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Chirosfagia (Χοιροσφάγια, meaning “pig slaughtering”) is an old custom with ancient roots that takes place all around Greece during the winter season. Rural households – especially those involved in agriculture – typically bred a pig that was destined to be slaughtered before Christmas (between late October and Christmas Eve, depending on the region). Also known as gourounochara (which surprisingly translates as “pig happiness”), it’s a practice that guarantees a good Christmas feast.

Although less widespread than before, this tradition still takes place, particularly in villages and on islands, and the slaughtering ceremony is usually a separate festivity on its own, involving music, feasting and drinking. No part of the pig goes to waste: The best cuts are set aside for the Christmas table while other parts are cured or preserved in different ways. The skin was traditionally used for shoes, the hairs for brushes and the bones for broth.

It’s rooted in the celebration of Kronia, a festivity in ancient Greece dedicated to the Titan god Kronos (renamed by the Romans as Saturn) and initially celebrated sometime between June and July – farmers used to sacrifice a pig to honor the gods and ensure a good harvest. That tradition was carried on through the years and eventually morphed into the Saturnalia, a Roman celebration honoring the equivalent god Saturn that took place between December 17-23 and later became associated with the customs of the Christmas season.

Christmas recipes vary by region, but most involve a pork roast or stew with cabbage, leeks or celery – all three are very traditional winter tastes. Particularly popular for Christmas Day, especially on the islands and in northern Greece and the Epirus region, is a dish called lachanodolmades (lachano, or λάχανο, is cabbage in Greek) or sarmades (as they’re commonly called in northern Greece). These are stuffed cabbage rolls, traditionally filled with minced and/or chopped pork mixed with rice and chopped herbs. Nowadays, the filling often includes minced beef and beef stock. But the addition of pork one way or another is key, as it goes really well with the flavor of the cabbage.

This dish is served (and prepared) in various ways across the country. The most common is with avgolemono (egg and lemon sauce) but in many parts they serve it simply in its clear broth with some squeezed lemon juice and freshly ground black pepper; others cook it in a light tomato sauce, in which case the dish is often baked. All variations are delicious – as long as the stuffing is good. Although initially a Christmas dish tradition rooted in Byzantine practices and the Greek Orthodox religion (where the cabbage leaves that are tightly wrapped around the stuffing symbolize the swaddling clothes that Jesus was wrapped in), nowadays it is generally a popular dish to prepare during winter.

In northern Greece, cabbage rolls are always made with the addition of sweet red pepper (paprika), both in the layered stuffed leaves and later in the sauce (or garnish). Many prepare it with pickled cabbage leaves that were (and still are in some households) traditionally prepared on Saint Catherine’s Day on November 25 – ready in time for a Christmas Day feast. The way they traditionally pickle cabbage leaves in northern Greece does not include vinegar, resulting in a subtler product. The fermentation process involves adding water, lemons and barley or chickpeas to the cabbage leaves; many drink the pickled cabbage liquid as a hangover cure or as a remedy for an upset stomach.

Although I love pickling, I’m aware that it requires extra effort and time. So for my lachanodolmades recipe, which slow cooks the rolls in a light tomato sauce, I add some sliced lemons rounds on top while cooking to recreate the lemony flavor of this style of pickled cabbage leaves. (If you want to make them with avgolemono sauce, which is equally tasty, skip the tomato sauce and paste, and instead follow the exact same steps in my stuffed grape leaves recipe for the addition of avgolemono sauce in these cabbage rolls.)

I must confess that I was so obsessed with this dish while pregnant (most of my pregnancy was during the winter) that I ended up having a double portion at least twice a week! I’m not sure if it’s always true that what you crave while pregnant ends up being a dish that your child loves, but my son loves these cabbage rolls probably even more than I do.

I add some beef in my stuffing for extra flavor as well as some pancetta chunks (with skin and bone) between the stuffed lachanodolmades while they cook for an extra kick – plus, my son loves to eat these pieces of pancetta, which melt in the mouth. I also make a nice and light tomato and pork bone stock, but you can use water or ready-made chicken, beef or vegetable broth instead.

Lachanodolmades (or Sarmades) in a Light Tomato Sauce

For 6-8

For the pork stock
500 gr pork bones
2 tsp tomato paste
1 bay leaf
1 onion, coarsely chopped
1-2 whole garlic cloves
4-5 sprigs parsley
1 tsp apple cider vinegar
1.8 liters water
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp black peppercorns
Salt to taste

For the cabbage rolls
One large cabbage (3-4 kg)
400 gr minced pork
300 gr minced beef
200 gr pancetta (ideally with skin and bone) cut into chunks
140 gr Carolina rice (risotto-style short-grain white rice)
1 carrot, grated
1 large onion, finely chopped
3-4 scallions trimmed and chopped (including the green part)
120 ml olive oil plus extra for serving
1 tsp dried mint
¾ cup chopped fresh parsley (keep the stems)
¾ cup chopped fresh dill (keep the stems)
Smoked sweet paprika to taste
1 medium sized tomato, grated or pulsed in blender (skin removed)
5 tsp tomato paste
Juice from 2 lemons + 1 lemon (unwaxed) sliced with the rind

First prepare the stock if using. You may do this a couple of days in advance and keep in the fridge but before you use it in the recipe you should heat it up. In a large stockpot heat one tbsp olive oil and sauté the onions. Add in the bones and stir. Add in the tomato paste, garlic, bay leaf, parsley, peppercorns and vinegar. Pour in the water, salt to taste and once it starts simmering, turn heat down to low. Simmer for a couple of hours at low heat and strain.

Wash the cabbage, cut an incision into the bottom and remove the core (see above photo). This will help the leaves separate more easily.

Get a large cooking pot (large enough to fit the whole cabbage) and fill it halfway with water. Add salt and bring to boil. Add in the cabbage (stem side down), cover and boil for about 8 minutes until it softens. Drain well and flip the stem side down so that the water drains. Let stand to drain for at least 10 minutes.

Meanwhile prepare the stuffing. Put the minced meat in a large bowl. Add in the rice, onion, scallion, carrot, chopped herbs, dried mint, 60 ml olive oil, salt and black pepper to taste (I use 3 tsp of salt and 1 tsp of pepper). Knead well and set aside.

In a small bowl mix the tomato paste with 60 ml of olive oil and set aside.

Get the cabbage and start pulling away the leaves (if too large you may cut them in half).

Take a large, wide (but not too deep) cooking pot and place the parsley and dill stems on the bottom. Layer some of the torn cabbage leaves on the bottom of the pot (I love to eat these bits later).

Lay open the cabbage leaves, a couple at a time, and cut out the thick vein from the bottom of each one, in a V shape (each leaf will still intact after making this cut, but you can cut particularly large leaves in two). I never throw these V-shaped bits away! I add them in the pot to cook along with the rolls and pancetta and they are delicious (like the torn leaves I add at the bottom).

Add about 1-1 ½ tsp of meat filling at the bottom end of the leaf. Fold in each side and start rolling it up. Place it in the cooking pot seam side down. Repeat with the rest of the cabbage leaves and place each roll side by side. Once the first layer is full squeeze half the pancetta chunks and the cabbage stems between the cabbage rolls, sprinkle with smoked sweet paprika (you may use some spicy paprika too if desired) and drizzle with half of the tomato paste and olive oil mix.

Continue with the top layer by repeating the exact same thing. Again sprinkle with smoked paprika, pour in the lemon juice, arrange the sliced lemons on top and add the rest of the tomato paste mix and the grated tomato. Flip a heatproof plate on top (this secures them and ensures that they don’t open while cooking). Add 2 cups of stock, cover and simmer at low heat for about 1-1 ½ hour.

Once you don’t see any liquid on top and around the top layer and the cabbage feels nice and soft, remove from heat. Remove the plate and lemon slices and let stand for about 15 minutes before serving.

Serve with some of its broth, drizzled with a bit of extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with fresh dill and some extra smoked paprika, if desired.

To convert metric measurements to US and British kitchen units, click here.

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