Cypriot food is a unique blend of Greek and Middle-Eastern cuisines – a riot of flavours that showcases the island’s produce at its very best. Julianna Barnaby discovers Cyprus’s culinary heritage through its restaurants and producers.
It was the final meal on the final day of the trip. Five days of new dishes, at least fifteen meals and many, many more conversations and I was starting to understand what makes Cypriot food so special.
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To describe it is a more difficult task. Everything about Cypriot food is connected to the land and the people. Centuries of knowledge – of the seasons, the ingredients, the flavours are at the heart of the island’s food.
Knowledge is Flavour: The Story of Halloumi
Pissouri has a long halloumi-making tradition – but few people now have the skills to make the typical Cypriot cheese. Producer Vasilis Agathokleous creates artisanal small-batch halloumi, made from the milk from his goats in the hills surrounding the village.
Known for producing a consistently high-quality product, his halloumi is making a name for itself on the island: a difficult feat considering how discerning Cypriots are when it comes to halloumi.
“I’ve had to learn the traditional methods, and really understand what makes a good product. Nothing remains the same from season to season,” Agathokleous explains.
“For example, in the rainy season, the milk tends to be thinner, with less fat in it. If that’s the case, it takes around 10 litres of milk to make one kilogram of halloumi. In the dry season, when the milk is fattier and creamier, that changes to around 8 litres of milk for a kilogram of cheese”.
“If I’m running at full production capacity, I can produce 50 to 60 kilograms of halloumi per day – I’m planning on buying more nannies [female goats] but I’m still limited by how much I can physically do in one day. You have to have passion to do this, and it’s hard to find other people who have the same kind of passion for the job that translates to the final product,” he says.
That passion is what makes the final product. Creamy, sharp, salty and tangy, the halloumi is far removed from the slightly rubbery and squeaky product you can buy in the supermarkets at home.
By contrast, we try the curds from which the halloumi is made, the difference couldn’t be more notable. The creaminess is there, but the tang of the final product is missing – this aspect of the cheese’s flavour develops during the penultimate stage of the process, when the ricotta-style curd is heated in whey. Having the two side-by-side, it’s hard to believe the only difference between them is less than an hour’s cooking time.
Visiting the island? Read our guide to the best things to do in Cyprus.
Cypriot Food: Past Meets Present
Pissouri may traditionally have been known for its halloumi, but today its appeal is much broader. Down by the shore, the high-end Colombia Beach resort draws visitors to its beachfront location on a sunny cove. The village itself is a popular destination, thanks to its laid-back atmosphere and winding cobbled streets. But tradition has not been left behind.
Vrakas Taverna occupies a prime position in the village. Across from the main church, a maze of chequered tables sit underneath the shade of the vines. As one of the village’s central hubs, this is where people come to meet and talk, but also to eat the taverna’s stellar cuisine.
Its owner, Haris Stylianides sits on the village council, helping to shape the Pissouri’s continued development, as well as running the busy taverna. There’s little he doesn’t know about Pissouri, and, together with the other council members, he wants to ensure the village has a sustainable future.
“Pissouri traditionally was a growing hub for table grapes and carobs,” says Stylianides. “That has dwindled over the years but now we are seeing a slow return to the traditional agriculture of the region.
“In the nineties, most of the area’s vineyards were uprooted. Before that Pissouri produced more than 300 tonnes of table grapes annually. People from all over the island used to come here to help with the harvest. Now we see the slow return of this tradition – there are two vineyards producing organic grapes and there are new plantings happening this year.”
It’s this focus on embracing tradition and celebrating the village’s heritage that has led to plans for a forthcoming Halloumi Museum on the village’s outskirts. “The Cypriot government are seeking to register halloumi as a product of the island, and the application papers name Pissouri as one of the two main regions for halloumi production,” he continues.
“One of the reasons that Pissouri’s halloumi is so special is because of the goats, whose milk is used to create the cheese, roam free on the cliffs outside of the village. This means the milk has a unique taste that isn’t found in halloumi made from the milk of farmed goats.”
With this in mind, the museum will showcase the products of independent producers such as Agathokleous, celebrating the village’s history and future.
Feast on Cypriot Meze
Stylinides’ own restaurant acts as something of a culinary museum, keeping traditional Cypriot food flavours and recipes alive and the taverna’s patrons full and happy. What started as the first cafe in the village now showcases a bursting menu of age-old recipes given a contemporary twist.
The menu features some familiar dishes: moussaka, calamari, stuffed vine leaves… and others less familiar.
The keftedes, small meatballs made with mixed pork and beef, fried potatoes, parsley, cinnamon, salt and pepper has a density of flavour that belies the simple ingredients.
Even the typical Greek salad stands out, distinguished by the freshest ingredients, and a rich dressing of olive oil to restrain the saltiness of the olives and feta. As the last meal of the trip, I couldn’t have asked for anything more. A final hurrah in a week that had brought my tastebuds well and truly alive.
A Feast at the Table
The meal had stood in contrast to the previous night’s, in a large taverna with stunning views out over the bay surrounding Paphos. Periklis Tavern, run by the larger-than-life owner of the same name is located in the minuscule village of Nata, about 20-minutes outside of the city.
Periklis himself welcomes us as we walk in – his booming voice and friendly grip helping guests settle into what feels like (a very large) family dining room. Families congregate around tables laden with Cypriot food, a combination of locals eating long-loved dishes and tourists who’ve heard about the taverna on the grapevine.
What’s there to hear? Though it boasts an extensive menu, Periklis is particularly well-known for its roasted suckling pig.
Slow-cooked throughout the day so that it’s ready for the evening meal, the pork was succulent and tender, an exercise in simple food done well. Apart from some choice seasonings, the pork was served plain – the fatty, rich meat giving way to pleasurably crunchy crackling. Add a few roasted potatoes and some lettuce and you have your main course.
This being Cyprus, the food doesn’t stop there. While suckling pig might be the Periklis Tavern speciality, it’s the starring dish of a several course show. Courgettes, fried in olive oil and lightly scrambled with eggs, spiced and scented rice cooked with stock, tahini, tzatziki – the dishes on the table ran the full gamut of the island’s tastes and flavours.
Passion and Reputation
With all that is on offer, you could forgive Cypriots if they had a blase attitude towards the wealth of food and culinary expertise that’s ever-present on the island – but that is not the case. Food in Cyprus is so special because it is so important to the island’s inhabitants.
The village of Omodos, famed for its winemaking past, sits in the foothills of the Troodos Mountains. The grapes here have been used to make Cypriot wines and zivania (the local brandy, made from the remainder of the pressed grapes used in winemaking) for centuries – cementing the village’s reputations as one of the must-see stops on the island. Speak to a Cypriot and they will give you another reason for making sure you go to Omodos: George’s Bakery.
The bakery sits on a small pedestrianised street in the centre of the village, the irresistible aroma of freshly-baked bread wafting out onto the pavement. You’ll almost certainly smell it before you see it.
“George’s Bakery is well-known in Cyprus,” explains my guide Demetra Argyrou Viguier. “They make a special kind of bread called Arkatena bread, which uses the foam from fermented chickpeas as the rising agent. It’s has a different taste, it light and fluffy with a dense crust.
“We love it in our household – so much so that sometimes I’ll drive over on a Sunday from Limassol [a 40-minute drive away] to pick some up to have with our family meal.”
There’s a definite sense of anticipation as we park the car and walk over to the bakery. Viguier chats with the bakery staff as we enter, and we’re whisked to the back room to see the bakers hard at work kneading the dough, a batch of freshly-made Arkatena cooling on giant racks – almost but not quite ready to go out onto the bakery shelves.
The bakery offers free tasters of most of its products, Arkatena included – a canny move. Once you bite into the chewy, lightly-spiced bread, you find yourself buying a loaf or three as the next natural step. Each batch disappears off of the shelves faster than the bakery can restock them.
Viguier advises me to buy mine on the way into the village, rather than on the way out “because you never know if there will be any left”. Sage words: by the time we’d finished our lunch and sightseeing and passed the bakery a few hours later, they had sold out. We walked back to the car, triumphant with our canny purchases, already looking forward to our next meal.
The time passed so quickly. My suitcase was laden with olives, wine, cheese, oils – everything I could lay my hands on to try and recreate the tastes of the trip at home. But I already knew that it wouldn’t quite work, that something would be missing. Still, I tried.
Cypriot Food Hotspots Guide
Delicious Cypriot mezze and dishes in a large open-air courtyard.
16th June Street, Nr. 5,, Limassol 3022
+357 25 222210
Contemporary meets tradition – Cypriot food with a twist in a beautiful port-side setting.
Old Port 3042 Limassol
+357 25 101555
Ocean views meet fresh seafood and international cuisine at this Paphos hotspot.
Poseidonos Ave, Paphos
+357 26 941558
Panoramic views, delicious traditional Cypriot dishes and a friendly owner – well worth the short drive out of the city.
Leoforos Demokratias 1, 8525, Nata
+ 357 26 423344
Contemporary Cypriot and international cuisine in a trendy setting.
Andrea Ioannou 16, Paphos
+357 99 176232
Traditional Cypriot food with a modern touch at the heart of the village.
Ioanni Erotokritou, Pissouri 4607
+357 25 221940
Independent halloumi producer producing small-batch handmade cheeses. If you love halloumi, you need to try this. Visit by appointment only.
Reputed to be one of the best bakeries on the island, if you’re lucky, you may even meet George himself.
+357 25 422142
This light an airy restaurant serves hearty, perfectly made dishes in the centre of Omodos.
+357 99 674444
Delicious seafood mezze by the harbour in a friendly setting.
Poli Crysochous, Latchi
+357 26 321411
Cypriot Food Recipes to Try at Home
1 packet of halloumi cheese
1 large green pepper, cored and deseeded
1 large tomato
Dried mint or oregano
Cut the halloumi into 2.5cm cubes.
Cut the pepper and tomato into 2cm cubes.
Thread the halloumi, pepper and tomato onto skewers and sprinkle with the mint or oregano.
Grill under a preheated grill, turning regularly until the halloumi turns a golden brown.
Serve with pitta and salad.
Courgettes with Egg
3 eggs lightly beaten
Corn, olive or sunflower oil for frying
Salt + pepper
Wash and slice the courgettes.
Heat the oil in a pan and fry the courgettes until they’re cooked through.
Remove the excess oil and add the eggs, salt and pepper, stir and leave to cook.
Chicken Cooked in Commandaria Wine
500g skinless and boneless chicken breast cut into strips
125ml Commandaria wine
2-3 cinnamon sticks
Corn or sunflower oil for frying
Salt + pepper
Mix the Commandaria wine, cinnamon and chicken in a dish and leave to marinate for at least 30 minutes at room temperature.
Remove the chicken and drain on kitchen paper.
Heat the oil in a saucepan and fry the meat until brown.
Remove the cinnamon sticks from the marinade, add the liquid to the pan and leave to cook. You should be left with a thick sauce when the chicken is cooked. Season to taste.
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