All over Eastern Europe, Easter is celebrated with baskets covered with hand-embroidered cloths and filled with freshly baked bread, butter and ham to be sprinkled with holy water. By Elisabeth Luard
The great festival of Easter, the most important feast day of the Orthodox Christian year, is celebrated throughout Eastern Europe at the time of spring planting.
With many families no more than a generation away from the land, returning home for the holiday is a chance to exchange news, revisit old memories and provide willing hands to help in the fields.
For the Ruthenes of Ludomirova, Ukrainians marooned in the High Tatras on the Slovak-Ukrainian border in the wake of the Second World War, the traditions of Easter now have a particular poignancy. At the time of my visit in 1991 – the year Ukraine declared independence from Soviet Russia – a film crew from Kyiv, to the surprise of the villagers, came looking for their roots.
The patriarch of Ludomirova’s monastic church was free throughout the years of Communism to celebrate a Mass of Resurrection on Holy Saturday and, thereafter, to sprinkle holy water over his congregation’s Easter baskets. These – prettily covered with hand-embroidered cloths and filled with freshly baked bread, newly churned butter, ham from the brine pot and the last of the winter stores – had first to be taken to the graveyard to ensure ancestral goodwill.
Then the baskets were placed in a double line outside the holy confines of the church with the covers drawn back to receive a sprinkling of holy water from the patriarch. It was also a reminder to a higher power of the need for spring rain.
The baskets could be taken home for the enjoyment of all (including me, a fortunate guest). The ham was carved in thick, pink slices to eat with pickles, relishes and buttery babka still warm from the oven. And, in pride of place, an all-egg dumpling as round and golden as the sun.
Easter egg dumpling
This unusual recipe, a solid sphere of scrambled egg, looks decorative, slices up neatly and goes well with the last of the ham from the brine pot. Serves 6.
1 litre full-cream milk
10 large eggs, whisked
1 tsp salt
Extra egg for glazing
Bring the milk to the boil, remove from the heat and whisk in the eggs. Add the salt and keep whisking until the egg is thoroughly scrambled.
Tip the mixture into a sieve lined with a clean linen cloth (maybe a large square of old sheet), tie the ends together and hang in a warm place to drain – overnight is best – with a bowl underneath to catch the whey (save it for pancakes).
When it’s perfectly drained and firm, tip it on to a baking sheet, paint with beaten egg, and slip it into the bread-baking oven – 350oF/180oC/Gas 4 – for 10 minutes to give it a shine.
Olia’s rhubarb-and-radish pickle
A fresh little relish to accompany the Easter ham recommended by Olia Hercules, author of Mamushka, an award-winning cookbook on her native Ukraine. Serves 2-4.
Juice of a large lemon
2 tsp caster sugar
1 fennel bulb
150g tender young rhubarb
Sea salt and freshly ground black
Mix the lemon juice, sugar and a pinch of salt and pepper in a middle-sized bowl. Trim the fennel, removing the tough outer stalks and reserving the fronds.
Slice the rhubarb, radishes and fennel as finely as possible, then toss with the seasoned lemon juice in the bowl. Leave for 10 minutes to pickle a little, then finish with roughly chopped fennel fronds.