Food Journey Through Cyprus – The Endless Feast
In search of the defining dish across Cyprus, Ishay Govender-Ypma discovers sun-kissed produce, generous locals and more variety than one can imagine. *For Food & Home Entertaining SA October 2015*
An old woman is sitting hunched outside a small shop in the morning sunshine, knitting. “Kalimera,” I say. She nods. Next to her, strings of soujoukos – fresh almonds dipped in thickened grape juice hang like a beaded curtain. In Cyprus, guests are welcomed with these treats and a variety of ‘spoon sweets’ of jams and marmalades. As our trip unfolds we come to understand that philoxenia, the age-old tradition of hospitality to strangers, is imbued in the land. We’ve been driving through the steep and swerving roads of the Troodos Mountains in Western Cyprus. Here, ramshackle Byzantine churches rest on peaks, valleys dip, carpeted in dense indigenous forests concealing waterfalls and mountain retreats, and some of the best food in the land is grown and produced. Along with the soujoukos, we buy thick carob syrup, candy and sesame coated almonds and hazelnuts, dried figs and local spring water.
In the Pitsilia region of the Troodos, we enter the sleepy village of Agros, famous for its delicate pink Damascus roses that bloom briefly in May. At a local rose farm I sample rose liqueur (not to my liking) and buy sweet syrups, essential oils and hand creams. In 1948, Nicodemos Tsolakis cultivated his own rose plantations and began producing rose water; today his son’s family runs the business. The south-facing tumbling slopes of the Troodos are known for the sweet amber-hued Commandaria wine, the oldest named wine still in production, dating back to 800 BC. In his 1957 novel Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, Lawrence Durrell
At its core, the food of Cyprus embodies simplicity. Marilena Joannides, a long-time researcher and promoter of Cyprus cuisine, heritage and culture, recently collaborated on an outstanding cookbook, Cyprus: A Culinary Journey with Marianne Salentin-Traeger and German chef Franz Keller. Drawing on memories of cooking with her mother and grandmother Eleni from the village of Rizokarpaso (located in the now Turkish-occupied north-eastern peninsula) and guided by the aromas of the land, both in food and traditional perfumes, she’s delved into a treasure trove of long-forgotten recipes. “Perhaps because of the soil, the climate and the strong sun, we have local produce with a definitive, bold taste,” she explains. ”Cypriot cooking methods are simple, we eat a lot of vegetables and the ingredients per recipe are few. And yet, it’s a cuisine full of enticing aromas.”
At a butcher shop and deli in the Troodos, I buy smoked meats such as hiromeri -red wine cured ham, loukanika – sausages made with red wine and spices, a speciality from this region and lountza – dried, smoked pork tenderloin. At the start of our journey in Larnaca, the usual entry point for many visitors (the international airport is located here), we enjoy hot pitas stuffed with lountza and halloumi, which Cyprus Taste Tours food guide Louisa Georgiou informs me, is a typical Cypriot breakfast.
Louisa mentions that dinners can comprise anything between 15 to 50 mezze dishes. We’re sitting at the cosy tavern To Sieradiko in Larnaca, and true to form a troop of bowls arrive in quick succession. When the meat platter piled with sheftalia (sausages cooked in intestine membranes), keftedes (meatballs made with grated potato), and grilled chicken skewers with oregano arrives, we’ve already had a Greek salad, grilled halloumi, smoked pork, tzatziki, hummus and griddled pita breads. Next up: sagnaki (scrambled eggs with peppers and feta), potato croquettes and zucchini with eggs. We raise a white flag in defeat, only because we have an entire night of feasting ahead. At Xeniktiko Vasos, a late-night diner run by Vasos and his wife, for the past 33 years, we share bowls of comforting kounoupidi (braised cauliflower with wine) and moujendra (rice and lentils served with thick yoghurt), and crack open Keo beers. Vasos is accustomed to catering for the party-crowd who crawl in at three am. “I only need four or five hours of sleep,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. We end the night with bourekkia – fresh anari cheese pastries at Alasia Café. “Aren’t these just the best?” Louisa enthuses. They are.
Before I leave Larnaca, Marilena compiles a list of artisanal producers scattered outside Limassol and the seaside town of Paphos on the west coast as we share a tray of diplopittes pastries she’s freshly prepared. It’s her grandmother’s recipe; the large disks are deep-fried and glisten with honey. The artisans she recommends are renowned for their breads, halloumi cheese and loukoumi (a local version of Turkish delight). “They don’t speak much English,” she says, “but just ask someone in the village to help you.” She reminds me not to pass up an opportunity for kebabs in pita, anywhere on the island. I happily comply.
In Nicosia, the only divided capital city in the world – with the north occupied by the Turks, we enjoy excellent kleftico (tender lamb leg baked in a bag) and afelia (pork stewed in coriander and wine) at Shiantris off Ledra Street. It’s here that it dawns on me that Cypriot potatoes and tomatoes – ruby, sun-sweet, moreish, could be the very best I’ve ever eaten. The creamy yoghurt too, usually made from sheep or goat’s milk, rivals the finest in Greece.
Roddy Damalis, a South-African born Cypriot restaurateur, chef and television personality based in hip-city Limassol in the south of the island is hardly surprised by my discovery. Along with sheftalia and grilled octopus, he recommends that visitors try “goat’s milk halloumi cheese, on and off the grill, with a squish of lemon and aromatic village bread.”
Roddy’s restaurant, Ta Piatakia, running for 14 years now, serves “little plates” featuring modern interpretations of local classics that include South African influences too. “Cyprus cuisine is about uncomplicated Mediterranean flavours and real ingredients, served with sincere hospitality,” he says. It’s a theme I find consistent through remote villages and bustling city squares across the island.
Flights daily on Etihad from Jo’burg, from R6800 return. South Africans require visas to enter Cyprus.
Cyprus: A Culinary Journey By Rita Henss, edited by Marianne Salentin-Traeger (C&C Publishing Germany) – please include book info and cover page
Marilena Joannides for culinary demos and expert info: firstname.lastname@example.org
Cyprus Taste Tours: www.cyprustastetours.com
Ta Piatakia restaurant, Limassol: www.roddydamalis.com/restaurant