Dear Culinary Backstreets,
I heard that the Monday on which Lent begins is a holiday in Greece and that there are some special culinary traditions. Is this true? What do Greeks eat on this day?
Kathari Deftera, or “Clean Monday,” also known as Lent Monday, Pure Monday and Ash Monday, is a bank holiday in Greece and a day of great significance, as it marks the beginning of Lent and is traditionally a day of purification and rest. It is a moveable feast that takes place exactly 48 days before Easter, the biggest Eastern Orthodox Christian celebration of the year. The culinary highlight of the holiday is a round, flat, focaccia-like bread with sesame seeds on top called lagana, which is made only on this one day of the year, in every single Greek bakery. The bread is usually made with plain white flour and – unlike typical Greek bread – it sometimes contains olive oil (it was formerly unleavened, but these days it is made with a small amount of yeast). The inside of the bread also resembles focaccia, with an airy crumb, while the taste – dry but fresh and pleasant to eat – is very much like that of koulouri, the sesame seed-encrusted bread ring that is Greeks’ favorite snack.
Despite its present-day Christian connotations, some claim that the making of lagana can be traced all the way back to Ancient Greece, when it was a flat, unleavened bread known as laganon. This bread was mentioned by ancient writers including Horace and Aristophanes, whose play Ecclesiazusae (“The Assemblywomen”), from 392 B.C., is believed to have alluded to it in the drama’s original version, although that particular verse has not survived. Like many ancient, pagan traditions in Greece, the making of lagana soon acquired an altogether Christian meaning, as the special bread that is only consumed on the first day of Lent. The bread is usually eaten with olives and taramasalata, a love-it-or-hate-it dish consisting of salted fish roe mixed with mashed potato, vinegar and lemon juice, which can range in color from white to pink (though beware of very bright pink spreads, as they often have artificial coloring). Most Greek bakeries start serving lagana very early in the morning on Kathari Deftera. Though you can find the bread just about everywhere, I recommend you pick it up at one of Athens’ two best bakeries.
Takis is located in Koukaki, a large residential area near the Acropolis, and its breads, cheese pies and tsoureki are justly famous. Their lagana is such high demand that they start making it at 8 p.m. the night before. On Lent Monday, they open at 1 a.m. to start selling the bread, and by Monday morning there is an orderly line stretching down the street. I also recommend Pnyka, a mini-chain with shops in Athens’ three main neighborhoods: Syntagma, Pagrati and Exarchia. Pnyka is by far one of most popular bakeries in Athens; the owner, Mr. Kotsaris, who died last year, kept standards extremely high and that’s where they have stayed, despite his passing. Everything at Pnyka is fresh and is baked in a wood-burning oven; I especially love the whole-grain breads and non-greasy spinach pies. This is one of the few bakeries that does a whole-grain version of lagana. The Pagrati branch starts making lagana at 9 p.m. on the Sunday evening before Lent Monday, and stays open the whole night.
Kathari Deftera is one of the rare days in the year when Greek families go on a picnic. If you are in Athens on this day, grab a bunch of friends, buy a lagana and some olives, taramasalata and a bottle or two of wine and head for the nearest park or mountain. And don’t forget to buy a kite for flying, as that is another tradition on this holiday. In fact, getting a kite to fly with nonexistent wind on Lent Monday is a challenge familiar to every Greek male. Good luck! – Despina Trivolis