They have a centuries-long history, healing properties and intoxicating aromas. These are the herbs of Cyprus, a generous gift from nature.
Text: Marilena Ioannides
Whether visiting Cyprus in winter or summer, the air carries scents from nature. The land, emerging from the sea millions of years ago, in combination with the abundance of sun and water, created these intoxicating aromas. Regardless of their origin, what is certain is that the herbs of Cyprus are a wealth of valuable nutritional and medicinal properties, a reputation as fundamental today as it was in ancient times. Prepared for consumption, they do not lose their beneficial characteristics. In traditional Cypriot cuisine, consuming herbs (or aromatics) are intrinsic to the local diet.
Terebinth (Pistacia terebinthus) is not just a plant but a part of the island’s geography and culture. Since antiquity, curing their tender ends in brine or vinegar was commonplace, similar to capers. Today, in the village of Kambos of Tsakkistra in the Troodos mountains, traditional-roasted lamb is flavoured with terebinth leaves. The seeds are used together with raisins to make crispy Trimithotes pies.
Wild myrtle predates the ice age and has been known since ancient times. When in season, its fragrant berries are the perfect snack, bursting with flavour on the palette – what a joyful experience!
Laurel is the sacred plant of Apollo, a symbol of peace and glory. Laurel trees native to the Troodos mountains have a slightly more subtle scent than others. Laurel complements cinnamon in flavouring traditional roasts, stews, Kapama (any dish that is slowly braised and with tomatoes) and Zalatina (pork in vinegar jelly) while imparting lentils with a distinct aroma.
Mint is emblematic of traditional Cypriot cuisine. Its seductive power lies in its ability to sweeten the breath. In ancient botany, mint was highly valued for enhancing the flavour of many foods and was, according to Dioscorides, considered an aphrodisiac. Mint pairs perfectly with halloumi and Anari cheese, respectively. An example is the anari pies from the village of Kornos. In Akoursos of Pafos, mint complements Glistritha Yahni (purslane stew with tomatoes) and potato salad with tahini. It is added to Koupepia (stuffed vine leaves) with minced meat, to the filling for pumpkin flowers, to meatballs, or to homemade pies with various other greens from the garden. Mint preserves traditional Apochti (salted goat meat), turning it into a unique meze.
Sea fennel (Pancratium maritimum) is common in rocky-coastal areas of Cyprus. Their young shoots are detoxifying. It is put into salads with other vegetables or cooked with eggs. In Pafos, it is customary to preserve sea fennel in brine or vinegar to accompany souvlaki with pita.
Caper plants provide fresh shoots, the buds of their flowers (Koutrouvi), and their young fruit, the latter preserved in brine or vinegar. Capers accompany lamb and other traditional roasts. They transform eggs into a simple, delicious meze to accompany Zivania liquor.
Basil is a rarity in the wilds of Cyprus. Usually, it decorates the courtyards of traditional houses in pots. Basil leaves spread their fragrance when touched. Combined with olive oil, they flavour vegetables, salads, fish, and meat dishes.
Wild fennel is one of the most widely used plants in Cyprus. It is incomparably more aromatic than garden varieties but not as intense as dill. That is why it pairs easily with many foods, even crushed olives. Cypriots add fresh fennel to Yachni potatoes with tomato, spinach rice, Zabussies (traditional pastries with rice and greens) and dried beans in winter.
Wild garlic is common in traditional meat and vegetable dishes, salads and pies. Its intense aroma and flavour blend perfectly with sourdough pies Xiniatopites (pies filled with wild greens, specialties from Karpasia). The same is true for Skordalia, a thick puree of garlic and sourdough that is sometimes made with potatoes or almonds.
Oregano, known from antiquity as Amarakos, yields quality essential oil. Cypriot cuisine loves oregano and uses it profusely, such as in roasts like the wine and pork dish from the village of Statos-Agios Photios in the mountains of Pafos. Oregano is a preservative for goat meat in preparing Tsamarella, a traditional-Cypriot cold cut.
Rosemary is traditionally used in Cyprus to make Savoro, a sauce that accompanies fish. Rosemary is also prominent in chickpeas with lemon, grilled meats, baked potatoes, and Karaoloi (black snail) souvlaki, a dish that originates from Karpasia.
Wild sage (Salvia Cypria) is one of the most characteristic herbs on the island. Like thyme, it softens tough meat in cooking, making it easy to digest. Both herbs neutralise toxins and facilitate digestion. Thyme, especially the wild variety, has a strong flavour and stimulates the body and mind. Its light aroma protects dried fruit from insects; when mixed with red wine and garlic, the combination becomes a flavourful marinade for grilled meat.
Parsley is a common seasoning in everyday cuisine and festive dishes. Together with black pepper, it adds characteristic flavour and aroma to pastitsio, souvlaki with pita, and Seftalies (traditional sausage). In addition, parsley assists with digestion.
Key ingredients in Cypriot Ladapi jam, a unique delicacy, are the fruit from wild Mosfilia and Kiouli (or Arbaroriza), purple geraniums with delicate leaves and flowers, and a beautiful aroma. Common in traditional confectionery, kiouli is added to sweet cherry spoon desserts, quince and quince paste. Also, it brews into a relaxing tea.
Rosa damascena is the traditional rose of Cyprus. According to mythology, when Aphrodite first emerged from the sea, so did the first white rose growing from the earth. That was how the gods welcomed her arrival. Later, when Adonis was in danger, the goddess ran barefoot to save her beloved. In doing so, she cut her feet, and her divine blood stained the white rose red. From Agros (the village of roses) comes the traditional dessert made with pink rose petals. Rose water flavours Mahalepi (a type of cream), Fanouropita (a fasting cake) and delicious, uncooked almonds. To welcome guests, rose water in Merecha (silver containers) is sprinkled on the hands.