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When in Cyprus, it is an absolute must that you taste the island’s traditional cheese, called Halloumi. Halloumi can be eaten as an accompaniment to a variety of dishes and can be grilled or fried without melting!
Haloumi is enjoyed on a daily basis by Cypriots in a variety of ways, such as in salads, sandwiches, with eggs for breakfast, as a side to meat dishes, as an ingredient in gourmet recipes and, as strange as it may sound, as a companion to watermelon in the summer!
Halloumi is creamy white in color, with a soft and almost rubbery layered texture and a mild, salty taste in its commercial version, while it is harder and with a more intense and saltier flavor in its traditional version. The more widely available version is the commercial version that is quickly becoming popular in Western cuisine, even though the traditional version, at one time only produced by locals at villages, is now making its way onto the supermarket shelves. It is packaged in its natural juices with salt water and can be kept for long periods of time, up to a year if kept frozen and hermetically sealed.
Halloumi is traditionally made from a mixture unpasteurized goat’s and sheep’s milk, even though it is now made in its commercial version with pasteurized milk and a larger proportion of cow’s rather than goat’s and sheep’s milk. Cow’s milk makes the product cheaper to produce, but affects the taste, texture and behavior of the cheese during cooking (makes it melt faster). Halloumi’s fat content is approximately 25% wet weight, 47% dry weight with about 17% protein.
Halloumi’s most characteristic trait is its high melting point that comes from the fact that it is heated before it is shaped and placed in brine. This allows halloumi to be fried, roasted or grilled until brown without melting, making it one of the most versatile cheeses and ideal for use in cooked recipes. Heating halloumi makes it softer and more elastic with a distinctive squeak when biting into and also makes its flavor saltier and stronger.
Many times you will find halloumi served or packaged with mint, now used to enhance the mild flavor of the cheese. Traditionally, mint leaves were used as preservatives, but it was found that their taste matched the taste of halloumi, so they were kept even after more effective ways to preserve it were discovered.
Many locals also like aged halloumi, which is drier, much harder and much saltier, with a slightly yellowish appearance and a stronger, more intense taste. It is kept in its own brine and can now be found in many stores. In supermarkets you’ll have to ask for aged halloumi at the delicatessen section as it won’t be available on the shelves with other commercial cheeses.
Halloumi gets its shape from the way it is produced and formed, where a thick circle is folded onto itself creating a thick semi-circular shape resembling a large wallet. Mint leaves are usually placed in the fold. When cutting halloumi, it is usually done across the semicircle, resulting in pieces that resemble pairs of trousers in shape. Commercial halloumi is not exactly shaped in this way anymore and looks more like rectangular blocks, but the fold in the middle was maintained although not formed by folding.
Even though halloumi is also produced and enjoyed elsewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean like Greece, Egypt, Turkey and some Middle Eastern countries, it is traditionally Cypriot. Halloumi was first produced in Byzantine times in Cyprus and quickly spread to neighboring countries. Halloumi is registered as a protected Cypriot product in the United States since the 1990s, with an upcoming Protected Designation of Origin registration in the European Union.
Halloumi is now produced commercially by the main Cypriot dairy producers, with smaller producers also selling it in smaller quantities in its traditional version. Halloumi is exported and available worldwide.
The traditional halloumi-making process has been preserved and can still be seen in several places like the village of Tochni.