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’
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
The cheese is developing a global following. Australia will next week host the world’s first halloumi festival.
A Cypriot farmer with his flock. Officials want an EU ruling to ensure the cheese can be made only on the island.