Along the steep slopes of the Troodos Mountains in southern Cyprus is Koilani, a picturesque village filled with narrow paved alleyways, small stone houses with grapevine pergolas, blue-washed doors, and backyards bursting with apple, plum and avocado trees.
I had come to Koilani to visit a family relative, and relished the chance to see the kind of traditional village life in Cyprus that tourists don’t normally see. Despite its small population of 280, the streets teem with people: children playing soccer; women chatting; and groups of men sipping coffee over a game of tavli, a Cypriot version of backgammon. Perched halfway up a narrow road that winds through the village is the local taverna. It is the geographic and social centre of the village and the best place to get to know the locals.
Within days of my arrival, I was adopted by the couple who run the taverna, Maria and Aristos Fleuris. Maria is the kind of warm, humble and resilient woman one expects to find in a remote taverna in a tiny village in Cyprus, while her husband Aristos has an infectious cheeky wit and is seemingly related to everyone. The day-to-day running of their taverna is very much a family business, with Maria’s sisters and friends all helping with the cooking.
After spending an afternoon watching her and a friend stuffing zucchini flowers for kolokithakia yemista, Maria makes me some local coffee. Similar to Turkish coffee, but smoother and not quite as bitter, Cypriot coffee is also unique in the way it is prepared. It is made in a special pot known as a briki, which is set in a tray of warm sand that is placed over a cooktop rather than coals, providing a gentler, even heat than that of a single burner or element. Maria makes mine exactly how I like it: metrio (medium-sweet).
As we share a coffee, Maria tells me about growing up in Cyprus and the Turkish invasion of 1974 that divided the island. Born in Trachoni, a small village near the Mediterranean in southern Cyprus, she was 14 when the war broke out. "I remember the day they came. There were planes, bombs, we had to run, we couldn’t take anything," she recalls as she takes another sip of her coffee.
Maria and her family fled to nearby Limassol, where they lived in a refugee camp and were later given refugee housing. "It was a very difficult time for everyone. We had lost everything. We lived in one very small room and there were 13 of us with no blankets and no chairs. Once a week, we were given food," she recalls. Maria was then sent to London to stay with her eldest sister and didn’t live in Cyprus again until 2002 when she married Aristos, whom she met while on holiday visiting her parents. Her mother and father continued to live in the refugee housing until they both passed away, in 2009.
It was not until 2003, when the border dividing the north and south of Cyprus was opened, that Maria was able to return to the family home she had been forced to abandon. "I went back once, but I had a very bad feeling," she says. "When I knocked on the door, the Turkish women who answered heard me speaking in Greek and closed the door in my face. I don’t want to go back again."
While the memories of those times will never leave her, Maria finds joy in the busy life of Koilani and her role at the village’s bustling taverna. Many hungry visitors travel from other villages, such as nearby Laneia and Ayia Napa, on the east coast, to eat here. One night, I sit next to a group of young British men, who tell me they work down at the military base 30km away and drive up here on their day off because "you can’t get food like this anywhere else on the island". They never order off the menu. "Maria just brings out a selection of dishes; she knows what we like and always includes our favourite – sheftalia," one of them remarks.
Sheftalia is a traditional Cypriot pork sausage and is one of the most popular dishes across Cyprus. Instead of artificial sausage casings, sheftalia calls for panna (caul fat) to encase the ingredients. When the sausages are cooked, the fat from the lacy, transparent wrapping melts away. Sheftalias look like oval-shaped meatballs or Lebanese kibbeh and they are seasoned simply. Maria says they "taste best grilled over charcoal" and she serves hers with warm pita bread, tahini and a salad of chopped cucumbers and tomatoes, with the fresh flavours of the local ingredients really coming to the fore. Making sheftalia takes the best part of a day and it’s always a social event at the taverna; I am fortunate enough to be invited.
Maria makes the sheftalia with her sisters, Nikki and Crystal, and friends Marro and Natasha are also there to lend a hand. Nikki washes the caul fat in vinegar and water, while Marro prepares the stuffing. Forget wooden spoons, this is a hands-on job. Mixing more than five kilograms of minced pork, chopped onions and parsley isn’t easy work and Marro is up to her elbows in the mixture. While she mixes, Maria adds the local olive oil and cinnamon, onion and parsley.
When the mixture is ready, we sit down at a long table. Marro works it into sausage shapes and the others begin wrapping them in caul fat. Nikki demonstrates, so I can join in. Stretching a piece of caul fat across her plate, and placing a sausage on one end, she folds the two sides of the netting inwards and rolls it up, wrapping in the ends. It’s similar to assembling a small burrito. She then signals for me to give it a go. I do and, in unison, the women sweep up their hands and cry "Nai poli kala!" ('Yes, very good!") There are beaming smiles all round the room; evidently, the sheftalia crew is happy with my efforts.
Despite the language barrier, we are able to communicate as we stuff, wrap and roll more than 300 sheftalia – enough to last a fortnight. In between the manual labour, chatting and laughing, plates of striftari (coiled filo pastry filled with feta cheese and spinach) are passed around. The pastry is irresistibly crunchy and the filling so delicious, I can’t stop at just one piece. The afternoon lengthens and Nikki and Natasha’s husbands drop by and end up staying for a bite to eat. Aristos brings out the tzivania, a very strong, homemade, traditional Cypriot alcoholic drink that’s similar to grappa, the Italian brandy. A pure distilled grape spirit, I’m told tzivania is stronger than vodka and one sip quickly confirms this – it burns your throat, makes your eyes water and has me gasping for air. It’s an acquired taste. The locals don’t just drink it, they use it to treat common ailments – like cuts, bruises, skin problems and sore muscles – by rubbing it directly onto the skin. As I sip and my throat continues to protest, Maria disappears into the kitchen and returns with a tray of freshly baked potatoes, zucchinis, eggplants and tomatoes, and some crusty bread. I realise I’m enjoying a Cypriot feast while preparing another.
Spending the day making sheftalia at the taverna has earned me kudos in the village. As I wander the streets, people greet me from their gardens with a friendly hello: "Yasou." It’s not long before some of them invite me into their homes. Late one hot afternoon, I find myself sitting in an old lady’s garden under a string of flowering hanging baskets and eating thiples, strips of fried twisted pastry dusted with icing sugar. The old lady chats away to me, not seeming to mind I don’t understand a word she is saying. I repeat the one phrase I have mastered: "Poli oero, efharisto" ("Delicious, thank you"), which is met with gestures to keep eating. I lose myself in the crisp sweet pastry and refreshing rosewater flavours.
Everyone in the village is taking my love for food seriously, especially Aristos. He is desperately trying to organise for a traditional engagement sweet called glyjista Jilaniotika to be made. This sweet, a speciality from Koilani, is made to a secret recipe that has been passed down through generations. Traditionally, it is served at engagement parties where the couple would exchange rings and handkerchiefs, but it is also sometimes served at other special occasions, such as carnival festivals. Only three women in the village know the recipe and one of them is away. In the meantime, Aristos has organised for me to visit a couple who make arkatena, a traditional Cypriot bread.
Koilani village is famous for their arkatena, made with fermented chickpea yeast and cooked in a fournos – an outdoor, wood-fired clay oven that is sealed during cooking. Preparing the dough is labour-intensive, as the arkatis (chickpea yeast) needs to be extracted from the chickpeas and left to ferment for a minimum of 12 hours.
It is early morning when Aristos walks me up to George and Beba Fewprior’s home, a small stone house with an enchanting garden, at the top of the village. The bread-making is already in full swing. George is lighting the oven in the garden and Beba is inside, elbow-deep in a trough of dough. The room is tiny and cramped with the only seating – a single bed – against the wall. As I go to sit down on it, Beba hurls herself towards me, waving her arms in the air, sending bits of dough flying and screaming hysterics in Greek. I freeze. She lets out a sigh of relief and smiles, as she pulls back the blanket to reveal dozens of loaves of bread that have been laid out on the bed to rise.
It is clear Beba is in charge of making the dough and George is responsible for cooking the bread and bundling it into boxes, which they sell to the nearby villages. If you ask Aristos nicely, he will organise a loaf for you fresh from the oven. It is hard work and I’m guessing Beba has been standing over the trough mixing dough for most of the night. The bread takes an hour to cook and when the oven seal is removed, the aroma that permeates the garden is incredible. Freshly baked bread always smells good, but this is something else. George tears open a loaf and passes it around. It is slightly hard and crisp on the outside, warm and soft on the inside, and the flavour is similar to sourdough, but smoother on the palate. The bread is traditionally served with olives, local olive oil and souvlaki, but I’m enjoying it without anything as it’s come straight out of the oven.
Aristos is excited; his engagement-sweet contact has come through. "Athanoula is making the engagement sweets for you now," he reveals. We walk up the hill to Athanoula’s house, where she is waiting for me in a small kitchen in a separate building at the back of the garden. In true Cypriot style, she insists I eat something before the cooking can begin and hands me a bowl of rosewater jelly (made locally, of course) and says "Ela, na fais" ("Come eat"). I try to resist, wanting to save myself for the sweets, but she is persistent and only starts cooking when I begin eating. Although she doesn’t speak English, I watch carefully hoping to learn the secret recipe.
Working the simple flour, oil and water dough quickly, Athanoula rolls it into flat discs, dusting them with flour and passing them through a pasta maker. They come out like strips of fettuccine, which she stretches out and twirls, joining the ends together to create a neat bundle of strands. She does this until the bench is lined with twisted bundles of dough, which she then fries in hot oil and dunks in a bucket of thick, sweet, orange-blossom syrup. The pastries are drained, before being dusted with sesame seeds and cinnamon. For the final touch, she decorates them with sprigs of pelargonium, a sweet-scented flower. The result is a sweet hit with a distinct orange-blossom aftertaste.
Cypriot cuisine is a perfect fusion of Greek, Turkish and Middle Eastern flavours, but with an overall taste that’s unmistakably Cypriot. The secret to eating well in Cyprus is to make friends with the locals, who are warm, generous and welcoming. It is impossible to say no to their hospitality and you don’t have to be Cypriot to be part of the family. Ela, na fais.
The hit list
Open daily, Maria and Aristos’s eatery serves authentic, home-style Greek-Cypriot food. Grigori Afxentiou, Koilani Village, Lemesos District, Cyprus, +35 7 9960 8196 or +35 7 9982 5253.
Andreas’ Fruit & Veg
A few metres from the taverna, this tiny shop/garden shed is a great spot to stock up on locally grown fruit and vegies. Arrive early, though; it’s only open a few hours a day.
Run by Kate Tray, a British expat who has her pulse on what’s happening in the village, this spacious private studio above a quaint stone villa offers beautiful mountain views. Grigori Afxentiou, Koilani Village, +35 7 2547 0194 or +35 7 99938226, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photography by Bree Hutchins.