One travels to Crete for myriads of reasons – but local gastronomy is among the top-faring ones. Especially when combined with a particularly unique time of the year. Blending ageless mystique with springtime’s blooming beauty, Easter is the biggest celebration in the Greek Orthodox Calendar – and though it’s piously observed throughout the country, in Crete it is perhaps at its most authentic.
A spiritual as much as a festive occasion with many ancient facets and flavours, Easter in Crete brings communities together through an array of time-honoured rituals and customs. As in every religious holiday, at their heart lies food: the traditional Easter dishes in Crete were one of the means through which the locals interpreted the events of the great sacrifice and celebrated the arrival of spring. They were also the best excuse to gather families around the dinner table to reaffirm their connections.
If you find yourselves in Chania on Easter prepare for a multisensory experience, with palatable delights in the limelight.
What to Eat in Chania on Easter?
Spanning a period of 48 days, Easter is not only the grandest but also the lengthiest religious celebration in the Orthodox world. It all starts with the beginning of Lent after Ash Monday and culminates with the solemnities of the Holy Week and the euphoric food and drinks extravaganza on Easter Sunday.
The word “Lent” has Germanic roots referring to the “lengthening” of days in springtime. Commemorating Jesus’ own time of fasting and praying in the desert, Easter Lent forbids the consumption of meat, fish, dairy and eggs at all times – with the exception of March 25, Annunciation Day and Palm Sunday towards the final stretch of Christ’s great adventure. On the former, fried salt cod with garlic sauce is devoured with zest and the clergys’ approval; and on the latter, fish is wholeheartedly consumed after church service.
The general idea is to exercise self-discipline during Lent – which is a period of repentance and remorse. But even the most pious Cretans have many opportunities to keep their palates happy during the fast, as lenten food in Crete is delicious, including delicacies such as snails, shellfish and crustaceans. In view of the restrictions imposed by the Church – and the cycle of nature – local culinarians have grown to be especially inventive over the years. They boil or stew octopus, squid and cuttlefish and combine it with what’s in season thereby producing veritable culinary gems like cuttlefish with fennel and olives – one of the top things to eat in Chania on Easter. Likewise, hohlioi boubouristoi, which are snails picked after the rains of March and April, with rosemary; marathopita, pie filled with fresh fennel; and kaltsounia, made of greens and herbs wrapped in pastry; are some of the delicacies you’ll eat in Chania on Easter.
What to Eat in Chania on Easter: The foods & the customs of the Holly Week
The holy week sees a flurry of activity, with homemakers getting busy cleaning their houses and baking Easter treats.
On Holy Thursday they shall dye eggs in the colour of the red poppy, in honour of Christ who shed his blood for mankind and to salute the rebirth of nature in spring. This is also the day for baking Easter sweets – kalitsounia, lyhnarakia, avgokouloures, tsourekia and lambrokouloura. They are of course off-limits till the resurrection, as they are all made with butter, milk, and eggs.
Good Friday is the saddest day of them all. Locals partake in the drama by refusing to use hammers or nails. This would be a great sin on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion. For the love of Christ, who was given vinegar to drink, they also refrain from eating sweet things. Instead, they shall consume a soup made of sesame paste, lettuce or lentils, with vinegar.
The procession of the Bier of Christ ensues in the evening after church service. This is a deeply moving occasion with choirs and the faithful singing beautiful hymns and holding lit candles as the procession takes into the streets.
After the gloom and doom of Holy Friday, Holy Saturday marks release and deliverance. According to the local custom, this day features the theatrical ceremony of the burning of the Judas to exorcise evil. Local housewives will also rise early to prepare for the first, and more modest feast, that will follow the Mass at midnight. Moments before, the church is plunged into darkness. Then the priest reappears holding aloft a lit candle. He shall then pass his flame to the nearest worshipper and they shall in turn pass it on to the next one until the entire church is ablaze with burning candles. The miracle of life is once again affirmed – and the attendants with their candles slowly make their way back to their homes. After a fasting period of 48 days, a rich, transitional meal expects them. Typical dishes include mageiritsa (a kind of tripe soup made with finely chopped lamb entrails, lemon juice, lettuce and dill); and gardoumpakia (lamb belly wrapped in offal) – and they are all designed to prepare the stomach for the ensuing banquet.
What to Eat in Chania on Easter: The culinary fiesta on Easter Sunday
Easter Sunday is marked by fervent friends and family celebrations with copious amounts of food and drink. As everywhere in Greece the custom of the lamb or kid on the spit has gained popularity in Crete too. But Cretans traditionally used different roasting techniques – and still do, albeit to a lesser degree. Ofto or antikristo – which is a meat lover’s idea of heaven – involves large pieces of meat set opposite each other on wooden or iron spits and allowed to roast by the fire. Other Traditional Easter Sunday delicacies include boiled lamb with tomato sauce and strifta (local pasta), lamb with artichokes and avgolemono (a savoury lemon and egg sauce) and the famous Chania meat pie, with lamb and local cheese in puff pastry. Along with sturdy local cheeses and mirth-inducing Cretan wine and raki, this is certainly a feast to remember. Especially when it is accompanied by mantinades (impromptu playful poems and rhymes) and rizitika (a capella songs), as well as folk music and dance – which is more often the case than not.
Surrounded by soul-stirring customs and delicious food, Chania on Easter is an unforgettable experience: A celebration of life and love and the perfect prelude for a glorious summer ahead. All of us at the Oscar Suites & Village, can’t wait to once again welcome you, our dear friends and guests in our apartments and studios in Platanias, Chania. Until then we’ll keep regaling you with stories and insights about extraordinary Crete. Stay tuned for more!