and say Haloumi
I told people I was going to Cyprus, most said “Where’s that?” One
assumed I meant Cypress Gardens in Florida. Cyprus, an island country in
the Mediterranean, near Egypt, Greece and Turkey, is a major tourist
destination for the British and Germans, but not for Americans.
a shame because Cyprus has something for nearly every vacationer. Miles of
wonderful beaches for those who want sun, sand and surf. Ruins including
an ancient Greek amphitheater overlooking the Mediterranean for lovers of
history and archeology. Churches, monasteries and museums with ancient
frescoes, golden icons and stunning mosaics for art lovers. Most of all,
it has terrific food. If you travel to eat, Cyprus is your kind of place.
traveling companions and I typically spent two to three hours at dinner,
sampling course after course of mezes,
small plates of Cypriot food, and drinking the local wines. Most dinners
started with wonderful, freshly baked breads and what we came to call
“the trinity”: tahini, a sesame, olive oil and lemon juice spread; taramasalata,
a spread made from fish roe, bread, potatoes, oil and lemon; and tsatsiki,
a yogurt, cucumber and mint combo also known as raita. The dishes were the same, yet different every time. We tasted
a little more mint in one, a little less roe in another, more or less
lemon or oil.
breads also varied. There was pita bread in one place, sesame-crusted
wheat bread in another. Greek salads, too, were slightly different from
place to place. There was feta cheese on some, none on others, cabbage in
some, more or fewer olives.
mezes that followed the salad
were less predictable. We had delectable a dish of eggs scrambled with
wild greens just once, although I could have eaten it every day. Rabbit
stew, sun-dried goat’s meat, cauliflower salad and fresh trout are among
the other dishes that we had just once. We often had eggplant, but it was
always cooked a little differently. We had potatoes topped with crushed
coriander a few times, and I plan to have it often now that I’m home. I
don’t mean to imply that the limited variety was boring. On the
contrary, the subtle differences made us feel like connoisseurs after just
a few meals.
similar dishes prepared by different cooks is like hearing the same music
performed by different musicians. You recognize the melody, and begin to
appreciate the variations in tone and orchestration. It’s not long
before you develop definite preferences.
was this more true than with the local cheese – haloumi. We had haloumi
often, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We tasted it plain and made with
mint. Sometimes it was grilled; often it was not. Occasionally, it was too
salty. It was used as a stuffing for ravioli as well as a grated topping.
It was in the filling of the sweet Easter pastry called flaouna.
It was ubiquitous. So when we had a chance to watch it being made, we
jumped at it.
went to the small village of Louvaras, where Litsa Cristoforou is the
local cheese-maker. We walked by her family’s gardens where beans,
lettuce, cucumbers and other vegetables were growing, and through a
courtyard full of flowers and herbs into the kitchen. There a tall,
dark-haired, dark-eyed young woman wearing a shirt with a CK logo – for
Cyprus in English and in Greek not for Calvin Klein -- stood stirring a
huge kettle of goat’s milk over an open flame. The goats themselves were
down the hall under the same roof.
days, haloumi is also made in
modern factories, but the process of hand-crafting it hasn’t changed in
years. The cheese can be made with goat’s or sheep’s milk or a
combination of the two. In Louvaras, it’s made with goat’s milk since
that’s what they have.
make the cheese, Litsa heats the milk in a waist-high metal container over
an open flame, stirring it continuously. She adds rennet to make it
curdle. As the curds form, Litsa cuts through them and scoops them out
with a sieve, puts them on a draining board,
presses them into discs and puts them in small plastic containers
with ridges that mimic the look of the straw or reed baskets they were
traditionally shaped in. She rinses them with water to keep them clean and
white. Then, she drains them and cooks them again in the whey with a
little water added. Factory-made haloumi doesn’t receive this second cooking, so it tends to be
rubbery, according to Litsa.
they’re cooked, she takes them out and flips them onto the table. Now
the discs are larger and softer than when they went into the whey an hour
or so before. They’re about the size of individual pita breads. She
layers them atop each other to flatten them slightly. Then she salts each
one individually with coarse salt and folds it in half. She opens each one
again and tucks a little dried mint inside. The mint will blacken if
it’s sprinkled on the outside of the cheeses, so it’s always put
inside. Next she stacks the folded disks in a large plastic container,
filling it about ¾ full. She makes a brine with leftover whey, salt, mint
and water, carefully tests the salt level with a hydrometer (the only
modern equipment she uses), adjusts the salt and pours the brine over the
cheese for storage.
watching the process isn’t the same as doing it. Litsa stirred the
mixture with one hand, effortlessly tracing clean circles through it. So
when she offered us a turn stirring it, I quickly volunteered. I just as
quickly realized that stirring all that milk with one hand was not easy.
My arm started aching almost immediately. The open flames and nearly
boiling milk gave off waves of heat. I surrendered the stirrer to the next
volunteer as soon as I could without losing face. Like all true pros,
Litsa had made a difficult process look easy.
the middle of the process, as the first cheeses were draining, Litsa made
another cheese, called anari,
from the soft whey. As the whey boiled, she skimmed small crumbly curds
off the surface, and scooped them into a large bowl for us to sample in
its warm fresh state. Litsa told us that anari
can also be dried so that it hardens “like stone,” and can be grated
over pasta dishes.
took the bowl of warm anari
outside where other family members had readied a small feast for us in a
courtyard surrounded by walnut trees and vividly colored flowers. On a
round, cloth-covered table they had set out a coffee cake made with haloumi
cheese and mint, homemade bread and an olive cake that, oddly enough,
contained Sprite. There were tiny cups of strong, hot Cyprus coffee,
glasses of fruit juice, and tiny liqueur glasses of zivania,
the potent Cypriot spirit.
all of this, Litsa added the big bowl full of warm anari. Her mother prepared a serving for me. She spooned a little anari
into a small bowl, added a couple of drops of orange flower water and a
splash of carob syrup, and gave it a little stir. The creamy cheese tasted
like warm, fresh ricotta. The flavorings added a hint of sweetness and the
refreshing edge of bitterness of carob. The sunshine, the setting and the
company compounded the pleasure. Eating fresh cheese in a sunny garden in
Cyprus won’t make you think of Cypress Gardens. But it may call to mind
the Garden of Eden.
encourages travelers to experience its agricultural and culinary heritage
through agritours. Ours was organized by Events, part of the Louis
Organization, and supervised by Eugenia Eftamandilou. You can e-mail her
directly at [email protected] or Events at: [email protected].
Or visit web sites including www.cyprustourism.org
by Agni Thurner.