Can’t go to Athens this Christmas? Have a Greek Festive Season at home – World Meanderings (n°106)
By Annick Dournes & Frédéric de Poligny
With the covid’s restrictions making us more and more frustrated it might help to travel in our head and in our plates! Experiencing new ways to celebrate Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Epiphany helps us be creative, takes us out of the beaten tracks and is very comforting. Let’s see what the Mediterranean diet has in store for us during the festive season.
Christmas spirit and faith traditions are still very vivid in Greece. Christmas Eve mostly is a religious time in most families, a time to get together for a good meal to break the 40-day Lent. This is why Greek children don’t believe in Santa Claus and will wait until January 1st to get their “Christmas” presents. This is St Basil’s day. Here he is better known as Agios Vassilis. a saint who lived in Asia Minor in the 4th century AD.
In this country where olive trees are kings Christmas trees are not part of the festivities. People will rather decorate their houses with illuminated boats celebrating a nation of sailors. A symbolic way to thank God for bringing seafarers and mere fishermen safely back home.
Greek cuisine is one of the oldest ones in the world and, as part of the Mediterranean diet, is renowned for being healthy. Each Greek region has its Christmas specialities but traditionally they were all made with pork. In the cold Northern Mountains comforting stews are slowly cooked while in the Peloponnese or the islands roasted pork is favoured. Today these recipes are also prepared with beef or lamb, but whatever the meat is, lots of Mediterranean vegetables are used in side dishes.
In the heart of winter what can be more comforting than a hearty soup? For Christmas or New Year’s Eve Greek people will make a “Avgolemono”, a creamy soup made with eggs, chicken, vegetables and lemon. Next you can make it simple with a “Mosharaki Kokkinisto”, a beef stew with a rich tomato, spices (such as cloves, cinnamon, bay leaves and allspice) and red wine sauce. Or even simpler, make a slow cooked leg of lambs with garlic and Mediterranean herbs placed in a large casserole with a lid and cook for an average 3-hour time over a low heat. One of the favourite Greek ways to cook pork for Christmas undoubtedly is a delicious roast pork dish glazed with “Petimezi”. Petimezi is a thick and flavoured Greek grape molasses that is used as a condiment in sauce or salad dressing as well as in cakes. It will give your Greek meal its unique flavour!
Side dishes are mostly made with vegetables. They can be “Lahanodolmades” made with large cabbage leaves that are rolled and stuffed with meat and eggs or “Spanakopita” a kind of spinach pie made with phyllo. All these dishes come with “Christpsomo”, the traditional Christmas bread enriched with walnuts, raisins and spices.
But desserts are the real stars of the feast! All over Greece people bake cakes, tarts and sweets. It can be a “Milopita” a kind of apple pie made with a jam-like spiced apple filling. “Melomakarona” are walnut cookies soaked in honey syrup and usually pair up with “Kourabiethes”. These almond cookies coated with icing sugar are a Christmas must. “Karydopita” is a large walnut and spice cake copiously soaked in syrup. Want some more? Eaten only on New Year’s Eve the “Vassiopita” is another cake flavoured with orange and brandy and has a golden coin hidden inside. The lucky one who gets the coins is sure to have a wonderful year.
Traditionally on Christmas and New Year’s Eve children choirs invades the streets going from houses to houses to entertain people with “Kalanta”. Simply accompanied by the clear ringing of a triangle they still are very popular in the countryside villages.
You will easily find all the ingredients you need to make all these typical Greek recipes at home and there are many websites explaining how to cook them. Just ask for help and have a great time preparing them with the whole family.
In other words “Merry Christmas”
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny and courtesy of Visit Greece