This coming Monday is – yet another – special day in Greece. You may know it (or have heard of it) as Pure Monday, Ash Monday, Monday of Lent or Green Monday. We Greeks call it Clean Monday or “Kathará Deftéra”. It’s the celebration that marks the beginning of Lent, according to the Orthodox Church, it’s a moveable feast that’s always celebrated 48 days before Easter Sunday and it’s a public holiday across the country.
Clean Monday is so called because people are meant to cleanse their souls and bodies before Lent. And whereas soul-cleansing is done through prayer, going to mass etc, the cleansing of the body is taken care of through fasting. As such, Clean Monday is a “meatless” day, so the food on the table on that day (essentially the family lunch, since it’s a holiday) consists of “nistissima”, ie foods suitable for Lent fasting.
Nistissima is anything but meat, fish, eggs and dairy products. Everything else is allowed, including seafood and shellfish, vegetables (roast, fried or pickled), salads, rice or pasta dishes (usually with tomato sauce and seafood), as well as dips such as taramosalata and eggplant salad (melitzanosalata). Also very typical is the azyme bread that’s only made – and consumed – on Clean Monday, called “lagána”.
Even though the roots of the culinary custom of Clean Monday are in Christian Orthodox religion, it’s not only religious people who celebrate it. In fact, it’s accepted and practiced (almost) universally, especially as most people see it as an opportunity for a gathering among the family or friends, while others view any kind of fasting as an excuse for detoxification from meat and dairy products.
As one can imagine, the Clean Monday lunch is (or can be) a meal that consists of a wide range of delicacies and flavors, despite the fact that it’s supposed to be part of fasting. In a way, the nistissima dishes of Clean Monday reflect the roots of culinary Greece and can be seen as a celebration of the Greek version of “cucina povera”, ie poor or peasant cooking. Its wealth in variety and quantity of dishes is the root of the traditional Greek name of the Clean Monday feast, “koúlouma”. It is thought that the word is derived from the Latin “cumulo”, which means heap or pile.
Besides (or beyond) fasting, one of the most typical customs associated with Clean Monday is the flying of the kite, usually done by the children of the typical Greek family with their father, while the mother is preparing lunch, or among friends. This custom is not unrelated to the character of Clean Monday, as flying the kite symbolizes banishing evil and flying high as the human spirit strives for divinity. Especially on a day with good spring weather, flying the kite will help everyone involved to build an appetite for the feast of nistissima that will follow!
So how do you “dress” the Clean Monday table with suitable wine? Well, it’s easier than you’d think. The most common – and traditional – option is Retsina (watch this space, we will tell you all about Retsina, Greece’s traditional wine, very soon). It’s not the only one, though. As the vast majority of the nistissima dishes are very rich in fresh herbs and botanicals from the Greek countryside, their match with typically aromatic Greek wines is guaranteed to be successful. And in this category we are – literally – spoiled for choice with wines from Moschofilero, Malagousia and Moschato being the obvious choices. When it comes to raw or fried seafood, reach for a bottle of Robola or Assyrtiko (make sure it’s oaked, in the case of grilled or barbecued calamari or octopus), while Savvatiano or Roditis will be perfect aperitifs to get everyone in the mood. Finally, if tomato sauce dishes are included in your nistissima, one of the many exquisite Greek rosés will pair with them perfectly!