Cyprus: Go For Everything Else, But Stay For The Cheese

Look, I know how ludicrous that title up there sounds. I know. Really

I sincerely hope that if someone ever suggests that you temporarily move to another country just because they make great cheese, you’d at least raise an eyebrow, if not laugh them straight out the room. That would be the sensible, well-adjusted thing for you to do. 

Nevertheless, I’m about to throw all my credibility into the wind and suggest exactly that. 

Grilled Halloumi cheese from Cyprus
Grilled halloumi cheese from Cyprus

If you’re considering a Wheel & Anchor LiveAways stay in Cyprus early next year, there are plenty of enticements to choose from. That sultry Mediterranean climate. Those endless beaches. The oldest & best fortified wine in the world. That mountain range with its frozen roof. These are all solidly justifiable reasons for wanting to spend next Spring there – in the wake of the relative cool of the winter months, and before the fierce summer heat descends and ravages the middle of the days.

But – cheese?

Yes. Absolutely. Because it’s not just any cheese we’re talking about here, but a cheese so versatile, so surprising, so astonishingly uncheeselike, that there’s little else that comes close. 

What I’m talking about is the Cypriot cheese halloumi – and it was only very recently (specifically, on Monday 12th April 2021) that the “Cypriot” part of that was made official. After a drawn-out battle that has raged for decades, the name “halloumi” now enjoys protected PDO status (Protected Designation of Origin).

If you’re a Cypriot cheesemaker, or one of the island’s residents who eat an average of 8kg of it every year, you’ll be hoping this is the final word in a number of disputes – including the one triggered by a British court that allowed a Greek-Cypriot based in the UK to start making his own British halloumi. Well, no longer: if it’s called “halloumi,” EU regulations state it has to come from Cyprus. That’s the law now.

But this is only regarding modern international trade. The name itself goes back thousands of years, back to halōm (“cheese”) in Copti, the family of languages spoken in Egypt from around the 3rd Century AD. It’s not recorded exactly what type of cheese this refers to, but it seems unlikely things were much different back then, considering modern halloumi-making is, in its simplest form, so straightforward that you can attempt making it at home.

Feeling adventurous? Here’s how you do it:

Making halloumi cheese
Making halloumi cheese

Take a pot, and fill it with a mixture of sheep’s and goat’s milk. Heat that mixture over a fire, until it separates into liquid (whey) and floating blobs bobbing on the surface (curds). Now lift the biggest of those curds out and let them cool, where they’ll solidify further. Now add these lumps back in, cooking them until they’re somewhat rubbery in texture. Next, to get that classic, lip-smacking salty taste, you soak them in brine – and complete the process by rolling them in chopped, dried mint. 

When they’re packaged for export, they’re sealed in a pool of their own juices – but for home use, you simply pop them back into the salty whey until you’re ready to eat them.

The result of all this is a cheese that refuses to act like one. Put a piece in your mouth and you’ll find it has a meaty firmness to it, with a seafood-like rubbery finish, squeaking against your teeth. It tastes fresh and salty, more like a morsel of cooked squid than something made from milk. 

Now, it’s certainly possible to work your way through a block of halloumi like this (guilty as charged, far too many times) – but you’d be missing the real magic that happens when you add it to a frying pan with a spoonful of olive oil. 

Try frying most other cheeses and what you end up with, to be charitable, is a bubbling, cheesy mess. That’s what cheese generally does when you apply heat: it goes runny and flows in all directions, and most of the time that’s great: a pizza wouldn’t feel like a pizza without rivulets of molten cheese running across its surface at some point. But this doesn’t happen with halloumi. Take a block of it, chop it into rectangular slices, and fry or grill them, and they’ll more or less keep their original shape, while turning a rich golden-brown that’s crispy at the edges. 

And when you take a bite – well, now it’s like chicken

Halloumi cheese, grilled to perfection
Halloumi cheese, grilled to perfection

It’s why slices of scorched halloumi can convincingly take the place of chicken in a kebab – and since they even look like chicken, it could take you a minute or two before you notice you’re eating cheese, not meat. It’s uncanny – and handy for newly-switched vegetarians hankering for some protein that doesn’t feel like too much of a novelty to their palates.

In the Greek-speaking Republic of Cyprus (the southern partition of the island), you’ll see halloumi served as a starter called saganaki, which sounds Japanese but in fact comes from the Greek term sagani, the two-handled pan it’s traditionally cooked in. It’s a rectangle of fried cheese, nothing more than that – but one that’s only possible by using a variety of sheep’s or goat’s milk cheese that keeps its shape when cooked.

Cheese is arguably even more important to the non-EU-recognised north of the island under Turkish control. Halloumi (under the Turkish name hellim) makes up more than 30% of all Northern Cyprus exports. Discussions are apparently underway to see if trade under the protected name of halloumi would be possible across the demilitarized buffer zone separating north from south – which would be a significant thawing of economic relations between the Turkish north and the southern Republic, a member of the EU. (A current sticking point: the need for EU inspectors to have full access to Northern facilities for quality-testing purposes.)

Could cheese help smooth the way towards reunification of Cyprus? Time will tell. For now, it’s enough that halloumi is distinctly Cypriot, and the world is increasingly mad about it, to the tune of $260 million in exports every year. The Brits are particularly obsessive: from 2013, the UK has been the biggest non-Cypriot consumer of it – hence the wholly justified worry in Cyprus that a British-made copycat cheese might come along and hijack demand for the real deal.

This is why I’m so hopelessly biased: a Brit who lived in Cyprus as a kid. I admit it. A balanced argument this certainly isn’t. But that’s what halloumi means to me, and millions of other Brits… 

Go discover if it’ll mean the same to you too.

Join Wheel & Anchor for a month enjoying the culture and cuisine of Cyprus, …get all the details here!

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