Hundreds of kilograms of sweets, 40 tonnes of prawns, countless whole lambs, sausages, pork bellies—meet the Sydneysiders who make Easter special from the moment the Mass has ended.

Shortly after midnight on Easter Saturday morning Ante Susic starts the charcoal fire in a room at the back of his smallgoods factory and butchery in Carramar in Sydney’s south west. It’s dedicated to spit-roasting lambs, pigs and pork belly and gets its biggest workout at Easter and Christmas.

“It’s always a long day. I’ll start around 2am and cook up to 50 pork bellies, 10-15 pigs and six or seven lambs for people who have ordered them,” says the Dalika Smallgoods co-owner. “They’ll come in and pick them up, freshly cooked. And lots of people will come into the shop and buy them raw to cook them at home themselves as well. By three in the afternoon we’re all cleaned up and out of here, get home, have a quick shower, get changed and it’s off to church. It’s tiring but it’s good.”

Photo: Alphonsus Fok

Sunday means lunch with parents and dinner with the in-laws, with one or two “pit stops” along the way to visit other family members and greet them for Easter. When The Catholic Weekly visited, staff member Jenny Kemmink was shrink-wrapping dozens of huge cabbages that had been pickling for weeks in barrels and were destined for stuffed cabbage rolls (sarma) for family feasts.

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“People buy the cabbages from us, take each leaf and roll up a mixture of minced pork, veal, speck, paprika, garlic and cook these amazing tasting rolls. They’re absolutely beautiful but too fiddly for me to ever try and make,” she laughed.

Mr Susic noticed that this year has been quieter than usual over the Lent season. “I think that’s maybe an effect of the interest rate hikes and the squeeze on the cost of living,” he said. “But it always picks up and is busy here in the week before Easter.”

Photo: Alphonsus Fok

Maamoul, maamoul, and more maamoul

For most people Easter is a time to relax with friends and family, but for Marie Riszk, it means countess days slaving over a hot kitchen … and she wouldn’t have it any other way. The 64-year-old Greenacre grandmother volunteers her time every year to make maamoul, a sweet treat enjoyed only on Easter Sunday by Melkite Catholics and regarded as the perfect reward after six weeks of fasting during Lent.

Maamoul is a shortbread biscuit stuffed with date paste and chopped walnuts and dusted with powdered sugar, the perfect accompaniment to a cup of coffee. In the weeks leading up to Easter, the kitchen at the St John the Beloved Melkite Catholic Church at Greenacre becomes a veritable maamoul factory, with more than 25kg made for the thriving community.

Giovanni Portelli Photography © 2023

Marie, a member of the Myrrh-Bearing Melkite Women’s Association, said that while making the sweet treats is quite complicated, it’s one of her favourite occasions on the religious calendar. She smiled and said that while she can’t reveal the secret to the perfect maamoul, getting the right ratio of ingredients is key. “They really are quite difficult to make. You not only have to select the right ingredients, but you have to mix the dough for the exact right time and, of course, add the perfect amount of love,” she said.

“We spend countless hours making them, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. We love the church and it’s our way of giving something back. The maamoul is sold on Palm Sunday and then enjoyed with coffee on Easter Sunday. Because it can be so finicky, making 25kg can be painstaking but we do it because all the money we raise selling it goes back to the church, to help the disadvantaged in our community.”

President of the Melkite Charitable Foundation, Monica Chahoud, said the dedicated bakers are a godsend. “Maamoul is such a huge part of Easter for us so we are so pleased that these wonderful dedicated women give their time in order to continue it for Sydney Melkites,” she said.

Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Juniper sausages, horseradish, beetroots and butter lambs

Easter is Amanda Narel’s favourite time of the year. She and her brother Martin run Narel Smallgoods in Plumpton in Sydney’s west. “It’s a huge fun event in our Polish community and absolutely amazing for kids,” she said. “Now I’m a mother and my three and-a-half-year old can’t wait for Good Friday because that’s when we decorate our Easter basket to be blessed at church on Holy Saturday according to our tradition. The church always looks amazing and full of colour from everyone’s baskets.”

Photo: Marilyn Rodrigues.

Narel supplies everything Polish families need for their traditional Easter baskets: horseradish, beetroots, juniper sausage (a traditional sausage tied together at the ends in a horseshoe shape) and other smallgoods, salt, cute little lambs made of sugar and eggs brightly coloured with dye and sometimes gold leaf, or sparkly sticker gems or pearls. The team will sell about a tonne of its speciality smallgoods made onsite and bake about 100 large babka—a light, airy dome-shaped sweetbread dusted with icing sugar that’s a centrepiece on many a table at Easter—during Holy Week. They’ll also bake about 80 butter cakes in the shape of lambs, a sign of new life, which are also traditionally made only for Easter.

“On Sunday our family go back to church for Mass and then straight after we’ll have a huge feast. The first thing we eat is the blessed food from the basket to break the Lenten fast—that’s our tradition,” Ms Narel said. “Then we’ll have baked meats, potato salad, zurek or biala borsch which is a traditional soup served with chunks of white sausage called biala surowa, eggs and potato, just everyone’s favourite foods. It’s all about getting together and enjoying the traditions, food and just being together. It’s awesome.”

Photo: Marilyn Rodrigues.

Baklava for the soul

At the family-owned El-Sweetie Lebanese bakery and café in Granville, Darine Abi-Daher, daughter of owner Jeanette Abi-Daher, said the family are run off their feet over Ramadan, Holy Week and Easter. Between the Abi-Daher family and their staff the place is busy with baking, serving customers and packaging and decorating freshly-baked biscuits, cakes and sweets from 5am until midnight every night. Maamoul is the most popular item, a small, delicate, crumbly shortbread filled with a date and pistachio paste. After that, families want baklava on their Easter table and for gifts, and buy plates and boxes of the bite-size flaky, dense, nut-and-syrup pastries.

Photo: Alphonsus Fok

“The maamoul gets sold out every day. we’ll be selling easily more than 100 kilos alone during Easter week,” said Darine. “Our customers know we will bake it fresh for them so the big rush with baking starts just a few days before Easter. Our family stays back late until midnight to package everything for the next morning—mum, my brothers, me and my husband. The grandkids are too small to help yet. We play Lebanese music, we enjoy it, it’s fun.”

Two tonnes of ricotta

Pasticceria Papa’s owner, Salvatore Papa, will close the stores on Good Friday and Easter Sunday so it’s all go on Easter Saturday across Bondi, Haberfield, and Five Dock serving thousands of customers with cakes, pastries and desserts. The most popular item streaming out the doors will be his Sicilian-style baked ricotta cheesecake topped with patterned icing sugar and mouth-watering Italian biscotti.

Pasticceria Papa. Photo: Alphonsus Fok

At least two tonnes of ricotta will go into making the cakes and filling thousands of cannoli, deep-fried cigar-shaped pastry shells loved by people of Italian heritage and their friends everywhere. Mr Papa said he’s looking forward to spending Easter Sunday with his family and friends, sharing a variety of the breads and treats prepared over the last few frantic-but-fun weeks. “We believe that it is important to enjoy the holiday with loved ones,” he said.

100 hours at sea over Holy Week

Calabrian-born fifth-generation fisherman Paul Bagnato works twice as hard to answer the demand from Sydneysiders for fresh fish over Easter, but always feels especially proud knowing he is helping Catholics celebrate their faith. He spends more than 100 hours at sea during Holy Week, said it’s all worth it to be able to spend Easter Sunday at home with his family.

Photo: Alphonsus Fok

“While it’s pretty tough physically, it’s so nice to spend such a special day celebrating with my children and grandchildren,” he said. “All up, there are 22 of us and—believe it or not—after we get home from Mass we have seafood. We feel particularly proud as a fishing family at this time of year because we are doing our part to enable Catholics to follow tradition and honour Jesus Christ. In a normal week we would do two 24-hour trips at sea but coming into Easter we double that and do four. I always say if you’re born a Bagnato, you’re born a fisherman and for us it’s not a job. it’s what we live for.”

The Sydney Fish Markets estimates it will sell around 650 tonnes of seafood over Easter including 40 tonnes of salmon, 40 tonnes of prawns and 25 tonnes of barramundi. But with the cost of living at an all-time high, Paul said the average Australian family can’t go past eastern school whiting this Easter for quality and price.

Photo: Alphonsus Fok

“It’s locally caught, good for you, fresh and price-wise hard to beat,” he said. “We do enjoy our prawns and oysters on the day, but we will also have the eastern school whiting, which we flour and deep fry but you can also do it on the barbecue—but make sure you use plenty of oil so it won’t stick. Serve it with some veggies, mash and a bit of salad. Mate, it would be the best meal you could have on Easter Sunday. It’s healthy and provides lots of protein.”

Photos: Giovanni Portelli, Alphonsus Fok and Marilyn Rodrigues. Words: Debbie Cramsie and Marilyn Rodrigues