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Issue 03: “Halloumi could reunite Cyprus”

As published in issue 03 by Anthony Heard, with Eleni Michael, Selin Kiazim & Georgina Hayden

Cheesemaker and founder of Kupros Dairy, Anthony Heard wrote about halloumi, taking us through how it’s made as well as its significance to diaspora, before introducing us to three other Cypriots in the UK, who all have different relationships to halloumi/hellim and what the cheese means to them. Photos by Patricia Niven and Francesco Brembati

(L-R) Eleni Michael, Georgina Hayden, Selin Kiazim

Halloumi's role in diaspora and its politics

The best expression – that the diaspora could go to as a refuge – was and always will be Andreas Michli & Sons on Salisbury Road, off Green Lanes in Harringay. I’m not sure we'll ever see anything like that place ever again unfortunately and I think he deserves a mention as one of the first (if not the first) in London to make halloumi. He made halloumi in a Waterloo railway arch with a young lady from Cyprus getting milk from Devon by train. He always had his ear close to the ground, sourced things in season, and imported lace, wicker and ceramics on top of the rare and hard to get hold plants, herbs, spices, cured meats, the best cheese yoghurt, trahanas and seasonal produce and church ephemera and wider literature made in Cyprus, including olive leaves for burning and other incense.

The spirit of that place is both haunting and inspiring and pushed me to do what I do. It was a constant reminder of the on-going partition in Cyprus, and reminds me how we have no ephemera and family sentiments that go back further than the 1970s as it was all left in the villages in Cyprus with our remaining family.

Decades ago, Cypriots owned many corner shops, grocery stores, kebab shops, fish and chip shops, little cafes and restaurants, and culturally halloumi was and still is visible in these shops but has always been expressed at baptism, weddings and funerals. It was also sold outside churches every Sunday as a way to be connected to the homeland. Serving up fresh cheese and pastries outside the church is not something that is allowed ad hoc anymore, severing that connection and narrowing the way in which people are exposed.

Fortunately, many Cypriots will still bring back cheese in their suitcase; it’s a running meme as old as myself. People’s freezers are full of halloumi, they will always have a family member still in Cyprus who knows someone who can make it – this is the stuff that is retained and the rest that’s found in restaurants and supermarkets are just filler. It’s just globalisation. Good things come at a price, and that price is complexity, which determines if it makes it overseas or not.

So those who choose to express and consume through simulacrums of their identity are doing so as consumers; those who want to retain traditions of their identity seek out halloumi. Homogeneity of values, trademarks, accreditations and so on have reduced our expression of self and identity to a singular way of thinking and working. This runs against how language, society, and culture is built over thousands of years. Some may argue as to why I’m complaining or that uniform standardisation (like pasteurisation) in making halloumi has ‘raised standards’ and that people are not falling sick, it’s cheap, smooth, and affordable. These are all neoliberal arguments which have subsequently corroded society, boxed people into neat categories and raised the entry level of things we grew up with, taken for granted. This is not unique to Cyprus. But the sanitisation and single perspective that is projected of our culture is demoralising and disrespectful. Most diaspora don’t have the time or energy to think or fight these ideas and just accept it as is. It’s a shame but I understand it.

At each political epoch in Cyprus, more division, confusion and separation happens. Those who were displaced and lost everything as opposed to those who simply migrated carry very different sentiments toward their personal identity. The irony is there were ‘ethnic exchanges’ in the old Ottoman Empire, of millions of native Greeks in modern day Turkey, which confuses the narrative further. Those ghosts of the past have now become spectres for all Cypriot communities and these spectres have been inherited indiscriminately as odd mutated memories causing conflict and division. This somehow edged within the already present divisions in Cyprus and was used by nationalists to form arguments in the 60s and 70s after Cyprus achieved ‘independence’ from the crumbling British empire. The US, Greece, Turkey and the UK all played their role in culturally pitting Cypriots against one another, and unfortunately some bought into the fear which was funded by the larger powers causing conflict. The spirit of Cyprus has been reduced to its pre-colonial past.

The EU's hand is not about openness but about protectionism toward oligarchical powers and Cyprus is one of the largest oligarchical havens in the world now as a result. Cyprus was closer to reuniting the island pre-EU accession than the dire state it's in now. Halloumi was used as the carrot to lure Cypriots in only to be used as another bargaining chip. The Cyprus I went to in 1998 is very different to what it is now and very different to the Cyprus of 1969 that my mum looks back often to and speaks so fondly of: a bucolic, pastoral, and peaceful existence that is rarely reflected or respected anymore, and has been dismantled through the institutions, war, propaganda, and globalisation, which are all propagated by the island's main cultural signifier, halloumi. Halloumi could reunite Cyprus if we chose to dismantle consumerism and reconnect with the spirit of what it is to be Cypriot, as played out in dances, songs, art, ceremonies and our food.

Halloumi and hellim

The real question is what is the difference between rizokarpaso, pissouritiko and Akanthotiko or Lysitoko, Lemetiani and anogyratiko. Halloumi. Often, the question was if it was singular, or dipla (folded), or horitiko (matured in the village). Halloumi and hellim is just a collective trademark, another corporatisation of food and culture. The real meaning comes from the farming and the people who produce it. Halloumi is a Cypriot cheese traditionally made from goat's and sheep's milk, and increasingly, with cow's milk. While halloumi is derived from Modern Greek, hellim is a Cypriot Turkish denomination for the same cheese.

Mixed communities with Ottoman and Byzantine influence made the same style of food per village to the degree that Ramadan and Easter food almost identically coincides with the same expressions of fasting and celebration. Sometimes the village was more Ottoman dominant, sometimes more Byzantine dominant, sometimes they were hermetically separate, and at times they interfaced at markets so language was shared and used by all communities. But they all made the same version in that village purely due to how the milk was collected, like mini cooperatives.

Cyprus is one island with one soul shared by many cultures over the ages. For me it was one of the greatest examples of multicultural society that was savaged by globalisation, neoliberalism and hyper consumerism trying to box people into the nomenclature decided by institutions.

On making halloumi

It’s best to use fresh sheep or goat's milk straight into a clay vessel also known as a galaterin that resembles a watering can. The milk should be from an animal that can still express milk after giving birth. A similar protein to fat ratio ensures the best cheese. Low-fat, no lactose is a scam, and certainly low-fat halloumi is oxymoronic, as with any cheese or dairy product unless that is the natural state of the product. Pour the already warm milk through a fine bedsheet (to remove any dirt or hairs) into a copper or cast iron cauldron, traditionally a kazania which was specifically meant for cheesemaking. It’s better to strain fatty milk whilst warm otherwise the fat is also strained off. The body temperature of the animal should be warm enough to coagulate the milk, but, if not, heating gently with local non-resinous hardwood, which has been dried, imbues organoleptic qualities beyond detection. The milk is stirred with reed or fig branches tied together along with hard wild herbs which have positive microbial properties. This is a matsura (made of twigs), which is about a metre long and is gentle, but has microbial properties which are specific to each village. Check if the milk is at body temperature by dipping your finger in the milk until you can’t notice that your finger went in.

Next, pithkia is added, which is the rennet. You can use lamb, kid goat or even pig rennet, but it must be from an animal which has not yet eaten grass and has only consumed milk from its mother purely because the animal ceases to produce the enzymes required to make cheese once it does wean off its mother’s milk. Usually harvested from still-borns, the small stomach is cleaned, inflated like a bag or balloon, and dried with salt until hard. It is then cut into small pieces to be rehydrated with either salted whey or salted milk before any new make aka cheesemaker term for a new batch. The liquid is then strained and used to coagulate milk to make cheese – this separates the solids from the noros (whey). Pithkia is sometimes mixed with dried wild spearmint, especially if it were ground up into a powder.

Once the pithkia is added, it is traditional to sign the cross over the milk to make sure it sets – this symbology is key to the attitude toward the food being made as milk or cheese were saved rather than thrown out. When the milk looks like glass with a little noros on the surface, use your hands and arms to break pieces up (again first in the sign of a cross a few times) knocking some fats and minerals out, which will be useful later while making anari cheese. As the temperature increases and the curds float from the noros, they lose their moisture slightly, toughening up the exterior; this will be key to achieving the right texture in the cheese that should be flakey and layered, resembling slightly overcooked chicken breast.

Correct moisture is achieved through stirring until the curd can be dropped from around 30cm without it breaking. River reed baskets called talaria are used – which are handmade, flexible, and drain fast – to collect the cheese curds. Once the curds are collected, they’re gently kneaded to express further whey and turned one by one until little to no whey comes out. Meanwhile, the drained whey is simultaneously heated in the same cauldron where the curds were formed. The whey is heated until it starts to foam a little, and a little fresh milk is added. Wait till curds start to precipitate the surface of the now-clarified whey – this is anari, a type of whey cheese, which is drained once again in the talaria baskets and either eaten fresh as anari pitta or bourekia anari or dried in stockings until firm and then used in pasta dishes alongside halloumi.

Once the halloumi curds are drained, they are poached in clarified hot whey (after making anari from the remaining whey solids) until they float. Poaching them for longer helps as it caramelises the proteins in the cheese, and this makes red halloumi. If it’s removed early, it is white halloumi. Remove the cheese from the whey, sprinkle sea salt flakes and fresh or dried spearmint, fold the cheese to ensure that the correct texture is achieved and place fresh, locally grown herbs in the middle. Sometimes the cheese is not folded as per the style of that village. The whey is cooled, sea salt is added, and the cheese is added to the brine until well-seasoned. The freshly made cheese is eaten and the remaining is left in the brine to be kept for the winter. Any leftover whey is mixed with yiourti to make ayrani, which is a salted minty yoghurt drink and is absolutely delicious for breakfast and with roasted meats.

Eleni Michael, fermenter. Photo by Francesco Brembati

I’m currently based nowhere and everywhere! I was born in Cyprus and at the age of 18 I moved to the UK for studies. After spending eight years of living and working in the hospitality industry in London, I shifted my approach to food and trained as a food anthropologist and fermenter. Ever since, I’ve been on a nomadic journey following my food and fermentation projects.

There’s no bigger pleasure than eating halloumi warm while it’s still fresh, but I still enjoy it cold in various ways; in the summer with watermelon, or together with olives and bread for breakfast. I also like it pan-fried on its own and with eggs, or grilled and made into a sandwich using the Cypriot pitta bread.

I always think of food beyond its taste. Most countries are associated with a national cheese so I’m most interested in the complexities that come with claims of authenticity, processes of heritagisation and state control. Cyprus only managed to get Χαλλούμι/ Halloumi/Hellim registered as a protected designation of origin (PDO) in 2021, with a lot of regulations applied on the type of milk used (sheep and ewe’s milk vs. cow milk).

My most authentic experiences with halloumi go back to my father’s occupied village in the north of Cyprus, where his aunt still resides as the last surviving enclaved person at 93. After the borders opened in 2003, we’ve been visiting her and my uncle since; she’s the one who taught me how to make halloumi from scratch, in the traditional way.

The quality of the milk is what makes the difference, based on the wellbeing of animals and farmers’ connection to the land. Sheep and goat milk constitute the traditional ingredients for Cypriot halloumi; cow’s milk only came into play with industrialisation of the late 20th century. However, this always depends on locality, hence you could still get a great cow’s milk halloumi in cattle-producing countries like the UK.

Selin Kiazim, chef. Photo by Patricia Niven

I am the chef / owner of the restaurant Oklava, in Shoreditch, London. At Oklava we grill hellim over a smoky fire to create a deep golden crust and soft, almost marshmallow like in the centre and dress it with olive oil, lemon juice, wild oregano and honey. At home I tend to fry hellim over a medium-high heat in olive oil, again looking to achieve a good crust. I love to use them as these golden fried nuggets for a soup topping.

My relationship with this cheese is a very strong one. Growing up it was the one cheese always in our fridge. Other kids would have cheese sandwiches for packed lunch but I would have hellim sandwiches (amongst a buffet of other Cypriot dishes). We ate so much of it that to be honest I was bored of it but found a new love for it once we opened Oklava.

On our summer holidays to Cyprus one of the first things my grandmother would make for us is hellim, to eat fresh whilst Cyprus, but also to pack in our suitcases to take home! There is nothing like proper village style hellim, a world apart from the commercial stuff. We also ate it, in Cyprus, in a savoury pastry called Pilavuna. These are little dough parcels stuffed with a grated hellim mix and baked until golden and a little crisp.

Sheep’s or goat’s milk make the best tasting hellim and obviously the quality of the milk will make a huge difference. Other than that it comes down to technique and having a real eye for the craft. A good hellim needs to have a perfect texture of not too hard and not too soft. Anthony from Kupros Dairy makes the finest example here in the UK.

Georgina Hayden, writer. Photo by Patricia Niven

I’m a food writer and stylist. I was born and raised in London, above my grandparents' Greek restaurant. I’m still here, in London, but all my family are from Cyprus and most are still there so we spend a lot of our time going back.

I rarely grill sliced halloumi, which I think is how a lot of people assume we eat it. If it’s good quality (village made or like Anthony’s!) we’d eat it straight up, thinly sliced with watermelon. My family tradition is in an apricot sandwich – apricot jam + halloumi is the best combo. We used to make it in my grandparent’s flat above their taverna. Always village bread, lots of butter, fried halloumi and lots of apricot jam. That was my childhood. My dad often worked late at the restaurant and would come home in the early hours and if I couldn’t sleep I’d get up and we’d have these sandwiches, or a fry up with slices of halloumi and egg.

I also grill it whole - looks incredible and is great for a few people. I criss-cross cut the top of a whole block of halloumi, rub with olive oil then place under a hot grill; cook for around 10 mins, and you have slightly gooey but crisp on top cheese. Great with apricot jam, fresh apricots or figs.

It might sound a bit far-fetched but halloumi is a huge part of my life. We use it in everything. The way Italians use Parmesan we use halloumi and more. It’s grated into village pasta, topped with moussaka. The villages of both my yiayias (grandma) make amazing halloumi. Whenever someone goes to Cyprus they always bring an extra empty case - which is dedicated to bringing back the good stuff. We freeze blocks whilst we’re there, wrap it in cling film, then bring a whole case back!

We share this work in memory of Anthony, who sadly passed away on 3 August 2023.

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