Throughout the centuries, the first meal of the day has evolved to meet the needs and habits of the Cypriot people. However, what has remained unchanged is the authenticity of the flavours.
In the past, a typical day on the island began at the break of dawn and the need for energy and stamina was paramount. ‘Boukoma’, a word derived from the Venetian buca, ‘to bite’, was the Cypriot word to describe breakfast. This usually consisted of a piece of homemade sourdough bread along with olives, onions, sun-dried tomatoes and halloumi cheese– all native ingredients infused with the distinct flavours and aromas so typical of the sun-drenched Mediterranean. The breakfast table’s main protagonist was bread, famous since antiquity– kneaded with the durum wheat and yeast of Cyprus, and baked in wood-burning ovens. Fresh koulouria (hoop-shaped bread) and rusks, such as arkatena (a circular bread leavened with the foam produced from chickpea fermentation), or glistrakes (crispy rusks with sesame seeds) and sisamota (sweet sesame seed pies), added variety to a simple, traditional diet.
Likewise, olives have always been a staple in Cypriot homes since antiquity. Varieties included Kolybates olives, ‘Vomvoia’ as mentioned by Hesychious in the 5th century CE, Koumniastes olives preserved in salt within a clay amphora, Xidates olives preserved in vinegar, and Tsakistes olives served with coarsely chopped coriander seeds, garlic, and sliced lemon.
In the not too distant past, there was little room for gastronomic luxury in Cyprus. The primary concern of the people was to feed their families with what little they had. Thus, they harvested what nature generously offered and ingeniously created humble delicacies.
Examples of breakfast fare were the soup grouta, a flour-based porridge, or kourtouloportos, a soup of very small dumplings called kourtoulia. In winter, a soup called tsorvas containing pourgouri (groats) and katsouroues (small bread bites fried in olive oil– similar to croutons), as well as fried onion, was served. Portos, a thick jam prepared with groats baked in petimezi (molasses) with roasted sesame seeds, was also consumed in winter. Spread judiciously on bread, it was sweet and filling. An imaginative way of utilising delicious grape derivatives was in the making of halouvas (halva), a sweet containing semolina and almonds with epsima (a syrup made of concentrated grape juice). Preparation involved baking wheat flour with sesame seeds in a traditional satzi with a touch of olive oil, then adding epsima to form a dough that is kneaded into balls. These were stored on ‘tapatzies’, flat hanging baskets used to store bread. Teratsomelo (carob honey) was also an important element in Cypriot breakfast. Served with bread and tahini or baked with terzelloutkia, a type of pasta, this superfood afforded the energy needed to meet the demands of the day.
Pies were always an important component of Cypriot breakfast. Of particular fame were tahinopita (tahini pies), kolokotes (pies baked with red zucchini, raisins and groats) and siepastes (pies covered with wild greens). Olive pies and halloumi pies were prepared with bread dough that was mixed with other household staples– thalassokrabia (wild greens from the coast of Kyrenia Province), ksiniatous (wild sorrels from the fields of Karpasia), as well as terebinth and peppertree seeds to make trimithopites and schinopites. Kromiopoules, the onion pies of Pafos, and poules prepared with sesame seeds and raisins from the village Assia, were also noteworthy.
During non-fasting periods, one of the most important breakfast ingredients was halloumi, the national cheese of Cyprus. The name ‘halloumi’ derives from the ancient Greek word, ‘als’. According to Greek mythology, als was the sea which gave birth to Aphrodite and Cyprus millions of years ago. Breakfast also included fresh milk and eggs straight from the henhouse– especially important for the healthy growth of children. A luxurious addition to breakfast fare was lountza krasati, a recipe of cured pork loin marinated in wine. Cypriot sausages either pan-fried or baked into pies called pastopites and pourgouropites, served along with fine groats and pork fat, were also true delicacies.
Over time within urban centres, it became common for neighbours, especially women, to meet in the home for breakfast and coffee. At least one savoury and one sweet delicacy were proffered by the hostess, such as olive or cheese pie, pasta flora (a tart made with homemade jam), cookies, or even a cake baked in the gas ovens of the day.
That brings us to the breakfast and brunch of present day Cyprus. Minimalism has no place in the modern iterations of classic recipes– a representation of the generous mood and hospitable character of the Cypriots. Local products and ingredients combine to create amazing feasts, thus offering a true taste of Cyprus’ gastronomic traditions, as well as the island’s terroir. Bon appétit!