HomeFood & DrinkFood Heroes

Preserving the ancient art of halloumi making in Cyprus

BY Ian Packham

20th Apr 2024 Food Heroes

3 min read

Preserving the ancient art of halloumi making in Cyprus
For a taste of authentic halloumi, we head to the Troodos Mountains in Cyprus, where the locals have perfected making the moreish cheese for 1,800 years
Stir, stir, stir! mimes Sofia, a diminutive Cypriot grandmother with hair beneath a cloth wrap and apron coated in the lightest dusting of flour from her recent breadmaking.
Here in the rural foothills of the Troodos Mountains of western Cyprus, a long way spiritually, if not physically, from the plush contemporary golf resorts where not even a single blade of grass appears to be out of place, life continues in much the same vein as it has done for centuries.
Men, like Sofia’s moustachioed husband Andreas, still head out amid the region’s almond, walnut, carob and olive trees in search of wood to fell to fuel the couple’s twin outdoor domed clay pizza-style ovens.
Women like Sofia stay home to knead the latest batch of "village bread"—not all that different from the dense loaves with thick crusts that Romans on the island would have enjoyed 2,000 years ago—and turn litre after litre of fresh milk into the country’s most famous export (after former Dragon’s Den star Theo Paphitis).

Masters of the art

village with church in cyprus troodos mountains
It's an intriguing volte-face for villages like this across the Troodos Mountains. Many of them were almost abandoned in the 1980s because of a lack of employment.
But thankfully the traditions of the region’s foodstuffs managed to survive, ensuring that the subtle art of authentic halloumi making, and the squeak it’s known for, will extend beyond its history—which already covers an impressive 1,800 years.
It’s women like Sofia who are helping these traditions to survive without entering into the realms of historical reenactments and living museums. The halloumi she produces in her village home barely touches the sides of a market that sees the UK consume more of the cheese than anywhere else in Europe, except Cyprus itself.
"It’s women like Sofia who are helping these traditions to survive"
When she pours 20 litres of fresh unpasteurised goat’s milk—the traditional choice in the area—into one half of a converted oil drum with a dash of rennet (curdling enzymes), the result is around a kilogram of cheese. Just enough for her family and the occasional lunchtime visitor.
The heat from a Calor gas flame, ignited with a thin candle usually associated with Orthodox masses, is arguably the most complex process.
The simplicity of halloumi production is part of its magic, and symbolic of Cypriot cuisine more generally, celebrating unpretentious yet flavoursome ingredients which don’t need to be mucked about with.

Eating their curds and whey

Heating the goat’s milk disrupts the structure of its proteins. In a process that can take anywhere up to 45 minutes, and is sure to please any modern little Miss Muffet, these proteins separate into curds (cheese solids) and whey (the yellowish liquid which remains).
The curds rise to the surface of the whey, rather like perfectly-cooked pasta does in a pan of boiling water, and form a single layer which develops a consistency close to Greek yogurt.
When cooled enough to handle, Sofia breaks the curds up into chunks with nothing more than her splayed fingers, then ramps up the heat once again. She collects the curds in fine-mesh strainers to drain, forgoing the original Cyprus bamboo versions because "the plastic ones are easier to keep clean."
In the meantime, she has me frantically stirring the steaming caldron of whey with what resembles a miniature boat oar. The aim is to prevent any small remaining lumps of curd from sticking to the bottom of the oil drum.
Sofia is then able to scoop these up with a fine-netted sieve, stating plainly, "Anari."
As byproducts go, anari is right up there with the best of them: a ricotta-like cheese which can be served savoury or, blended with icing sugar, sweet in desserts.

To brine or not to brine

pieces of cooked halloumi on plate
Cypriots certainly have a sweet tooth. Not only is baklava and loukoumi (the local version of Turkish delight) a common gift or after dinner treat, but halloumi also appears on meze platters drizzled in local honey.
Before it’s ready for drizzling, the nascent halloumi must first be removed from its strainer and squeezed between Sofia’s hands a couple of times.
This helps to remove any remaining whey, while a second round of heating helps to create halloumi’s firm texture—a process known as "scalding" in technical circles.
That’s it, Sofia signals. It’s ready. Sliding a cylinder of cheese out of its strainer and onto a waiting plate, Sofia separates it into thick slices by nudging pieces apart with a butter knife. No cutting is needed.
"Halloumi’s famous between-the-teeth squeak remains"
Unlike the halloumi I’m used to consuming in the UK, its texture isn’t as compressed, missing the tough love-it-or-hate-it rubberiness. Individual curds can be discerned on my tongue, alongside a flavour which is much lighter on salt.
Both these characteristics of halloumi come from the later optional process of brining, which produces a harder, drier texture and saltier taste.
Thankfully though, halloumi’s famous between-the-teeth squeak remains, all thanks to the love and care of Sofia and women like her living the craft daily and welcoming into their homes anyone willing to learn.
Banner credit: Homemade halloumi cheese on wooden board with olives—depositphotos.com
Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter