Carnival season is drawing to a close, heralding the start of Lent in the Greek Orthodox calendar. After several weeks of partying and the barbecue-fest of Tsiknopempti, this is the day when Greeks mark the start of a season of fasting before the carnivorous celebrations that take place on Orthodox Easter, 40 days later. To be honest, despite the annual calendar being arranged around a range of significant religious celebrations, Greeks on the whole are not that religious, especially not in the big cities, so the customs of Clean Monday have come to enjoy a more cultural, rather than religious, significance, and serve as another way to enjoy good food with loved ones while preserving traditions and customs of days gone by.
The name for this day in Greek, Kathara Deftera, literally translates to Clean Monday, and symbolizes the beginning of a fasting period which is meant to cleanse the body and soul through the medium of fasting, as well as the purification of the mind through religious contemplation. For 40 days, those who do follow the fast period will stick to a diet which can best be described as vegan, since no meat, dairy or eggs are consumed throughout the period ‒ visitors to supermarkets during this time will see nistisimo i.e. ‘suitable for fasting’ labels attached to products that meet these criteria. Meat and fish are forbidden, but shellfish, squid and octopus are allowed, and so Clean Monday comes with its own set of cuisine and dietary traditions.
Families normally gather for a large Clean Monday lunch and sit at a table laden with various types of meze and food, the central stars of which are lagana, taramosalata and halva (click here for recipes). The various accompaniments may change, but the Clean Monday table is not complete without these three.
Lagana is a type of long, flat bread which is made by bakeries across Greece only on the day of Clean Monday itself and at no other time of the year (though those who have a particular fondness of this bread tend to stock up and slip a few loaves into the freezer to enjoy when they like). Traditionally, the bread was made with unleavened dough, although nowadays yeast is used in small quantities.
The resulting loaf is still quite flat compared to the usual Greek bread loaf, dimpled and heavily sprinkled with sesame seeds. It’s thought that the bread symbolizes the help that God gave the Israelites during the Exodus, when bread from heaven was rained down on them. The name of the bread comes from the ancient Greco-Roman word for pastry dough which is also the word that lasagna originates from.
A typical Greek meal to mark any family gathering or feast will feature a number of different dips and spreads, all perfect for being slathered over chunks of flat lagana bread. On Clean Monday, the king of all these spreads is taramosalata, a spread made with fish roe. This can either be creamy white or pink in appearance ‒ there are two types of roe you can buy to make taramosalata: white or red.
White roe is considered to be of superior quality while the red kind is a relative newcomer, first appearing in the 1950s. Each camp has an avid following. Each type of taramosalata is traditionally made by pounding the roe in a pestle and mortar with boiled potatoes or bread (the old-school method is to use almonds) and olive oil, though food processors take much of the hard work out of it these days and if you’re not culinarily inclined, you can just buy it ready made from a deli or supermarket. Taramosalata is served with olive oil drizzled over it, and usually a black olive dots the middle of the plate.
The final staple of the Clean Monday table is halva, either plain vanilla or streaked through with cocoa. The style of halva, made with tahini as opposed to semolina, is referred to as Macedonian halva. The halva is a must-have, and the market stalls in downtown Athens, which sell the handmade stuff chopped off large blocks, become almost inaccessibly crowded on the weekend prior to Clean Monday. But it’s worth battling the crowds to get your hands on some, and if you do, you’ll find that it’s impossible to just take a little bite.
This dense, nutty halva starts out as a thick sugar syrup, to which room-temperature tahini is added. The mixture is then kneaded by hand in large copper bowls until it starts to firm up. Just before it becomes fully firm, flavorings and nuts are added and the mix is pressed into a mould, to be cut up and served later. This type of halva is available all-year round, but popular during Lent for the fact that it contains no dairy or eggs, and is a good source of energy.
Apart from devouring delicious Clean Monday treats, tradition also dictates that you take to the hills or the countryside with a kite to fly. Kite-flying has become a firmly-grounded tradition on Clean Monday, and being a public holiday, it is a chance to enjoy the advancing spring weather. In days gone by, these kites were carefully crafted on wooden frames with paper stretched across. The traditional kites can still be found, though nowadays, plastic kites with popular cartoon characters are the more usual style people go after, being cheap and easily found in toy stores across the country.
Roma people selling these kites, on the side of roads or near town squares, are a common sight on the weekend before Clean Monday, and on the day itself, much to the relief of badly organized parents everywhere. In Greece, the preferred kite shape is a hexagon or octagon, as opposed to a diamond. Kite flying is such an integral part of the day that the weather forecast for Clean Monday is closely followed in the preceding days, especially by those who have children expecting to go kite-flying.
Nobody is quite sure where the kite-flying tradition came from. Some say that the ancient Greek mathematician Archytas of Tarentum designed and flew the first kite to test aerodynamics, while others believe it started when people would write wishes on the kites and fly them as high as possible for the gods to answer. However the tradition came into being, it’s now firmly established, and if you are blessed with fine weather on Clean Monday, tear yourself away from the table, wrap up a chunk of sweet halva and head to a park (Filopappou Hill being the classic choice) or out of town to enjoy the spectacle of hundreds of colorful kites dancing in the air.