Captured by The Recipe Hunters in Cyprus
We swiftly walk the starlit dirt roads towards the north. The night’s sky is like nothing we have ever seen. Standing amidst vast rolling hills of cultivated orchards and wild groves of asparagus in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, we are mistified by the great swerving streak of the Milky Way above. In the darkness you can make out hundreds of plump, bright bulbs hanging like heavy ornaments from the surrounding trees. Anthony offers to let me climb his shoulders to pick a few. The tart, sweet juices of the oranges taste like sunshine. Their cold, juicy flesh wakes me up. It’s 3:00 in the morning and a brisk wind sweeps up the hillsides from the coastline miles below. The road, serves as a tunnelway for the wind to sail through towards the South. We are on our way to a local farmstead where the farmers are known throughout their small village for their homemade halloumi cheese. Halloumi cheese is Cyprus’ most prized contribution to the culinary world; think Parmigiano Reggiano to Italy. We hear the echo of dogs barking ominously in the distance. Our friend Dervish yells back to let us know that he thinks we are almost there…”it is just over the hill, we will get there in time to milk the animals if we hurry up.” We tighten the straps to our packs so that they fit snug against our backs and we pick up the pace after Dervish. As the bright red and orange colors of the sunrise begin to seep into the horizon we descend a hill. We approach a ramshackle of metal wires on the side of the road enclosing cattle and curious goats who climb to the tops of their roofs to take a glimpse of us as they chew on hay and bits of wood. Opposite to the makeshift barn, we see an old man in an army outfit waving towards us and pointing to the entrance at the bottom of the hill.
The man, Izzetezer, holds his hand out to greet me and I can feel years of hard labor upon them. They feel like hard, cold, and worn leather. Dervish and the man exchange a few words in Turkish as Anthony and I admire the hills of the surrounding area. Dervish explains that we missed the milking of the sheep but that we will be able to catch the first steps of the cheese making process inside the cheese house. As we approach the little shack next to the house, I hear a bell ring. Instead of entering the shack, I walk to the right of it, duck underneath a clothesline of hanging laundry, and see a flock of sheep. The flock is grazing on a hillside below two massive poles bearing Turkish flags in red and white. Those must be the sheep that the old farmer milked this morning.
As I enter the shack, a rush of warmth envelops me; I can smell the aroma of coffee and fresh milk. A beautiful, older woman with colorful eyes and a bright smile embraces me with a hug introducing herself as Zekiye. She points to the milk in the massive pot and crouches below it to light the gas stove that is perched upon the floor. Historically, floors within kitchens were used as a workspace; it is common to see women chopping or cooking on the floor. Every so often Zekiye dips her fingers in the milk to see if it is hot enough to add the rennet. I think to myself...a simple trick and no fancy heaters or thermometers needed; this would kill the FDA.
After about 25 minutes, she adds the rennet, turns off the heat, covers the pot and asks us to sit down as the curdling process begins. She serves us cups of dark Turkish coffee. At this point, her husband returns inside to sleep. Dervish explains that the couple have been making halloumi cheese (known as Hellim in Turkish), since the day after their marriage. Izzetezer wakes up every morning at 3:00 am to feed and milk the animals, heat the milk, and add the rennet; this ensures that by the time Zekiye wakes, the milk will be curdled to make cheese. Zekiye starts every morning at 5:00 in the cheese making room just as the curd is hardening. Zekiye exclaims excitedly, that after almost 50 years, they have mastered their routine. She escorts us into her home and living room, where she points to her wedding photo hanging behind her couch in a massive gold painted frame. She then hands me a photo of her in-laws and their parents, saying "I learned to make this cheese from Izzetezer’s mother who learned the recipe from her grandparents. But before that generation, our families were shepherds!”
We return back to the cheese shack, where Zekiye places a large white plastic container on the table. She pries open the lid and a bundle of glistening black gems shimmer in the sunlight. She explains that they are preserved walnuts, which are very common traditional sweet on the island of Cyprus. She explains they are homemade. She sets out little bowls for us, placing one within each bowl. The walnuts are covered in a sweet syrup that taste like cloves. When you bite into them, crunchy small crystals break apart beneath your teeth. They taste like Christmas time. I have another.
Zekiya goes on to explain that they make cheese every day of the week. “Our customers and our animals never take a day off so neither do we. All of our customers are our friends and they rely on us for our cheese. Some friends are accustomed to buying our cheese for generations. The daughter of our municipality president lives in Istanbul and he sends her the cheese, we have another friend who is a construction worker and he sells it to his friends that live on the other side of the border. We sell out by noon everyday and would not want it any other way,” says Zekiye.
Before putting her hands into the warm, coagulated milk, Zekiye whispers a prayer. Afterwards she tells us. "I must thank God Almighty as he looks over my family and helps us. I am thankful for God as he gives us health and the life to continue. And I am thankful to be able to make cheese to help support my family day after day."
We spend the rest of the day with Zekiye, learning her craft. Before finishing the Halloumi, Zekiye treats us to another recipe called Noor, a soft cheese made from adding milk, lemon juice and sugar to the heated whey of the Halloumi Cheese. We eat the noor with a spoonful of honey. The noor tastes like warm sweet and soft ricotta cheese. Before leaving, she wraps up two crescent moons of Halloumi and gives them to us as a present. Her husband returns to the cheese shack to say goodbye and tells us to “always work hard and stay busy...without this life of duty towards keeping the animals, I would not have lived so satisfied and so long.” We thank Zekiye and Izzetezer for their time, their story, and their family recipe, promising to visit again. With the cheese bundled up in our bags, we walk back into the rolling hillsides on our way to our next adventure. Little did we know we would be staying with a new family and learning how to make date syrup by nightfall.