WINES & CUISINE
Written by Guest Writer Bill Warry - Wines and Tours
Cyprus, this tiny island in the Mediterranean, has been the home of Greeks for Millenia. Their wine-making and culinary traditions go back far in time. The first evidence of wine-making here found by archaeologists dates back 5000 years.
European history, our written record of our past, starts around 800 BC. It was at that time that the poet Hessiod, describes a process of wine-making from sun-dried grapes pretty much the way Commandaria is made today. ‘Cyprus Namma’ it was called in Byzantine times and it is the wine still used in the Orthodox Church for Holy Communion.
The name, ‘Commandaria’ became adopted when it was much sought after by Richard The Lionheart and his Knights Templar at the ‘Commandarie’ of Kolossi Castle. In fact at his wedding King Richard described it as ‘The Wine of Kings and King of Wines’. It is a wine that can be aged even for a hundred years. One Cyprus winery called the ‘Anama Concept’ makes special beautiful gift sets (a different design each year so that they can be collected). The beautifully presented gift set comprises one large bottle to be kept for ageing and one small bottle to drink now.
Apart from its Commandaria, Cyprus used to be known abroad in the last century largely for its Sherries until the word became a protected denomination of origin for Jerez in Spain.
In the past 20 years, as in Greece, great strides have been made in local wine making.
The terroir and climate of the Troodos mountains, really lend themselves to superb quality of vine production, whereas in the past all the wines were produced by four main co-ops of which Keo and SODAP were the largest. Now many family vineyards have dedicated themselves to producing quality wines that win numerous prizes in International Wine Competitions.
There are over 40 wineries of substance in the Troodos Mountains and its foothills. Xinisteri in white and Mavro in red, are the main indigenous grapes of Cyprus, but there are quite a few others too including Maratheftiko, Mataro, Ofthalmo and Spourtiko.
During the last couple of years they have begun to use a number of unknown local varieties of Yiannoudi, Promara and Morokanela.
Internationally known varieties, Shiraz (Syrah for the French), Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Mourvèdre also know as Mataro, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay grow well here.
For great value, Keo’s Thisby is popular.
If you are eating out excellent value is to be found in Constantinou’s Veloudon (Velvet) for red and Ayio Klima for white. There is a dry and medium version. Vouni Panaya produce some very nice good value wine, their Alina medium dry for example.
Vlassides make a very nice Sauvignon Blanc and also a good rosé and Dafermou has an interesting blend of the Greek Assyrtiko and Chardonnay.
Cyprus Beers and Spirits
Beer is produced on the island, Keo, Leon and Carlsberg, making the most popular lagers.
There is also a small Micro-Brewery, Prime, in Sotira that makes a number of speciality beers including a white beer and a stout.
Zivania is another traditional alcoholic drink made by distilling wine. Through natural fermentation wine will only increase in alcoholic strength to around 15%, possibly 16% if it has a high sugar level at the start.
High alcohol content drinks such as whisky, brandy and the aforementioned ‘Zivania’ are produced by further distilling the fermented juice. Ten year aged Zivania is particularly nice and ever so smooth. A fair amount of brandy is also produced in Cyprus. It is not as sweet as the Greek ‘Metaxa’. Another popular choice is Keo’s Five Kings.
Leaving aside alcoholic drinks, what will you ask for when it comes to ordering a coffee?
Typically you will ask for a ‘Nes’ (short for Nescafé) or a Cyprus Coffee, which is the same as a Greek coffee, which is the same as a Turkish coffee.
You can ask for a ‘Sketo’ (on its own) if you want no sugar.
‘Metrio’ (medium) if you would like one sugar.
‘Gliki’ (sweet) if you have a really sweet tooth and would like two sugars.
The coffee, sugar and water are heated in a special pot called a ‘Briki’. Part of the art is not to let it fully boil and thereby leave a little froth at the top of each cup. This is called ‘Kaimaki’.
If you are having such coffee for the first time, do bear in mind that you are not supposed to drink the sediment at the bottom of the cup. In the heat of summer you might go for a ‘Frappé’, a whisked, iced instant coffee with milk.
What about the food? Cyprus cuisine is essentially Greek cuisine, complete with its gamut of dips, stuffed vegetables, Yiahni or Lathera dishes, Stiffado, Moussaka, and panoply of grilled fish, octopus, kalamari and the famous Mézés. There are, however, some Cyprus variations and specialities. In Greece for example, Souvlaki will usually be served in a flat-bread pitta that is rolled round the kebab. Cyprus has pitta bread pouches ( a familiar sight in London take-aways) into which the meat and salad is inserted. Cyprus also has a special sausage called ‘Seftalia’ (usually pronounced in Cyprus dialect as ‘Sheftalia’). It is, for the most part, made of ground pork, though sometimes lamb shoulder, mixed with finely chopped onion and parsley and wrapped in call fat. The meat served in Cyprus Kebabs or ‘Souvlaki’ is usually pork or chicken, though lamb can sometimes be found.
Seftalia can also be ordered and it is quite common to have a ‘Mix’ , the ‘ed’ tends to get dropped off. This is mixed pork Souvlaki and Seftalia.
Another specifically Cyprus traditional dish is Pork or Lamb Tavas. A Tavas is an earthernware pot in which cubed meat is cooked very slowly with the added spices of cumin and cinnamon. Usually the pot will also have onion, potato and carrot, sometimes courgettes will be included. This is a very succulent dish full of flavour. Definitely one to try during your stay in Cyprus!
Cyprus is famous for two cheeses it produces from sheep’s and/or goat’s milk – Halloumi and Anari, the latter being softer and a by-product of the first. Halloumi is usually eaten grilled or fried and at some authentic Cypriot restaurants they heat the Halloumi up first in the milk with which they make it.
If you are not familiar with the Meze tradition from Greek restaurants, a Meze is probably a good way of getting familiar with Cyprus cuisine. You will usually be served some twenty to thirty courses, a little bit of each. Typically they will include dips of Tzatziki, Taramosalata and Houmous, possibly an aubergine dip too, a large Greek salad, various vegetarian dishes such as ‘Gigantes’ or large broad beans, mushrooms of some sort, wild greens cooked with a kind of scrambled egg. You might have some fried or grilled courgette rings or aubergine, some seafood such as Octopus or Calamari, various grilled sausages such as the Armenian, garlicky and hot, Pastourma, wine marinated village sausages, Lountza (smoked pork loin), Seftalia, spare ribs, lamb or pork chops and Souvlaki or Souvla (the larger chunks of meat).
The set Meze will give you the biggest range of tastes, but you can also make up your own Mezes. If there are four or more of you together, order a selection of starters, a large Greek salad and one main dish each then share the food between you for lots of different tastes. A good mix of main dishes would be Moussaka, Calamari, Stiffado and Kleftiko. Dolmades (stuffed vine or cabbage leaves) is another good choice.
As regards the Kleftiko, do you know the origin of the name ‘Kleftiko’? It literally means the robber’s one (meal implied). It comes from the time of Greek enslavement under the Ottoman Empire. The kleftes or robbers where the resistance, a kind of band of Robin-Hood Merry Men who stole to give back to the poor. To avoid making smoke and delicious food smells that would give them away in their mountain hideouts, they would dig a hole in the ground, line it with hot coals and put in their lamb before covering up with earth. The lamb was left to slow cook for hours. As in Greece itself, Kleftiko is a popular traditional dish here in Cyprus.
When you come to Cyprus you will be spoilt for choice in relation to traditional restaurants and tavernas offering this type of food. There are some traditional tavernas in the tourist areas but the majority are located in the villages surrounding which are certainly worth making an effort to visit for a fully authentic experience. If you do get the opportunity head up into the Troodos mountains where you will not only enjoy phenomenal scenery but fabulous traditional Cyprus cuisine and hospitality.
“Bon appetit,” or more appropriately here: “Kali Orexi!”