The 48 days of Greek Lent begin on Kathara Deftera, or “Clean Monday” which follows the three weeks of carnival, or apokries. There’s no other holiday on the Greek calendar with such a special culinary tradition as this first day of Lent, including the bread. On “Clean Monday”, Greeks eat lagana: a flat, oval-shaped unleavened bread – a great accompaniment to vegetables, olives, pickles, and other Lenten dishes like tarama (fish roe paste).
Throughout Lent and on fasting days, the Greek Orthodox do not eat the flesh or products of any blood animals. However, octopus, shrimp and all kinds of shellfish are allowed. A favorite Kathara Deftera delicacy is sea urchin roe: the Greek caviar that tastes of the sea’s freshness. The full moon around this date means the sea urchins burst with eggs.
Surely you’ve noticed the sea urchins on rocky beaches. I always warn swimmers to look out for them: stepping on a sea urchin is very painful and trampling them is such a shame as they’re very tasty!
We fish for sea urchins with a long cane rod with a forked end, like a slingshot and a bucket with a glass bottom so you can clearly see the seabed. On Kathara Deftera, I used to go and gather sea urchins for the Lenten table with my father. I had to lean over the side of the boat, spot the sea urchins, catch them with this pole, and lure them up to the boat. Sometimes a small wave would rock the boat, causing me to lose my balance and tip over into the sea. My father stopped taking me with him when his friends, watching from their boats, teased him about losing his assistant at sea!
We eat the sea urchins raw, with a little fresh lemon juice squeezed over the roe. We eat them fresh and alive, a few hours after we catch them. (Sea urchins are alive when they wiggle their needles and shouldn’t be eaten if dead.) The way to eat a sea urchin is simple: hold it carefully in your cupped hand and split the shell open with a knife, wedging the blade’s tip in the mouth. Scoop out the eggs, transfer to a small dish, drizzle with some olive oil, and eat with a spoon.