Foods associated with the feast of Annunciation in Byzantine monasteries

Monastery of Vatopedi. The dining room.

(Photo credit:

  ” The feast of the Annunciation on March 25 was bound to occur sometime during the Lenten fast, sometimes even during Holy Week, leading many of our authors to make special dietary provisions for it. Without discussion of possible complications,  Stoudios  enjoins the celebration of the feast of the Annunciation with fish prepared with olive oil and accompanied by three measures of wine. In the tenth century,  Latros  does likewise, prescribing fish and the use of olive oil “with moderation.”  Black Mountain also considers this feast a legitimate reason to break a fast with two meals, including any available fish, prepared with oil and accompanied by wine.

According to Evergetis , its monks were to eat fish on this feast if it was sent by benefactors, but the item was not to be procured deliberately. Leftovers were to be consumed freely on the following day, but if there were none, the monks were to be given two dishes prepared with olive oil instead. If the feast fell during the first week of Lent, however, the festal concession would be reduced to wine of the larger measure and gruel. If the feast fell during the first three days of Holy Week, the monks would be allowed shellfish and wine of the larger measure in preference to the usual diet of legumes soaked in water, raw vegetables, fruit, and cumin- flavored water. In a controversial position,  Evergetis  declares, “we will do everything appropriate for the feast even if it should fall on Holy Thursday, or Good Friday, or even holy Easter Eve itself.”

Kosmosoteira , faithfully follows these provisions of its Evergetian model. Phoberos mostly does so also, but restricts the consumption of leftovers from the feast on fast days and omits Easter Eve from the list of days in Holy Week when it must be celebrated. Kecharitomene  permits a celebration with shellfish during Holy Week only on Monday, Tuesday, or Thursday (i.e., the non-fast days). Should the feast occur on Wednesday or on Good Friday, the nuns were to be content with cooked legumes and vegetables accompanied by olive oil. The Easter Eve fast was not to be broken.  Mamas , followed by  Heliou Bomon, makes similar provision for occurrences during Holy Week, but permits wine of the greater measure as a consolation on those days when cooked legumes had to be served for the feast in lieu of shellfish. Pantokrator  is not much different, permitting celebration by consumption of fish at any time in Lent, including on Holy Thursday, except during the weekdays of the first week of Lent and the other days of Holy Week. If the feast occurred during a day during Holy Week when fish could not be consumed, the monks were to have the consolation of the use of wine and olive oil.

The usually strict  Kasoulon  is uncharacteristically lenient on this issue, providing for a three-day feast (March 24-26) featuring food prepared with olive oil and good wine, with no discussion of possible exceptions to its celebration. The usual exception for Holy Week is found in  Machairas , however, when its monks were to be content with legumes, fresh vegetables, seasonal fruits, and hot water flavored with honey and cumin, though an occurrence on Holy Thursday, Good Friday, or Holy Saturday would be marked by serving wine of the customary allotment.”

Byzantine Monastic Foundation Documents: A Complete Translation of the Surviving Founders’ Typika and Testaments edited by John Thomas and Angela Constantinides Hero with the assistance of Giles Constable Published by Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection Washington, D.C.
Appendix B
The Regulation of Diet in the Byzantine Monastic Foundation Documents
p. 1707-8




All you need is


250 gr lentils

600 gr frozen seafood mix


500 gr of a mix of fresh seafood

1 cup onions, cut in pieces

2 bay leaves



virgin olive oil

3 tbs yellow pepper, chopped

wine vinegar


Cook the lentils until tender in water with a touch of salt. Strain them.

Fry the onions in 1/2 cup of olive oil for 1 minute. Add the seafood with bay leaves and peppercorns, stir well, then cover and let fry for 2 minutes. Add salt, 1 cup of water (or more if necessary) and let simmer until seafood is tender and water is almost absorbed.

Add the lentils, 1/2 -1 tsp vinegar, yellow pepper and stir well.

It is served warm or cold.


A wild, Dionysiac festival of fertility, found under the misleading name bourani, marks the beginning of Lent in Tyrnavos. Bourani  is a thick, oil-less, spinach-based soup served on Clean Monday.  During the cooking of the soup the bourani- people tease each other with phallic symbols, while huge phalluses are taken in a procession  through the town and male dancers rub against ground with different parts of their bodies singing “dirty” satirical songs, such as the “How do the Devil’s monks grind the pepper?”. Pepper is a frequent metaphor for sex in the Greek folk poetry.

Passers – by are grabbed and  rocked over the pots of the boiling bourani. They must give the soup a stir, drink tsipouro and kiss the model phalluses before they are let go.   Anyone who kiss the phallus is rewarded with ash on the face. The ash indicates – you’ve been done, you are free to go. Until World War II, only men participated in the festivities and many of them  masqueraded as women. Today, even children take part in bourani.

Of course, Clean Monday is the only time such behavior is permitted.


It is really  interesting that a rich aubergine and lamb dish, the Arabic buraniya, was transformed by the Ottomans into various vegetable- meat dishes and vegetarian stews. Quite often vegetable boranis were cooked together with rice or bulgur and then topped with yoghurt. The oil – less bourani of  Tyrnavos, has its roots in those vegetable dishes.

1/2 kg spinach

250 gr. nettles

250 gr. wild sorrel

2 cups of water

optionally 1/2 cup of olive oil

3 tbs of flour

11/2 -2  tbs vinegar

salt and pepper

Add washed, chopped greens to a pot and cook about five minutes, stirring frequently so they don’t stick to the bottom. Add 2 cups of water, salt, pepper, vinegar (and   olive oil).  Bring to a boil and then simmer over low heat  for  1 1/2 – 2 hours.

Add flour to 5 tbs of  warm water and stir well until flour is completely dissolved. Add the mixture to the greens slowly, stirring continuously. Simmer for 5 minutes and serve.



” Their heart is like an artichoke” Greeks say, describing those who are in love with love and keep a leaf for everyone in sight, like an “I love you…. and you…. and you”.   Here,  the phrase retains the meaning of the original French expression  “avoir un coeur d´artichaut”: to  easily fall in love.

But they also say “Their heart is like an artichoke”  referring to those  who are prickly on the outside, though tender inside, like animated artichokes. It takes much patience and time to peel off their panoply of thorny leaves until you finally have their heart. 


Just like human  hearts, the delicate hearts of the tough purple flower buds require care. 
Hence, add the juice of one lemon to a bowl of cool water. After cutting off artichokes’ stems to the bottom,  remove the hard outer leaves… keep going- removing leaves until you reveal very soft, yellow ones.  Cut off their tops and use a spoon to remove and discard the choke.  Halve the artichokes, rub the cut surfaces with one lemon cut in half, and place them in the lemon water until you’re ready to cook.  Artichokes brown very quickly and you don’t want to see your hearts changing color.
Of course, don’t throw away the stems. Peel them and cook along with the artichokes.
Of course, don’t throw away the leaves. Eat them one at at time, sprinkled with lemon juice. 

There is a plethora of ways to prepare artichokes. You can cook them, fry them, bake them, roast them, grill them, stuff them, use them in pies etc. or eat them raw~ sprinkled with sea salt and lemon juice. In Crete, the egg-size baby artichokes of the early spring  are  served raw, sprinkled with minced spring garlic,  lemon juice, virgin olive oil and chopped dill.  

But. At the farmers market we still have fresh and tender broad beans. And broad beans shine in a dish of artichokes. 



7 medium artichokes

3/4 k. broad beans

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 spring onions, finely chopped

2 spring garlics, finely chopped

3 tbs dill, finely chopped

lemon juice

olive oil

sea salt

ground pepper

Remove the broad beans from the tough pods and with the knife string the tender pods.

In a saute pan, heat 2 tbs olive oil and saute the onions. Add the broad beans, and the artichokes (drained), followed by olive oil, fresh onions, fresh garlic, water to cover, dill. Season with salt and pepper, stir well and cook until the vegetables are fork tender. Add lemon juice and remove from the heat. Serve hot, at room temperature or cold.

Globe Artichokes With Fresh Broad Beans on Foodista




Angel hair soup: with angel hair pasta, chopped potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, onions,  lentils,  bay leaf,  without olive oil. It is eaten during Good Friday.

Bacaliaros, salt cod: once an inexpensive food but now it is a luxury. It is prepared in many ways and is the emblematic food of the Feast of Annunciation and Palm Sunday.
Cheese, soft and fresh: it is often baked in savory or sweet pastries, around Easter.

Derbiye:  although the word in Arabic (tarbiya) and Turkish (terbiye) is applied to egg-lemon sauce, in Greek derbiye refers to a flour and lemon sauce that is used as a thickener, especially in chickpeas, black eyed beans, salted cod and artichoke dishes. In Casos, the term derbiye is used for the dish that is eaten on the Easter Sunday morning after the midnight church service. It is made with the offals, head and legs of the Easter Sunday lamb, rice and onions.

Egg, red: it symbolizes birth and rebirth, long life and immortality and hence Christ’s Ressurection. The red colour of Easter eggs links Jewish and Christian tradition. It reminds the lamb’s blood with which Jews marked their houses and signifies the blood of Christ. The cracking of the eggs was known in Byzantium by 13th century. It symbolizes the breaking of the tomb, but it is also a wish for a new, better life issuing from Christ’s Ressurection. The owner of the last uncracked egg is considered very lucky though.

Flowers: in islands, the Easter cookies are covered with orange and lemon flowers before being stored in tightly closed containers. Home bakers also enjoy the flavoring of orange or lemon flower water in their Easter baking.

Garlic: chopped fresh garlic, olives, soaked broad beans and rusks soaked in water is an easy dish to make and a favorite meze or appetizer with raki and ouzo.

Hyakinth: the bulbs of the genus Muscari comosum are pickled and then served with virgin olive oil and fresh chopped onions. A Lenten delicacy.

Intestines: well washed lamb intestines are used for kokoretsi and mayiritsa.

J: a common shape for Easter cookies in Crete.

Kokoretsi: it is traditionally consumed in mainland Greece, where is the main appetizer on Easter Sunday table. Though it is  related with Easter period, it can be found all year round. Small pieces of lamb’s liver, lungs, heart, kidneys, spleen, suet are pierced on a skewer and covered by well washed small intestine wound around. Kokoretsi is roasted over charcoals and served chopped and sprinkled with salt, pepper and oregano.

Lamb: it is the traditional Easter meat served throughout Greece. Spit-roast lamb (mainland Greece), lamb (or goat) stuffed with rice and herbs and then baked (Aegean islands), baby lamb fed on its mother milk cooked with artichokes in egg-lemon sauce or baked with potatoes (Crete), lamb-pie (W. Crete) etc. are delicacies enjoyed during Easter Sunday lunch.

Mayiritsa: It is egg-lemon soup made with Easter lamb offal and optional chopped lettuce and /or rice. Mayiritsa is eaten in mainland Greece, early on the Easter Sunday morning.

Olive oil: on most days of Holy Week no olive oil is permitted in the cooking.

Pulses: they are much eaten during Lent in a array of delicious dishes, soaked in water or boiled or cooked with or without olive oil.

q: another shape for Eastern cookies.

Roe of cod: it is the basic ingredient of taramosalata, a favorite meze traditionally eaten during Lent, though it is found all year round.

Sesame seeds: they are sprinkled on the Easter cheese and meat pies and on the surface of layers of fyllo dough for sesamopita, a delightful syrup pie.

Tsoureki, sing. tsourekia, pl. (also known as lambropsomo = bright bread): though the word derives from Turkish çörek, this brioche- like bread is the traditional bread of Easter. It is baked on Good Friday and a red egg is placed in its center symbolizing the resurrection of Christ and the eternal life.

Voutyro: butter, in Greek. One of the basic ingredients used in the making of Greek Easter cookies and tsourekia.

Wheat flour: it is used for making Easter cookies, tsoureki – traditional  Easter sweet bread- and savory and sweet cheese pies.

Yeast: sourdough starter, brewer’s yeast and chemical yeast (baking powder)- or a combination of these- are used to make Easter cookies and tsourekia light and fluffy.


Τhough I was raised in a non religious middle class family, the consumption of special Lenten foods didn’t differ from other middle class housholds,  apart from the fact that it had to do with folk rituals rather than religion. 
When I was a child, crab meat, black caviar, botargo, taramas, taramosalata, halva, date palms and coconuts were the sine quibus non of the Cretan urban Lenten diet. I remember my father putting caviar on a thin slice of toasted bread,  asking me to hold the bite  into my mouth for a moment and feel the fresh sea fragrance and the funny texture.
That caviar was coming from Evros, a river flowing into the Thracian sea (N. W. Greece), which sustained a small fishery and caviar canning operation of sturgeon (Acipenser sturio L.). Overfishing, reduction and pollution of Evros’ waters caused devastation to sturgeon populations and the collapse of caviar industry, in 1975. One year before the collapse of fishery,  the military dictatorship had fallen in Greece, so, pretty soon the imports of Russian caviar began. However,  it was  unaffordable delicacy for most Greeks. Hence the consumption of the precious black eggs was limited to only the most special occasions. Of course, we still eat halva, date palms, coconuts, tarama and botargo ( though a costly delicacy too).

Fish roe for taramas
Fish roe for taramas

Being  luxury or not, fish roe is regarded as the characteristic  food of Lent. This paradox of fasting from fish  but not from fish eggs is not quite similar to the paradox of  the prohibition of wine and olive oil  (though grapes and olives can be eaten). Wine and olive oil are not allowed during fasting because they are processed foods  and they afford pleasure -moreover, you can drunk on wine-  but why  is the consumption of taramas, caviar and botargo not forbidden? Aren’t they processed fish eggs, don’t they afford pleasure?   In the late 18th century, the scholars of Greek Enlightenment–an intellectual movement that combined Western liberal thought with ancient Greek spirit- emphasized that this form of fasting had no logic. But the tradition was stronger.  During Ottoman occupation, these paradoxes  were encouraged by the Orthodox Christians  who lived among Jews, Muslims and Catholics. Their traditional fasting practices  were linked not only to religious beliefs but also to ethnic behaviors. In other words, they were an affirmation of cultural identity. 



Black caviar is considered the best quality of fish roe, avgotaraho (botargo)- the salted, dried and wrapped in wax, ovary of female cephalus- is an expensive delicacy, and taramas- the salted and aged roe of cod or carp-  is the poorest quality. All of them are  greatly appreciated.
The appreciation for fish eggs  is traced back to antiquity. However,  Byzantines became familiar with the word caviar no earlier than 9th century. As for botargo,  the physician Symeon Seth mentioned it in the 11th century (Properties of Foods, p. 125)*;  it “should be avoided totally”, he noted. Of course,  his contemporaries rejected his advice. 

The consumption of caviar, botargo, taramas- foods which are not  “real” foods but  delicacies-  was social indicator in Byzantine society. Taramas was consumed by the poor, while black caviar was imported for the aristocrats, the wealthy and  the notables. Monks of highest degree or of noble origin were also enthusiastic eaters of caviar and botargo.  In 11 and 12 th centuries, the monks of higher status were fasting during Lent on oysters, clams, crabs, squids, lobsters,  botargo, and  black caviar imported from Tanais (Don) on the sea of Azov (Black sea) or from Caspian Sea. 

Although this trend in Greek fasting diet continued in Ottoman times, in the late 18th century black caviar became affordable to common people. Ioannis Varvakis**- a Greek whose business issues were related with systematic production, conservation, standardization and trade of caviar-  became the first major international black caviar leader. “He exported so much caviar to Greece in the late 1780s that he had to employ thousands workers.” (Saffron, Caviar: The Strange History and Uncertain Future of the World’s Most Coveted Delicacy, p. a:64, 2001)  As Thomas Smart Hughes pointed out,  in Ioannina (N.E. Greece) in 1830 ” Botargo, which is the roe of the red or grey mullet, and caviar, which is that of the sturgeon, imported from the Black Sea, is much relished, especially during the season of religious fasts.” (Travels in Greece and Albania, vol. II, p. 24, 1830). And  Christopher Wordsworth, describing the commodities with which the Athenian market was supplied in 1832, mentions  barrels of black caviar, among other things. (Athens and Attica, Journal of a Residence there, by Cristopher Wordsworth, 1834, 2004).  
The sources also mention imports of red caviar from Constantinople, the Black Sea and the coasts of Asia Minor. The taramas merchandised in the Aegean islands was mainly made from eggs of cheap fish.

But four years before the World War I, the caviar consumption was reduced. Most of the famous Russian caviar was consumed locally and the exported eggs became very expensive: “The long fasts enjoined by the Orthodox Church lead to a very large consumption of salt fish and caviar — not the Astrakhan caviar, which is as costly as in England — but red caviar, which is imported in tubs. This is pounded with garlic and lemon juice into what is called tarama salata and is eaten with oil. It is a distinctively Greek dish”. (Ferriman, Z. Duckett, Home life in Hellas, Greece and the Greeks p.181, 1910)

Τhe Russian black caviar had become again a perishable delicacy, a status symbol.


Ioannis Albanis’ Colonial shop in New York.

He sold: Black caviar, smoked tongue, taramas, botargo, octopus, smoked grey mullet, halva, tahini, honey, okras, aubergines, peppers (from Florina), bulbs, olive oil, olives, cheece.


  Caviar salad (Chaviarosalata, Χαβιαροσαλάτα)

“Crush an onion (in a mortar), add black caviar, one boiled cooled and puréed potato, bread soaked in water and squeezed dry; stir constantly till the mixture becomes thick, add some olive oil and vinegar while stirring , add some lemon and olive oil, decorate with parsley and serve.” (Alexiades B., Megali oikogeneiaki mageiriki & zaharoplastiki, 2nd ed. 1905)

Smoked herring roe spread

(Chaviarosalata kapnistis rengas, Χαβιαροσαλάτα καπνιστή ρέγγας) 

1/3 cup smoked herring roe

2 spring onions (white part + 3cm green)

1 small onion

1 small spring garlic (white part)

2 medium potatoes, boiled, peeled and puréed

2 tsps wine vinegar

3 tbs lemon juice

1/2 – 3/4 cup virgin olive oil

In a food processor put all ingredients except potatoes, olive oil and lemon juice, and blend. Transfer the mixture to a  bowl and add the potato puree and half of lemon juice. Stirring constantly add the olive oil slowly. Taste when the oil has been absorbed and add more lemon juice if you like.


Mackerel roe


The roe of  lobster, sea urchin,  octopus, salmon, sardine, mackerel, herring, sea bream and several other fish is considered a delicacy. The roe can be eaten fried, baked or roasted over charcoal embers. If the roe is small, it can be cooked inside the whole fish. 

This roe has been cooked inside the grilled mackerel. It was served sprinkled with pepper and drizzled with lemon and extra virgin olive oil. If you prefer a more robust taste substitute  the extra virgin olive oil for slightly bitter green olive oil.

*Botargo < Gr. avgotarahon < ᾠοτάριχον < ᾠóν ‘egg’ + τάριχον ‘pickled fish’.

**Varvakis  financed the building of Athens’ closed central market, the Varvakeios Agora.