How I carved 40 whole lambs for Greek Easter - and survived with wine
A fortnight today, I’ll be setting off on a four-day, 100-kilometre trek through the Drakensberg in support of the Laureus Sport For Good Foundation, alongside rugby players Brian O’Driscoll and Bryan Habana, and Annabelle Bond, the fastest woman to climb the highest summits on all seven continents.
It’s 100 kilometres further than I’ve ever hiked before, with seven or eight hours a day scrambling across mountains, and bitterly cold mornings giving way to baking hot afternoons. But no matter how tough it gets, it won’t be the toughest challenge I take on this year.
Eight years ago, to a backdrop of breaking plates, wild dancing, and my mother stage diving off tables, I got married and happily became Greek by marriage, thus immersing myself in the most wonderful of cultures.
Deeply rooted in a sense of family, full of affection, capable of making an extraordinary amount of noise, it’s hard not to fall for the charm of Greek culture. But most important of all to the Greek people – more than football, more than dancing, more than a collective allergy to tax season – is food.
The first time I met my wife Dimitra’s parents, the sheer scale of Greek feasting was made brutally apparent. My mother-in-law Eleni is as fine a chef as I’ve encountered, and a woman I’ve come to love dearly; but she also might be the single most dangerous woman on earth. Her approach to catering is simple – work out how many people are coming to dinner, and then imagine each one arrives with a dozen friends you didn’t know were joining you. And so my debut, my initiation into Greek culinary culture, involved an entire chicken, the better part of a leg of lamb, half a loaf of bread, liberal lashings of moussaka, dolmades and tiropita, swathes of hummus and taramosalata, and a compost heap masquerading as a Greek salad. That, to be clear, was just for me.
I slept on my back that night, with a case of food-induced rigor mortis, unable to move after vast amounts of the best Greek fare I’ve ever had. And there were flashbacks to that night over this weekend past, as I partook in the biggest celebration of all – Greek Easter. It’s an extremely religious time for a culture with the church as the cornerstone, and time attending services is both plentiful, and beautiful, a moving celebration of Greek history, culture and faith. But once Saturday night mass is done, and the fast is broken with traditional rice soup, it’s on to a Sunday quite unlike any other.
There’s something hypnotic about watching 40-odd whole lambs turning in measured unison on one long, massive spit, held together by the world’s longest bicycle chain.
Visit Greece, and you’ll discover that lamb’s not quite as prevalent on the national menu as you might imagine, but it usually gets star billing at any big feast, and for the hundreds of Greeks who gathered on Sunday at the Greek Orthodox Church in Benoni, a vast amount of lamb was required to celebrate the holiest of times.
Completing the sense of occasion was an honour granted to me for the second year running: carving duties, and turning a whole roasted lamb into manageable portions for my family and guests.
Carving an entire lamb is both more complicated than it first looks, and demanding work – but it’s the pressure of deboning an entire beast while your Greek family watches on closely that makes for the real challenge. That, and parents-in-law who firmly believe that your reward for taking on butcher’s duties should be eating half the lamb yourself…
I got away with substantially less than half, but still a vast amount – and all washed down with wine, as all good Greek meals are. Back in the family village, as you might recall from previous columns, it’s homemade wine from the rustic cellars of my wife’s uncles, but in South Africa, there’s more than enough exceptional local wine to accompany huge chunks of roasted lamb.
This weekend, Rustenberg’s easy-drinking RM Nicholson red blend did the job, a cheerful, fruity blend with a Shiraz base that plays off the richness of the never-ending stream of lamb. But the wine also complemented the equally important aspects of any Greek celebration; family in abundance, everyone talking at the same time, traditional dance breaking out frequently, and my mother-in-law worrying that there might not be enough food.
Becoming part of the Greek community, and embracing all that it has to offer, has made for a fabulous journey, and last weekend was yet another opportunity to toast that journey. Even if surviving the feast seems a far more daunting challenge than the upcoming Drakensberg expedition.
What I’m drinking this week: A minor skirmish broke out on Twitter last week between Greg Sherwood, London-based South African Master of Wine and esteemed local critic Christian Eedes, about the merits of Rosé, and what may or may not constitute a rating ceiling for pink wine.
I won’t attempt to join the debate, but I will celebrate a terrific Rosé, and one with a great story. The grandmother of the current generation at Lozarn escaped Germany in World War I, lived in Lucerne (or Lozarn in German), found her way via marriage in Zimbabwe to South Africa, and duck farming in Robertson; today the estate still has ducks, and a rare Chilean block of Carmenere, possibly the only place the grape is planted here. From that a straight Carmenere is made, as well as the Rosé: firm and serious with a depth Rosé could never have been accused of a decade ago. Add in a dark colour and a welcome lack of sweetness, it’s a terrific advert for a quirky varietal, and another wine for Sherwood and Eedes to do battle over.
Want to see what else Dan Nicholl has been drinking? Watch his latest episode of Dan Really Likes Wine!