Our Daily Bread
Text: Marilena Joannides
Photography: George Pantazis for Marilena Joannides' book "Cyprus food treasures".
In the words of comedic poet, Eubulus, “Hard it is to see Cyprian loaves and ride by; like a magnet they draw the hungry to them,” in addition to this quote by a foreign traveler during the 16th century, “Nowhere in the world have I found such exquisite bread as the one I sampled in Famagusta,” it is clear that Cyprus has always been renowned for its wheat and its bread.
For centuries, many varieties of wheat have been cultivated in Cyprus, predominantly durum wheat. Durum is special in that it imparts Cypriot bread with distinct flavours not found among other breads originating from neighbouring countries. The popularity of Cypriot bread is based not only on the quality of local wheat, but also on the use of specific leavening agents for its preparation; normal sourdough, as well as “Arkatis” (a special yeast used in baking Arkatena bread), are also responsible for the exquisite taste and beneficial properties of Cypriot bread.
Cypriot bread is traditionally prepared using local flour ground in a stone mill. This is well kneaded with yeast, water, salt, and baked in a wood-burning oven. The dough is usually worked into oblong shapes called “koulouria” or “daktylia”. An important local attribute of traditional Cypriot bread comes from the use of cumin together with sesame seeds on the exterior, which is typical of the province of Pafos.
Different regions, different delicacies
From Pafos, we move to the province of Larnaka, which is known for its semolina koulouria, also known as “festive” koulouria. The kneading of this bread requires a laborious process and many helping hands. In the village, Kambos Tsakistras, “singing” koulouria are the specialty. In the past, these koulouria were offered as invitations to wedding guests accompanied by singing and the sounds of a lute. These particular koulouria are unique in that they hold the elaborate shape of “gyri- strakas”, or “glistrakas”, which can be found today as delicious, dried rusks.
Historically, Cypriot women used to prepare an array of breads for Christmas. “Gennopita,” also known as “Christopsomo” (Christ bread), is a fragrant and festive bread made with great care and attention to detail, having for decoration a Christian cross and black cumin seeds to scare away the “Kallikantzaros” (a type of goblin in Greek folk tradition).
Arkatena is a very distinct bread traditionally made in the mountainous parts of Cyprus. Named after “arkatis,” a type of sourdough made from the froth of chickpeas soaked in lukewarm water with various spices, the preparation of arkatis is considered an art that requires patience and time. Due to the nature of arkatis, which does not keep like other sourdough yeast, it must be prepared fresh every time. Today, the Omodos Arkatena is officially listed as a product of Protected Designation of Origin, and is the most well known.
Other special koulouria are the “Karpasitika” (from the occupied village Karpasi) which are kneaded with anari (whey cheese) and milk, and scented with mahlepi (Mahleb in Arabic-an aromatic spice), anise, cinnamon and clove. These festive koulouria, also known as “millomena,” are specific to Easter and should not be confused with “nistisima”, a type of vegan koulouria prepared year-round and consumed during Lent and other religious days of fasting. Yet another festive delicacy is “galena,” which is kneaded with milk, and comes from Pafos. For Easter, galena is combined with local cheese to form “tiropoules” (cheese pies).
A thousand and one pies
In general, Cypriot “pites” (pies) are prepared with bread dough into which types of greens, olives, or halloumi cheese are added. These pites, or “poules” as they’re known in Pafos, are traditionally baked in a wood-burning oven. Other pies worth mentioning are “ksiniatopites” made with wild sorrels, “koliantropites” made with fresh coriander, “marathopites” made with green fennel, and “strouthopites” made with “strouthkia” (wild greens). Other pies are “kromiopoules” (onion pies), “tiropoules” (cheese pies), and pies made with “thalassokrambia”, an ingredient native to the northern, coastal regions of Cyprus, also used in making “pourekia” (pasties). Additional pies worth mentioning are “kokkonopites” (wild seed pies), “pastopites” (sausage meat pies) from Kokkinohoria, and “pourgouropites” (pork meat pies) made with bulgur and lard (pork fat) and baked in a “plaka” (roaster).
While still on the subject of pies, we would be remiss not to mention “niskiopites” (pies baked on “niskia” – an open hearth). Because niskiopites aren’t made with sourdough (“litratzenes” – without sourdough), they are very easy to prepare, can include other ingredients such as olives, and are suitable for fasting. On the sweeter side of things, “tahinopites” (tahini pies), though difficult to prepare, are exceptional for their unique flavour. These sweet, delicious pies are also suitable for times of fasting.
“Lagopites,” pies native to Karpasia, are made with loosely-kneaded dough and baked on a natural stone over a wood fire. These pies are consumed with honey during two religious days of strict, oil-free fasting; September 14, feast day of the Holy Cross, and August 29, the feast day of St John the Baptist. Similar pies called “tripites” are the tradition in Pafos. These pies are baked on a “satzi” (grilling plate) to mark the end of the harvest season.
Over time, the dough used to make bread and pies began to evolve with the addition of various ingredients such as oil, milk, and orange juice. Spinach pies, halloumopites (halloumi cheese pies), and olive pies are considered to be modern takes on traditional recipes. Lastly, Cypriot pita bread deserves an honourable mention. Derived from traditional “sakopites,” Cypriot pita bread has earned a reputation for timeless value and simplicity, and is a staple in any souvlaki recipe.