When I told people I was going to Cyprus for Christmas vacation, I got a lot of blank looks. The small Mediterranean island is a popular summertime destination for European tourists and expats (particularly Brits), but few Yankees make it ashore, which is understandable given the time and expense it takes to get there. Still, I wanted to go someplace quiet, beautiful, and very far away from New York, which Cyprus in the off-season offered in spades. It wasn't until after I'd booked my flight (with a layover in Moscow, of all places) that I got excited for the gastronomic component of the trip.
Calling Cypriot cuisine a blend of Greek and Turkish oversimplifies things: yes, there are strong influences from both on either side of the island,* but look at a map, and you'll notice that Cyprus is geographically quite close to the Middle East, whose flavors moonlight in many meals. Then there are the edible cameos from the country's immigrant communities: a Filipino enclave in the capital, Nicosia/Lefkosia (the Greek/English name), and Eastern Europeans and Caucasians, too.
*A brief lesson in Cypriot politics: Since 1974, Cyprus has been divided in two: the Greek-Cypriot Republic of Cyprus in the south, and the Turkish-Cypriot Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the north. A UN-controlled "Green Line" maintains a buffer zone between the two areas, though residents and visitors are allowed to cross the border with a passport.
All this, combined with the country's agricultural and coastal riches (think fields of citrus and carob and shores stocked with octopus, sea bream, and bass), and the genuine friendliness of literally every single person I broke bread with make Cyprus a very worthwhile destination for those who travel to eat. Cypriots take mealtime (and coffeetime) seriously—dinners often last for hours on end, with bottles of homegrown wine lubricating conversation. Most of the food is prepared simply, emphasizing the quality of ingredients, almost none of which are imported. Village life is still the norm in much of the country, but even in the cities, tavernas serving home-style dishes are still major gathering points.
We road-tripped around the country for 10 days, staying in coastal cities and mountainside villages, meeting sincere, welcoming people all along the way. In recent years, Cyprus tourism officials have pushed an agrotourism program, in which traditional stone houses in historic villages are restored into guesthouses, often complete with a kitchen. We stayed in several of these houses around the country, most notably To Spitiko toy Archonta in Treis Elies, whose gregarious proprietor, Androula Christou, took us foraging for wild greens and invited us to her family's Christmas dinner. And although we didn't stay with her, Elena Savvides-Doghman of Orexi Catering in Droushia was an invaluable resource in helping us understand Cypriot culture and cuisine, and one of the instrumental forces in turning Cyprus into a food-lover's paradise.
I tried to narrow my list down to just a few of the best things I ate; in the end, that "few" turned out to be 25. Included were two—yes, two—of the definitive "best version of X I've ever had in my life, anywhere;" while many others were foods entirely new to me. Take a look through the slideshow to see them all.
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