It’s Carnival time or Apokries again in Greece. Time to celebrate the various customs that are connected to this time of the year. The highlight of Carnival time, besides the carnival procession in Patra, is Clean Monday, which refers to the leaving behind of sinful attitudes and non-fasting foods. It begins the long 40-days of fasting leading up to Easter. This year Clean Monday (Greek: Καθαρά Δευτέρα) falls on Monday 27th February.
Clean Monday is a special day in the lives of the Greek people. For the children, it’s a fun day of kite flying. Seeing how good your kite is and how high it goes is the most important thing. In the past, the father would spend time with his children making the kite, often out of newspaper and thin pieces of wood for the skeleton. Getting the right size and weight of the tail was very important. Nowadays, it’s easier to buy a ready-made kite in various colours and shapes.
For the housewives, the day is about creating tasty ‘sarakostiana’ dishes connected with fasting without spending a lot of time in the kitchen. Therefore, most of the food is not cooked. Various food such as olives, pickles vegetables, taramosalata (a fish roe dip), ‘giant’ beans in a tomato sauce, various shell food as well as octopus boiled and then put in an oil, vinegar and oregano sauce are put onto the table. All this is served with lagana, a bread made without yeast – unleavened or ‘azimo’ (Greek: άζυμο- ‘azimo’). The lagana is eaten in memory of the help that God gave to the Israelites when He led them in the Exodus from Egypt.
Besides the savoury dishes that are served on Clean Monday, the traditional desert that is also eaten on the day is Halva. This delicacy has become a part of Greek tradition and is not only identified with the day, but is a part of the fasting diet for the 40-day Lent period. It began its journey from Asia Minor almost a century ago, in 1924, when three brothers, Konstantinos, Eleftherios and Savvas Haitoglou were forced to leave their homeland in the wake of the Asia Minor catastrophe and settle in Thessaloniki. They undertook to keep alive the vision of their grandfather, Nikos, a halva maker from Asia Minor. Therefore, they set up their first small workshop and they were soon supplying not only Thessaloniki, but Athens as well. The tastiness and the quality of the product spread quickly and the name ‘Makedonikos Halvas’ became well-known.
Soon, this innovative product was travelling outside Greece. In 1950, the company standardized the product, which up till then was sold only in bulk, in containers of just over ½ kilo with the figure of a woman, the Macedonopoula, on it (Greek: Μακεδονοπουλα is a ‘young Greek maiden from Greek Macedonia’). This made it possible for the product to be transported both internally and externally.
Today, after over 90 years of production, the Haitoglou company that produces the ‘Macedoniko’ Halva is still a Greek-owned family company and is one of the biggest food-producing companies. The ‘Macedonikos’ halva has always been produced according to the same recipe that Nikos Haitoglou passed on to his grandsons. It is produced from the tahini paste i.e., a 100% ground sesame seeds, which continue to be ground with the use of stone mills. This traditional way of producing the tahini along with the high quality of the ingredients is what makes the taste of this product so unique.
There are various halva brands on the market, but the Macedoniko brand is still the first choice. Besides this type of halva connected with Clean Monday, there are various recipes for a halva sweets made with oil and semolina in a pot. Below is an easy recipe for such a sweet.
1 cup olive oil
1 cup of fine semolina
1 cup of coarse semolina
3 cups of sugar
4 cups of water
1 cup of sultanas (or ½ cup sultanas and ½ cup of roasted almonds)
1 tsp cinnamon powder
1 cinnamon stick
2 pieces of lemon peel
For the syrup
- Put the sugar, water, cinnamon stick, and lemon peel in a pot.
- Boil for 2-3 minutes.
- Once it has boiled, leave to the side.
For the semolina
- In a large pot, heat the oil, but do not allow it to burn.
- Add both fine and coarse semolina and stir with a wooden spoon until golden brown.
- Add the cinnamon powder, the sultanas, and the roasted almonds. (The roasted almonds can be left out and you can just add the sultanas. Or neither. It’s a matter of taste.)
- Remove the pot from the heat.
- Add the syrup, stirring at the same time. Be careful not to get burnt as the mixture will bubble and spit.
- Put the pot back onto the stove and continue to stir. Lower the heat so that the mixture does not spit.
- Stir the mixture until the syrup has been absorbed by the semolina and is not sticking to the sides of the pot.
- Remove the cinnamon stick and the pieces of lemon peel.
- Empty into a cake mold. Press down on the mixture so that it covers the shape of the old and is uniform.
- Allow to cool.
- Put a platter on top of the mold and turn it over so that it comes right side up onto the platter.
- You can sprinkle a small amount of cinnamon on top before serving.