Rio. New Orleans. Those are the places that come to mind when most people think of Carnival. But in Greece, Carnival, called “apokries,” which means “away from meat,” is one of the most festive times and yet one of the least known to non-Greeks, probably because most visitors to Greece gravitate to the country in the summer. Apokries lasts three weeks and four Sundays and takes place in the period just before the 40-day Lenten fast, which many Greeks still follow. There are specific foods eaten on specific days during the whole Carnival period, the whole idea being that one slowly weans oneself off meat and dairy in preparation for a long fast.
The Roots of Greek Carnival
Carnival and all the customs surrounding it trace their roots to remotest antiquity, to the Dionysian rites and even further back to the primitive fertility-inducing rituals of early farmers. There are dances and performances and communal rituals. In Thebes, on Clean Monday (which is really the first day of Lent), a mock wedding is held in which the bride and groom wear bells. Not long ago, part of the fun was to ride backward on a donkey. In Patras, Greece’s third largest city and a large port town on the western side of the Peloponnese, Carnival is a huge tourist attraction. The last weekend is marked by a huge masked parade and endless feasting. In Tyrnavo, an area in the middle of mainland Greece known for its excellent ouzo and tsipouro (eau de vie), Carnival takes on an almost orgiastic flavor. People strut the streets with mock phalluses and other sexual symbols. Ironically, at least to this gastronome, the dish savored most amidst the Dionysian festivities is a very calming rice dish called bourani. Other places in Greece renowned for their wild Carnvival festivities are the island of Skyros, as well as Galaxidi, a seaside resort opposite the Peloponnese on the mainland, the northeastern Aegean island of Chios and Naoussa, one of Greece’s premiere wine-making regions.
The First Week
The festivities last three weeks and four Sundays. The first week is called profoni (“announce”), because it used to be tradition to announce the opening of the Carnival season from a hill or high point in each village.
The Second Week
The second week of Carnival is the meat-eating week. That’s the week we’re in now. Pigs were customarily slaughtered during this week. There is even a special day designated specifically for eating meat, called Tsiknopempti, or “sputtering” Thursday, after the sizzling sound meat makes as it is grilled.
At the end of the second week of Carnival is Psihosavato, or All-Soul’s Saturday. It is actually one of three days set aside during this period and during the start of Lent to honor the dead and pray for the forgiveness of their souls. Traditionally on All-Soul’s Day, kollyva, a special memorial dish made with boiled whole wheat kernels and decorated with pomegranate seeds, currants, powdered sugar, walnuts, parsley and cinnamon, is brought to church and sometimes to the graves of the dead as an offering.
The Third Week
During the last week of Carnival, traditionally, meat is almost never eaten. Instead, the table centers around cheese and milk and eggs. Tiropita, or cheese pie, galatopita, or milk pie, creamy rice puddings and the phyllo-wrapped semolina custard known as galaktoboureko are the dishes Greeks indulge in. Pasta with eggs and cheese is also popular. There are dozens of variations of each.
The last festivities of Carnival culminate on that last Sunday, Cheese Sunday,or Tirini, just before the start of Lent. Sometimes, the very last thing to be eaten is an egg, the first food with which we break the Lenten fast 40 days later.