Easter is a moveable feast in both Eastern and Western church traditions — quite literally, since the date can vary by several weeks whether celebrated according to the Western (Roman Catholic) or Eastern (Orthodox Catholic) calendar: This year’s Roman Catholic Easter is March 31, and the Orthodox date is May 5. This can make for some confusion where the two groups intersect, as they often do in central Europe. Traditions in both camps, however, feature eggs as the universal symbol of rebirth.
A Russian Orthodox Easter as celebrated in the early 1990s by a self-sufficient farming family of Ruthenes living in Slovakia’s Tatras mountains on the borders of the Ukraine provided me with a lesson in maintaining national identity through festive traditions in a situation where church festivals were not officially celebrated at all.
The Ruthenes, Russian-speaking Ukrainians marooned in Slovakia in the aftermath of World War II, maintained their language and religion throughout the years of communism thanks, in all probability, to their minority status and the inaccessibility of their steep ravines and dense forest. Through the long winters, while the city dwellers of Eastern Europe endured shortages and bread queues, the peasant communities of the Tatras survived as they always had, through self-sufficiency and a well-stocked store cupboard. And at Easter, the most important festival of the Christian year, those who had moved to the cities to find work returned home to be with their families and enjoy the last of the stores, providing extra hands to plant the potato crop, the most important and labor-intensive task of the year.
At the time of my visit, my hostess, Anna Ludomirova — matriarch of a peasant farming family in the High Tatras — was preparing the Easter basket to be taken to the churchyard. Packed with good things — a tall round babka enriched with eggs and butter, decorated eggs, salt (a very important item in any self-sufficient household), the last of the ham from the brine pot — the basket was taken to be blessed with a sprinkling of holy water by the monks at the Russian Orthodox church on Easter Saturday. Once this ritual had been observed and the basket shown to the family ancestors buried in the churchyard, everyone returned home to unpack and share the contents.
Easter egg cheese part of traditional holiday meal
This picnic-style meal freed the ladies of the household to enjoy the company of visitors. But before the feast could begin, certain rituals had to be observed. A bowl of decorated Easter eggs painted with wax and dipped in colored dyes was set on the table and a ceremonial candle lit. Then Mama Anna sliced the top off a raw egg, mixed the contents with a little spoon and passed it round the table for everyone to take a little sip — a unifying gesture shared by all.
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These important rituals concluded, the company tucked into sliced ham and wind-cured sausage, spiced beetroot and gherkins in sweetened vinegar, grated horseradish in cream, eggs hard-boiled and saved in obedience to the prohibitions of Lent, thick slices of the buttery babka spread with more butter. Most unusual, however, was the centerpiece of the feast, egg cheese, a magnificent yellow globe as large and round as a soccer ball made by scrambling the first of the year’s eggs with the first of the year’s milk, tipping the result in a cloth and leaving it to drip overnight till firm and dry — a technique that mirrors the preparation of rennetted cheese later in the year, when the calves are weaned and the cows put out to grass. The eggshells did not go to waste, as they were emptied through pinholes to keep the shells intact and saved for the children to decorate with melted candle wax for the patterned Easter eggs sent to the churchyard in the basket.
After the collapse of the Russian empire and the splitting of Slovakia from the Czechs, the Ruthene communities returned to the Ukraine carrying with them traditions forgotten in their native land but preserved in all their ancient symbolism by a stroke of the politicians’ pencil all those years ago.
Wax-patterned Easter eggs
You need white rather than brown eggs for the patterns to be effective. You can use ready-blown eggshells from making egg cheese or cooled hard-boiled eggs. You’ll also need candle ends — plain, colored or both — food coloring and a pin with a large head.
1. Stick the pin in a cork to make a pen.
2. Melt the wax, keeping the colors separate.
3. Hold the egg firmly in one hand, big end upward. Dip the pen in the wax, and, starting half an inch below the apex of the egg, dab with the wax and drag it up toward the top to give a tadpole-shaped tick. Continue around the egg to make a sunburst pattern. If you use alternate lengths of stroke and different colored waxes, the pattern will be even prettier.
4. Repeat on the other end of the egg. (Hold it carefully or place in an egg cup so the warmth of your hand doesn’t melt the wax). Make more sunburst patterns around the sides.
5. Dip the eggs in diluted food coloring, as for batik.
6. Pile the eggs in a pretty bowl.
Easter egg cheese
This is a very unusual dish, a solid sphere of scrambled egg. It looks decorative, slices up neatly and goes very well with ham, the traditional Easter meat in northern and Eastern Europe.
1 liter of milk
12 free-range eggs
1 teaspoon salt
1. Bring the milk to a boil. Meanwhile, whisk all but one of the eggs with the salt.
2. When the milk boils, whisk in the egg. Keep whisking until the resulting custard is thoroughly scrambled.
3. Tip the mixture into a clean pudding cloth. Hang it in a warm place to drain with a bowl underneath to catch the whey, exactly as you would fresh cheese.
4. When it’s quite drained, tip it out onto a clean dish, paint it with the remaining egg, forked to blend, and place it into an oven preheated to 350 F (180 C/Gas 4) for 10 minutes to glaze. The result should look like a large, shiny, yellow Easter egg.
5. Slice thickly and serve with ham, butter and bread.
Illustration: Ruthene women. Credit: Elisabeth Luard