Since moving from London back to my native USA recently, I've had to make some adjustments to my diet. I've switched from Heinz Baked Beans back to Goya black beans, for example, and I've chilled out on Marmite, though I grew to love it. One of the most difficult things has been returning to a life where halloumi—the delicious, squeaky, grill-able Cypriot cheese—is too prohibitively expensive for day-to-day use, and generally less available for my eating pleasure. What are we doing, America?
Halloumi, which comes from the island of Cyprus, is a semi-hard cheese most often made from a mix of sheep and goat milk, and sometimes cow milk. It's similar in texture to firm mozzarella and Armenian or Oaxacan string cheese. Enjoyed around the Mediterranean, halloumi is notable because it can stand up to being grilled or fried, and through either process becomes really, really fucking good. The outside turns perfectly crispy and golden, and the inside retains some structural integrity but gets just gooey enough. The cheese is tangy and salty, not dissimilar in taste to certain types of feta, but with quite a different consistency.
It's highly versatile, and recently in the UK, it's taken over.
Britons, who vacation in the Mediterranean the way Americans vacation in the Caribbean, have a particular affinity for Cyprus. The British account for an extreme majority of foreign visitors to the island, and according to the most recent tourism returns, about 48 times more Britons than Americans visited Cyprus from January-August of this year. While there is not necessarily a correlation between Cyprus' popularity as a tourism destination for the British and halloumi's popularity in the UK—plenty of these tourists are probably eating fry-ups and sausage and mash while in Cyprus anyway—it's clear that Cyprus and aspects of Cypriot culture are more present in the British psyche than the American one.
According to both a year-old BBC article and my own personal experience, on a casual visit to one's local Tesco supermarket a shopper in the UK could encounter no fewer than six types of halloumi, including less-expensive store brand versions, which run £2 (about $3.20) for a roughly half-pound hunk. Recently, Tesco introduced absolutely genius burger-shaped bricks of halloumi just in time for summer cookouts, saving the lives of countless portobello mushrooms. And outside of the grocery aisles, one encounters the cheese all over: at ambiguously Mediterranean kebab shops, on mezze platters or sharing boards at pubs, and as the "vegetarian option" at any number of eateries. It would be odd for a Brit to not know about halloumi, and this is backed up by the fact that, statistically, the UK consumes the most halloumi of any European nation outside of Cyprus.
Tesco halloumi is, as the label says, "Produced in Cyprus using milk from Cyprus for Tesco stores Ltd.," meaning that the grocery chain has contracted dairies on the island to produce the cheese for them in large quantities. It makes sense, then, that prices for Tesco's generic halloumi would be low, with them controlling production. Across the Atlantic, halloumi is not only rare, it's expensive. Since the cheese comes to us through a more convoluted distribution chain, a brick equivalent in size to the £2 item at Tesco will run you close to $8 at Whole Foods, which is already more of an elite grocery option. At Trader Joe's, prices are a little better ($4.99), but it is an ounce smaller (7 oz.) than the apparent industry standard (8 oz.), only available in the summer, and comes inexplicably pre-sliced, which is not only weird but an affront to people like me who derive pleasure from slicing it. Tesco's equivalents in the US are far less likely to even carry halloumi in the first place, let alone have the foresight to shape it into a burger.
It's a shame and a sham—while vegetarians in this country cope with insipid variations on tofu, seitan, or the seldom satisfying veggie burger, our British brothers and sisters enjoy an embarrassment of halloumi preparations for reasonable prices. The goal now is to raise awareness: Without the demand, we'll never get to where we need to be, and halloumi will remain elusive and expensive. We as a nation must look to the UK as a an example and do everything we can to welcome this glorious cheese into our lives: everybody—vegetarians , omnivores, the battered Cypriot economy—would win.
Not vegans, though.