Savoring the Wild Side of Cypriot Cuisine
By Wayne Milstead
The scent of fresh herbs and garlic tickled our noses as we entered George and Lara’s villa on the quiet uncluttered beach near Polis, Cyprus. Earlier, when he invited us to dinner, George mentioned they had gathered some “weeds” to eat. I thought he was joking. He wasn’t. The kitchen resembled a greenhouse overflowing with a lush garden of fresh wild greens, herbs, vegetables and fungi.
George and his wife Lara, restaurateurs in nearby Paphos, only serve what George describes as real Cypriot cuisine: uncultivated plants gathered from the verdant countryside and seasonal produce along with natural handmade cheeses, breads and quality fish and meats. The types of dishes you would find in a Cypriot village home. “No chips or taramosalata at our taverna,” George mused.
We had bumped into George and Lara several times at our hotel and now here we were: friends and dinner guests. They were on holiday too. Taking a break from waking when the cock crows to hunt and gather for the restaurant. Coals to Newcastle? It was probably coals to Newcastle, but we presented our hosts with a couple of bottles of wine from the Vouni Panayia Vineyards in the foothills of Cyprus’ Trodos Mountains. Earlier in the day, we had hiked among the vines planted in the crushed milky white stone and sampled the smooth water-like Alina white. We were anxious for more.
“Thank you,” George said with a devilish grin and handed me a corkscrew.
Small dishes sprouted like mushrooms on the table: Olives marinated in oil and coriander, fresh tomato and celery, slices of bread topped with sesame seeds.
This style of eating is called ‘meze’. It is the traditional method of eating in Cyprus. Small portions of numerous assorted cold and hot dishes are cooked and served based on what is fresh and available that day. ” These are called baby sparrows,” George said, holding a dark green plant. “That’s what the Greek means. In English you call it bladder campion. Sometimes customers get a frightened look on their face because of the name. They think they are eating baby birds.” I understood the name when he stripped the leaves off. They resembled tiny feathers. He then fried them in a skillet with eggs, creating an omelet of sorts.
Wild Mustard Greens
“See these,” Lara said, pointing to a clump of weeds in a colander. “These are wild mustard greens.” She sautéed them in olive oil with fresh lemon juice. An exotic grassy aroma filled the room. That’s what fresh smells like, I thought. I savored the refreshing chlorophyll flavor as I washed them down with the Alina. As we plowed through wild leeks sautéed with fresh thyme and olive oil, George filled our empty glasses with a rich, chocolaty limited edition Cypriot red called “Carmen”. He bought most of the allotment for his restaurant. “It’s not available anymore,” George informed me. I was heartbroken. I drank slowly and surveyed the table.
There was haloumi, a firm white cheese made by hand in the village down the road where George’s mother lives. “It was still warm when it was delivered this morning,” Lara beamed. There was also loukanica sausages made fresh by George’s mother. We sampled a plate of freshly made anari cheese. George served it deliciously plain, explaining that it is often eaten at breakfast with the locally made carob syrup, teratsemelo. With this new knowledge I tried this combination the next morning. It added a whole new dimension to the cheese. Lara placed sliced avocado drizzled with olive oil, lemon and herbs on the table. While an introduced species, avocado thrives in the region.
Fennel Mushrooms with oil
Next came a sauté of fennel mushrooms with olive oil, fresh rosemary and garlic. George explained that they get their name because they grow at the roots of wild fennel plants. I had seen hordes of fennel while hiking. George said the mushrooms only grow in certain areas and that you had to know what to look for. He picked these particular ones earlier that morning with his mother. “She has the eye,” he said referring to his mother’s mushroom hunting prowess. Lara agreed. “She just walks out and points and there they are,” she said. Lara followed the mushrooms with Salmon broiled with lemon and fennel. My stomach filled and my paced slowed. I glanced over to the counter with a strange mix of anticipation and dread. How could I possibly eat another bite? I would find a way. Large mushrooms that grow at the roots of pine trees roasted in the oven. They looked like golden upside down hats. Gerge served them drizzled with garlic, olive oil and lemon juice. The infamous velvety textured Cypriot potatoes roasted with cumin and pepper followed. Finally this culinary parade trailed off and we sat smiling like small children, our senses and imaginations stretched, in a state of euphoria. George poured more wine and glowed with pride as we picked at the remaining morsels. He rubbed his back. It was sore from picking mushrooms. It’s hard work being this uncultivated.
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