THE FOOD OF GODS

Soggy chips and undrinkable wine aren't the only flavours of Cyprus.
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The Independent Culture
IT'S IMPOSSIBLE to think of Greek-Cypriot food except in terms of London eateries and the cheap-and-cheerful meals that many of us cut our teeth on in our younger days.

To summon up memories of hummus, garlicky yogurt, salty taramasalata, chunky cucumber and tomato salads and skewered kebabs is to hear once again the soundtrack from Zorba the Greek; or, in the more upmarket establishments, the sound of smashing crockery, Greece's unique contribution to the gastronomic arts.

I was voicing such amusing platitudes to Natasha Michaelides, visiting London this summer to promote her father's very grand new hotel in Cyprus (the pounds 37m Anassa in Latchi). I only succeeded in antagonising her.

Extremely unamused, she argued the case for today's modern, emergent and very sophisticated Cypriot national cuisine, one which embraces the best of Turkish, Greek, Syrian and Lebanese cooking. And why not? For this is an island which has been at the crossroads of Mediterranean cultures throughout its 9,000-year history.

She backed her case further by producing a clearly exciting new book of recipes from Cyprus. Food from the Village had been published by her family with advice from leading British food writer Thane Prince. Free yourself from your prejudices, Natasha advised me.

Cyprus, frankly, has never been much of a foodie's idea of heaven. Having been under British rule from 1870 to 1964, it fell into the category of a garrison island, where the insensitive hand of the military imposed a perverse bully-beef-and-Spam mentality (as in the case of the doughty George Cross island Malta, and even more so, the Rock of Gibraltar).

Then following independence, engineered by Archbishop Makarios, came the trauma of the Turks invading in 1974, annexing one-third of the island. It has not seemed polite to intrude on the island's grief, since half the population had to flee their homes on the fertile north coast, with its oranges, almonds, olives and market gardens. The other grief is that certain areas, around Limassol in particular, became modern tourist sites about which, from a culinary point of view, the less said the better.

Oh, go on. Very well, then, as recently as 1996 the Rough Guide to Cyprus summed up the food as "the unfortunate offspring of generic Middle Eastern and British cooking at its least imaginative... the fried potato is the tyrant of the kitchen, a chips-with-everything style of cuisine." The one relief from "fried stodge" was to get out into the villages, where you'd find tavernas where the locals go and eat real food, such as the Middle Eastern meze, little dishes of tasty appetisers served with drinks.

Thus far, not so good. But, evidently prompted by Miss Michaelides, the Cyprus Tourism Organisation and Cyprus Airways suddenly invited me to come and see for myself. It was an offer it seemed unwise to refuse, it being unforgivable to decline Greek hospitality. Or so I argued as I winged my four hour way to this island steeped in mythology, the birthplace of Aphrodite, goddess of love, and playground of the gods.

And undoubtedly Cyprus Airways needed a bit of an image boost, things hadn't been going too well for them. First of all they'd posted their former foreign minister, Alecos Michaelides (that's Natasha Michaelides' father) off to Amsterdam when he'd booked a flight to Athens.

It was a complete accident, the airline insisted, a one-off. But two weeks later it became a two-off after they dispatched two British businessmen, in error, to Riyadh, 2,000 miles from their destination. It's very difficult to make a mistake of this kind, they said in justification.

Reading this in the Cyprus Mail in my hotel in Paphos I had to laugh, but the smile was wiped off my face some six hours later, when, arriving at Larnaca airport one hour before departure (confirmed by telephone) for the 6pm flight to London, I found I'd been bumped off. "It's full already," said a beautiful, blonde Greek airline goddess.

"You deliberately overbook?" I asked Aphrodite. "Yes, we're allowed to." Zeus, king of the gods, had so ordained, or at least some senior airline official. "But I'm here as your guest," I protested, "you invited me." "I can put you on stand-by," said the goddess.

Fortunately, Zeus stopped playing games and a boarding pass materialised. In their book I was late for check-in. Fair enough. In my book I was delivered there late by my over-hospitable hosts. Luckily I wasn't subjected to the full mischief of the gods or I might well have been sent on to Turkistan or Timbuktu.

Cypriot food must be defined as what the locals eat, not the tourists. It is incredibly healthy according to today's nutritional guidelines, high in vegetables and fruit, full of olive oil and so on. Given our passion for the so-called Mediterranean Diet, it's a mystery we haven't latched on to this, preferring to focus instead on the more fashionable contributions from Tuscany.

The food of the real Cyprus is the food of the villages, basically peasant food. Plenty of fresh and dried vegetables (ripe red tomatoes, small green cucumbers, marrows, beans, and pulses such as chickpeas, the base of a hummus paste); masses of fresh fruit, figs, grapes, nectarines, peaches, apples, pears, prickly pears, oranges.

There are fresh, scented herbs by the basketful; mint, oregano, coriander, flat-leafed parsley, hot perfumed basil, and thick-leafed purslane, which is lemony, dry and refreshing.

Comparatively little meat is eaten, usually goat and lamb, and often minced to make it go farther, served in pastries or wrapped in vine leaves (dolmades).

The essential everyday food is cheese, of which at least three sorts are eaten daily. There is the lovely sharp goats' cheese which we all know in the UK, feta (salty and rich); anari, which is milder and softer; and halloumi, a rubbery, cooked cheese, a taste which grows on you until it becomes addictive. It can be both fatty and salty, and grilling or frying it brings out the best in it.

Halloumi is unique to Cyprus and it has only in the last year won international recognition of this. Denmark, the leading producer of fake halloumi, has been shamed into stopping production.

Fish is eaten on the coast but it is quite expensive, the catch getting poorer each year as Mediterranean plankton resources continue to diminish. In the main drag, tourists (including Russians and Romanians these days) are more likely to be served indifferent, imported frozen fish. But in the best restaurants you'll get a feast of freshly caught barracuda, grouper, red and grey mullet, sea bream, squid, cuttlefish and octopus.

My guide to the island's more elevated food and wine was the knowledgeable George Kassiounos, food and beverage manager of the Annabelle Hotel in Paphos. The restaurant here, the Mediterraneo, is run by one of the best chefs on the island, Polycarpos Demetriou (they are his recipes featured below).

George worked in London for seven years, during which time he developed a passion for wine. He found it ironic that Cyprus should be one of the oldest wine-making countries in the world, yet until a few years ago was known for only one good wine and many bad ones.

The good one is the dessert wine commandaria, which has been made for at least 1,000 years. The grapes, black mavro and white xinisteri, are picked and laid out to dry in the sun for six weeks or so until the sugar is highly concentrated. After fermentation, some vintage commandaria wine is added.

The lesser wines are the famously rich and sticky sherries which flooded Britain in the Fifties. Remember Emva Cream? The reds and whites were bought to bulk up the terrible plonk of the day.

This is all changing at last. George took me to meet Patrick Skinner, the island's leading (actually only) wine writer, who discoursed confidently on the new independent vineyards, aided by govern-ment grants, which are emerging to challenge the big commercial companies.

Patrick's wife Mary runs the island's donkey sanctuary, nursing a complement of 81. The donkeys bring in the grape harvest from steep slopes where they can't use machinery, but the trouble is that after they have served their use they are often driven away and left to fend for themselves. Some are easily rehabilitated, says Mary, although one, called Gazza, had just kicked her viciously in the hand.

Patrick is a retired marketing man who once handled large wine accounts (Madeira and Austrian wines). His home in Vouni is tucked below the Troodos mountains, which harbour some of the world's highest-grown vines, and they make a good crisp white wine.

Modern wine technology has come late to Cyprus, where they are hoping to create an island style using native rather than imported grape varieties. Maratheftiko, for example, is a grape comparable with the Cabernet Sauvignon, and blended with the rather bland but juicy native Mavros it holds much promise for the future.

Patrick says that among the 100 Cyprus wines, 50 are drinkable, 30 acceptable, and about 10 decent. These reds, whites and roses which he offers me to taste are bargains at under pounds 3. A Keo fino from Limassol could easily have been mistaken for a sherry from Jerez, and it sells at the ridiculous price of pounds 2.50.

Actually, although Cypriots have always exported wine, they seldom drank it themselves, preferring their very good Keo beer or the local firewater zivania, an eau-de-vie. It was George Kassiounos, though, who pointed me towards the island's best-kept secret, Keo's 12-year-old brandy, which is not unlike a caramelly Spanish brandy in flavour, but smooth and delicate. At pounds 3.20 for a litre in Larnaca airport, it has to be the world's best duty free bargain.

By the time I had completed my sampling of the island's best food and drink I was a complete convert and ready to apologise to Miss Michaelides, indeed kiss the ground at her feet: a lovely fish lunch at a taverna in the port at Latchi in the north-west; a superb evening meal of meze and grills in the Green Leaf taverna in Panayia (birthplace of Archbishop Makarios), lunch in another taverna, Avli tou Thermostokli, in the picturesque village of Omodhos; a memorable barbecue in the fragrant pine woods of Monashylakas; and a final feast prepared by Chef Polycarpos himself, with 50 dishes from meze to roast suckling pig, and 20 desserts to choose from, including lovely honeyed baklavas and sticky pastries.

I'd do it all again tomorrow, but somehow I just don't expect a call from Cyprus Airways.

SHIEFTALIA

These are served as a snack in hot pittas with salad. They are sold on street corners wrapped up in greaseproof paper.

Makes about 30 kebabs; serve 5 or 6 per person

1kg/2lb 4oz minced pork

175g/6oz onion, finely chopped

85g/3oz flat-leaf parsley, chopped

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon ground black pepper

1 teaspoon salt

300g/1012oz lamb fat (ie stomach linings; optional)

Place the pork in a large bowl; then add all the other ingredients and mix to combine. If using, lay the lamb fat out on a chopping board and cut into pieces 13 by 13cm (5x5in).

Take a small handful of the pork mixture and squeeze in the palm of your hand to form a small sausage. Place the sausage on a piece of the lamb fat and roll up, turning the ends in to enclose totally. Repeat with the remaining pork mixture and lamb fat.

Cook for 15 minutes over charcoal or on a barbecue, turning occasionally. Alternatively, roll the sausages in a little olive oil and barbecue, or bake in the oven for 15 minutes at 400F/200C/Gas 6.

Serve with a generous squeeze of lemon juice and a salad of chopped tomato, cucumber, onion and parsley.

AUBERGINE DIP WITH FETA CHEESE & MAYONNAISE

Serves 2

600g/1lb 5oz large aubergines

2 tablespoons salt

200g/7oz feta cheese

55g/2oz mayonnaise

15g/12oz spring onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, crushed

1 tablespoon flat-leaf parsley, chopped

14 teaspoon crushed black pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

Preheat oven to 400F/200C/Gas 6. Using a long-bladed knife, make several slashes in each aubergine. Sprinkle with salt. Place on a baking tray in the oven for 40 minutes. Remove from oven, allow to cool and chill in the fridge for 30 minutes.

Peel off the skin, leaving just the flesh of the aubergine. Place all the ingredients, except the mayonnaise, into a food processor and blend until smooth then stir in the mayonnaise. Chill for 30 minutes. Serve as an accompaniment to grilled meats or fish or as an appetiser.

TZATZIKI

275g/912oz cucumber

200ml/7fl oz Greek yogurt, strained

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon each dried mint and salt

2 tablespoons olive oil

Coarsely grate cucumber into a large strainer. Sprinkle salt over cucumber, then squeeze gently to remove excess water. Place cucumber in a medium bowl, then add the yogurt, garlic and mint. Mix. Chill in fridge for 30 minutes.

Serve as an accompaniment to grilled meats or fish, or as an appetiser.

HALLOUMI & TOMATO IN PITTA BREAD

Serves 4, either hot or cold. If cold, spread the pittas with a little butter

4 pitta breads, split

350g/12oz halloumi cheese, sliced

4 medium tomatoes, sliced

100g/312oz crispheart lettuce

112 small cucumbers, sliced lengthwise very thinly

Preheat the grill until hot. Grill the halloumi for three to four minutes, turning halfway through, until golden brown,

Grill the pitta bread until warm. Split the pitta in half widthways, then layer on the lettuce, halloumi and tomato. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt, not too much as halloumi is very salty. Close the lid of pitta and cut in half or thirds.

Serve with crisps, a little lettuce and a few black olives.

LAMB FILLETS WITH YOGURT, FETA CHEESE & PINE NUTS

Serves 4

550g/1lb 4oz lamb fillet, cut into 4 and seasoned with salt and pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

For the crust:

175ml/6fl oz Greek yogurt

115g/4oz feta cheese, crumbled

60g/214oz toasted pine nuts

1 tablespoon spring onion leaves, chopped

1 tablespoon basil, chopped

2 egg yolks

12 teaspoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon olive oil

Preheat oven to 400F/200C/Gas 6. Heat a large frying pan until hot then add two tablespoons olive oil and the seasoned lamb fillets. Fry for one to two minutes on each side, until browned. Remove from the pan and allow to cool. Pat the fillets dry with kitchen paper.

Place all the crust ingredients into a large bowl, except half the pine nuts, and mix until totally combined. Chill in the fridge for 10 minutes.

Divide yogurt mixture equally among the fillets and spoon over to coat one side then scatter over remaining pine nuts. Place fillets on a roasting tray and return to the fridge for 10 minutes. Then place in the oven for five to eight minutes, depending how pink you like your lamb.

Allow to rest for a few minutes before serving, sliced thickly.

LAYERED AUBERGINE, CHICKPEA & TOMATO BAKE

Serves 2 as a main course or 4 as a starter

450g/1lb baby aubergines

125g/412oz cooked chickpeas

40g/112oz onion, chopped

2 cloves of garlic, crushed

400g/14oz tomatoes, skinned, seeded and chopped

2 tablespoons of fresh basil, chopped

40g/112oz celery, chopped

2 large tomatoes, skinned, seeded and quartered

12 teaspoon each crushed black pepper and dried mint

4 tablespoons white stock or tomato juice

2 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, chopped

4 tablespoons olive oil

Preheat oven to 350F/180C/Gas 4. Heat a large frying pan until hot, then add a tablespoon of oil, the onion and garlic and fry for five minutes until golden. Add the tomatoes and basil and cook for two minutes. Add chickpeas, celery, black pepper, stock or tomato juice and mint and continue to cook for 10 minutes. Add the parsley, stir through and then season with salt and black pepper.

Meanwhile, slice the aubergine into rounds 5mm (14in) thick.

Heat a ridged frying pan until hot. Brush with a teaspoon of olive oil. Fry the aubergine slices in batches until charred and cooked through, brushing the pan with oil before adding each batch.

Brush a medium ovenproof dish with a teaspoon of oil. Layer the aubergine slices around the bottom of the dish in a circle, then brush with a little oil. Spoon over half the chickpea mixture. Layer remaining aubergines on top to cover. Finish with remaining chickpea mixture.

Place the tomato quarters on top and brush with the remaining oil and a grinding of black pepper. Place in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes until hot through.

Serve hot or warm with green salad.

OLIVE & TOMATO BREAD

1kg/2lb 4oz village flour or strong bread flour

1 teaspoon salt

112 teaspoons dried yeast

12 teaspoon dried oregano

150g/512oz black olives, stoned

20g/34oz spring onion, chopped

200g/7oz tomatoes, skinned, seeded and chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon pine nuts

Heat oven to 450F/230C/Gas 8. Heat a small frying pan until hot, then add two tablespoons oil and the onions. Cook for five to six minutes until golden brown. Add the tomatoes and cook for a minute. Remove from heat and allow to cool.

Sift the flour into a large bowl. Add the salt, yeast and oregano. Mix together. Add the onions and tomatoes, kneading and turning until all the ingredients are combined into a firm dough. Place in a warm spot for 15 minutes to prove.

Remove and knead lightly to knock out excess air, then cut into three. Knead briefly, then form into flattened balls. Slash with a knife, dust with flour and sprinkle over the pine nuts. Place back in a warm spot for 30 minutes until risen.

Place in oven for 30 minutes until brown. When you knock on the bottom of the loaf it should sound hollow.

SEMOLINA & ORANGE CAKE

200g/7oz semolina

2 oranges

5 eggs

200g/7oz caster sugar

150ml/5fl oz corn oil

2 teaspoons baking powder

115g/4oz chopped almonds

100ml/312fl oz sugar syrup

Line the base of a 23cm (9in) deep-sided cake tin (there is no need to butter the tin for this cake). Preheat the oven to 350F/180C/Gas 4.

Bring a large pan of water to the boil, drop in the oranges, bring back to the boil and cook for five minutes. Drain oranges and refresh in cold water. Repeat twice again using fresh water each time - this is to remove the bitterness from the skin of the orange. Cut oranges into quarters, place in a food processor and process to a pulp. Press through a sieve using the back of a spoon. Allow to cool.

Place eggs and sugar into a large bowl and whisk until combined. Pour in the corn oil and pureed oranges, continuing to whisk. Stir in baking powder and almonds and mix well. Pour the mixture into the prepared cake tin. Place in the oven for 40 minutes. Allow to cool slightly, then pour over the sugar syrup to glaze. When cold, remove from the tin. Garnish with candied orange peel.

DACTYLA

From the Greek word for a finger - which describes the length and width of these delicious deep-fried pastries.

250g/9oz fine pastry

200g/7oz almonds, chopped

14 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 tablespoon rose water

Heat oil in a deep fat fryer until medium hot. Place the almonds and cinnamon into a medium bowl, stir in the rose water and place to one side.

Roll the pastry out until very thin, finishing it off through a pasta machine set on No 6. Cut into rectangles 7.5 by 10cm (3x4in). Place one tablespoon of filling down the longer side of the pastry. Roll up and crimp ends with a fork to hold together. Continue with the remaining pastry and filling, placing the finished dactyla onto a lined baking tray.

Place the dactyla in the deep fat fryer a few at a time. Cook for five to eight minutes, until golden brown. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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