30 November 2009

Island Life

Anyone who's met me will know where I stand on the (ongoing / endless) disclosure debate, so I'm not going to get into it now. Mind you, I'm a little upset that I wasn't even asked to plug Douwe Egberts...

Never mind. In the spirit of the mood, perhaps I should point out that my trip to Cyprus wasn't me, a backpack and a list of interesting local foodstuffs I had to try. It was a properly organised press trip for a handful of journalists and I was there because I had a commission from one of my outlets. In the meantime though, paid or not, I figured it was worth a bit of a blog not least because it's one of the prettiest places I've ever seen with water so clear it takes your breath away.

There's a real honesty to Cypriot food that, happily, we got to experience a lot during our whistlestop journey around the island. Press trips are so often about "the best" that they frequently take you to the higher end restaurants. That's not a complaint, obviously, and I've never knowingly turned down a Michelin star, but so often that definition of "the best" means "identikit dining experience" and you could be anywhere. While there were a couple of those meals, for the most part we hit little (and not so little) taverns all across the island for more straightforward Cypriot eating - with very pleasing results.

You'd be pushed to tell the difference between a Cypriot meze and A N Other meze but no matter: this is simple, straightforward, robust and enjoyable eating and you can never have too much of that.

Lamb, obviously, featured heavily although one of the stand outs for me was a goat kleftiko. We watched as the chef chiselled off the clay sealing the oven, opened the door and removed the joint that had been gently cooking away on carob leaves for most of the day. The result was meat that slipped off the bone with a satisfying, gentle "whump" and a flavour that resembled the richness of mutton. The slow-roasted potatoes were also a little bit good.

Rabbit stifado, with joyously sweet braised onions, was another highlight



and I can't talk Cyprus without mentioning halloumi, of course. This will probably get a post in its own right shortly, having watched someone make the cheese by hand, in a little room on their farm, but it's remarkable how something so bland can be so addictive when it's grilled.

Trahana was also a revelation. This is a soup made with balls of yoghurt-soaked wheat which have been left to try in the sun. These can then be stored for weeks before being thrown into a pan with a boiling chicken. The resulting sharp, milky stock finished with a squeeze of lemon juice - and what lemon juice! - is trahana. While the dish itself may be tricky to recreate in the UK (you need about five days of continual sunshine to dry the wheat so, yeah, we're kinda screwed), it was a good reminder that decent lemon juice can lift so many flavours.




Perhaps my favourite meal though was the seafood meze. A beautifully meaty grouper, a plate of beautifully fried red mullet, creamy taramasalata plus, of course, the inevitable beans, punchy olives and vibrant, crunchy Greek-by-any-other-name salad. Amazing what sunshine can do to vegetables and fruit: you really could live happily on the tomatoes and bread.

And that brings me to my favourite food moment of the trip. After a morning watching the making of boureki - in this instance, little sweetened cheese and cinnamon ravioli-like parcels -

we were taken to the local olive press, via the sight of a wizened olive picker combing his way through the branches of a tree.

The olive press is a beautiful community idea. Anyone who grows olives brings them to the site. They get their harvest weighed, washed, crushed and pressed, before filling a variety of containers with their own olive oil. Instead of something like seven or eight Euros a litre, the growers pay 10 cents a kilo (plus a small share of the resulting oil) and, in most cases, take away all the olive oil they'll need for the year.

The smell, as you can imagine, was amazing: green, peppery, vibrant, the sort of aroma that strokes away almost imperceptibly at the taste buds. At the point I realised I was hungry, our host appeared with a plate of toast.

The bread was dusted with sesame seeds, perfectly grilled, then drizzled with local olive oil and a generous squeeze of lemon and then sprinkled with rock salt. Simple, satisfying perfection.

4 comments:

theundergroundrestaurant said...

Yum. That tarama looks scrumptious. I didn't think they did it in Cyprus...

The London Foodie said...

Hi Neil,

Your posting is very evocative - i could smell those olives from my living room... I love halloumi and grill it whenever I have a bbq at home, it is always a good vegetarian option, but everyone ends up eating it. I loved the look of that lamb too! I will make sure to revisit your posting before visiting Cyprus.

Thanks!

Luiz @ The London Foodie

Kat said...

Wow - great post, so interesting to hear about authentic Cypriot cuisine and things I'd never hear of like trahana and the cheese and cinnamon bourkei.

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