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This Year, Have A Greek Easter: Grilling A Whole Lamb

Ah, lucky the traveler who visits Greece in
spring! The light is clean and bright, the weather is mild with a hint of warmth to come,
the air is fresh and sweet. Best of all is this: if the Gods are smiling atop Mt. Olympus
(or if you’re simply a careful planner), your trip may coincide with Easter’s
many festivities.


Easter is the single most important holiday in
Greece, with roots buried deep in the ancient past. The country’s early Christians
melded traditional spring festivities -- the pagan Dionysian rites of spring and
Persephone’s mythical return from the underworld -- with Christ’s resurrection,
resulting in a unique, week-long, very joyous event. The entire week preceding Easter
Sunday is filled with festivals, and many days of the week have their own unique rituals
which vary from one village or island to another. Only on the island of Kalymnos, for
example, does dynamite thrown from a mountain-top signal Easter Week’s beginning.

More universal is the Thursday practice of making
and consuming red hard-cooked eggs. Before eating one, be sure to tap one end of your egg
against the end of a friend's egg; then reverse the eggs and tap again. If your egg
survives uncracked, you'll have good luck for the year ahead (hint: tap very, very

On Friday, every church takes its icons out of
storage. During the day they’re placed on a decorated bier, and celebrants walk
respectfully by to observe (and sometimes kiss) them. In the evening the icon procession
begins. The faithful, carrying candles and incense burners, follow the priests and the
bier on a tour of the parish. An average town has many churches, and, hence, many
processions. This accounts for an old saying: if you see forty processions in one day,
you'll marry within the year.

In some locations -- Corfu, for example -- Holy
Saturday brings the breaking of crockery in the town center. Before midnight, everyone
enters their local church. On the stroke of twelve cheers ring out and rockets light up
the sky. From the church a flame, blessed by the local Papa -- as the priest is called --
is passed. Locals light their own candles from the flame; then they bring it home and mark
a smoky cross on their front doors, blessing their homes for the coming year. In the wee
hours celebrants eat a traditional soup, mageritsa, made from the lungs, liver, kidney,
and fried intestines of lamb; the broth is flavored with egg and lemon. It's a rich,
restorative, and flavorful soup, the perfect thing with which to face the next year.

A special Easter Sunday treat -- ending the
40-day Lenten fast of no meat -- is a whole lamb roasted over an open wood fire. During
the grilling process people nibble on a never-ending variety of mezedakia, Greek hors
d’ouevres, while talking, dancing, and singing. Spitted lamb has ancient roots in
Greece. It’s frequently mentioned by Homer and other ancient story-tellers, and
historians recorded that Alexander’s armies celebrated victories with massive sheep

If you can’t make it to Greece this Easter,
why not do the next best thing? Invite a crowd and grill a whole spring lamb in the back
yard. Your friends and relatives will consider it a major event: long after Easter has
flown they’ll be talking about your festive meal. Grilling a lamb isn’t
complicated or difficult -- it just take a bit of advance planning. Here’s a 12-step

A Week Before:

1. Obtain
a spit.

Buy, borrow, rent, or build a
spit capable of handling a whole lamb. It should have supports that allow you to raise and
lower the lamb over the fire.

A Day Or Two Before:

2. Purchase
the Lamb.

Contact a wholesale butcher for
the best price. Depending on the number of people, choose a lamb between 45-60 pounds
(allow 1 to 1-1/2 pounds per person); order it fully dressed, with kidneys intact. Hang it
in a cool, airy place. The fell -- a thin membrane covering the body -- protects it from
drying and spoiling.

3. Prepare
the Fire Pit.

Dig a simple pit about one foot
deep, six feet long, and three feet wide. Mound dirt on each side to retain heat.

4. Stockpile

You'll need a few oak logs to
begin the fire, and from 40 to 80 pounds of high-quality charcoal or hardwood. Mesquite is
a good choice, but you can make do with ordinary briquettes or hardwood of any sort. Soft
wood doesn't make coals and can impart an unpleasant flavor to the meat.

On the Feast Day:

5. Establish
the Fire

For a late-afternoon dinner,
begin preparations about 8 or 9 in the morning. Use crumpled newspapers, kindling, and oak
logs to make the first layer of coals. If the weather is damp, a bit of charcoal starter
helps the task. When the wood burns down to coals, cover with a layer of charcoal or
hardwood. The fire is ready when a bed of coals 2-3" deep covers the pit.

6. Preparing
the Lamb.

While the fire readies, prepare
the lamb for roasting: just wash it down with water and a bit of vinegar to remove any
molds or bacteria. Peel half a dozen cloves of garlic and slice them into 1/8”
pieces. Make an incision in the skin every six inches or so, and slip a small piece of
garlic under the fell and into the fat. As the lamb cooks, the garlic’s sweet perfume
will flavor the meat. Nothing more need be done, though you may want to sprinkle the
outside lightly with salt and pepper or lay a few few branches of wet rosemary on the

7. Spitting the Lamb.

Run the spit through the lamb's
anal opening, along the backbone, and through the neck. Clamps and pins need to be
improvised to hold the lamb firmly -- but not too tightly -- in place. The meat expands as
it cooks, and too tight a binding can cut it as surely as a knife. Balance the spit so the
meat doesn’t shift position. Rake coals to either side, forming an empty path in the
middle. Build a channel with heavy aluminum foil to catch and drain away dripping fat.

8. Putting
the Lamb On.

Put the lamb over the fire at a
height where you can comfortably hold your hand: hot, but not too hot (if the meat is too
close to the fire, it cooks too quickly on the outside and too slowly on the inside).
After about ten minutes lamb fat will begin to spatter onto the fire, and soon the
delicious smell of roasting lamb wafts through the air. As time goes by, the fat will
crisp and form a golden-brown crackle. From this point on, give the lamb a quarter-turn
every 5-10 minutes, ensuring uniform cooking.

9. Maintaining
the Fire.

It’s important to keep the
fire at the right temperature. Add new charcoal at the outside edge of the fire, replacing
that which has burned. Moving the coals around knocks off the ash and raises the
temperature. From time to time, you may need to raise or lower the lamb to make it cook
more slowly or quickly. But don't rush things. A lamb is a big piece of meat; it takes
time -- five or six hours -- to cook it on the inside without turning the outside to a
blackened mess. The lamb must cook evenly, inside and out.

10. Test
for Doneness.

Plunge a knife into the thickest
part of the haunch, let it rest a moment, and then pull it out and touch it to your lips.
When the meat is medium rare, the knife will be hot, but not too hot.

11. Remove
from Fire and Carve.

Take the lamb -- spit and all --
to an improvised carving table (plywood on sawhorses works just fine). Remove the spit.
You'll need two sharp knives and a pair of clean gloves for carving (the gloves protect
you from the meat's heat). Take out the kidneys first, then cut along the backbone to
remove both loins; slice into noisettes. Remove the legs. Holding a leg steady with one
hand, cut down and out to the joint, making uniform slices across the grain. Cut the ribs
and breast free, slice the shoulder, and remove whatever pieces of meat remain.Work fast
to serve everyone before the meat gets cold (a metal grill placed over the fire’s
remains can be used to keep the meat warm).

12. Serve.

Choose simple accompaniments for
your feast. Asparagus, as much a part of spring as Easter, is always good with lamb. Try
tossing the spears with a simple olive oil and fresh-squeezed lemon dressing. A green
salad is a must. New boiled potatoes, young fava beans steamed in the shell, fresh green
peas, and artichokes are other good bets.