Halloumi and hard liquor: Culinary highlights of Cyprus | Edelweiss

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The Island of Good Taste

Gaining an overview of Cypriot cuisine is fairly straightforward. The Cypriots like to serve meze, in other words, a bit of everything for everyone. This can easily translate into up to twenty different dishes. A key staple of meze: Halloumi, the spicy whey cheese. The original is produced exclusively in Cyprus.

Visitors to Cyprus will soon realise that food and drink play a pivotal role here. And unsurprisingly so, considering every imaginable foodstuff grows on this densely wooded, extremely fertile island: trees bearing apples, pears, peaches, almonds and nuts thrive on the slopes of the Troodos Mountains, and so do grapevines. Olives and citrus fruit are also available in abundance. The southeast is where potatoes, aubergines, tomatoes, onions and cucumbers grow, and the north is home to fig and pomegranate trees. There are even some large banana plantations in the vicinity of Paphos.

Photos: Edelweiss/David Biedert; Sandra Casalini

Cuisine with an international twist

The cuisine of Cyprus is characterised by very different influences, which reflects the course of history during which the island was occupied by various foreign powers. Thus, as well as Greek and Turkish components, Cypriot dishes bring together oriental, Italian and British culinary elements.

The best way to discover these is to order the traditional meze, a variety of dishes which can be shared and enjoyed in quantities to everyone’s gusto. Meze is available in almost every restaurant and great for trying a bit of everything. Even the fussiest child is bound to find something to his or her taste. The only risk: overeating!

Halloumi - the soul of Cyprus

As a rule, every meal starts with olives, bread and a choice of dips, such as Tzatziki (made of yoghurt, cucumber, lemon juice and garlic) or Tahini, which is the typical Cypriot dip and consists of sesame paste, garlic, lemon juice and water. This starter is traditionally followed by salads –often with tomatoes and feta cheese- and, of course, the island’s most important culinary product: Halloumi.

Made from sheep’s and goat’s milk, Halloumi is a Cypriot speciality and produced according to a particular, centuries-old method. There is even a “Halloumi police” of a sort, to make sure the producers adhere to the stipulated traditional methods. What makes Halloumi special is that it does not melt when heated, and so it can be grilled or fried. Enhanced with a hint of mint, Halloumi also makes for a delicious ravioli filling. A real treat!

Meat, meat – and more meat

The culinary journey through Cyprus continues in sync with meze. Salad and Halloumi are followed by meat, meat - and more meat! Despite being an island, traditional Cypriot cuisine is not all that big on fish and seafood. This is perhaps because the Cypriots once feared foreign attacks staged from the sea and thus withdrew to the mountainous heartland where they were better able to defend themselves. The exception to the rule: Supjes, fresh calamari served with or without a filling. And then there is meat: Afelia (pork cooked in red wine), Chiroméri (cured goat’s meat), Koupes (minced meat encased in bulgur wheat), Lountza (a type of smoked pork), Paidakia (lamb cutlets), Scheftalia (minced pork rissoles in a caul fat wrapping), Stifado (goulash in a cinnamon- and caraway-spiced tomato sauce), Souvla (barbecue skewers) and Souvlaki (small pieces of grilled meat). Not to mention Kleftiko, the national dish, which is lamb or goat roasted in its own natural juices in a traditional clay oven with potatoes. Pita bread is a common lunch-time snack, with a Souvlaki of Kleftiko filling for instance, and served with tomatoes, onions and regional spices.

Desserts tend to take a back seat in Cyprus. That being said, there are numerous bakeries, above all in the cities, which, besides bread, have cakes and sweets (e.g. sweet pastry rolls) on offer. But after indulging in meze, dessert is usually limited to an intake of vitamins, i.e. oranges or tangerines straight from the tree. Sweet-toothed gourmets may, at most, choose to have one or two pieces of Cyprus Delight with their coffee. Cyprus Delight is a jelly-like sweet available in a variety of flavours (favourites are lemon, grapefruit and chocolate) and dusted with powdered sugar.

Traditional grapes – sometimes mild, sometimes strong

Drinking is on par with eating in Cyprus. Wines are pressed from the indigenous Mavro (red grape) and Xynisteri (white grape) and enjoyed with virtually every meal. The sweet dessert wine Commandaria is also produced on the island. Commandaria is said to be the oldest wine in the world, allegedly going as far back as 800 B.C. Its current name dates back to the crusades in the twelfth century, when, according to legend, Richard the Lionheart referred to it as “the wine of kings and the king of wines”. Commandaria has been produced in the same fashion and in the same wine villages for centuries. The local vines are harvested relatively late, then dried in the sun and subsequently pressed. The resulting pomace (press residue) is fermented in tanks or in clay pots.

And then there’s the national beverage of Cyprus – and it is strong: Zivania (pomace brandy), the origins of which date back to the fourteenth century and boasting an alcohol content of at least forty per cent! The grape mark is mixed with local wine and distilled before being left to mellow for a long period. The preferred mode of consumption of this clear, high-proof alcohol is as an aperitif taken straight from the freezer. Or, alternatively, in a delicious mixed drink. Zivania also comes in a reddish version, created by adding cinnamon. The older the Zivania, the better it tastes – which is why very old bottles tend to be kept for special occasions.

Coffee from a copper pot

Wer es zum Apéritif nicht ganz so hochprozentig mag, greift zum liebsten Cocktail der Those who prefer their aperitif to be a little less potent opt for the Cypriots’ favourite cocktail: Brandy Sour, made with Cypriot brandy which is less strong than other brandies. The sour flavour is acquired by mixing the brandy with lemon juice, Angostura bitters, water and ice. According to legend, the Cypriot Brandy Sour was invented in the 1950s for King Farouk I of Egypt who wanted the brandy to be masked as iced tea.

And, last but not least, coffee-shop culture is as much an integral part of Cyprus as Halloumi and brandy. Indeed, there are coffee shops in almost every village and town, where coffee is consumed and card games are played. The very strong Cypriot coffee is brewed in small copper pots called “mbrikia”, available these days in other versions as well, even as electrical devices. The challenge is to heat the coffee to exactly the right temperature so as to allow for a creamy froth to form on top. The coffee is drunk “sketo” (black and unsweetened), “metrio” (slightly sweet) or “glyki” (very sweet), and never with milk. The thick layer of coffee grounds at the bottom of the cup is not drunk. But, who knows, since coffee cup reading is a widespread fortune-telling method, perhaps the author will be foretold a swift return to the island of Halloumi, Commandaria and Zivania!

Recipe: Zivania cocktail

10 ml of Zivania;;; 50 ml of white rum;;; 20 ml of lemon juice;;; 20 ml of sugar syrup;;; 3 basil leaves;;; Mix the ingredients and shake well, then garnish with an olive.

Three culinary tips in and around Paphos

1. Fettas Tavern: The great location in the heart of town and the delicious food make this tavern a choice place for locals and tourists alike.;;; (Kostis Plamas Square, Ioanni Agroti 33, Ktima Paphos)

2. Imogen’s Inn Taverna: Situated just outside of Paphos in the village of Kathikas, this taverna features a charming little garden and serves delicious meze (also vegetarian) and some of the best red wines of the region.;;; (Kathikas, Cyprus)

3. Kiniras Hotel & Restaurant: Chef de cuisine George recommends lamb that is so tender it falls off the bone. The restaurant serves authentic Cypriot cuisine and cultivates its own wine.;;; (91 Makarios Avenue, Paphos 8010, Cyprus, www.kinirashotel.com)

Text: Sandra Casalini