Tribute to Halloumi | Charalambides Christis
November 17, 2022
Traditionally, most types of cheese were made by shepherds in the mountains, halloumi is the exception, as it was made by women at home. The art of halloumi making, and its secrets were passed down from one generation to the next, as the mother learned from the grandmother and the daughter from the mother. In fact, it was considered as a sign of great housekeeping abilities for a woman to know how to make quality halloumi, and this made her, among other things, a sought-after bride. However, since curdling the milk and making cheese is not an easy task, many women gathered in groups to prepare it; a cooperative activity that, like other agricultural and domestic tasks, contributed to the tightening of community bonds.
The traditional way of making halloumi
Halloumi is made when the animals’ milk starts to run low, i.e. towards the middle of summer. First, they keep a quantity of milk aside, to later make anari, a type of mizithra.
They place the milk in a galvanized copper container, whilst saying the words “Ela Christe jai Panagia” (“bless us, Jesus and Mary”). They light a fire using sprigs of thrumbi (wild oregano, Thymbra capitata) and place the pot on the fire. Initially, they keep the fire low and then increase it slightly, until the milk is heated (but in no case boiling).
Then they add to the milk the pudkia, the curdling agent (which used to come from the stomach of a lamb or pig that was consumed at the Christmas table), wrapped in a special cloth, and pressed by hand until it is completely dissolved in the milk. Then they take the pot off the heat and let it cool.
At this stage, the milk begins to curdle and cheese forms on the surface. The women cross it and then tear it into pieces with their hands. They drain it and place it in muslin and then in the talarin, a kind of small woven basket. When it cools, they press it hard with hands or weights to release the so-called noros, the liquid element.
They place the noron back into the pot where the milk had been heated and boil it again, after adding more milk, in a ratio of one to ten. When the noros curdles again, it gives the anari, which is left unsalted, or salt is added to it. In order to get the anari, they press the talarin again, so noros comes out again from the draining, into which the halloumi will be put, in order to get stored and preserved. After the anari is dried, it is also stored.
When the pieces of the halloumi get dry, they are thrown into the noron that remains after the production of the anari and boiled on low heat for about an hour. When they are cooked, they rise to the surface of the noro, so that’s how you know they’re ready.
Then they fold each piece of halloumi in half and salt it. They also add chopped mint.
They used to store halloumi in a clay container, in a cool place, for 20-40 days, until the fermentation process was completed. In some areas, vine leaves, reeds or berries were placed on top, in the shape of a cross. To protect the cheese from fungi and various diseases, they added hot olive oil or Saponaria. From time to time, they opened the jar, so that the gases produced during fermentation could escape.
Depending on the region, there are variations in the production and preservation of halloumi. For example, in some regions halloumi was made only from sheep milk and in some only from goat milk, while in others from a combination of sheep and goat milk, resulting in different textures. In more recent times, cow milk was added. In some regions they pressed the cheese with stones, in others in a cloth, and in others in a kind of basket, as we have already mentioned. There are also differences in both the cooking process and the shape they give to the cheese. Finally, there are variations in the way they fold the cheese.
General folklore info
Halloumi accompanies all aspects of life in Cyprus. It is eaten on any occasion, raw, cooked, grilled or fried. The “first” cheese, the “testing” one, is made during the week of Tyrofagos. They also eat it plain with bread (prosfai), which is the simplest food of the worker, the farmer, the shepherd, or together with cucumber and tomato in the summer months, during the vine harvest. In the winter, they grill it, fry it with eggs or add it to the nutritious trachana soup. It is even served at the meal that follows a funeral, with bread and olives.
Halloumi is the protagonist of many dishes, both every day and festive. As was the case with many other kinds of cheese, especially in the past, it was considered to be of great value, so it was given as a gift to please government officials and other people in authority, or even in lieu of taxes.
Today, although production has been industrialized and home production is minimal, halloumi remains a staple of the Cypriot diet.