bring to mind reminiscing about those celebrations are second to none. Bravo sou!

Unknown said...

Takes me back to my childhood growing up in inner suburban Sydney amongst new Greek migrants, their fragrant Easter BBQs, to which were invited, were a highlight of my childhood. Fabulous memories.

NikiTheo said...

I have to say, I know how the lamb is slaughtered, but I don't know that I could ever see it happen. I saw a cow get slaughtered once and didn't eat beef for 6 years.
I love love love lamb way too much to let that happen!!!
Xristos Anesti!

FOODalogue said...

Really enjoyed spending Greek Easter with you. Loved the contrast of lamb on the spit between your son and your grandfather. And the red egg game is very amusing. Happy Spring.

Antonia Z said...

The only time I ever had a fight with my father was at his last Easter in 1968, a few months before he died. It was over the lamb I was shocked to discover was being slaughtered (by a butcher) in our Montreal house. I really don't eat lamb anymore, despite how my family continues to roast it over hot coals. But now we buy it from the butcher. I enjoyed your post nonetheless.

George said...

Wow what a feast! What a lovely way to spend Easter too :) As always a great post Sam.

ΕΛΕΝΑ said...

Kai tou xronou Sam!!
Xristos Anesti:))

Gabi said...

Sam! Illias is getting BIG! Was fun to see a family picture! And that SUBLIME roast? Can this be more perfect??

Gabi @ Mamaliga

Big Boys Oven said...

wow is that the roast lamb, just amazing lovely, yes just as what Rossa said, "fantastis"

Unknown said...

wow... thanks for sharing your family tradition... your roast lamb loos fantastic... :)

Katerina said...

Great post!!!
Αληθώς Ανέστη!

Gastro1 said...

A late Christos Anesti.

Your Lamb looks wonderful.

Just getting fantastic Spring Lamb here in London now so making hay as they say !

Cynthia said...

Sam, your writing captivates. You are blessed to have such great memories and experiences. The only thing is that I felt cheated... I am here salivating for some of that feast! :)

Aisha "careers new Zealand" Fox said...

Oh, I'm really hungry!

va home loans said...

If i were in your family there would never be leftovers.

I am getting so hungry.

jacoba said...

What would happen if someone from another part of the world just 'happened' to be visiting Canada around Easter?

Is it my imagination or has Ilias been an inspiration? Your writing has changed - you inspire and tell the tales of the Greeks so beautifully that I can't wait, lately, for the next pos