Halloumi in Cyprus
When I lived in London’s Cypriot enclave, Green Lanes, I used to buy slabs of halloumi cheese from the huge, plastic buckets overflowing with cloudy brine that lurked in the corner of every greengrocers on the road. I’d eat it for breakfast raw, sliced in fresh pitta bread, loving its saltiness and squeakiness between my teeth, and the hits of freshness from flecks of mint.
It wasn’t until I moved to Cyprus many years later that I realized I’d been doing it all wrong. While it’s delicious raw, halloumi is at its very best straight off a hot grill. The char on the outside intensifies the flavor of the salt, and the inside doesn’t melt but instead keeps its wonderful texture. If you need a condiment, it goes equally well with Greek-Cypriot mosfilo jam, made from the tiny yellow fruit of a local hawthorn tree, or with Turkish-Cypriot ezme salad, a fiery chopped mixture of tomatoes, peppers, chilies, and pomegranate molasses.
Another thing I realized when I moved to Nicosia: this cheese is political. In the Republic of Cyprus, the southern part of the island that has been a member of the European Union since 2004, it’s called halloumi. In the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, occupied by Turkey since 1974, it’s hellim. Both cheeses are made from a mixture of goat, sheep and cows’ milk, although they shouldn’t contain too much cows’ milk.
A 2008 Greek-Cypriot attempt to secure European Union Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status for halloumi failed, dogged by Turkish-Cypriot accusations of gastronationalism and a German company’s attempt to trademark the name hellim.
But last year the European Commission published an application to register the names halloumi and hellim, in Greek and Turkish, as PDOs for cheese of this type produced in all the territory of the island of Cyprus. Hopes are high that the attempt will succeed this year, putting halloumi and hellim in the same category as Parmigiano-Reggiano, Stilton, and feta. There are some concerns that small producers won’t be able to afford to pay the international body that will carry out production controls to monitor the milk ratios, but overall, the cheesemakers on both sides of the divide have managed to come together in a way that politicians have so far failed to.
At Mousikon Kafeneion, a traditional old-style cafe on the Greek-Cypriot side of Nicosia, a stone’s throw from the Green Line dividing the island’s capital, I ordered the Cypriot breakfast. Generous slices of grilled halloumi came with a dollop of mosfilo jam, the local smoked ham called lountza, chunks of fresh tomato and cucumber, and good bread and olive oil.
I listened to the call to prayer drifting over from the Selimiye Mosque on the other side of the border, and later the church bells from the Greek Orthodox Faneromeni Church not far from the cafe. Maybe the reunification of Cyprus will start with cheese.