Cyprus on a platter
Kendall Hill does his best not to bite off more than he can chew during a five-day smorgasbord of food, culture and hospitality.
It's doubtful that Cyprus has witnessed such feasting since its ancient king, Richard the Lionheart, married Princess Berengaria of Navarre in 1191. On a five-day cook's tour of this diverse Mediterranean island, the one constant is the boundless filoxenia, or hospitality, lavished on us by locals.
Cypriot hospitality is not just a smile and a greeting; it's a total embrace of strangers. They can't help themselves. You've come all the way from Australia, the adopted home of our families? Sit! Eat! We must celebrate.
And so it is that at every lunch and every dinner and even, once, at morning tea, we are greeted by lavish displays of meze dishes that, in Cyprus, make up an entire meal, not just the appetisers. In one sitting it is quite normal to be served up to - and often more than - 20 dishes, all cooked from the heart. Tables warp under the weight of the assembled orgy; eager attendants vie to anticipate our every need. More wine? Warm bread? Have some more halloumi!
But to cast this story simply as an account of eating in Cyprus would be wrong. As the restaurateur and historian George Demetriades explains: "Meze is a culture. It's not only food." Or, in the words of the French gastronome Brillat-Savarin, "Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are."
You can't begin to know Cypriots without sharing their table. And so, meal by meal, we eat our way closer to cultural understanding.
Our gastro-tour takes us only to the Republic of Cyprus. It is easy for foreigners to enter the Turkish-controlled area but troubling - on several levels - for our Greek-Cypriot friends. Almost 40 years after the Turkish invasion of the northern third of the island, the Turks' presence remains a festering sore.
At the village of Kouklia in Old Paphos, the mythical birthplace of Aphrodite, owner Doros Nearchou opens his restaurant, Laledes, especially for us. In the stone-floored upstairs dining hall we sit among copper pots and pulley hooks, wine barrels and bread paddles as Nearchou marshalls an army of meze from the compact kitchen below.
He starts strongly with a plate of grilled halloumi - the country's gastronomic gift to the world - drizzled with tomato marmalade. We relish our first taste of Cypriot ravioli filled with a goat's cheese - usually anari or halloumi - and pungent with olive oil, basil and mint. There are pork ribs marinated in wine for three days and served on tomato bulghur, and fat, bullet-shaped keftede fritters. The plates keep piling up until our guide, Zenonas Zenonos, notices my panicked look and says: "This is a village tavern. They will keep cooking until you say stop."
A waitress appears laden with grilled lamb and confirms his prognosis. "Doros can cook until Tuesday if you like," she says. It's only Wednesday.
During the meal, we drink a rose by local winemaker Theodoros Fikardos, a former restaurateur who was unhappy with the quality of Cypriot wines so began making his own. His rosé is dry but bursting with berries; we're so taken with it that Zenonos cancels a planned monastery tour in favour of visiting the vineyard as soon as lunch finishes. At 5.30pm.
The family - Theodoros, his daughter Valentina and son Fikardos - are waiting as we arrive at their winery in an industrial area of Paphos in the country's far south-west. Fikardos guides us through the spaces where he receives grapes from his growers' co-operative, crushes them and matures the juices in French and Bulgarian oak.
He learnt the art of winemaking "through my mistakes", he says. "The more you learn about wine, the more complicated it becomes."
He is clearly rising to the challenge. His 16 wines include a strikingly complex one-year-old shiraz and the sugary dessert drop Sunnama, made from sun-dried grapes and aged in oak for eight years. Even more impressive than the wines is the welcome we receive from the Fikardoses. Their enthusiasm turns a simple wine tasting into a celebration. Filoxenia personified.
It's a similar story at Zambartas, a boutique vineyard in the rugged hills above Limassol run by Akis Zambartas, his son Marcos and Marcos's Dutch partner, Marleen Brouwer. The star of their range is a best-selling rosé that's spicy with cloves and pomegranate, but all six of their wines are poured with gusto. "We enjoy serving," Marcos shrugs when I comment on the fathoms of alcohol in my glass. "We are not stingy."
The Fikardoses' credo mirrors that of the Greek philosopher Epicurus: Live by your needs, seek pleasure at every possible occasion. "We don't want to be millionaires," Marcos smiles, "we just want to share good times with friends."
This island, the eastern-most part of Europe and its juncture with Asia and the Middle East, is equal parts tourist resort and wild, untouched landscapes. Sometimes the two collide beautifully, as at the Anassa Hotel on the north-western Akamas Peninsula. At dawn, I open my room's balcony doors and inhale perfumed gardens of lavender, rosemary, verbena and jasmine. Swallows wheel in the foreground and Asprokremmos Beach shimmers just below.
We take a boat tour from Latchi harbour to explore the coastline, past Aphrodite's Baths, the waters of which are said to bestow eternal youth on all women who bathe in them. The rewards are far more tangible further along the peninsula at the Blue Lagoon, where I spend an hour soaking in transparent waters that shifting sunlight tints a spectrum of colours from mint-green to cobalt. Greek ballads drift over the bay from a neighbouring boat. Four women dance on the deck, clapping and twirling and laughing on this sparkling afternoon. The scene reminds me of one of those fantasy images used to sell sun-drenched holiday packages from Birmingham to Moscow. We're living the dream.
Back at Latchi, we lunch at Yiangos and Peter, overlooking the little harbour where fishermen once tied up their donkeys before taking the boats out. The Australian-born owner, Katina Kouppas, is famous for her fish soup - still made to her grandfather's recipe from 1939, when he first opened a beach shack here - and for her moussaka. She makes both fresh daily. Our lazy seaside lunch begins with the soup - packed with rockfish and vegetables and seasoned with fresh lemon juice - followed by heaped plates of prawns, langoustines and fried calamari.
When the moussaka arrives, a waiter serves the first slice and confides: "You won't try better." I'm no expert on layered Greek pies but this one is a beauty. Unbelievably creamy and light, despite its inventory of eggplant, white zucchini, potato and pork mince, and an inch-thick layer of fluffy bechamel baked to a dark caramel.
After a rosewater-scented dessert of baklava made with feathery kataifi pastry, the restaurant manager announces to our table, in Greek, "You are fattened up now." He looks pleased.
That evening, over a sunset rosé at the Elios beach bar in Latchi, I ask Zenonos to describe the national character and he mentions Lawrence Durrell's memoir about Cyprus, Bitter Lemons, which described his hosts as "very lazy". "I would say Cypriots are really hard-working people," Zenonos argues. "But the thing is, they live for today. It's not in our mentality to plan for tomorrow. That's something people blame us for, but it's not a bad thing."
Not at all. In solidarity with the Cypriot spirit, we head up a hillside to the stone village of Neo Chorio for dinner at the Kouppas Stone Castle Tavern. Until a generation ago, Neo Chorio had just one shared phone box and no electricity. It still oozes bygone charm. Quaint houses open directly on to narrow, pot-planted streets so passersby can easily drop in for a chat. We find our chef, Andreas Kouppas, down a laneway checking the lamb he's been slowly cooking in one of the outdoor village ovens - like a public barbecue - for six hours. He is Katina's son and knows he has a task ahead to match his mother's seaside spread.
Hence the festive lamb kleftiko and the rabbit stifado and myriad other braises and roasts and fries, plus pleasant surprises, such as caper leaves sauteed in vinegar, eggs scrambled with rocket, and wonderful mushrooms muddled with coriander seeds and wine. And the moussaka, of course, which is dense and scrumptious but does not eclipse his mother's magic.
At the Steni Village ethnographic museum, we get a better sense of how simple village life once was on Cyprus. The mayor, Elias Lambidis, provides the commentary while leading us around displays of accounting sticks used by the innumerate to keep track of credits and debts, and tall shepherds' crooks crowned with metal spikes "for killing snakes". There is a large spanner-type tool "for the castrating" and cylindrical beehives handmade from clay.
After the previous day's binge, I'd rather not eat for a week but resistance is futile. There is always someone thrusting something your way. And so I succumb to Lambidis's urgings to eat morning tea - fresh figs, halloumi, bread dipped in ambrosial olive oil - before we depart for Yeroskipos Village to meet George Demetriades.
The route there is gorgeous - fields of black-eyed peas and plump melons, olives all over and rounded hills overlapping into the distance like an infinite Venn diagram.
Demetriades is a ponytailed polymath who runs a charming restaurant called 7 St Georges. Many of the ingredients for his homestyle food are foraged, and almost everything is organic and/or sustainable. None of that seems to harm the food, which is uniformly delicious and comes seasoned with commentary about the rich heritage of Cypriot cuisine.
"Gastronomy in Cyprus is informed by archaeology and geology," Demetriades declares before embarking on a potted, but wide-ranging, account of the island's history.
At the end of a most enjoyable meal, Demetriades's son surveys the remains of the day and complains, "You hardly ate anything!" It's a common accusation in Cyprus, but this time, I beg to differ. I tasted each of the 23 dishes presented.
After lunch, a spot of culture in Old Paphos, where wispy tamarind trees provide scant shade from the punishing September heat. We tour the remains of a once-ornate city - the former capital of Cyprus - and decipher the still-glorious mosaics that adorn the floors of remnant villas.
The following morning, on a brief visit to the Paphos Municipal Market, stallholders urge me to sample the fruits of their labours. Despite having just finished breakfast, I salivate over tsamarella, air-dried and salt-cured lamb (usually goat), and soutzouko, a sort of wine gum that's popular across Asia Minor. Here it's prepared in ropes stuffed with almonds that give them a blobby shape, like a snake that's swallowed a string of fat pearls.
All I need do is point at something out of curiosity and it will be sliced or plucked or peeled and placed in my grasp. I taste lychees, plums, and what must be the world's largest grape before we reboard the bus and trundle into the mountains to gorge ourselves again. On food, and on filoxenia.
Getting there Emirates flies to Larnaca via Dubai. See travel.com.au
Anassa Hotel, 40 Regenas Road, Neo Chorio: anassa.com.cy
Elysium Hotel, Queen Verenikis Street, Paphos Elysium-hotel.com
Hilton Park Nicosia, Griva Dighenis Avenue, Nicosia Hilton.com
Eat & Drink
Elias Beach Bar, Akamantos Avenue, Latchi eliasinnlatchi.com.
Fikardos Winery, Paphos fikardoswines.com.cy.
Kouppas Stone Castle Tavern Cafe, Neo Chorio facebook.com /pages/kouppas-stone-castle-tavern /80914662466.
Laledes, 6 Griva Digeni, Kouklia, Paphos laledes.com.
7St Georges Tavern, Yeroskipos, Paphos 7stgeorgestavern.com.
Zambartas Winery, 39, Grigores Afxentiou Street, Agios Amvrosios, Limassol zambartaswinersies.com.
More information visitcyprus.org.cy.
Kendall Hill travelled to Cyprus courtesy of travel.com.au
Sydney Morning Herald