Samantha Wood revisits childhood memories and exquisite dishes on a trip home.
Culinary journeys: Sated in Cyprus
A saucepan sizzles and the smell of garlic fills the kitchen as my grandmother gently lowers the keftedes into the sputtering olive oil. She dices the cucumbers and whisks up the yogurt for the talatouri dip. Hardly has she tipped out the now golden meatballs when my little fingers grab one. I plunge it straight into the talatouri and, aged 7, tuck in.
My memories of those early years when we returned to Cyprus for my schooling are centred on food: my mother's pastichio macaroni layered with minced meat and topped with béchamel sauce; freshly caught red mullet at one of the many tavernas lining the Zygi seaside strip, filled with locals every Sunday; souvlaki kebab and sheftalia sausages crammed into pita bread from a takeaway joint. Then there are loukoumades - hot, crispy dough balls drizzled with honey - grabbed from a pop-up shack on the way home after a long day at the beach, and the simply refreshing watermelon bought at the roadside along with a sliver of halloumi.
On this trip, I am home for a long weekend at my parent's pad in the world's last divided capital, Nicosia, to catch up not only with them but the never-ending string of relatives and childhood friends.
My first stop is right in the heart of the city, steps away from the Green Line, guarded by soldiers, lined with barbed wire and still dividing north and south, my home. Laiki Yitonia, or the old-town heritage district, is a maze of cobbled streets and reconstructed stone buildings, dotted with rustic tavernas such as Zanettos, a hot spot since the 1930s.
Ordering mezedes or mezze - a fabulous feast of 20 tasting dishes for an incredibly affordable €21 (Dh100) - is a ritual here. Don't expect a menu because there is none. As one of the capital's most authentic meze tavernas, or mezedopolio, it crams in tables and diners like sardines, but my friends had made a reservation the day before. When we arrive, it's so packed that we can barely squeeze past to reach our rickety table, and there is hardly a tourist in sight among the locals. As we settle down, the aroma of grilled meat makes our tummies rumble.
While our table of six noisily debates the latest political story on Cyprus' financial bailout, our waiter brings in the first of the mezedes: a traditional Cypriot village salad (similar to Greek but without lettuce), toasted pita bread (thicker and puffier than the Arab variety), olives and a trio of dips - tahini, taramasalata fish roe and talatouri, a Greek-Cypriot version of tzatziki with strained yogurt, thinly diced cucumbers, chopped garlic, a pinch of salt, a drizzle of olive oil and a few sprigs of mint.
We move on to snails in tomato sauce (for those who can stomach it) and marinated octopus, before the world-famous halloumi cheese produced from sheep or goat's milk is served - in our case, grilled. The geographical origins of halloumi have been widely disputed but Cyprus is expecting the EU's Protected Designation of Origin registration any day now.
Portions of hot moussaka (a dish both Cypriots and Greeks claim as their own) follow, and then the main courses arrive: grilled, smoked meats; wrapped, marinated sausages; chicken or lamb souvla, a chunkier spit-roast version of the kebab; and the pièce de résistance - kleftiko, slow-cooked lamb on the bone baked in a clay oven. A simple, seasonal fruit platter and a traditional, achingly sweet walnut glyko conclude our feast.
The following day I escape Nicosia to the village of Kornos, a short 15-minute drive south. Set on hilly ground in a valley dense with wild olive and cypress trees, the village is dotted with sun-dried terracotta houses, tiled roofs and arched wooden doors.
I head straight to Archontiko Papadopoulou, a century-old renovated mansion that houses a restaurant and educational centre for Cypriot gastronomy and prides itself on using only local produce. Tables are scattered across the open-air courtyard around a stooped olive tree, giving it the atmosphere of an authentic village square. The owner, Kiria (Mrs) Peri Vronti, greets me with a few drops of rosewater in a hanapi (an antique silver trinket); it is a traditional welcoming gesture to cleanse the hands.
The menu here changes according to the seasonal produce. When I visit, I try the home-made ravioli starter stuffed with two local cheeses - the slight sweetness of anari, or whey cheese, along with a robust halloumi (€16; Dh76). Caramelised red cabbage and mint sauce takes the tartness away. My main course is the traditional tavas dish of baked lamb, diced potatoes and tomatoes served in an earthenware pot (€17; Dh81). For dessert, a millefeuille of that powdery, soft anari cheese, chopped walnuts and a drizzle of Kornos' own honey makes for a light end to the meal (€7; Dh31).
Back in the capital, in a city where people watching has become an art, I am yet again flabbergasted by the dressed-to-impress, high-society ladies who frequent the latest establishments with the sole purpose of flaunting their designer apparel, even in the declining economic climate.
Around town, a string of new cafes, restaurants and clubs are constantly opening, only to give up and shut down a year or so later, but one establishment that has survived showcases how far Cyprus has come in the world of gastronomy.
Vino Cultura is a glamorous, tapas-style restaurant where the cuisine is inspired by the master chefs of innovation - Ferran Adria and Pierre Gagnaire - while retaining local ingredients. Whether you call it molecular gastronomy or cutting-edge cuisine (which Adria prefers), bites such as halloumi croquettes accompanied by a test tube of pomegranate juice (extremely reasonable at €4 [Dh19]) go some way in setting the scene for nouvelle Cypriot cuisine.
But another new scene is also well underway - agro tourism has flourished since Cyprus' EU entry more than eight years ago, with many heritage buildings lovingly converted into boutique hotels and guesthouses. One such beneficiary is Ayii Anargiri, a converted 17th-century monastery that is now a boutique spa resort, set in the hills of Miliou village on the island's west coast and a couple of hours' drive from Nicosia.
On the way back to the capital on my last day, I take a dip at Petra tou Romiou, or Aphrodite's Rock, in Paphos. According to legend, the goddess of love miraculously rose from the warm Mediterranean waters here. Just under the overhanging cliff sits a soft-sand beach normally packed with tourists on weekends, but it's a Monday and I'm the only sunbather for miles.
At Ayii Anargiri, the stone chalets are scattered among orange groves similar to my grandfather's, and there is also a spa that for four centuries has been famous for its healing sulphur springs. That's the real reason for my visit and why many Nicosians head here for a rejuvenating weekend.
Don't expect a rustic spa; it's more of a health farm, with treatment rooms and three hydro spring-fed pools - two with jet massages for the entire body and the third with invigorating foot jets and a counter-current massage stream.
I am told bathing in these pools helps alleviate rheumatic and arthritic pains, and improves skin regeneration, joint mobility and blood circulation. Everything is priced at €1 per minute (45 minutes for €45 [Dh215]).
My spa session helps me work up an appetite and I soon find myself dining al fresco among twinkling candles at Ayii Anargiri's Amaroula restaurant, which overlooks the swimming pool and the tumbling waterfall. I ease my way through Cypriot dishes fragrant with herbs from the neighbouring woods.
All the restaurants aside, there's one dish that truly stands out. Just like those meatballs from my childhood, it is still etched on my memory - a dish that takes a patient cook to concoct, a dish I have for my last supper back in the capital - all thanks to my mother's fair hand.
I'm talking about avgolemono - egg and lemon soup, but don't let that put you off. This chicken-infused rice broth, whisked with farm-fresh eggs and the juice of lemons from our neighbourhood orchard, is pure soul food - so comforting and therapeutic that I guarantee you'll be begging for seconds, just as I did when I first savoured it as a 7-year-old.
If you go
Return daily flights on Emirates (www.emirates.com) from Dubai to Larnaca cost from Dh2,310, including taxes and take three and a half hours
A double room at Ayii Anargiri Resort (www.aasparesort.com; 00 357 26 814000), costs from €95 (Dh455) per night, including breakfast and taxes
For more information on Cyprus, go to www.visitcyprus.com
Samantha Wood is the founder of the restaurant review and food blog FooDiva (www.foodiva.net)