Whoever said that civilization started on the table and variety was the spice of life surely had Cyprus in mind. In ancient times it was said that Cyprus invented the art of good living, and the island's name became synonymous for luxury to both the Gods and humans.
Tavernas, restaurants and hotels offer French, Italian and "international" menus. But they take pride in preparing Cypriot food and specialties, especially in the tavernas and the popular restaurants. These are some of the Cypriot dishes, which delight both tourists and residents alike.
When you order Meze (or mezedes or mezedakia) in a Cyprus hotel or restaurant, you are served a rich selection of appetizers and savories in up to 20 saucer like dishes. For example various cheeses, like halloumi, kaskavalli or feta, tomatoes, olives, celery, sliced artichokes or smoked ham, houmous (ground chick peas, with olive oil and garlic), octopus (or squid), shrimps, fresh fish, such as barbouni (the delicious red mullet), succulent snippets of chicken or turkey, cucumbers, green peppers, tomatoes, shiftily (homemade sausage), koupepia (stuffed vine leaves).
The local bread made of homegrown wheat and the village salad with fresh coriander, green olives, olive oil, lemon and feta cheese make the mouth water. So can taramosalata, a delicious dish made from fish roe, olive oil and lemon.
This consists of moussaka, made from minced lamb or beef and herbs covered with layers of sliced potatoes, eggplant and zucchini, or tavas, a veal, onion and herb dish served in little earthenware bowls straight from the oven and sprinkled with "artisia" spices.
Souflakia or Kebab, is either bits of lamb or pork skewered and roasted by slow charcoal fire and eaten with chopped onion, salt and pepper in a 'pitta', a flat, unleavened bread. This dish is often a meal in itself, especially if served in a big 'envelope' of bread together with delicious local yiaourti (yogurt). Such a feast is followed by a selection of excellent juicy fresh fruit - oranges, grapefruit, tangerines, melons, lemons, apples, pears, cherries, apricots, figs, pomegranates, bananas, purple plumbs, grapes, dates, almonds, walnuts etc.
Some friendly advice! The rule is "eat a little of each" otherwise you'll find halfway through your meal that you just can't go on to taste what follows!
If all this seems a bit too much for you to eat - and such a meal can cost less than six pounds - you can order a three course meal, which can also be Cypriot food and style. Some of the best dishes are Cyprus raviolis (a pasta dish) or avgolemoni (lemon and egg soup), patcha (a kind of lamb stew served with lemon). Lemons in Cyprus go with every meal and every meat. Kleftiko (lamb roasted in traditional oven) or suckling pig with roast potatoes are delicious. Cyprus grows some of the finest potatoes of the world. Other famous dishes include grilled or fried fresh fish, such as synagrida, fagree, red mullet, vlachos, and trout.
For people who like a more simple meal, Cyprus has the national dish of sailors' beans, called "fasolada", or there is the sturdy afelia, which is pork soaked in wine, sautÃ©ed with oil, coriander and wine. There's also zalatina (highly seasoned brawn), Cyprus smoked sausages, flavored with pepper and lentils, or laurel.
Game abounds in Cyprus, including partridge, hare, woodcock snipe and pheasant. And there are specialties like koupes, pourekia, kattimeria - thin semolina paste delicacies filled with meat, almonds or eggs and cheese, etc.
Souzoukko, a favorite at Cyprus festivals and fairs, is made by dipping strings of nuts in heated grape juice until the confection solidifies. Glyko are preserves of almond, date, apricot, cherry, quince or grapes, always served with a glass of cold water. Loucoumi, or Cyprus Delight, Kadeifi and baklava or galatopureko, are all rich oriental honey cakes. Cyprus honey is excellent. Soumada, made of almonds and a favorite hot drink.
Relax and let yourself slip into the Cypriot pace of life. Why not take a seat by the sea, under a vine pergola or mimosa tree and sip your first brandy sour, or an ouzo. Nibble on a nut or even better, pass the time with a handful of sunflower seeds or passatempo as the Cypriots call them.
Just sniff Cyprus and you could become intoxicated by the tang of fresh lemons and the delicate citrus blossom, the wholesome smell of freshly baked bread or the fermenting grapes from the wine harvest.
Cypriots, as you will soon discover, are a naturally hospitable people and generous to the extreme, in a way that is so much part of the Mediterranean. Cyprus lies at the crossroads of the Levant, as this eastern end of the Mediterranean is known. Just take a glance at its history and you will see how various empires, invasions, foreign settlers and traders over the past 3,000 years have brought their influence to Cyprus. They have also brought their recipes and many any of these have been introduced into Cypriot cooking, the main ones coming from Greece, Turkey, Armenia, Lebanon, Syria, Italy, France and latterly Britain. These foreign flavours have combined with the food produced on the island to give Cyprus its own traditional cuisine.
It's turbulent past has made Cyprus self-sufficient and in rural areas Cypriot families still produce almost everything they need, from pourgouri (cracked wheat) to cheese, home baked bread and smoked cured pork. Not so long ago the grain, oil and wine were stored in Pitharia, those enormous onion shaped terracotta pots that adorn the countryside. The island has always produced a huge variety of food due to its fine climate. In fact everyday foods such as figs, beans, chick peas, bitter herbs, olives, dates, almonds and nuts date back to the Bible.
The Cypriots cook with less oil than their Mediterranean neighbours and their diet is a healthy one, apart from their love of syrup soaked pastries! Everything is cooked fresh, daily, and the quality of the produce is superb, due no doubt to the motto of the Cypriot housewife...
'If it isn't fresh we don't want it.'
If you are in a hurry, then you can find fast food in the shape of a pitta bread envelope, filled with souvlakia (kebab) and salad, but slow food is more the order of the day in Cyprus.
After All, Why Rush When There Is Time To Enjoy Your Meal.
Everyone knows that Cyprus is famous for its food, a combination of the best of Greek and Middle East cuisine. But what if you don't eat meat, or you just fancy a change? The good news is that there is a whole world of delicious meat free food to discover in Cyprus.
Historically meat eating in Cypriot and Greek cuisine was always a luxury. Meat was expensive, so for many it would be meat on Sunday, vegetables, pulses and grains for the rest of the week. The famous Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagaros established an entire school of ascetic vegetarianism - and he lived a long and healthy life (for the time) on a diet of honey, barley, millet and raw or boiled vegetables. These remain staples to this day along with goat's milk and cheese, olives, wild greens, figs and other fruit, raisins, capers, nuts and herbs. Even those who did not choose to live without meat made up the majority of their food from what could be harvested.
One of the main influences on non-meat cuisine has been the Greek Orthodox Church. The 'fasting' calendar of the church requires that for 48 days before Easter, 40 days before Christmas and lesser fasting periods throughout the year, people stop eating meat and animal products (with the exception of certain fish) - in total half the year is taken up by fasting. On the highest holy days such as Good Friday, even olive oil is not allowed. Although fewer people fast than before, it is still common particularly before Easter, in the period of Lent.
The beginning of the Lenten fast is celebrated in Cyprus and Greece on 'Clean Monday' (also known as 'Green Monday'). It falls on the first Monday of the fasting period and at the end of the 10 day carnival period. Traditionally it is the day when the house is cleaned of all non-fasting food stuffs. Even those who do not observe the fast enjoy themselves on the public holiday, heading out for picnics in the countryside and flying kites.
The advantage for those who want to avoid meat in Cyprus is that many wonderful dishes come in two versions - fasting and non-fasting. If you are in a restaurant you can.
Cyprus has a well-deserved reputation for delicious and varied fruit. The long growing season means that many varieties appear well before they normally do in the rest of Europe. In addition most of the fruit is grown locally and is truly seasonal - although you may not be able to find oranges all year round, when they are in season, they are extremely delicious. The 'fruit year' starts in spring with strawberries, medlars and loquats. Then come apricots, watermelons, dessert melons, plums and cherries. Later in the summer you can find prickly pears (worth the effort once you get to the fruit!) and grapes, or the less than perfect skins of the oranges - these are often signs of the fruit that tastes best.
Whatever time of year you visit Cyprus there is bound to be some seasonal or religious festival taking place. Synonymous with these special events there are, of course, traditional celebration foods. Check with the calendar below to see what specialties may be on offer and where to find them.
Known as St Basil's Day in Cyprus, this is a day for optimism, when Cypriots hope for a fruitful forthcoming year. A special cake - Vasilopitta - is baked by each family, and, when it is cut, the person who finds a coin in his slice is promised luck for the forthcoming year.
A holiday, when all Cypriots go to church to ask for a fruitful and prosperous year to come. Families gather and share a feast of mixed dishes. Loukoumades is the popular sweet of the day. At this time of year the citrus fruit is harvested and lorries loaded with oranges, tangerines, lemons and grapefruit make their way to the ports.
In preparation for Lent, Cypriots really let their hair down during the two weeks of carnival prior to the fast. Limassol is famous for its Carnival celebrations and processions, although other towns and villages celebrate too. Look out for seasonal specialities such as pastry bourekia filled with mint flavour cheese and ravioli. Also sticky sweetmeats such as daktyla and kandaifi. The last week of carnival is Tyrini or cheese week and it ends on Green Monday, which is the first day of Lent. Cypriots pack a picnic on this day and head for the countryside. They eat vegetables, olives, bread and salad and they drink village wine.
Still taken seriously by many Cypriots, no meat, fish or dairy products will be consumed during this period. Pulses, vegetables and fruit, though, are allowed and now that the winter rains have brought the vegetation to life again, just watch the Cypriots gather armfuls of edible greens front the countryside - molohes, pangali and radikia. In the markets you can find strouthoudia, a sort of weed that tastes quite delicious when lightly stir fried in oil and bound together with a little egg. Try some of the pastries or pittes too, kolokopitta made from red pumpkin, raisins and cracked wheat, tahinopitta, made with sesame seed paste, even spanakopitta combination of spinach and egg wrapped in filo pastry.
The major religious celebration of the year in Cyprus, when all members of the family join in together to celebrate. Avgolemono soup, made from eggs and lemons in chicken stock, is traditional Easter fare as are the flaounes or savoury Easter cakes which are baked in every household. These contain a special Easter cheese, eggs, spices and herbs all wrapped in a yeast pastry. The main meal for Easter is souvla when the fast is really broken and chunks of mouthwatering meat are roasted on a spit in the spring sunshine.
Seed blossoms on the trees, and the industrious Cypriot housewives are making orange blossom and rose water to cleanse their faces and to flavour their pastries as well as their fruit preserves known as glyko. Summer is the best time for fruit. Just watch the shops as they fill their shelves with an ongoing supply of strawberries, cherries, apricots, plums, greengages, peaches, grapes, figs, apples, pears and an enormous variety of melons.
Popular in the summer, the whole village will turn out to celebrate the happy event. Ressi, a rich pilaf of lamb and wheat is prepared and special little shortbreads (Loukoumia) are piled high for the guests.
Begins with the wine festival in Limassol (Lemesos). For over a week in the Municipal Park, Cyprus wine producers will give you the chance to sample all Cypriot wines as well as demonstrations of wine presses, stills and traditional harvest dances. There is, of course, a fine selection of food to eat.
The busiest time for rural Cyprus. Almonds, carobs, table and wine grapes as well as olives need to be gathered, stored, packed and delivered; but after all this hard work there will be time to celebrate and the Cypriots really know how to do this well! Look out for a village grape festival when palouzes, a blancmange of grape juice, and soutzoukos, a chewy sweet made by dipping strings of almonds into the palouzes, juice, are prepared from the unfermented grapes. After the carob harvest there will be the pastelli, and carob honey which is made from boiled carob pods and is eaten on slices of fresh bread.
The time of the Advent fast before Christmas. In the past every family would slaughter a pig and the fresh meat was salted, cured or smoked to last through the winter. Nowadays, many families still make and smoke their own loukanika sausages for Christmas. A Cypriot Christmas cake is the basic British recipe which has been adapted to suit local suppliers - and jolly good it is too! But traditional Christmas baking only really get underway just a few days before December 25th when powdery icing sugar covered kourambiedes or shortbread biscuits are baked as well as melomakarona, spicy buns drenched in honey syrup, and of course koulouria, traditional sesame bread.
Coffee and coffee shops have played an important role in everyday life in Cyprus since the introduction of coffee to Europe in the 1600s. While you are in Cyprus, why not enjoy a coffee in the traditional surroundings of a Cyprus coffee shop.
The traditional Cypriot coffee house, the Kafenio, has long been a feature of life in towns and cities, and especially in the villages of Cyprus. The Kafenio has always been and continues to be a men only preserve. When the men of the village used to work in the fields, they would go to the Kafenio at dawn before starting work and again in the evening after dinner, and of course on Sunday after church. It is the most important place in the village, the central point of communication, a place to meet friends, to play 'Tavli', the Greek version of Backgammon or just pass time by drinking a Greek coffee, tea, fresh juice or a home-made fruit squash.
The coffee shop would be open all day - for the old men of the village or for everyone on days when the weather was not good enough to work in the fields. The only exception to the men only rule was when the puppet shows were in town - or occasionally a film was shown. As the Kafenio was always seen to be the centre of village life, the entertainment would take place there, and it was the one time that women and children were allowed inside. The rest of the time, the women got together in one another's houses.
You can find the village Kafenio either on the main square or on the main street - and there's often more than one. There is one small village in the hills around Paphos which has twenty-five inhabitants and five Kafenios. One reason for this is that the men choose their coffee shops according to their politics - those who support the village muktar, or head man, go to one Kafenio, those who oppose him go to another, and never the twain shall meet!
Although it might not be much to look at, usually one big room with a fireplace and tables and chairs (with seating outside too in good weather), it is one of the most important buildings in the village. The coffee shop often doubled up as a small grocery store and sometimes as the post office as well.
Greek coffee is ordered 'sketo', (no sugar), 'metrio'(medium) or 'glyko' (sweet). Each Kafenio has its own individual way of making coffee, so be to be sure of what you will receive, it is best to state the number of sugars you want whilst ordering!
In case you are invited to someone's house to drink a coffee, don't be surprised if they turn their cups upside down onto the saucer after drinking the coffee. There are some people that say they can read your future from the coffee drains. Don't be afraid to let them do it... it's a nice way to start some small talk, and of course it depends on you how seriously you take the predictions!