In the village I call home part of each year, being a single, foreign mother of two children attracts a certain curiosity. It also, beautifully and perhaps surprisingly, attracts food. In our early days in the village, the children and I would return home from swimming or school or a trip to the nearby town of Leonidio, where we do most of our shopping, to find a plastic bag or two hanging from our doorknob stuffed with oranges or lemons picked that morning or, on truly fortunate days, tender young artichokes. It took only a month or two for our neighbors to dismiss all formalities and begin leaving their offerings inside our apartment on the kitchen table. This is when the eating got good. Bread fresh from a wood-fired oven, handmade hortopita, cake sweetened with honey, a plate full of papoutsakia or “little shoes” (eggplants stuffed with a clove-spiked mixture of lamb, tomatoes and onions and topped with bechamel). Around the various holidays the food only grow more elaborate. But it is during the Greek Orthodox fasting periods that we most enjoyed the generosity of our neighbors.
On the Greek Orthodox liturgical calendar, fasting is not limited to Lent. Indeed, the devout fast approximately 180 days a year. This includes four major fasting periods: the last two weeks of June, the first two weeks of August, the 40-day Nativity fast, observed from November 15th until December 24th, and the Great Lent, which begins seven weeks before Easter. Throughout the year, fasting is practiced every Wednesday and Friday (except for during certain, special “fast-free” periods) and there are other (sometimes colorfully named) fasting days scattered across the calendar, such as the Beheading of the Forerunner on August 29th and the the Exaltation of the Cross on September 14th.
During these times, those who choose to fast eat nothing that contains or is derived from any creature through which blood flows. This means no meat, fish, dairy or eggs, and this includes sweets and pastries made with eggs or butter. (Shellfish, octopus and squid are fine as they are said to have no blood.) On some days, even the use of olive oil, arguably the foundation of the Greek diet, is forbidden.
One might look at the prospect of fasting with disdain, and some do. But for others, fasting periods are veritable feasting times. They are days filled with a diversity of simple but flavorful dishes. This especially true during the fasting periods before Christmas and Easter when Greek kitchen gardens are a riot of delicious greens, tender young artichokes and other winter and spring vegetables. This, too, is when the wild edibles are at their peak. From November through March or April, horta, wild onions, even asparagus grow prolifically on the terraced hillsides and mountain meadows above the village.
My friend Sotiris Kitrilakis, a food historian and the founder in the United States of Peloponnese Foods, grew up in Athens in the 1940s and remembers fasting with a certain fondness: “Contrary to the general perception of Lent as a time of sensory deprivation and the accompanying hardship that leads to godliness, my memories are very different. I remember anticipating Lent with pleasure because it was a time when some of my favorite goodies became available. I always liked pickled things, so the appearance at the table of volvoi (pickled wild hyacinth bulbs), all kinds of olives, peppers, and other pickled vegetables, taramasalata (a purée of fish roe, lemon and olive oil), halva and smoked fish was a feast of the senses. And all of this started with a bang on Clean Monday. What could be more enjoyable than flying your kite and then sitting down to a lovely country picnic including lovely yialandji dolmas (meatless stuffed grape leaves). This attitude may have done permanent damage to my soul, but I do confess that I’m once again looking forward to Lent and the pleasure of it.”
There are many wonderful Lenten recipes available online, and I will provide some of my favorites here over the coming weeks to add to the mix. In addition to my suggestions, I recommend visiting Diane Kochilas’ excellent website and the delightful Kalofagas by Peter Minakis. Until next time, Καλό Μήνα! (Greek for “Good Month!”) And a recipe for Fasolada, or bean soup:
A staple in the Greek household during Lent, Fasolada is one of my favorite dishes any time of year:
- 1 pound of white navy beans
- 2/3 c. up olive oil
- 3 large onions, peeled and chopped
- 4 good-sized carrots
- 3 stalks of celery
- 6 cups water
- Salt and pepper to taste
Soak the beans overnight. Rinse and drain them. Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat and saute the onions, carrots and celery until softened. Add the beans and water. Increase the heat and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to low and allow the beans simmer, skimming the foam off the top, for about two hours. Cook until the beans are very tender. Just before serving, add the salt and pepper. Enjoy.
P.S. The quotation I included as part of the title of today’s blog post is from Saint Nikolai of Zicha. P.P.S. If you enjoy my blog, please subscribe. Thank you!