Monday, April 30, 2012

Greek Lamb as Easter Feast on Tinos

On Easter Sunday, lamb marinated in lemon juice, olive oil, and oregano is spit-roasted over coals as the centerpiece of the Easter feast

Easter is the biggest event of the year in Greece – and nowhere is it celebrated with greater aplomb than on the island of Tinos in the Cyclades. The solemnity of the midnight mass is finally broken by firecrackers; congregations embrace and depart in candlelit processions that shimmer through the villages, descending on the tavernas to break the 40-day Lenten fast with 24 hours of feasting.

Every year, thousands of Greeks in search of salvation flock to the miracle-working church of Panagia Evangelistria, on a hill above Tinos town (also known as Chora), the island’s capital. But Tinos is also a Mecca for epicures and artists seeking solace in the whitewashed villages lodged in the folds of thymescented hills. Ancient footpaths crisscross the terraced valleys, and a hiker’s sole companions are inquisitive goats and indifferent sheep.
Traditions run deep on Tinos, an island saved from overdevelopment by the all-powerful Greek Orthodox church. Apprentices still chip away at the marble sculpture school in Pyrgos. Old men thread baskets by hand in Volax, a hamlet built around a mysterious cluster of boulders like giant bowling balls. Kids play hopscotch among the flowerpots on the main street of Agapi – a village endearingly called “Love.”
Easter is the main event on the island, and the centerpiece of the Orthodox Easter feast is spring lamb, naturally flavored with the wild herbs on which the animals graze. None of the sacrificial lamb goes to waste. Once mass is over, the midnight feast begins with a bowl of magiritsa soup, made from lamb’s liver, lungs, head, and intestines, avgolemono (egg and lemon) sauce, and seasoned with green onions and dill. This pungent broth prepares the stomach for the meat spree to follow – a kind of digestive purgatory after 40 days of Lenten fasting.
The ordeal is sweetened with slices of tsoureki, a braided brioche flavored with the resinous sap of the mastic tree, and lychnarakia, sweet cheese pies shaped like miniature toques.
Traditionally, the Easter lamb is marinated in olive oil, lemon, and oregano, then roasted whole on a spit. This laborious process is an essential part of the culinary ritual: a pit must be dug, a fire built, then everyone must take a turn at the spit (secretly tearing off bits of crispy skin). It takes several hours for the lamb to cook; meanwhile, hard-boiled eggs, dyed red to represent the blood of Christ, are cracked open, wine is drunk, songs are sung, and cigarettes are smoked. Squeamish cooks and lazy restaurateurs often slow-roast a leg of lamb in the oven instead – but the result is almost as good. Potato wedges drenched in lemon and garlic are tucked into the cooking dish, and a simple green salad with a zingy lemon dressing is all that’s required on the side. It would be almost sacrilegious to serve anything else.

Greek Orthodox priest prays over the epitaphios, a sacred cloth carrying an image of Christ, taken into the sea at Tinos on Good Friday

Best Places to Eat Greek Lamb

Ta Isternia

It’s extremely hard to have a bad meal on Tinos, but some tavernas are quietly but consistently sensational. This unassuming local haunt is one of them. While two (admittedly excellent) rival restaurants – Thalassaki and Naftilos – battle it out on the waterfront at Isternia bay, those in the know escape the crowds and head up the treacherous, winding road to the village of Isternia proper. Tucked away on a back street near the parking lot, this is the only taverna in town.
Despite the lack of competition, its owners Nikos and Anna maintain very high standards. They serve traditional Greek food with a Tinian twist: caper croquettes, garlic and potato dip, black-eyed beans with sun-dried tomatoes. The traditional Easter feast is cooked exactly as it should be: tender lamb that falls off the bone, lemony potatoes that fall apart in your mouth, and crisp lettuce salad. The small terrace has a handful of tables with ravishing views of the Aegean.
Isternia, Tinos; open 1 PM–midnight Easter–Sep; +30 22830 31005
Also on Tinos
Douar (+30 22830 41231; inexpensive) in the village of Steni is a hasapotaverna (a butcher and no-frills restaurant) that is strictly for carnivores. Gruff service and cramped tables don’t deter the regulars, who come from miles away to gnaw on the addictive lamb chops.
Also in Greece
The tradition of roasting whole lambs on a spit comes from Roumeli, a region in central Greece.
On Easter Sunday, residents in its towns of Livadia, Amfiklia, and Amfissa set up makeshift barbecues on the streets and offer hunks of roast lamb and kokoretsi (skewered innards encased in intestines) to all passers-by.
Around the World
George Calombaris is one of Australia’s most influential chefs. The Press Club (www.; expensive), his flashy but accessible flagship restaurant in Melbourne, is an exemplary showcase for modern Greek food. Dramatically presented, deceptively simple dishes include roast loin of lamb with beet horiatiki (a salad with feta cheese) and almond skordalia (a thick, garlicky purée). Greeks eat leftover lamb sandwiches for days after Easter, and you can recreate the experience in Palo Alto, California, at Evvia Estiatorio (www.; moderate). This upmarket Greek restaurant in Silicon Valley serves roasted-lamb pita-bread sandwiches with tzatziki, tomato, and seasonal greens.

Three Days on Tinos

The travel writer Lawrence Durrell dubbed Tinos “the Lourdes of modern Greece.” But with spectacular vernacular architecture, a thriving crafts industry, and scores of sandy beaches, there’s much more than churches to explore.
DAY ONE : There are around 50 villages on Tinos – each one lovelier than the last. Buy baskets in Volax, where cottages crouch beneath colossal boulders. Visit the Museum of Marble Crafts in Pyrgos, where every doorway bristles with sculpted marble birds, boats, and hearts; the village is also famous for galaktoboureko, sticky custard pie.
DAY TWO : Admire some of the island’s 800 carved, decorated dovecotes, found everywhere. Visit the Venetian fortress at craggy Exobourgo; return to Tinos town and light a candle at Panagia Evangelistria before visiting the neighboring bazaar.
DAY THREE : Aeolos, god of the winds, allegedly resides on Mount Tsiknias, the island’s highest peak. Make the most of winds at the surf school on Kolimbithra beach, or head for a sandy cove such as Livada, Apigania, or Pachia Ammos.

What Else to Eat In Tinos

Lamb is often stewed with artichokes here: it’s one of the few crops that thrive on the wind-whipped island. Locals battle it out for the best recipe at the Artichoke Festival in the village of Komi in May. Buy marinated artichoke hearts (aginares) and other Tinian delicacies straight from the source at the daily farmers’ market by Tinos port: thyme honey thick as treacle, slabs of louza (cured pork), graviera cheese, and necklaces of sun-dried tomatoes. Many of these find their way into fourtalia, the delicious frittata of the Cyclades. The ultimate comfort food is fourtalia with fennel-seed sausage at To Agnandi (+30 22830 21095), a quaint ouzeri/grocery in Ktikados.
Getting to Tinos
There is no airport; ferries from Athens take 3–5 hours. You’ll need to rent a car to explore.
Where to stay in Tinos
Tinion (inexpensive) in Tinos town is a basic but charming pension.
Vega Apartments (moderate) in Agios Markos offer vacation rentals in sleek Cycladic style.
Anthia (expensive) is a family-friendly hotel with a pool and restaurant, close to Agios Fokas beach.

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