Well, it’s that time of year again. For the last few weeks we, here in UK that is, know that we are approaching Lent – well let me re-phrase that – we know that Easter is on the horizon. The hot cross buns have been on the supermarket shelves since early January, and, believe it our not, chocolate Easter bunnies have been around for weeks. Call me old fashioned but I do actually quite like genuine seasons. I don’t want strawberries in December, though I can think of nothing better anytime between May and July. Chestnuts scream out for a place on the table in the winter months and, generally, I tend to stick to the old adage that you only eat mussels during a month with an ‘r’ in it. Call me a ‘stick in the mud’ but that’s just the way I am.
There is a certain magic in seasonality; that specialness of limited availability. There is definite pleasure in the acceptable greed that allows you to consume as many perfect figs as possible in August and September. I am signed up to the fact that it is totally normal to eat your own body weight of asparagus in the summer, and of clementines in the true winter months. And who wants a hot cross bun in January anyway! I bemoan our modern, continuous demand for everything at anytime. What do they say ? Variety is the spice of life? A change is as good as a rest? Well, I think there may be some wisdom in that.
So I really do love this time of year. It is nearly the beginning of Lent, marked in this country by Pancake Day – aka Shrove Tuesday. Like the pleasure in only eating mince pies at Christmas, there is something so beguiling in that ancient tradition of ceremonially using up all your eggs, butter and milk by making glorious, golden pancakes. I don’t want them every day but I really enjoy them on this particular Tuesday. I just wish we had something else to go with the them. Personally, I blame Henry VIII or maybe the Cromwells – Thomas or Oliver, or both. All over the world in the run up to Lent there are wild celebrations, Mardi Gras is, of course, Pancake Day. In the southern Netherlands, parts of Germany, Belgium and Venice this weekend will be a continuous festival, with people in fancy dress, parades, wild behaviour and a public holiday. In England we get to make pancakes after work. I think we have been short-changed and frankly I blame the Reformation and the Puritans.
In Greece, even after 400 years under the ‘Ottoman Yoke’, the traditions have survived undiminished. Easter, of course, is the superstar of all the country’s festivals but the weeks before the start of Lent include all sorts of reasons to party. There’s Tsihnopémpti – loosely translated as ‘Smokey Thursday‘; the smoke coming from the vast amounts of grilled meat that is consumed on this day. Over the following two weekends there are manic amounts of dressing up and fairly frenetic partying. The carnival parade in the city of Patra is one of the biggest in Europe and has been going for nearly 200 years. It all finally culminates on the first Monday of Lent, ‘Kathará Deftera‘ or ‘Clean Monday.‘
Despite the Lenten themes of fasting and repentance, ‘Kathará Deftéra’ is a totally upbeat festival. Coming as it does just as the weather starts to improve, it is a time for day trips to the countryside, the beach or any open space. Picnics are popular and, curiously, flying a kite is a ‘must’. As this is Lent, meat, eggs or dairy produce are not allowed, but that doesn’t mean that the food is meagre or plain. A plate of taramasalata is an essential element of any ‘Clean Monday’ menu, along with the special flat bread, ‘lagana’ – available one day a year ONLY. And that is what I love about ‘Kathará Deftera‘. This is a feast of foods you probably don’t eat on any other day. It is truly special.
This is the day for a feast of pulses, vegetables, shellfish (but not fish) and salads. The flavours should be salty and piquant – olives and pickled vegetables always make an appearance. Things like fáva, a dip made from a type of split pea, is a favourite. Yígantes, the classic casserole of broad beans is a perfect addition. The simple salad of black eye beans, flavoured with dill and spring onions is a recipe I always turn to for ‘Clean Monday’. The dietary rules of the day exclude fish (it’s having blood and backbones that puts them out of bounds) but octopus, cuttle fish and calamari are absolutely fine. Chargrilled octopus is always popular and little stuffed squid too, but more complex dishes of shellfish pilaff make interesting additions. There’s real pleasure in rising to the challenge of creating dishes that comply with the rules but are also out of the ordinary. So, I’ve got the squid and prawns in the fridge and I will be making some taramasalata later. This year I am planning on making a calamari and spinach kritharotto – I’ll let you know how it turns out. Meanwhile, here are some recipe suggestions, if you want to have a go at a ‘Clean Monday’ style feast…. to go with the pancakes of course.
Fáva – https://kouzinacooking.com/recipes-2/fava/
Stuffed calamari – https://kouzinacooking.com/recipes-2/stuffed-kalamarakia-kalamarakia-yemista/
Black eye beans with chard – https://kouzinacooking.com/recipes-2/black-eye-beans-with-chard-mavromatika-me-seskoula/
Yígantes – https://kouzinacooking.com/recipes-2/yigantes/
Artichokes ‘City Style’ – https://kouzinacooking.com/recipes-2/anginares-politikes-artichokes-city-style/
Red pepper and olive ‘Relish’ – https://kouzinacooking.com/recipes-2/red-pepper-and-olive-relish-mezedaki-apo-elies-kai-piperies-florinis/