History is everywhere in Greece. As well as the ancient ruins that scatter the landscape – some well preserved with EU funding and others almost untouched on the side of the road – the past finds its way into everyday life through customs, rituals and of course food.
While this may feel like a heavy weight, that continuity between ancient and modern Greece can be comforting, humbling and reassuring. Like Ariadne’s red thread, so the connection from the past can help us navigate a complex future.
Greek myths are full of symbolism and food is often used as a symbolic tool. Easter is a prime example of this. During Easter you will find red dyed eggs – eggs being a universal symbol of rebirth and Easter – and red to represent blood. Religion and culture in Greece go hand-in-hand and most national celebrations have a religious foundation. Tsoureki is made – a sweet bread similar to challah or brioche. But the star of the show is lamb. Garlicky, lemony lamb. Who doesn’t do lamb at Easter? Following lent, where many Greeks will remove meat, dairy and eggs from their diet (but eat delicious ‘lathera’ dishes…), meat represents celebration and sacrifice.
Easter breaks the fast with a feast that starts after midnight with a ‘magiritsa’ soup of lamb offal and intestines (sounds horrifying but it’s actually pretty tasty), followed by lamb roasted on a spit on Easter Sunday. If you’re going to eat a whole lamb I suppose you’d better eat the lot…
Whether it’s lent or Easter, or even in everyday cooking, the key to Greek cooking is patience, time and respect for your ingredients – vegetable or meat.
So lamb. This might all sound quite obvious, and many people associate Greek food with lamb, but it’s actually rarely eaten outside of special occasions. A history of poverty plays a part in this, but also a relationship with nose-to-tail eating that means if you’re going to kill a lamb you should really use everything from the animal. There are similar examples all over the world, such as la matanza in Spain, the two-three day tradition of killing a pig and using every part of the animal for different cuts and hams. As the world has changed around us it’s easy to see how we lose these traditions (who has time to nurture a pig and then kill it and expertly prepare every part of it?), no judgment. But it’s comforting to remember it’s still an important part of cultures around the world, and a useful reminder to think more carefully about what we eat. We can’t have treats all the time right? Like Christmas every day, it would lose it’s magic.
I don’t have a recipe for roasted lamb on the spit because I’ve never done it. The thought of trying that out in my small flat in East London doesn’t quite work, plus my pappou (grandfather) never really showed me how to do it. But I did recently make roasted leg of lamb for our Easter supperclub. Easter may be over and done with but this dish is classic for a Sunday.
Lamb and potatoes with lemon
Serves eight people
1 whole leg of lamb with the bone (2.5kg)
150 ml olive oil
2 tsps dried oregano
450 ml white wine
6 garlic cloves
2 lemons, juiced
salt and pepper
500g waxy potatoes – Greece has some amazing varieties of potatoes, but I find red potatoes work well in the UK
Preheat the oven to 170 degrees.
Score the lamb with a sharp knife, and create small incisions in the meat, spread out across the leg. Slice the garlic and stuff it into the incisions in the lamb. Scatter any leftover slices in the pan.
Massage some olive oil all over the lamb. Combine equal amounts of salt and pepper in a bowl and rub seasoning all over the lamb. You'll need a lot...Then rub the oregano into the lamb.
Peel the potatoes and cut them into wedges. The proper Greek way is to cut them "kidonates", which is so they resemble quince wedges. You can apply this to a lot of veg – tomatoes for a Greek salad for example. These always look a little wonky and uneven (at least when I do them) but that's how you get nice crunchy bits when you roast potatoes. They take a little longer to cook cut like this so they should go in the oven at the same time as the lamb – they'll get nice and fudgey inside.
Once your done, scatter them in the pan around the lamb leg.
Add the lemon juice to the pan and the majority of the olive oil.
Add half a cup of water to the pan and jiggle it to mix the juices
Cover with tin foil and place in the oven. Roast for 1 hour 10 minutes.
At this point, remove the foil and add the wine. Return the dish to the oven and roast for a further 50 minutes, until the lamb starts to look golden.
After 50 minutes, turn up the heat to 190 degrees and cook for a final 10 minutes. In total the lamb will have been cooking for two hours.
Remove the pan from the oven and cover with foil and a kitchen towel for at least 15 minutes to rest.
Serve on a platter in the middle of the table, pouring over any of the sauce from the tray and some wedges of lemon on the side.
Traditionally I have it with a simple lettuce and spring onion salad with a dill and red wine vinegar dressing, and a huge bowl of homemade tzatziki.