In Greece, a country with ancient food customs, Christmas traditionally belongs to the humble pig. Or, rather, the humble pig belongs to our dinner table on that day and on many others following it, right up through Lent, as it is savored in the form of sausages, charcuterie, chitlins, bacon, confit, lard, head cheese and various other things depending on one’s village and the specific customs associated with it.
Unsexy as this sounds and un-Mediterranean as it might seem, the pig has always been a most important provider of protein during the winter months in Greece as well as in the rest of the (Christian) Mediterranean.
From December 6th, a major feast day celebrating St. Nicholas (the patron saint of sailors) to late January when Saint Anthony is celebrated (01.17), the hoirosfagia – festive hog slaughters—take place in agrarian communities. Many families raise a hog or two, slaughter it in mid-winter, have a kind of working party around that activity, and invite friends and neighbors to enjoy the feast. In most places there is a specific order to the preparations. It takes about three days to complete the process. Those who do all the dirty work (the men) usually have first dibs on the best parts of the pig and tend to express strong opinion regarding the best parts of the pig. The liver is very often the first treat, fried on the afternoon of the slaughter. At night a ground pork sauce might be served over pasta or maybe a soup made with the neck, undoubtedly one of the tastiest cuts of the animal. The making of sausages follows, these are flavored differently in the various parts of the country in which they are produced. In the Cyclades, for example, fennel is the main seasoning; in the Peloponnese, orange; in Macedonia hot pepper and cumin.
Other specifically regional preparations include the louza, a marinated, air-dried pork loin made in the Cyclades; the singlino, pork cured in lard or olive oil from the Mani; kavourmas, a kind of confit found in Thrace and parts of Macedonia and apaki, a vinegar-tinged sausage from Crete. There are more, too numerous in fact to be included in this article.
The pork slaughter also sports a gender divide with the men doing all the heavy work and the women, usually in groups of friends, cousins, siblings, etc., handling the smaller cured preparations.
Then, of course, there is the litany of great dishes based on fresh pork that make up some of the best meals in the Greek country kitchen. These inevitably find their way onto the Christmas table.
Whole roasted suckling pig is probably the king of the holiday table. It is usually seasoned simply with lemon and oregano, but recipes from the north of the country for suckling pig stuffed with chestnuts, pine nuts, cheese, onions and spices also exist.
Greeks’ ways with pork in a pot are endless and these long-simmered stews are usually some of the most delicious winter dishes. Pork is stewed with white beans in Macedonia, as well as pork with greens or leeks and avgolemono (egg and lemon mix) all over the country. A rich dish of pork with walnut sauce is found in certain of the colder parts of the country. In Lesvos, a recipe called Christougeniatiko (translation: “Of Christmas”) is an unusual combination of pork stewed with chick peas, chestnuts and tomatoes. In Cyprus, we find Afelia, pork cooked with red wine and coriander.
Offal is a whole other chapter in the annals of pork cookery and there are many traditional Christmas dishes based on the innards of the humble pig.However these are not high on my list of holiday delicacies so you won’t find them included in my suggested recipes, naturally so in a chef’s humble opinion.
Check out Recipe of the Week for excellent Christmas Pork recipes.