I’ve been doing it this way for 40 years,” says Steve Lillis as he runs his thumb carefully along the edge of a much-used knife. “When the bones start to open up, that’s when you know it’s ready.” He’s talking about the lamb of course – the centrepiece of this Greek Orthodox family’s Easter celebration. Marinated in lemon juice, olive oil and oregano overnight, the lamb is now slowly turning on the spit in the backyard, almost ready to feed extended family and friends who gather every year to celebrate this time of rebirth. Steve’s wife Marie is in the kitchen with daughter Lisa, the host (along with husband Bill Stamatelatos), of today’s party. “Greek Easter is all about food,” says Marie, as she and Lisa put the finishing touches on the mezze and salads. “No-one walks in empty-handed; they’re incapable!” adds Lisa.
The family attended midnight mass the night before and came home to break the Lent fast – a period of 40 days where they forego all animal-related food. During the church ceremony, candles given to children by their godparents are lit by a sacred flame and the priest declares “Christos anesti” (Christ is risen). The candles are brought home alight and the smoke from the candle is used to “make the mark of the Cross at the front door three times before walking in, to bring luck to the house”. The fast is broken with a lamb-based soup called mayiritsa, which uses offal from the lamb that is then spit-roasted for Easter Sunday – nothing goes to waste. “Everyone gets together to get it on the table by 1am and then we all head home about 3.30am,” says Lisa.
Midnight meals out of the way, Lisa concentrates on preparing dishes for Sunday lunch. Today the family has made food from the different regions of Greece, as well as a few very modern Australian additions – a Luke Nguyen Vietnamese prawn salad that Lisa’s been wanting to try for a while and a store-bought cake from Adriano Zumbo. As guests trickle in, the table is already loaded with food.
“You have to host Easter in the first few years you’re married to show your family you can cook,” says Lisa with a laugh. “You’re judged on your lamb, the colour of the red eggs and the koulourakia.”
Lisa’s parents met in Australia when Steve began working at Marie’s father’s barber shop after six years spent mining in Tasmania – where he had emigrated alone at the age of 16 from Greece. “We adopted Australian traditions, like Australia Day, very quickly,” says Marie, who was born in Corinth, a city in the Peloponnese. “We wanted to fit in – we didn’t want to stick out.” Now, 58 years on, the family is proud of their Greek heritage and the way it blends seamlessly with their Australian sensibilities. As the early autumn light begins to fade, ouzo is poured and the bouzouki is brought out to provide music for dancing – a celebration of a rebirth and a new life.
Greek Orthodox Easter menu
1. Spit-roast lamb
An 18 kg lamb will feed about 40. Rub ½ cup sea salt, ¼ cup pepper and ½ cup dried Greek oregano into lamb 1 hour before cooking. Make 20 slits in flesh and insert 1 peeled garlic clove in each slit. Place 4 peeled onions and 20 peeled garlic cloves into cavity. Secure cavity. Place over heated coals and start rotisserie. Baste every 20 minutes with the juice of 5 lemons whisked with 375 ml olive oil, ¼ cup dried Greek oregano, ½ cup sea salt and ¼ cup pepper. When golden, (about 4 hours), move half the coals down to one end of spit and carve meat. Or, use the same rub and baste a bone-in lamb leg or shoulder, and cook in a covered barbecue over low heat for 4 hours, turning and basting every 20 minutes.
Photography by Anson Smart.