Roasted either on the spit or on a grill over a charcoal fire, the lamb has an incomparable flavor. I often wonder whether the Greek obsession with roasted baby lamb is due to the fact that, for ages, it has been the festive dish enjoyed on Easter and on some important religious and family occasions. Or, rather, perhaps it is the fabulous taste of the succulent meat alone that makes people drool.
There are no large lambs or mutton in Greece; lambs weigh no more than 24 pounds. Supermarkets import large legs of lamb from Australia and New Zealand--similar to the lamb you get in the U.S.--but they are not very popular. Baby lamb is far more flavorful when eaten the moment it is removed from the oven or carved from the spit. There is general consensus that the baby lamb "imported" from the islands is the best.
Butchers advertise their meats as coming from Kea, Tinos, Naxos, or other islands where the lamb are fed on wild greens and herbs. Their flesh is tender and somewhat gamy at the same time.
At Easter, families order a whole lamb from a distant relation or friend, who will bring it from remote islands like Folegandros or Astypalaia, where lamb is raised, usually, for local consumption only.
During the days before Easter, the ferries coming from the islands are packed with slaughtered lambs, and people wait impatiently in taxis or private cars to get their precious cargo. Most Americans, used to neat packages of meat, would be appalled at the sight of the sloppily wrapped whole lambs with heads, if not throats, maintaining their integrity.
Greeks also love kid (young goat), which is leaner than lamb, with its slightly darker meat. It tends to dry out when roasted on a spit, and it is best roasted in the oven. I am not particularly crazy about spit-roasted lamb, and this year I plan to roast half a kid in our wood burning oven. The recipe I will be using is linked below. I will flavor the meat with a North-African inspired spice blend, lemon, and onion. I have adapted it for the lamb available in Europe and the U.S.
Polyspori: Mixed Bean Salad with Dill, and Garlic-Lemon-Tahini Dressing
This is a Lenten dish I serve on Good Friday, when even olive oil is banned from the table. If you don't like tahini, substitute 4 tablespoons fruity olive oil, and omit the wine or water.
Magiritsa: Easter Lamb Soup
Magiritsa is traditionally made with the parts of the lamb not used for spit-roasting. Remember that Greek Easter lambs are very small (about 24 pounds). The soup gets its distinctive taste from scallions, fresh dill, and egg-and-lemon sauce. There are lots of different magiritsa recipes. A friend described to me the one her family prepared in Halki, a small island in the Dodecanese.
Roasted Leg of Lamb with North-African Spices, Lemon, and Onions
I call this herb and spice rub "North-African" because, besides the classic oregano and rosemary, it contains such Tunisian and Moroccan spices as caraway, cumin, and turmeric. In addition it is spiked with harissa, the ubiquitous hot pepper paste, that is to Arab North-Africa what chili oil is to Asia.