UNSCRAMBLING BREAKFAST IN CYPRUS
Personal notes by a foreign wife
By Lois Cemal….
Most world travelers would agree that taste preferences and rituals concerning food and eating are influenced by our cultural background. Cypriot cuisine is no exception to this concept, with its own peculiar food combinations and mealtime habits. Visitors to the island need to approach their time in Cyprus with an open mind if they want to learn about traditional menus and eating practices.
Take breakfast for instance. When I was newly married in Perth, Western Australia, to my Cypriot husband, I wanted to impress his sister and her daughter who had come from Sydney, New South Wales, for the wedding. For breakfast I prepared what to my own Canadian family would be called a Sunday special; tenderly cooked fluffy scrambled eggs piled high on hot buttered toast. After placing a plate in front of everyone, there followed a moment of awkward silence and the explanation “We don’t usually eat food like this”. My husband jumped to the rescue and quickly filled the table with plates of sliced cucumber, tomato wedges, black olives, cheese and chunks of crusty bread in a colourful presentation. Even though I had all those foods in the kitchen it had not occurred to me that someone would prefer them to my scrambled eggs. My indoctrination into Cypriot food preferences had begun.
Strangely enough, that Mediterranean breakfast menu was exactly repeated on my very first day in Cyprus on our first visit. It was in June and we had flown in on a very early flight, arriving in the village where my husband’s parents lived about 9 o’clock in the morning. His mother and father were in the fields as it was harvest time and a neighbour, with true Cypriot hospitality, took us in while she sent word to my in-laws of our arrival. She made us welcome with a breakfast spread of (you guessed it) cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, cheese and bread. I was going to see a lot of this, I thought.
One of the hardest concepts for me to get used to was that bowls of last night’s soup were acceptable breakfast fare. To me the idea almost smacks of punishment as my mother always said “If you don’t eat your dinner you’ll get it for breakfast!” I would watch curiously as my husband broke bread into a steaming bowl of lentil and rice soup, or the yogurt and wheat soup called tarhana, lacing it all with juice from half a lemon. Cypriots can be identified by the way they liberally use lemon juice on their food; on meat, chicken and fish as well as on raw and boiled vegetables, and even fried eggs. Olive oil is also essential in the kitchen and Cypriots have their own special “black” oil. Made by boiling green olives before pressing, the resulting dark green oil has a stronger taste, almost musty. Highly valued by many, it is an acquired taste and is excellent used in salads and over boiled vegetables in combination with the inevitable tangy lemon juice.
Summer breakfasts in Cyprus are full of fruit of every variety. The sweet, moist flavours mix with salty cheeses and seem to provide what the body craves at the beginning of another hot day. Slices of cold watermelon, cantaloupe, green and purple figs and grapes of all kinds adorn the table in the bounty of their season. From March, after the lambs are weaned, to about late July there is an abundance of sheep’s milk and village women make fresh hellim cheese. This squeaky cheese, which boasts as being the only cheese that can be fried without loosing its shape, is stored in salted whey in large jars. A soft ricotta-type cheese, called nor, is produced by boiling the whey. This is pressed into basket moulds to drain and, if salted and dried, can be grated on noodle dishes, but left fresh it is another breakfast favourite. Some salt it slightly or it can be eaten with sugar or pekmez, carob syrup
A start to the day wouldn’t be Cypriot without olives on the table. Black olives are preserved in October in handfuls of rock salt in large containers such as a wooden barrel or large pottery jar, or küp. According to my husband, black olives in Cyprus are traditionally never served in olive oil but are dry looking and firm to bite. Çakistez are green olives, cracked by hitting with a stone and cured quickly by soaking in water which is changed daily. In about 5 days the bitter taste is gone and they become edible, particularly seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice, crushed garlic and pounded coriander seeds.
Bread at every meal is essential and is never buttered. A large round crusty village loaf is something any Cypriot would die for, and you think they will when they grab it to their chest and start to slice off thick pieces with a big knife. Black olives and hellim can be baked in bread, becoming zeytinli and helimli, respectively and are best enjoyed hot out of the oven on baking day. Local honey is wonderful, varying in taste depending on where the hives are kept. While some like the lemony taste of honey made by the bees kept near the citrus orchards, I prefer the delicious nectar of the mountain based hives and the bees that visit the many wild flowering shrubs and trees. As far as making jams and marmalades goes, I feel that many Cypriots haven’t mastered the knack. I think it is because they try to make it the way they make the traditional spoon sweets, which have firm pieces of fruit in lots of thick syrup. Another more traditional spread for bread is made by mixing pekmez (carob molasses) with tahin (sesame seed paste), sort of like sweet peanut butter.
As for the breakfast cup, I remember an English friend disappointingly describing the weak tea served by her husband’s Cypriot relatives as “hot water that a tea bag ran through”. When we first arrived in Cyprus, instant coffee was never served black but came made with all milk and two spoons of sugar, or else with a big dollop of sweetened condensed milk. Now, however, Cypriots have become accustomed to varied European tastes and sugar and milk are now served separately at restaurants for clients to make their own choice. What makes me smile is the way Cypriots leave the spoon in the cup while they drink; not the kind of etiquette I was brought up with. Dipping biscuits or bread in one’s cup is also well tolerated, even into the small cups of Turkish coffee. I think this habit dates to when most bread on baking day was dried and crisped in the oven overnight to preserve it for the families’ supply for a week or two. While a hard chunk could be easily stuffed into a pocket for munching on while walking or in the fields, at the table these dried crisp breads were dipped in water or crumbled in soup to be softened and eaten. My father-in-law had a favourite metal jug that he used for softening his bread and was annoyed once when I, newly arrived and unaware of this practice, used it to mix up some soap with sponge for washing the dishes.
Cypriots love to eat eggs in winter in abundance but claim not to tolerate the smell of eggs in the hot weather. They don’t know about scrambled eggs (obviously) but eat them boiled, fried or as an omelet, or mixed with fried vegetables (such as potatoes, mushrooms or artichokes) as a quick meal. I have come to the conclusion that many Cypriots don’t know how to fry a decent egg. My women friends sometimes show me painful splatter burns on their forearms or face as a result of trying to control the frying of a bubbling spitting egg in copious amounts of oil. Shortly after arriving in Cyprus we were visited by a party of relatives, man, wife and kids. As they had come a long way, I prepared a quick meal for them, chips, salad, fried hellim and eggs for everyone. My female guest was openly fascinated at the gentle way I cooked the eggs, with a pat of butter, not oil, and with the lid on, resulting in firm whites and soft yolks (perfect for the inevitable dipping). Needless to say, they were a great success and have actually been mentioned at family gatherings as something truly amazing. Mentally I lick my finger and notch one up on the invisible score board. My scrambled eggs may not be appreciated but now I feel redeemed.
Lois Cemal, a Canadian, has been married to her Turkish Cypriot husband for 37 years and they have 3 children. For the last 27 years she has raised her family in a village in the Karpaz, the panhandle of Cyprus, keeping goats and chickens, baking bread and making cheese and learning much about Cypriot traditions and culture.
To read more of the eco village of Buyukkonuk visit Lois’s website by clicking here