Halloumi is synonymous with Cyprus. Its origins can be traced back to ancient history and is listed among some of the world’s oldest known cheese. Having reserved a place of honour on Cypriot tables for centuries, the first recorded details about halloumi can be traced to a Venetian document dating back to 1554. The information therein was preserved by Leonardo Dona who was later to become the 90th Doge of Venice. That came to light thanks to research conducted by the historian Nasa Patapiou.
Much earlier, in the 2nd century AD, the satirical writer Lucian penned the following in “Dialogues of Courtesans”: “Alas, how happy is the one that has you as a lover, Dorion, because it’s you that will bring her onions from Cyprus and cheese…”. Dorion, a musician by trade, travelled to Cyprus during the reign of King Nikokreon of Salamis.
The word “halloumi” has very interesting origins. Cypriot linguists, such as Georgios Louca, have supported the theory that “halloumi” derives, much like the word “thalassa” (sea), from the ancient Greek “als”, meaning salt. This aspirate was pronounced with an initial breathy sound – “hals”. Halloumi, which is kept in brine, or “halmi”, results in the word “halloumi”.
From the Troodos mountain range straight to your plate!
On the Troodos mountain range, replete with luscious pines, arbutus and turpentine trees, myrtles, laurels, rock rose bushes and chaste trees, one will find scattered paddocks where goats and sheep graze freely from such fragrant vegetation. As a result their milk assumes a rich flavour and distinct aroma that is transferred into the halloumi, turning the cheese into something unique and immediately identifiable. Halloumi was traditionally produced by livestock farmers and was largely a family affair. It was not uncommon for entire communities to pool their resources and become involved in its production. This especially holds true for the women, as they were responsible for organising and implementing logistical practices that would effectively utilise the yields of the few animals available from each household, thus minimising the demands on each family and maximising their gains.
Halloumi is traditionally produced using goat or sheep’s milk, or a combination of both. It is a white, elastic and relatively soft cheese which hardens as it matures. The flavours intensify, become spicier and creamier through ageing in brine. The cheese is usually folded over onto itself and presented in semicircular or rectangular shapes.
Preparation is as follows: milk is allowed to curdle at low temperature with the addition of rennet, a naturally occurring substance present in the stomachs of lambs but now manufactured. The curd is scored, crumbled and left to gather into a solid mass at the bottom of a cauldron. Subsequently, it is transferred into a “talarca”, a basket woven from “sklinintzia” reeds (juncus maritimus) and pressed vigorously. The anari, a byproduct of preparing halloumi and a delicacy in its own right, is removed and the curd cooked in boiling whey so as to obtain its characteristic taste and texture.
One cheese infinite flavours!
Halloumi can be prepared and enjoyed in many ways. It’s commonly served grated over a rustic dish of spaghetti garnished with spearmint, the national aroma of Cyprus.
You can combine fresh, soft halloumi with slices of watermelon or melon, or serve it lightly grilled or fried and accompanied by toasted bread and tomato. If you have enough time and are in the mood, don’t miss out on preparing traditional “pourekia” (pasties filled with grated halloumi or anari).
Halloumi can also be served as a dessert, either uncooked or lightly grilled, and drizzled with honey.
The combinations and cooking variations are endless. Use your imagination, be creative and your appetite will surely follow!
It’s one of the most popular cheeses in the world due to the variety of ways in which it can be used.