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All Hail Halloumi! Cypriot Cheese Given EU's Imprimatur, But Brings Divide

Αssociated Press

(AP Photo/Petros Karadjias, File)

NICOSIA -- A bite of the Cypriot cheese halloumi is an experience you won't forget, between its rubbery texture and super-salty taste but it's so good that Britons call it “white gold,” and aficionados are wild about it.

So are Cypriots because it's one of the most revered traditional and unique food commodities on the divided island, with Greek-and-Turkish-Cypriots alike claiming it but now both sides see it declared a protective food by the European Union.

In a feature outlining how it has become political as well as gastronomical, Euronews reported that “halloumi is not just a cheese, it is also a symbol of division and maybe even hope in arguably one of Europe's longest geopolitical conflicts,” with Turkey occupying the northern third in an unlawful 1974 invasion.

The EU has awarded the cheese a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO,) one of its top food quality labels, and means no other country can peddle a cheese and call it by the same name.

That will come into force in October when only the cheese made on the island will be marketed abroad under that name, an important economic factor as the halloumi industry employs some 20,000 people and is seen growing with the designation.

It took seven years for that to happen during a cheese war that is now seen as hopefully bringing cheese diplomacy after Turkish-Cypriot hard line leader Ersin Tatar said he's given up the idea of reunification and wants two separate states.

The Turkish-Cypriots call their version hellim which has proved another obstacle to improving relations between the two sides which are divided by the Green Line in the walled capital of Nicosia.

Only Turkey recognizes the occupied, isolated territory it seized, causing a problem for Turkish hellim, a name widely unknown outside the island, another irritant for them.

The PDO label technically protects halloumi against imitators but Greece's feta has seen other countries calling a facsimile by the same name as companies try to cash in on a product's fame around the world.

The extension was also given to ensure producers on both that producers on both sides can be certified to meet PDO conditions and avoid availability gaps of halloumi/hellim in the market, said The Financial Mirror.

The site said that Cyprus’ dairy producers are concerned they won't, however, meet the strict description of the cheese for the PDO label as it requires that  goat’s milk should by 2024 exceed cow’s milk.

That would mean hitting a minimum of 51 percent with a designated amount of mint, while the products can only be sold in the traditional folded block shape to be approved.

Secretary of the Cyprus Dairy Producers’ Association Andreas Andreou said the PDO means goat’s milk used in the mix should be from local goat tribes, which should be fed with specific animal fodder. 

“However, at present, 70percent of the sheep and goat population in Cyprus are not native,” said Andreou. Sales and exports of halloumi have reached 266.5 million euros ($314.23 million,) a boon during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Studies said the market could bring in more than 625 million euros ($737 million) annually in a few years as more people around the world are acquiring a taste for the cheese that grills and won't melt in the pan, although some prefer to rinse it in cold water because of the high salt content.

WHAT'S IN A NAME?

Marios Konstantinou, Managing Director of one of Cyprus' biggest halloumi factors, Charalambides Christis Dairy Products – it puts out 10,000 tons annually – told Euronews that, “The label will provide absolute protection in the geographical areas where the PDO is recognized, in our case, that's the European Union.”

He said that he believes that it will give the company "the resources to further increase the exports of halloumi to European Union member states, but also to grow further around the world."

There's some unhappiness that hellim is being given the coveted protected label though with Greek-Cypriots said worried that the occupied side's producers, with cheaper raw material and labor, could sell it cheaper.

But the Greek-Cypriot side that's a member of the EU that Turkey has fruitlessly been trying to join since 2005 wants the dual designation in an apparent attempt not to sow further dissension between the sides.

Sokratis Sokratous, the government official who led the registration process told the site that, “The international halloumi market has great potential,” and producers on both sides can benefit.

But unrecognized by the EU, the Turkish-Cypriot producers can't export to the bloc's 27 countries, that allowed only for the Greek-Cypriot side, a frustrating problem for those on the occupied side.

The Gülgün Dairy Products factory on the Turkish side manufactures 20 different dairy products, including milk, cream, butter and ice cream and produces about 6.5 tons of hellim daily, most sent to Turkey and Gulf countries, locked out of more lucrative markets.

Its export manager, Ali Bayraktar, said that "halloumi does not belong to North or South or East or West Cyprus. Halloumi is a Cypriot product. It was produced before the Turkish and the Greek on this island,” and should be shared.

He said there are 50,000-60,000 people in the halloumi business on the Turkish Cypriot side and said if their companies could export to the EU that the economic benefits will ripple on the occupied land.

Negotiations with the two sides and the EU are being led by the Turkish-Cypriot Chamber of Commerce which represents 4500 local companies, 25 percent of them are from the agricultural and farming sector. 

Its president, Turgay Deniz, told Euronews that, “To successfully complete this entire process we need full cooperation from the European Union to set up the right supervising mechanisms. 

“We keep demanding this full cooperation to solve Turkish Cypriot hellim producers' problems and to help them comply with EU regulations as well as animal, safety, hygiene and public health standards" he said.

Greek-Cypriot cow farmers are wary though. Most of the currently marketed halloumi contains 80 percent cow milk and they aren't happy with the stipulation of a 51 percent mixture of sheep and goat milk.

Farms like Andreas Kailas & Sons Ltd, which produces 4000 liters (1,057 gallons) of cow milk a day, are worried that all the halloumi products produced now, like halloumi slices, halloumi embedded with chili and halloumi burgers don't fit in with the PDO. 

Marinos (no last name given) owner of a tavern in Nicosia, told the news site that “Halloumi in northern and southern Cyprus are different. But they also have things in common. Both communities can enjoy them in the same way. If they can help build bridges between the two communities, then this is good news.”