Landing in Larnaca felt like an aircraft gliding through the sea to park itself at a beautiful beach dotted with palm trees and an old castle, and yachts bobbing in the distance. The sunny climate assures the produce will be rich, and with countries like Greece, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey surrounding this tiny European island country, the breads and cheeses are the best you can find in any one place.
Being hosted by a local is a blessing in a new country. My friend George Vou drove me to Xylotymbou to meet Elenitza, who would teach me the art of making halloumi, the much-prized cheese from Cyprus.
Cheesemaking has been of special interest since a microbiology class three decades ago. Brie, Roquefort, and Camembert felt like the names of aliens. I read up everything there was about the cheeses, but there were many more fresh and brined cheeses in the world. I tried making a few at home, successfully, but learning cheesemaking from a master is special and I was excited to learn how halloumi gets its stretchy texture when grilled while remaining pleasantly savoury, nutty, with a hint of herbs otherwise.
Aromatic herbs grow wild on roadsides, and olive and lemon trees are part of every village home in Larnaca. The 73-year-old, who leads a joyful life tending to her garden and working for social welfare through the local church, shows me pictures of her children, late husband and parents. Elenitza is an epitome of functional fitness and compassion. She greeted us with a wide smile, pleasantries in Greek, and some Cypriot coffee. A large cauldron with 50 litres of sheep milk was waiting indoors for us. She asked me to feel the milk’s temperature before adding rennet for curdling the milk and then actively prompted me to stir the curd and strain it from the whey. Time whooshed past, as the next moment, she was squeezing the blocks of cheese with bare hands, sprinkling them with sea salt and homegrown mint flakes before stretching and folding them into the signature folded blocks.
Elenitza makes halloumi only for a few weeks, twice a year, when the sheep breed naturally and are ready for milking. The year-long supply of milk is only possible with artificial insemination of the sheep. She, however, believes such industrialisation of a natural product is against nature. In fact, sheep milk is a much-marketed commodity here as you will find several types of kefir, apart from halloumi and its byproduct, anari, the ricotta-like creamy fresh cheese. Thankfully, there are a few cheesemakers like Elenitza who believe in following the rhythms of nature.
Elenitza handles huge quantities of milk and cheese all alone, doing everything from cleaning and arranging the equipment to packaging and transporting the cheese. She also makes the delicious malloreddus — sweet, sticky dough balls flavoured with aromatic sweet geranium, which she grows in her garden. We tasted some homemade candied tender walnuts and lemons, too, while making cheese. She packed me a few blocks of halloumi and a basket of anari to be slathered on pita and parantha.
Sangeeta Khanna is a Dehradun-based nutrition consultant