An identity crisis served with halloumi

2 mins read

Most countries have a famous dish or product that they wear as a badge of honour or gloat with pride as an integral part of their identity.

Wanting to protect their tradition or way of life, such countries ensure that these symbols of their culture and history are protected from criminals and copycats.

The French are very particular about their champagne, the Scottish won’t let you mess with their whisky, Parma ham can only come from Parma, and then there’s the distinctive Cornish pasty or mozzarella.

All these products have a distinct origin preserved over time, prime examples of their identity protected against fakes or intruders.

So, you would think Cyprus should have no trouble in ring-fencing its most famous export halloumi. The squeaky traditional cheese that is such a money-spinner it’s referred to as ‘white gold’.

It is most probably the best thing to come out of Cyprus since Aphrodite emerged from the sea looking for romance.

There is no other cheese like halloumi, you can grate, grill or fry it and it will taste delicious, the world can’t get enough of it.

There is nothing more Cypriot than halloumi, yet it has become a victim of its own popularity because there is nothing more Cypriot than turning a success story into a tragedy.

If this government can’t protect the Cypriotness of halloumi what chance have the rest of us got in having our interests safeguarded.

Things have got so bad, there is no agreement on how halloumi should be made, what it should look like or what amount of goat’s milk should be poured in.

Apparently, there aren’t enough genuine Cypriot goats to go around which kind of defeats the object of having a quota at all.

Of course, the Europeans are simply scratching their heads while they watch the politicians, farmers and dairy producers over-complicate the issue until it becomes a national emergency.

Nicosia sent to Brussels a file requesting halloumi become a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) product, which was six years ago.

Hostage to fortune

Halloumi is now hostage to politics and a rather typical homemade Cypriot mess where nobody can agree on how it should be made.

The only secret about the recipe is that there is no secret ingredient.

People are making it up as they go along.

It doesn’t bode well for a PDO product with “qualities or characteristics which are determined by the region of production as well as the mode of production”.

The problem seems to be that halloumi is typically Cypriot, which means producing it is not an exact science, it has a bit of everything which adds to the taste.

Modern-day halloumi is usually of rubbery texture but the traditionalists upholding its PDO purity believe it should be rock-hard, folded and bounce off walls.

This might fly in Cyprus where we are accustomed to accepting the many faces of halloumi but for more delicate foreign palates, folded halloumi the size of a moon rock it is not going sell in Aldi or Tesco.

Being puritanical about halloumi will also affect sales of say halloumi fries or many other novel reincarnations of the white stuff.

Despite Commandaria and Loukoumi Geroskipou securing a PDO designation, halloumi has been left to fend for itself among the many imposters.

The consensus is lacking in defending the halloumi brand because it generates over €200 mln in exports, meaning big business trumps quaint traditionalists.

Typically, an emergency meeting convened by the President to prevent halloumi from becoming a hostage to fortune only highlighted the sense of division and disagreement prevailing on all sides.

Producers argue the PDO guidelines are unrealistic and unworkable while the government seems determined to walk the scenic route around the issue where halloumi’s fate remains precarious at best.

Nevertheless, there is a depressing theme if you care to follow the trail.

Halloumi is as Cypriot as an argument with a taxi driver, but we don’t own it, Cyprus football is riddled with corruption, but we have failed it, we want to exploit our natural energy wealth, but we can’t protect it.

Amid the wreckage of the halloumi fiasco, there is evidence of a deeper identity crisis where ‘Made in Cyprus’ stands for something entirely different.