According to mythology, the Greek goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite, was born on Cyprus. I’m sure the gods placed her here to watch over the many delights this island paradise has to offer. As the third largest island in the Mediterranean, after Sicily and Sardinia, it is located in the far eastern portion and surrounded by Turkey, Syria,
Lebanon, Israel, Egypt and Greece. Cyprus is rich in history, natural beauty, culture, ancient wines and fascinating gastronomy.
Historically, it is somewhat of a dichotomy. Mostly Greek, there is a strong Turkish contingent. Originally a Crown Colony, Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 and seized the northern third of the island, forcing all Greek Cypriots to move to the south. In 1975, the "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" was formed. There were hostilities between the two for many years, but today, they coexist peacefully. As a result of its geographical location and divided population, foreigners might wonder about Cyprus’ identity. Is it European or Middle Eastern? Since the larger portion of the island country is probably get a different answer if you asked a Turkish Cypriot. Needless to say, there are certainly some crossover influences on both sides.
The topography of Cyprus is quite mountainous with coastal lowlands. The climate is typically Mediterranean, warm and rather dry, with rainfall mainly between November and March. Generally, mild, wet winters and dry, hot summers are the norm. This temperate climate is ideal for growing numerous crops, thus its reputation in international markets as "the garden of the Mediterranean". Production of fruit and vegetables has been further enhanced by the completion of a massive irrigation system that opened up much additional acreage of fertile coastal land. Citrus fruits such as oranges, lemons and grapefruit flourish. Vegetables including eggplant, zucchini, okra, chili peppers, beans, spinach and many others abound. Potatoes are particularly outstanding. Aromatic herbs that are indigenous to the island are widely exported. These include basil, sage, rosemary, marjoram, thyme, mint, anise, dill, tarragon, coriander, parsley and others.
Viticulture and winemaking on Cyprus date back some 5,000 years, and its indigenous grape varieties are some of the oldest on the planet. Table grapes like Sultana, Perlette and Superior are widely cultivated, especially along the coastline and on the lower mountain slopes in the area stretching from Limassol to Paphos. There are approximately fifteen indigenous wine grape varieties cultivated on the island; however, four seem to dominate. The prevailing white variety is Xynisteri. It generally produces light wines with floral, green tree fruit, mineral notes and sometimes, Retsina like nuances. Low in alcohol and acidity, they’re very early drinking, often within the first year. The main red variety of the island is Mavro. It produces balanced, slightly astringent wines with light colour, red fruit aromas and soft tannins, also not amenable for long aging. Ofthalmo is another local red variety cultivated in small quantities.
Although red fruit aromas distinguish it, light colour and low acidity make it an early drinker as well. Perhaps the best and most versatile, but relatively rare, red variety is Maratheftiko (sometimes called Vamvakada). Said to be the “father of Cabernet Sauvignon”, it is sparsely scattered around the island and produces high quality wines with intense colour, cherry/black berry notes and decent body. Versatile too, it can be made into many styles from rosé to ageable reds. Some really interesting wines are the result of blending several local varieties, or including some well-known, western European selections. By far, its most famous wine is Commandaria. This ancient, noble sweet wine, made from sundried Xynisteri and Mavro grapes, with its yummy raisiny, dried fig, date-like, syrupy, dried apricot, nutty, chocolaty, coffee character is truly hard to resist.
All wine production is on the south side of the island with four large producers (SODAP, KEO, LOEL and ETKO) and approximately 50-52 small ones. Like so many wine countries before it, joining the EEC back in 2004 elevated the quality of its wines as much money was poured into the industry. The best producing areas seem to be Paphos and the foothills of the Troodos Mountains. At the end of August there is a huge wine festival that takes place in the public gardens of Limassol. In general, the wines are extremely food-friendly.
Speaking of food, Cyprus is a cornucopia of gastronomic pleasures. The cuisine is typically Mediterranean and reflects the two dominant populations, Greek and Turkish, with local twists on well-known dishes. Further influences are evident from neighboring middle-eastern countries. Generally, the food is what I would call spicy or savory, not hot. Meals often consist of a “meze”, many small dishes that everyone shares.
Cypriots love to grill, especially over charcoal. They often use traditional, outdoor, beehive-shaped, clay ovens. Loukaniko (pork sausages), and souvlaki (shish kebab) are very popular. Greek Cypriot souvlaki is usually made of pork, whilst the Turkish Cypriots tend to use lamb in theirs. Similar in appearance, the flavour is quite different because the Turkish Cypriots like to use a spicy marinade. Sheftalia or gyros (grilled meat slices stuffed into a pita pocket or wrapped in a thin flatbread) are also widely prepared.
Being surrounded by water, seafood is at its freshest. Popular choices include calamari, octopus, cuttlefish, red mullet, sea bass and gilt-head bream. The most traditional fish is salt cod with potatoes and tomatoes in season. Until recently, salted herrings bought whole out of wooden barrels were a staple food, but that tradition is dying out.
Pourgouri (bulgur or cracked wheat) is the traditional carbohydrate other than bread, often steamed with tomato and onion with the addition of a few strands of vermicelli pasta for some textural contrast.
Dairy lovers certainly won’t go hungry. Cheese and yoghurt is everywhere. Halloumi (or hellim in Turkish) is the national cheese of Cyprus. It’s a semi-hard, white-brined cheese with a rectangular shape and elastic texture, made from a mixture of goat and sheep milk. It can be sliced and consumed fresh, but best enjoyed grilled or fried. In fact, it’s the only cheese I know of that doesn’t melt so it’s great on the BBQ. Aged halloumi may be grated over pasta dishes. Anari is a crumbly fresh whey cheese, similar to ricotta or cottage, made from goat or sheep milk, usually eaten unsalted, often with a drizzle of honey or carob syrup. Of course there’s always lots of Feta to be found. Yoghurt lovers will adore Airani, a liquid version seasoned with mint.
Cyprus bread is fabulous most anywhere you go on the island. Many villages make their own specialties. Of special note are sesame-covered loaves baked in the traditional beehive-shaped ovens.
Finish off a meal with some Cypriot coffee. Strong and full-flavoured, it is usually served with a glass of cold water. Don’t drink to the bottom of the cup though or you’ll end up with a mouthful of coffee grinds. The adventurous might case it with some Zivania, a traditional spirit made from the pomace of winemaking that has been drunk in Cyprus for centuries.
Without a doubt, the main industry of Cyprus is tourism. With miles and miles of beautiful beaches, the perfect climate, scrumptious eastern Mediterranean cuisine, ancient wines, historical sites, a culture rich in diversity and warm friendly people, it’s no wonder Brits, Europeans and Russians flock here by the thousands.
I think Aphrodite was on to something. Like herself, Cyprus truly is a thing of beauty.