View of Cyprus from the air

A Vegetarian Meze in Cyprus: An exciting tale of a Knight and Black Gold

Where am I? Dazzling shores of an island in the Mediterranean sea

What I do speak? Greek (and a lot of English!)

How I say hello: Yeia Sas!

A dish I would love you to try: Anthi (stuffed courgette flowers)

As the legendary birthplace of the Greek Goddess Aphrodite, I was curious, though not overly excited to move to Cyprus. I was still tired from the spillover of quitting my job, packing up our life in Mauritius, and sorting out long overdue admin in London. Oh yeah, and getting married. Did I mention that? Which is incidentally why I was moving to Cyprus. Here was a chance to start a new stress free life in the Mediterranean, take a ride on the start-up train, and go crazy with my inner interior designer in our new home, after many years of rental drab.

As we approached the island, my first gaze at her raw beauty was enough to make me spellbound and fall in love.

I knew then that living in Cyprus would offer exactly what I was searching for in my life at the time – grounding, wellbeing and a place to call home.

017d22a0e2f7ddf727378da8e3e4476f3d57482796Welcome to Cyprus

And so, I write to you from Cyprus, my new home, and welcome you to share this mouth-watering journey with me. You’ll quickly be heartened by the friendly welcome of the Cypriots, just as I was. I still vividly remember one gloriously sunny morning, when I strolled into a cafe, excited to try my very first Cyprus coffee. Its spicy aroma took hold of my senses even before my first sip. As I contemplated a future of enslavement to the charms of this small drink, I engaged in lovely, if slightly weird, conversation with a man also taking his morning coffee.

As we crossed views on the galaxy and governments, I found out that he was a chef but unemployed at the time. Much to my surprise, when I eventually got up to leave, he insisted on treating me to my coffee, giving thanks to our stories shared. I felt humbled that a person struggling to make ends meet would still show a stranger the hospitality that the Cypriots are so proud of. We did not even exchange names, but he will always be my symbol of Cyprus, and  I dedicate this first letter to him.

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The Conquests

This attractive island in the eastern Mediterranean sea has welcomed and said goodbye to  a multitude of cultures over the last 4000 years. From the Phoenicians and Romans, to the Ottomans and the British, everyone has tried to call Cyprus their home. This is reflected in Cyprus’ unique identity and wealth today, in music and in food. I find that her offerings of meats and desserts share many similarities with Greek and Turkish cuisine, but she truly makes her own mark with vegetarian dishes.

Cyprus is a deeply Christian country too and the months of Lent sees many restaurants and cafes offer up an extended variety of vegetarian dishes. The best place to sample these are in a traditional taverna and we often head off to the hills surrounding Paphos for some truly authentic fare.

0169add1e72eed1ead39f8d493049bfb2c811b0edaEnjoying a meze

Most tavernas and restaurants offer a meze meal to customers,  where you can eat between 18-20 different dishes through the evening. Mezes, with its seemingly endless food and wine, have been served up for centuries in Cyprus to celebrate a religious feast, birthday or wedding ceremony.

Mezes can be fully vegetarian, or more likely a mixed meze with a good number of vegetarian options. A simple garden salad of lettuce, cucumber, tomato and onion, dressed in olive oil and lemon, along with warm bread and olives always start off the meal. These are accompanied by tzatziki (a thick yoghurt dip) and tahini (a sesame dip), and a lentil or bean salad, and possibly pickled beetroot!

Oh so delicious Cypriot Halloumi

The next dish offered can be grilled Cypriot halloumi, a cheese made from goat’s or sheep’s milk, or both. Halloumi is rubbery in texture and remains wonderfully so, even after it has been grilled.

My husband first introduced me to halloumi early in our relationship, when he made me a simple but delicious Cypriot pita sandwich, consisting of grilled halloumi, cucumber,tomato, onion and parsley, all wrapped in a warm pitta pocket.

But I digress, back to the meze!  As parsley, coriander and mint are so widely grown in Cyprus, many dishes are garnished with these herbs. What follows next almost always depends on the season, but can include moussaka (baked layers of eggplant and other vegetables), vegetables cooked in an aromatic tomato sauce, or garlicky green beans. In the summer, I was offered a delicate, melt in your mouth, fried feta pastry with pomegranate sauce.

Summer heat and watermelons

Seasonal produce features heavily in the availability of dishes through the year, and rightly so for a land embracing Mediterranean and Middle Eastern climates. Dry and dusty in the summer, when temperatures often reach 40 degrees, you can feast on figs and watermelons. When the temperature inside our house hits 30 degrees, even with the air conditioner running, I rush out to the watermelon seller across our street, and feast through a whole melon, more refreshing than any glass of water. A sumptuous way to enjoy watermelon is to combine it with fresh halloumi. Simply divine! Or try this recipe of Gazpacho with Halloumi Ice Cream, another brilliant way to cool down if you visit Cyprus in the summer.

Citrusy winters

In the winter, the climate is lush and green, and orange and lemon trees are in full bloom. Citrus trees line all the streets, and to a visitor it can be surprising to see fruits lying abandoned, such is the abundance here in winter. Citrus fruits arrived in Cyprus from Asia back in the Middle Ages, and flourish in the hilly and relatively warm Mediterranean climate.

Something sweet?

Carob trees also grow well in the Cyprus climate, and their naturally sweet pods are used today as a healthy alternative to sweeteners and chocolate.  The tree originates in the Middle East and is believed to have been brought to Cyprus by the Greeks. Its ability to keep unaltered without preservation for many years meant that it quickly gained reputation as the “Black Gold of Cyprus”.

Such was its importance in the past that the term “carat”, used today as a measure of gold or diamonds, derives from the Greek word kerátion, or carob seed.

A popular traditional sweet sold across kiosks in Cyprus is the pasteli, a type of carob toffee mixed with sesame seeds or peanuts, and shaped into small brittle bars. If you’re lucky, you can sample one at a village festival!

Festivals and more

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Harvests and local produce are celebrated with great pride all across Cyprus, and more colourfully in the spring and summer.  Villages and visitors come together to celebrate a festival with local foods, music and dance. If you get a chance, check out the grape, rose and fig festivals, and discover many more here. There’s a certain nostalgia I feel when we explore villages in Cyprus. We love staying in local agrotourism units or B&Bs, and often for meals, we are offered homemade halloumi or bread baked by a neighbour.

Some places produce their own olive oil and we were so lucky to sample some when we stayed at the Vavla Rustic Retreat in the Larnaca countryside a few months ago. It is even possible to take your own home-grown olives, as many people do, and get them pressed into olive oil at several locations within the Troodos mountain region that covers the centre of the island.

A glass of red please!

Along with olive oil, Cyprus also has a long history of winemaking, dating back to the late Middle Ages when the island was under Lusignan (French) rule.

A well-known dessert wine, Commandaria, has been produced in the region for around 3000 years, though it gets its name from the wine headquarters, or commandery, established in the region by the Knights Templar in the 12th century.

It used to be fermented in large earthen pots, and these are now used to decorate verandahs and gardens in people’s homes.

A by-product of winemaking is a sweet called Soujuko, which is made by dipping threaded almonds or walnuts into sweetened and fermented grape juice, and then hung out to dry in the sun. If you’re feeling brave, you can wash it down with a swig of ice cold Zivania. This stiff drink is distilled from grape skins and local wine. Locals often say a dab of zivania on the skin is enough to keep mosquitos at bay. And a Cypriot lady who still makes it at home told us once over dinner that she often uses it as disinfectant!

Let’s get cooking!

If I’ve wetted your taste buds with the vegetarian delicacies offered in Cyprus, I would love for you to try the following recipe of stuffed courgette flowers, Anthi. Courgette flowers bloom in the summer and I’m lucky to have some growing in my garden, which I picked in the morning along with some fresh mint and lemons.

Click here for the full recipe. Enjoy!

A few words to say goodbye

I hope you’ve enjoyed our vegetarian food safari through beautiful Cyprus today. One of my favourite pastimes here is to sit in a local cafe with a Cyprus coffee and slice of olive pie (traditionally made using black olives and eaten as breakfast or a snack), and gaze away at passing strangers.

olive-pie-and-cyprus-coffee

I love this recipe for Cyprus coffee from Canadian-Cypriot Christina Loucas’ blog Aphrodite’s Kitchen.  Do have a try at making one, and enjoy it with a copy of Sonia Demetriou’s mesmerising appreciation of Cypriot culture and cooking, Androula’s Kitchen – Cyprus on a Plate. Grab a copy here!

Cyprus cookbook

If you ever do travel through Cyprus, I wish you an incredible delicious adventure! If you need any help with ordering vegetarian food, please use this handy translation card that lists all the main food groups in both English and Greek.

And so, I bid you Yeia sas! I hope you’ll join me next time as I take you foraging for veggies in Sweden!

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