Halloumi Might Help Heal a Divided Cyprus


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Halloumi Might Help Heal a Divided Cyprus

In spite of the ongoing conflicts between Turkish and Greek Cypriots, both groups want to protect their beloved thick, squeaky cheese known as halloumi.

Cyprus, the, "golden-green leaf thrown into the sea," as a song by composer Mikis Theodorakis calls it, is famous for its sun and its beaches. But it is also known for something much darker: the unresolved conflict between the island nation's Greek and Turkish communities.

For more than 40 years, the island has been divided by a UN buffer zone that was established after Turkey invaded and occupied the northern part of the island in response to a Greek nationalist coup that was inspired by Greece's military government. This forced Turkish-Cypriots north and Greek-Cypriots south, displacing more than 200,000 people. The island remains split to this day between The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus—a breakaway state whose legitimacy is only recognized by Turkey—and The Republic of Cyprus, a European Union member state recognized internationally as the legitimate government of the island. The city of Nicosia is the capital of both and like the island, is divided itself, making it the last divided capital in the world.


Despite linguistic and religious differences between the two communities, one of the many things they have in common is their cuisine. One of the most famous Cypriot foods is the thick, squeaky cheese known as halloumi.


This shared history with halloumi has prompted an application for halloumi to be submitted for EU protection as an original product of Cyprus. The legal classification is called "protected designation of origin," and it means that only halloumi from Cyprus specifically would be recognized and allowed to be sold under that name in the EU. Cyprus has already been granted such protection for halloumi for sales in the US since the 1990s. No such protection has been granted yet by the EU, but that could soon change. The application names the product both halloumi and helim so that it includes both the Greek and Turkish names for the product, an effort to include both sides of the island under the protection and benefit everybody.

"It's important for us because it will help our business," says Gianakis Stefani. Gianakis and his wife Zoiro run a small family-owned cheese-making business in the village of Pachna, near the city of Limassol. Here, halloumi is made the traditional way, using goat's milk delivered every morning by local farmers. Gianakis says his creamery makes up to 500 kilograms of cheese every day; mostly halloumi, but also mizithra cheese and yogurt.


The traditional way that small dairy producers like Gianakis make halloumi differs somewhat from the way industrial-scale producers make the cheese. Traditional halloumi is made only with goat's milk, maybe mixed with some sheep's milk in certain cases, but larger producers include cow's milk as well due to its cost-effectiveness. The designation of halloumi does allow for the inclusion of cow's milk, but it's much to the dismay of smaller, traditional cheese-makers like Gianakis who consider it blasphemy. This discrepancy has caused failures to get the product registered in the past.


Nonetheless, producers large and small, Greek and Turkish, all stand to benefit from protected status, and overall hope it goes through as soon as possible.


To make traditional halloumi, the milk is first tested to be sure it is free of any antibiotics or other irregularities. It is then refrigerated and kept at 3 degrees Celsius until it can be poured into the boiler. The milk is heated to 35 to 40 degrees Celsius (95 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit), and salt and rennet—an enzyme derived from goats' stomachs—are added to make the cheese curd faster and give it more flavor. The mixture is then left to thicken for about an hour.


After thickening, the halloumi is stirred vigorously until the curds can be scooped out and packed into containers to be molded into blocks. The molded pieces of halloumi are then put into a much hotter boiler, where the milk is cooked at 90 degrees Celsius (194 degrees Fahrenheit). When the blocks of halloumi are first put into the hot boiler, they sink to the bottom. But once they start floating to the top by themselves, they're ready. The blocks are removed, folded, and salted, then left to cool so that they can be packed and sent away (or if you're dying to dig in, you can do that at this point, too).


Halloumi is one of very few cheeses that can be prepared and eaten the very same day as the milk it's made from is delivered. It's delicious raw or barbecued, fried, or in a sandwich or a salad. It's no wonder that Cyprus is so proud of it.

The application for halloumi to get protected designation of origin status was submitted in July of 2014. It is not complete yet, but will be later this year should no third-party objections be raised.


The success of the PDO application would be a symbolic achievement for the divided nation at a time of renewed political will to reunite the two sides. Such an inclusive measure would increase cooperation between businesses on both sides and lay the groundwork for a more integrated economy.

Will this very Cypriot product reunite Cyprus and resolve the nation's internal divide? Probably not. The Cyprus question is still a complicated and contentious issue whose resolution has stumped even some of the most revered diplomats of all time. But what protected status for halloumi and helim can do is a provide a measure of mutual benefit for both communities to protect one of the most "Cypriot" products in the world, as it becomes even more popular with consumers outside the country.