A friend and I were chatting about this blog last night. “Is it a midlife crisis?” She asked. I was slightly chagrined. I don’t think it is a midlife crisis. First, I’m 39 years old. Am I old enough? Second, who has a mid-life crisis involving cheese? Am I that weird? Maybe.
Speaking of crisis, there is also a crisis in the Mediterranean. It’s called “what Willow has been saying about our cheese.” I’ve had two terrible experiences with cheese from this area, but I’m happy to report that I have gotten to the root of the problem-it’s salt. It is hot in the Mediterranean, they don’t have nice cold caves. In order to preserve cheese they need to involve salt. A lot of salt. It just had to happen that way, and I need to get over it.
The Island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean is the birthplace of the beloved and much celebrated cheese, Halloumi. The name Halloumi derives from the Greek word “almi” – meaning salty water-which is further proof of my salt hypothesis. Halloumi is an integral and traditional part of the Cyrpiot diet. It’s very popular in Crete, Greece, and oddly, Sweden.
Historically Halloumi was the basic requirement of the island diet. All families needed a good stock of it to get through the winter months when there was no milk. Entire villages worked together to process milk to meet the communal Halloumi needs. All stages of Halloumi making was controlled by a special woman known as a “galatarka” or cheese woman. She controlled and organized the making of the cheese.
Although it is still made traditionally on the farm, (perhaps by galatarkas) due to a huge demand for export Halloumi is more commonly made in factories. While the original cheese is made from raw sheep’s milk, the factory cheese is made from a less expensive and also pasteurized mixture of sheep, goat and cow milk. Halloumi purists feels this has had a negative impact on the taste. Because of this milk issue, Halloumi does not yet have PDO status. In order to do so it would have to have an agreed upon ratio of cow to sheep and goat milk. Thus, for the time being it is not a protected name in the EU.
Similar to the Italian pasta filata cheeses like mozzarella and provolone which are stretched, halloumi is kneaded to create the chewy and unique texture. Halloumi is formed by submerging the fresh curd in hot whey to soften. It’s then kneaded and placed in baskets where it is hand-folded into small cheeses. There is virtually no aging. The cheese is packaged and ready for sale immediately. Halloumi is often found garnished with mint which both adds to the taste and also acts as a kind of preservative because of its anti-bacterial effect. Halloumi is stored in its natural brine and juice and can keep frozen for up to a year!
Halloumi seems to be one of those rare cheeses that people make at home. The ‘net is full of Halloumi recipes (just like grandma galatarka made!). Even Nigella Lawson took on making Halloumi for her cooking show. My package of Halloumi said “try it barbecued!” which is something you just don’t expect to see on a cheese. People love to grill their Halloumi over the open flame. It’s the only cheese that doesn’t melt and retains it’s shape with heat. As it is currently 5 AM in Vancouver in January, that’s not going to happen. But we will attempt some sort of facsimile.
My slice of Halloumi looks exactly like mozzarella. It’s pure white with no rind. When I removed it from its package it was bathed in a little bit of brine. It looks rubbery. There is no smell at all.
Fresh it’s quite mild and a little sweet. It’s loud. It’s like a really loud, chewy and salty and rubbery mozzarella. It squeaks on my teeth like a poutine curd. I don’t taste the sheep or goat at all. The flavour is quite subtle and salty, but the texture is odd. It won’t melt .When you chew and chew it, the paste just breaks into smaller pieces.
Now grilled (in my George Foreman, what’s a girl to do)…
Oh, I like this better. It’s crispy on the outside and now the texture has changed-it still squeaks, but at least it breaks down when you chew it. The squeaking is totally bizarre, it’s like eating live mice. Every bite is protesting loudly. Mmm, it’s really yummy grilled, I get it, do try it barbecued!
Well, it’s definitely the most palatable of my foray into the cheese of the Mediterranean. It’s not the most toothsome cheese, but I kind of like it!