“’A lot of Cypriots with vested interests are sabotaging the country’s bid to register halloumi cheese as a protected designation of origin (PDO)’, Agriculture Minister Nicos Kouyialis said on Tuesday, without however, naming names…. ‘The biggest war on this registration file was from the inside.’”
Cypriot agriculture minister Nicos Kouyialis, quoted in The Cyprus Mail, September 2017
For almost a decade I visited the Greek side of Cyprus three times a year – what a fabulous island! You can understand why the ancient Greeks thought their goddess of love, Aphrodite, was born in the sea of that beautiful coastline (where it isn’t built up), But go inland, to the Troodos mountains and there is a different, equally beautiful world to explore, the forested slopes hiding lonely monasteries and old farmhouses.
On one such adventure a local gave me the address and directions for getting to an artisan halloumi producer and that visit really put the gilt onto the gingerbread… or should I say the mint-speckled brine onto the hardened semi-circular curds?
A brief history
Halloumi was first produced in Cyprus in the medieval Byzantine period. There is also an Egyptian cheese – similar in both type and name which appeared around the same time, but although a halloumi-type cheese is widely enjoyed throughout the middle-east, halloumi as we know it now is quintessentially Cypriot. For centuries this cheese was the main source of protein on an island of sheep and goats and villages vied for supremacy in the quality of their halloumi.
The contended PDO application
Recently, though, like many popular food products, the production of halloumi has been mechanised, encouraged by the introduction in the 19th century by the British of cows, whose milk could be produced in greater quantity and more cheaply. This is one of the main contentions (see quote above) surrounding the registration of halloumi as a Cypriot PDO product (follow this link for more on PDOs) – the large manufacturers wanting the proportion of cows’ milk allowed to be more than the proportion of sheep and goats’ milk, and traditionalists wanting the cows’ milk proportion to be very much less.
Texture and flavour of halloumi
Halloumi is a white, rubbery-textured cheese which is brined and stored in the natural liquid of the cheese. Traditionally the cheese was prevented from drying out by being wrapped in mint leaves, and the tail end of that tradition remains today with the cheese with the briny juices surrounding the vacuum-packed blocks of cheese being peppered with chopped, dried mint. The brine results in the cheese being quite salty, but this is a mild, young cheese.
Nowadays the biggest per capita consumer of halloumi excluding Cyprus is the UK.
It’s often set with animal rennet, so if you are a vegetarian, check the packet.
Best way to eat halloumi
The unusual thing about halloumi is the fact that, not only can it withstand high heat without melting more than almost any other cheese, but also that its flavour is greatly improved by heat. There are lots of ideas below for what to do with halloumi, but all of them will involve barbequing, grilling, frying or baking in some way or other. The resistance to heat results from the fresh curd being heated first before being shaped and brined. If you are lucky enough to get hold of some really fresh cheese it will remain slightly soft and moist in the centre, otherwise it will harden up, producing a bit of a squeak when you bite into it. If you overcook it it just dries out and goes rubbery.
You can eat halloumi ‘raw’ as it were…ie not cooked. It won’t do you any harm, but it’s not nearly as good.
Most mass-produced halloumi is now pasteurised.
What not to do with halloumi
Halloumi is best eaten immediately and in a way that you can taste the salty brininess of it, and savour the crispy, golden, soft-middled texture. You lose the whole point of it if you serve it, as I have seen suggested ubiquitously, in a burger, pitta bread, or a taco.
Ideas for what to do with halloumi
- My go-to method is simply to oil a ribbed griddle pan, get it good and hot, and fry slices of halloumi on it until it forms a golden crust – a couple of minutes each side. Eat the instant it’s ready – the chef sitting down to eat last, and everyone else tucking in as soon as their plate is laden. I just oil the pan so that the cheese doesn’t stick – the dryer you fry the halloumi the better it will develop the golden exterior crust which is an essential contributor to the flavour.
- You can barbecue it, (either as kebabs with other things – pieces of meat, chunks of courgette; or on its own as long fingers threaded onto a soaked bamboo skewer) in which case soak it first in olive oil and mint, or oregano.
- The Cypriots often eat it with watermelon (it’s the saltiness which works so well with the sweet melon – feta also pairs well with melon for the same reason).
- You can also achieve the salt-sweet pairing with sweet citrus – orange or preserved lemon.
- If you have a deep fryer you can make fries – or alternatively you can go to Maltby Street market, and buy some, served with a tahini-yoghurt sauce, and bejewelled with pomegranate seeds.
- You can layer it with a tahini-based sauce, wrap it in filo, and bake…. Serve with a drizzle of orange-blossom honey. It’ll need about 10 minutes in a hot oven – 210°C.
- On your ribbed griddle pan caramelise some baby plum tomatoes, then fry your halloumi, and serve, sprinkled with chopped dried sour cherries, or dried cranberries, and drizzled with a thick, good quality balsamic vinegar.
- Traditionally halloumi is eaten in Cyrpus with three products which are also in line to win a PDO. They are hiromeri, or cured ham; lountza, made from cured pork tenderloin; and village sausages – all produced in the Pitsilia region on the Troodos mountain range. The nearest thing to these easily available in the rest of Europe and north America is bacon. So cut your halloumi into chunks, roll in chopped chives (for a bit of sharpness), and wrap in bacon or pancetta. Fry or grill.
- A suggestion from John Gregory-Smith in Orange Blossom & Honey – serve with Zaalouk, a Moroccan dish of aubergines in a spicy tomato sauce.
- Top a quinoa and pea salad dressed with capers, walnut oil and lemon juice with your griddled halloumi.
- Halloumi can be a bit dry, so serve it with juicy grilled mushrooms, and creamy avocado…and, if you need carbs, some toasted sourdough.
- kebabs with peanut butter sauce
Did you know you can make halloumi yourself – Claire Thompson explains how on The Guardian site.
This post is dedicated to Felix van Litsenburg.