Cyprus is not only about oranges, lemons and cats. The island also offers quite an interesting mixture of cultures and cuisine. Yes, some people may find Cypriot cuisine rather close or similar to the Greek cuisine, but for me it offers a blend of tastes and influences from last several centuries.
I am a fan of different types of cheeses, preferably those that are soft and announce their presence with a strong smell every time I open the fridge. As it so happens, Cyprus is a land of the famous halloumi cheese. I had tried it few times before moving here, and it was always in Turkey. Therefore, I had thought that it was more of a local specialty.
How wrong I was! Halloumi, or hellim as the Turkish spelling goes, or hallum (in Arabic) is a Cypriot cheese, semi-hard, usually made of a mixture of goat and sheep’s milk. Some types of halloumi can include also cow milk, although adding cow dairy is generally believed to be a departure from the original preparation method and is done to lower the cost of production. There is in fact a heated debate over exactly what mixtures and in what quantities actually qualify as halloumi cheese; debate that is likely to continue for as long as there will be attempts to produce this cheese in different ways and in different places. When you try to bite into it, it makes a little squeaky sound due to its consistency and feels like immediate increase of level of salt in your body.
Earliest known references to halloumi date back from the Byzantine period, while this cheese type has been popular in the broader Middle Eastern region for centuries. Nowadays, it appears mostly on the local tables here in Cyprus, and also in Turkey, Greece, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Israel. Halloumi has, however, been gaining more popularity throughout Europe in the recent years.
My first experience in choosing this cheese for a Sunday dinner was a stressful experience however! My idea of a cheese-shelf in the shop is rather limited to a couple of names of my favourite cheeses. Halloumi shopping looks differently. The choice and types of halloumi in a local supermarket almost gave me a headache: Salty, with mint, with herbs, without herbs but with mint, with addition of cow mill, without the addition of moo-moo milk, and on and on went the list. After a panicky 10 minutes, I settled with regular, salty, sheep / goat milk combo. I do not dare to repeat it again, and my Other Me does the choosing.
Cypriots like to serve this delicacy with watermelon during hot summers. For me, the best way to serve it is to simply grill it. I usually have it on the side with few drops of lemon juice and addition of a hot pepper from Antep in Turkey, as an appetizer. Locals like to add grilled pieces to their grilled veggie combo as a side dish to meat. An alternative way to prepare it is to fry it on the butter, on both sides, and indulge your taste sense with adding lemon juice and sprinkling mint before sinking your teeth into it.
I always keep one or two packages in the freezer at all times, just in case I want a summer Cypriot taste on my winter table.