Last Updated on 28/02/2021
Located in the Eastern corner of the Mediterranean Sea, the island of Cyprus counts North Africa, the Middle East and Europe as its neighbours so it’s unsurprising that its food scene is as colourful as its history. Despite being geographically closer to the Levant, traditional Cypriot food is heavily influenced by Greek cuisine with favourite dishes including moussaka and souvlaki. However, Cypriot food still has a rich identity in its own right.
Here in the foothills, Commandaria, the world’s oldest named wine is produced, family-owned dairy farms make the perfect halloumi – a cheese that has taken the world by storm – and mezes are a pinnacle of Cypriot hospitality. Food and wine is a way of life in Cyprus, with long-standing traditions and history that dates back thousands of years.
Many rural villages continue to base their livelihoods on these traditions to this day, supported by the island’s agritourism project which works to protect small artisanal and agricultural businesses so that they can continue to thrive for years to come.
For a chance to experience Cyprus at its most authentic, head up into these rural villages and explore them through your stomach. To get you started, here are just some of the traditional food and wine you can discover in Cyprus:
Bottles of Commandaria at Karseras Winery
Commandaria is an amber-coloured fruity dessert wine that has been produced in Cyprus for over 4,000 years. The wine consists exclusively of two grapes that are native to the island – mavro blue and white xynisteri which grow on the southern slopes of the Troodos Mountains.
Commandaria production has very strict procedures in order for it to be awarded the prestigious label. Only grapes from vines that have been planted four years ago or longer are allowed in the process. Watering is prohibited and they are left to overripe on the vine until the sugar content has reached optimal levels. Once the grapes are harvested, they are laid out in the heat of the sun for about 10 days to increase the sugar levels by evaporation.
As soon as they are sweet enough, the grapes are pressed to extract the juice. For the wine to be called Commandaria it has to be fermented in the Commandaria Region of Cyprus and aged for at least two years in oak barrels.
The process is authenticated by a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) which is a law that recognises products that are made in specific geographical locations. This basically means that the wine can’t be called Commandaria unless it’s grown and produced following these strict procedures in this specific area of Cyprus. The PDO stands within the European Union, the United States and Canada.
Some of the old barrels they used to use
Commandaria has been recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records as being the oldest named wine still in existence today. The first recorded reference of this sweet wine goes back to the Geek pot Homer who lived somewhere between the 8th to 12th centuries B.C.E.
Commandaria got its name from ‘Gran Commandarie’, an area surrounding Kolossi Castle which was the headquarters of the crusading Knights Templars in the 12th century. The wine became synonymous with this region and it grew in popularity. Before long, it was widely consumed in Royal Courts across Europe.
There are many legends that surround Commandaria. One, in particular, is the story of King Richard the Lionheart of England who loved the wine so much at his wedding that he named it “the wine of kings and the king of wines.” Similarly, the French King Philippe Augustus pronounced it “the Apostle of wines”.
Where to try it
It’s common to finish with a nip of Commandaria at the end of a meze
The best place to taste this sweet wine is in the Commandaria Region of Cyprus. This geographical area is located on the southern slopes of the Troodos Mountains at about 500-900 metres above sea level.
There are 14 Commandaria-making villages in this area, including Ayios Yeorgios, Ayios Constantinos, Ayios Mamas, Ayios Pavlos, Apsiou, Yerasa, Doros, Zoopiyi, Kalo Chorio, Kapilio, Lania, Louvaras, Monagri and Sylikou. Visitors can do the historic Commandaria Wine Route which takes you past four different wineries along the way.
Karseras Winery in Doros Village
If you just want to visit one Commandaria winery then I recommend Karseras Winery in Doros. Here at this small, family-owned business you can learn about this sweet wine, partake in wine-tastings and even buy a few bottles to take home with you.
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Lountza with halloumi
Halloumi is enjoyed the world over but it’s actually a traditional Cypriot cheese. This white and semi-brined cheese is made from unpasteurised goat’s milk and sheep’s milk, although it’s now sometimes made from cow’s milk too. The favourite way to eat it is pan-fried, grilled or barbecued because it doesn’t melt in high temperatures, giving it a crispy outer layer, creamy centre and moreish salty flavour.
Unsurprisingly, halloumi is the most popular cheese product to be exported from Cyprus with the United Kingdom being particularly fond of this ‘squeaky barbecue cheese’. Sweden is another top European consumer.
Traditional Cypriot halloumi is garnished with fresh mint. The practise originates from the practice of wrapping the cheese in mint leaves to keep it fresher and more flavoursome.
You can typically expect to see it in grilled vegetable dishes, salads and as part of a Cyprus meze, served alongside ‘lountza’, slices of smoked pork or lamb sausages. The cheese is also eaten for breakfast or as a light meal. During the summer, a popular Cypriot dish is halloumi and watermelon.
Mrs Loulla in the process of making halloumi
It’s believed that halloumi originated sometime in the Medieval Byzantine era and grew in popularity throughout the Middle East. The earliest known surviving descriptions of halloumi being produced in Cyprus were recorded by the Italian doge Leonardo Dona in the 16th century, however, the exact origins of this halloumi recipe is in somewhat of a dispute.
It’s unclear whether it originated from Cyprus and travelled to the rest of the Levant and Eastern Mediterranean or this particular cheese-making process evolved over time. Similar halloumi-like recipes with a cheese called ‘hâlûm’ have also been found in an Egyptian cookbook from the 14th century.
Halloumi has a protected PDO status in the United States but not in the European Union. This is largely due to a dispute between dairy farmers about whether or not the true authentic recipe contains cow’s milk and what the exact ratio of sheep and goat’s milk is.
Read More: What is Ecotourism and Why is it Important?
Where to try it
The by-product of halloumi is ricotta
Historically, villages across Cyprus would make their own halloumi and recipes varied a little with different techniques and secret ingredients. One of the highlights of travelling to Cyprus is visiting a working dairy farm that specialises in halloumi.
One particular artisan farm is Loulla’s on the outskirts of Choirokoitia village. Here, you can watch Mrs Loulla Euthimiou demonstrate the halloumi-making process. You can also buy your own halloumi there at an absolute steal of 5 euros.
The easiest way to get to Loulla’s Farm is to arrange it through Tochni Villas, a holiday accommodation complex in Tochni village. They serve Loulla’s halloumi at their restaurant and it’s absolutely superb – light, tangy and delicately fresh.
Learn more about rural life with this guide to the top 11 villages to visit in Cyprus here.
The first course of the meze
The meze is a true staple of Cyprus cuisine. It comprises small sharing platters (usually between 20-30) of dips, vegetables, meat and fish. Eating a full meze is a slow process. You have to pace yourself if you want to stay the course so it’s not for those who are likely to be in a rush. I also recommend that you work up a big appetite beforehand.
Cypriot mezes are exceptionally good value, costing about 17-20 euros and if you time it well you will barely need to eat a morsel more for the rest of the day.
Once you’ve got yourself comfortable, a selection of dips and pita bread will be the first to arrive at your table. You can expect to dig into fresh hummus, tahini, talatouri and taramasalata but don’t get too greedy as more plates will arrive in quick succession heaped with vegetables, salads and crumbly feta.
Before long, you’ll be playing Table Tetris with the plates as you try to make room for additional arrivals offering loukanika (sausages), lountza (sausage and halloumi) and chicken.
Don’t get too complacent as you’re yet to tuck into the fish course which typically features octopus, whitebait and tuna. First-timers may start to get consumed by the hilarity of the situation – the rapidly diminishing appetites coupled with the busy table and the endless stream of plates.
Just as you think you’re about to explode, moussaka and souvlaki will materialise before your eyes followed by platters of fruit, Cypriot coffee and a selection of traditional desserts.
Wash it all down with a nip of liqueur or a small glass of Commandaria. Although daunting, don’t be put off by a Cypriot meze. Take your time and enjoy it.
Oh, and if you’re vegetarian, don’t worry you won’t get off lightly as there will be plenty of grilled vegetables, salads and cheeses coming your way.
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Where to try it
The third set of plates…
There are plenty of restaurants all over Cyprus that do an exceptional meze but I recommend that you avoid tourist hotspots in favour of some of the more rural cafes and tavernas for a more authentic experience. It will give you a chance to enjoy the world-famous hospitality that’s so indicative of Cyprus culture first-hand. Here are some of my favourite tavernas below:
To Katoi Tavern, Omodos Village
To Katoi Tavern is a beautiful little taverna in Omodos Village. Awarded a Certificate of Excellence by TripAdvisor, it has a cosy dining area away from the busy, bustling streets of Omodos. It has a fabulous medieval hall which often hosts special events and you might even catch a glimpse of traditional Cypriot dancing.
There’s also a light and airy semi-outdoor eating area with a covered roof so you can escape from the heat of the sun. The meze here is phenomenal. Prepare to spend hours languishing over plates of all kinds before eventually getting up to explore the beautiful sights of Omodos.
Symposio Tavern, Pelendri Village
Symposio Tavern is located in the slightly quieter village of Pelendri. Well and truly off the beaten track, this little family-run establishment offers real and honest Cypriot cuisine made from organic local produce – some of which is grown in their own garden.
The taverna has the appearance of a rustic stone farmhouse with an inviting fireplace and historic artefacts, traditional dress and photographs from long ago lining the walls. It also has a roofed terrace with an enormous stove for the winter and canvas walls that can be taken off in the summer.
If you happen to be vegetarian or vegan, make a reservation ahead of time and you will be treated to a freshly prepared meze just for you. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Tochni Tavern, Tochni Village
Tochni Tavern is part of Tochni Villages although you can still enjoy it independently. Located high above Tochni Village, it has a beautiful terrace with stunning views and cascading vines. During the evening, the canopy of twinkling fairy lights makes it positively romantic.
Tochni Tavern offers a delicious traditional meze featuring halloumi from Loulla’s Farm. It’s well worth ordering it just for that.
Discover more sustainable European restaurants that grow their own produce here.
Traditional Cypriot food and wine: Final thoughts
Delicious Cypriot dips that I could eat all day
A huge part of Cypriot culture is the food. It’s a social activity designed to be savoured; each dish is lovingly prepared. It’s a dedicated process, whether it’s harvesting grapes for Commandaria or making the perfect blend for a creamy halloumi.
The food and wine in Cyprus is a key part of its heritage and cultural identity. For the small rural villages, the industry has been their livelihood for generations – which highlights the importance of agritourism. Cyprus may be a small island but its cultural food scene is as renowned as it is rich. One thing’s for sure is that you certainly won’t go hungry.
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