Cypriot farm­ers cheesed off as world gets taste for hal­loumi

Short­age of sheep and goats in Cyprus cou­pled with grow­ing taste for grilled cheese in China ‘threat­ens global sup­plies’

The Observer - - World - He­lena Smith

It’s on restau­rant menus from Lon­don to New York and has be­come a bar­be­cue favourite far and wide.

But, on the Mediter­ranean is­land where it has been made since medieval times, hal­loumi’s un­prece­dented global pop­u­lar­ity is not go­ing down as well as might be ex­pected with dairy farm­ers, who are wor­ried they just can’t keep up with de­mand.

Last week, the Cypriot govern­ment signed a pro­to­col al­low­ing the ex­port of dairy prod­ucts to China, where the trav­el­ling mid­dle classes have re­put­edly de­vel­oped a taste for the rub­bery cheese. And, far from be­ing jubilant at the prospect of a new boom­ing mar­ket, pro­duc­ers were not happy.

“It’s dif­fi­cult enough ser­vic­ing de­mand in the UK, Ger­many, Swe­den, Den­mark and Aus­tralia,” says Alexis Pantziaros speak­ing from his dairy farm out­side Lar­naka. “If the Chi­nese learn about it too, it will be­come im­pos­si­ble to keep up.”

He is far from be­ing alone. As Aus­tralia pre­pares to host the world’s first hal­loumi fes­ti­val in Mel­bourne next week­end, and the cheese flies off su­per­mar­ket shelves across Europe, oth­ers in the in­dus­try in­clud­ing dis­trib­u­tors and sell­ers are won­der­ing if hal­loumi’s spec­tac­u­lar suc­cess has gone too far.

In the­ory, hal­loumi is a per­fect mix­ture of cow, sheep and goat milk. In re­al­ity, au­thor­i­ties on Cyprus, an is­land di­vided be­tween Greeks in the south and Turks in the north since Ankara in­vaded in 1974, have been forced con­tro­ver­sially to in­crease the pro­por­tion of cow’s milk from 50% to 80% be­cause of a lim­ited sup­ply of sheep and goats.

“Not all of us have sheep and goats, and to meet stan­dards you need them to make it,” says An­dreas An­dreou di­rec­tor of the in­dus­try depart­ment at Cyprus’s cham­ber of com­merce. “It’s only log­i­cal that if we go on like this there won’t be enough to go round.”

Pantziaros goes fur­ther. “There just isn’t enough milk,” says the farmer, con­ced­ing that he has been forced to im­port sheep from Italy and Den­mark. “In sum­mer, when tem­per­a­tures get up to 42C, the an­i­mals pro­duce very lit­tle. It’s very dif­fi­cult to get them preg­nant. In such heat they don’t even want to eat!”

Al­ready there have been jit­ters. This sum­mer, news of su­per­mar­ket short­ages in the UK spurred a so­cial-me­dia storm with the may­hem com­pelling one pro­ducer to send “emer­gency sup­plies” by road to avoid de­lays in­evitably en­cum­bered by ship­ping – de­spite sub­se­quent de­nials that stocks had run out.

Out­side Cyprus, Bri­tain re­mains the sec­ond big­gest con­sumer of the cheese, whose bar­be­cue friend­li­ness has made it a favourite among veg­e­tar­i­ans as well as meat-eaters.

An­nounc­ing the launch of an or­ganic hal­loumi in Oc­to­ber, Waitrose re­ported that sales of the cheese had risen by 24% in 2017.

As gril­l­able as it is fryable, hal­loumi, once a hum­ble sta­ple of the Cypriot diet, has mor­phed from be­ing a salad top­ping – its ini­tial use when first ex­ported abroad – into burg­ers, fries and sand­wich fillers be­cause of its un­meltable abil­ity to with­stand be­ing cooked over coals and re­main in­tact.

McDon­ald’s, Nando’s and Burger King are among the chains that have added it to their menus.

Ste­lios An­gelode­mou, who had the idea to bring hal­loumi lovers to­gether with the Mel­bourne fes­ti­val, pre­dicts that soon every restau­rant will be sell­ing hal­loumi.

“When it comes to cheese, hal­loumi is a star,” the Cypriot com­mu­nity leader told the Mel­bourne Greeknews­pa­per Neos Kos­mos.

“It’s a great cheese, so tasty, and the only cheese you can place on top of a flame that won’t burn or melt; that makes it spe­cial.”

But what makes hal­loumi spe­cial also makes it dan­ger­ously at­trac­tive. Im­pos­tors abound. In Ger­many and the UK, dairy farm­ers have tried to pro­duce their own ver­sion of the cheese us­ing only cow’s milk.

Such vi­o­la­tions have forced the Cyprus govern­ment – which is again try­ing to regis­ter hal­loumi as a pro­tected des­ig­na­tion of ori­gin prod­uct with the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion – to hire a watch­dog of in­ter­na­tional scouts.

“Hal­loumi is a very im­por­tant na­tional prod­uct for our is­land, his­tor­i­cally, cul­tur­ally and eco­nom­i­cally,” Nelly Kou­lia, di­rec­tor of trade at the min­istry of com­merce told the

Ob­server. “It can only be pro­duced in Cyprus by au­tho­rised users. Every time we are in­formed of an in­fringe­ment through our watch ser­vice we take im­me­di­ate ac­tion … that can range from cease and de­sist let­ters to out­right le­gal suits.”

Last year, sci­en­tists at Ed­in­burgh Univer­sity said they would be help­ing Cypriot breed­ers to in­crease pro­duc­tion of goat’s and sheep’s milk for hal­loumi. “All the signs are that this sea­son is go­ing to get off to a good start,” said Gior­gos Petrou, an­other dairy farmer on the is­land. “When win­ter comes, our an­i­mals pro­duce a lot more milk. We want to make hal­loumi lovers ev­ery­where happy.”

‘It’s dif­fi­cult enough sup­ply­ing Europe … If the Chi­nese learn about it, it will be im­pos­si­ble to keep up’ Alexis Pantziaros, farmer

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The cheese is de­vel­op­ing a global fol­low­ing. Aus­tralia will next week host the world’s first hal­loumi fes­ti­val.

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A Cypriot farmer with his flock. Of­fi­cials want an EU rul­ing to en­sure the cheese can be made only on the is­land.

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