FOOD WANDERING IN NORTHERN CYPRUS
Paul Rushton explores the cultural and culinary delights of an island divided by its past
For me, much of the joy of both travel and food lies in the exploration and the seeking out of something. I can be just as pleasingly transported by an authentic scent or flavour as a vista that speaks to the identity of a place. Travel is all about seeking incisive little routes to the hearts of places and people. All-inclusive has its comforts, reassuring homogeny and blanket buffets, but sometimes striking out a little; wandering, getting lost or chasing something evocative can be the route we didn’t know we were seeking and the key to truly memorable travel.
Northern Cyprus is extremely well-placed for food adventuring. The TRNC as an independent republic is not internationally recognised. The island’s, often sad, violent, volatile and complex recent political history has seen Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities who shared and mingled and spoke both languages divided and displaced. It is no glib segue to the upshot in terms of food but only a recognition that I am no political writer. The South of the island, though, has seen the kind of foreign investment that ensures a set of golden arches in the vicinity; Starbucks, Sparro’s, Subway and all the rest of it. The North is free of this kind of progress.
There is also incredible breadth of cultural and culinary influence; from Turkish and Greek, Middle Eastern and European. Cypriot cuisine has an identity all of its own, born of its seasons and produce. Drive out of hubs such as Girne / Kyrenia and Lefkosa / Nicosia and you will be driving through small villages, by endless old olive groves, farms, mountains or along the coastal road. Drive North towards the tip at Karpaz and, as well as the extraordinary turtle beaches, wild donkeys and remaining Greek Cypriot communities you will see clearly the beautiful rich, red soil like that of Puglia and Southern Italy. Very little produce is imported and the price is high when it is. The happy consequence of this is that eating is largely seasonal and domestic and the quality of what is grown; the perfection when it is right; the sound of a watermelon like a basketball when patted, vividly paints the virtue of this and where we have gone wrong sometimes expecting all things all year round. Just in the tasting; figs and peaches, wet almonds, summer tomatoes and cucumber doused in local olive oil and juice from the little green lemons, or a Cyprus potato clothed in that red soil; you realise what is lost along the miles of travel and the haze of seasons. Again like the cucina povera of the Mezzagiorno, field-to-fork is alive and well in Northern Cyprus.
Lifestyle here is still based largely around the village, familial tables and communal, family meals. My wife’s family are from here and when we visit, large outdoor tables are assured with young and old and many Cypriot village dishes based on seasonal produce; real home dinners like kolakos – chicken casserole cooked with colocasia root, or molohiya, a leafy vegetable somewhere between nettles and okra in its heritage and presentation, stewed with lamb or chicken. My vegetarianism assures a very generous pot of yalanci dolma from very generous relatives, literally ‘lying’ since they contain no meat, wrapped in vine leaves or courgette flowers. Simple delicious stews, soups and salads, formed around the best seasonal vegetables are at the heart of Cypriot home cooking. They are best cooked outdoors in the clay or brick ovens that are to be seen everywhere, made to be mopped up with local bread. To find these dishes whilst exploring, look for signs saying: Ev yapimi yemekler.
Kebab is a must for meat-eating visitors seeking a long satisfying meal. As a vegetarian passenger I could very happily eat the meze all night long. The general form is that you order the mixed kebab for the table and said table will be spread with all manner of dips, breads and salads, from hummus, tahin (tahini dip), little plates of beyaz peynir, (young, raw white cheese), pickled cabbage, bowls of tabbouleh, fresh lemony yoghurt and cacik / tzatziki (yoghurt, mint and cucumber dip), home-cooked chips, and the meat or hellim / halloumi will be brought in many waves from the grill. There are many beachside restaurants serving freshly caught fish in the same way. Aligadi beach and turtle sanctuary is great for fresh fish by the sea. These are lovely languid modes of eating, with a cold Efes beer or two or a glass of Turkish wine and a view, such as that from Bellapais Monastery near Girne, low lit in the evening and nestled between the mountains and the sea.
Markets and roadside grocery shacks are stocked with beautiful, seasonal fruit and vegetables and local produce and cottage industry yields delicious young cheeses, olive oil, local honey, carob molasses and many delicious and exciting preserves. To breakfast for the heat grab a watermelon and a block of village hellim; salt and water replacement. Add some of the beautiful tomatoes, cucumber and olives, maybe a freshly torn village loaf, some local olive oil and honey and you will be breakfasting like the locals.
Speaking of bread, there are many little bakeries serving fresh loaves. The local koy or village bread tends to contain mahlep (ground cherry stones) and mastik (a eucalyptus-y tree sap resin) and is often topped with sesame, nigella and caraway seeds, and I love this, like masala chai, incorporating the slowly healing and bolstering into the everyday. Hellimli / halloumi bread with dried mint and Zeytinli / olive bread are also ubiquitous and must be tried. For hellimli, Gocmenkoy sah firin near the Cratos Hotel in Girne is a good bet. Another bakery staple is tahinli / sweet, sticky sesame pastries. Erdener supermarket makes it beautifully and the best pitta bread, but for the very best tahinli there is a secret halk firin in nearby Catalkoy village, a traditional baker producing for shops and restaurants, but you need to catch him at about 4pm before he loads the vans for delivery.
Then there are the Turkish pizzas, lachmacun, with spiced, herbed and pasted lamb for topping with fresh flat leaf parsley, pul biber and lemon and rolling; and hellim pide, boat shaped pizzas topped with young local cheese. Their making is all about the heat and the quality of ingredients. There is a small kebab house called Tosyalises off the main road towards Girne that is my very discerning sister-in-law’s very favourite for these.
In Bellapais, there is a very unassuming little place called Pasha, where fresh Turkish ravioli made by a local nene is served through the little hatch in three varieties; the cheese version, the meat version or a mix of the two with fresh yoghurt and chilli oil. At the Aroma bakery near Girne, all manner of traditional boreks, delicious fried pastries, are well served, sweet and savoury; meat, cheese and mushroom. Their bulgur kofte, spiced lamb mince rolled in cracked wheat also comes highly recommended.
Along the way, petrol-ed by many a Turkish coffee, orta (medium sweet), sekerli (for the sweet toothed or sade (plain or bitter) for the purists like me, and the odd beer (always Efes) and especially with kids and heat, there is always room for ice-cream. There is really one chain here called Mardo. Fortunately their ice-cream is really good. The sour cherry and the lemon are highly recommended. Again, for the purists, you can usually find a fella down at Girne harbour selling the traditional dondurma, flung in the air and served with smashed pistachios. For syrupy baklava and the like, there is Akpinar bakery, also serving kurabiye, crumbly almond biscuits topped with icing sugar, little favours given at Turkish weddings.
For a really fun family evening and a taste of the local, village and street food there are little festivals to celebrate the fruition of particular products. At the harnap pekmezi (carob molasses) festival in Ozankoy, we were treated to tradional dancing, song and performance and stalls stacked with local produce, from bergamot preserves to rosewater to honey and olive oil, and of course carob molasses. There is beer and monkey-nut shells strewn over ramshackle tables. Artisans throw traditional pots on their wheels and stands peddle stuffed Turkish flatbreads (gozleme), kebab wraps and syrupy little lokma – tiny round doughnuts. A family knees-up is guaranteed and the joy and pride that comes from local, traditional food; the harvest, the practice and the seasons is suitably demonstrated; reason enough to venture from the limits of your all-inclusive and get amongst it, quite apart from the secluded beaches to be discovered; the bathwater seas, the mountainous ledges, parched olive groves and faces as generous and open as our own, but with exclusivity; available only to the wanderers.