Clean Monday, celebrated a few days ago throughout Greece, marks the beginning of Lent, a 7-week-long period of strict fasting. One might expect Greeks to approach the daunting prospect of 49 days of abstinence from their favorite delicacies with regret, yet for the Greeks it is just another occasion to celebrate what they have, not mop over what they can’t have.
It is also a good occasion to celebrate spring, which is just beginning. So, every Clean Monday, Greeks flock to the countryside en masse, with kites in hand and picnic baskets full of Lenten goodies.
As Greeks tend to celebrate with friends and family, many cooks pool their talents producing tables (or blankets) loaded with an amazing array of delicious vegetarian dishes.
For those who stay in town, city councils organise communal events, where Lenten food is distributed to all present.
The typical dishes of the day (and Lent in general) include:
- Lagana; undoubtedly the star of the day. It is a flat loaf of bread sprinkled with lots of sesame seeds. Some claim that it once used to be unleavened, but it’s been made of ordinary, leavened dough for as long as anyone can remember. It’s light, crunchy and irresistible, not to mention perfect for sandwiches.
- Seafood; with meat, poultry and fish forbidden, seafood is the only source of animal protein allowed during Lent. Ordinarily quite expensive, seafood is not an everyday item of the Greek menu, but Clean Monday is worth making an exception. Cuttlefish and octopus will be consumed quite often during Lent, mussels, oysters and clams less so.
- Fish roe; the pinkish dip known as taramosalata, is fish roe beaten into a paste with olive oil and bread crumbs. It is a special Lenten food, rarely consumed at other times of the year.
- Pickles; from the days without greenhouses, when vegetables were a bit rare this time of the year, vegetable pickles earned a central place on the Lenten table, and they’ve maintained it ever since.
- Olives; oil may be forbidden, but olives are not. Pickled or salted, green or black, stuffed or plain, they are consumed in large quantities, throughout the year, whether Lent or not.
- Legumes; consumed throughout the year, legumes now become the main source of protein for fasters. The ways to prepare them are literally countless: in soups, in casseroles, in salads, boiled, baked, creamed (as in hummous), with rice, with pasta, with vegetables, the list is endless.
- Salads; fresh lettuce leaves to be stuffed into lagana sandwiches or munched along a dish of beans, as well as more complicated affairs combining several vegetables, raw, cooked or pickled.
- Halva; the king of Lenten desserts is made of tahini and honey (or sugar). Stirred vigorously over low heat it acquires the chewy, stringy texture for which it is known. Full of trace minerals and good fatty acids, it replaces cheese in sandwiches and will remain the dessert and snack of choice until Easter.
The flying of kites is also an indispensable custom of Clean Monday. It is said to bring good luck and may continue throughout Lent, taking advantage of the prevailing springtime winds. Although most kites today are ready-made, some still prefer to make their own, using a reed frame, paper, glue and some strong string.
In many places, Clean Monday is torn between the austerity of the coming fast and the frivolity of the carnival which just ended. Although the table may be laden with fasting food, people may wear their costumes and may exchange dirty jokes for one last time.
Many of those customs have their roots in similar ancient rituals celebrating the beginning of the spring, whose purpose was to ward away evil and ensure a good crop. Adopted and incorporated into Christianity, they still maintain a distinct pagan feel and many archaic features. One day, when I find the time, I will attempt to describe some of them.
Small note: Clean Monday, the first day of Lent, is sometimes called Ash Monday, probably in analogy with the Catholic Ash Wednesday, when the Catholic Lent begins. However , the Orthodox rites involve no Deposition of Ashes, therefore the name is not appropriate.