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Authentic Foods

Halloumi



History

Halloumi, fresh or mature, has always been the flagship of Cyprus authentic cuisine. For centuries, this product is a key constituent of the Cypriot diet and has been closely associated with the culture and traditions of the local people. With an estimated annual per capita consumption of 8 kilos, Halloumi exceeds by far in preference, all other cheeses, Cypriot and imported. Furthermore, halloumi is not simply a product of Cyprus but constitutes part of its cultural heritage and its traditional rural life and is linked to the social solidarity that characterizes even today the villages of Cyprus.

References1 suggest that halloumi may have its origins in the Beduin tribes of the Middle East who probably found its long keeping attributes ideal for their particular way of life. Yet, its presence in Cyprus is lost in time, definitely produced on the island before the Turkish invasion of 1571. In older times, halloumi in brine was an essential part of the peoples diet, especially so in the absence of any refrigeration facilities. The traditional character of Halloumi is revealed through its importance in the life of local people described in century old documents, as well as from the transfer of Halloumi processing know-how from generation to generation. Historical reports dating as back as the period of Venetian domination in 1554 confirm that Halloumi was produced in Cyprus for centuries. At the time, FIorio Bustron reported that Cyprus produces, using sheep and goat milk, a cheese that was named caloumi in Venetian language which was prepared in March, period where there is an abundance of best quality, full fat milk.

In older times, the process for making halloumi played a particular role in the lives of rural people since apart from covering their basic food requirements, it constituted a social activity between village families and neighbours, especially among women. Due to the fact that each family produced a small amount of milk from their domestic animals, rural families used to create small cooperatives for jointly processing milk. In this way, within a few weeks, the neighbourhood gathered adequate quantities of halloumi to share among them. The head and coordinator of cooperative was named galatarka milk woman - and was usually an experienced cheese maker who owned most of the animals.

Gradually, along with the domestic production of halloumi, small, commercial dairy units were set up in many villages making halloumi and other traditional cheese products, serving the needs of nearby communities. Today, in the countryside, a large number of small dairies with upgraded technology still make halloumi and other dairy products, following traditional ways of processing.

Techniques of Production

The key ingredient in making halloumi is fresh milk which, according to the Standard, CY 594/1985 is either sheep or goat or a mixture of these with or without cows milk. The remainder materials are rennet (excluding rennet coming out from the stomach of pigs), salt and mint, fresh or dried. Rennet is a natural enzyme which is derived from the stomach of the young calves. Current practices involve the use of laboratory developed rennet from microbial elements. The milk that is used for making all cheese products should be of the highest quality, especially with regard to its chemical and microbiological composition, free from any impurities.

In short, the traditional method that has been passed through generations begins with the collection and heating of milk in a large cauldron. Unpasteurized milk is sieved into the cauldron using cheesecloth current processes involve mechanic infiltration - in order to clean any impurities and is heated up to 32-35C. Rennet is added to start the curdling process and it takes around 30-45 minutes for the milk to turn into soft cheese initially in the form of soft curds. The curds are then cut to small pieces (depending on the preferred size of halloumi) and are placed either in specially woven basket moulds or wrapped in large cheese cloths where they are mechanically pressed for around 30-60 minutes. Pressing is essential so as to drain the excess whey and this is followed by the re-cooking of halloumi in the whey so as to give the appropriate firm texture. At this stage the temperature is raised to 900C and the halloumi pieces are heated up for approximately 30 minutes until they get a fine texture. This heating process gives halloumi a unique texture and taste that distinguishes it from other cheeses. Additionally, this method raises the temperature in the inside of the product to around 80C which approaches conditions of pasteurization. Whilst still warm, the halloumi is sprinkled with a mixture of salt and dry mint leaves. According to the national standard, the approved salt content is 3% for fresh and 6% for the mature halloumi. The use of mint apart from taste must have played a role in the past as a preserving agent due to its antibacterial action. Whilst halloumi is still warm it is hand-folded into its final form which gives the product its distinctive bell-shaped appearance.

Halloumi is ready for consumption soon after it has been produced, retailed usually in vacuum packed individual pieces of 230-280 grams. Halloumi may also be left to mature into a hard texture if kept in brine for 40 days. In the old days when the refrigerator was non-existent, halloumi could well store for up to a year in earthware pots filled with natural whey.

Its unique characteristics

Halloumi is an unripe, semi hard white cheese with a texture between cottage cheese and mozzarella. Halloumi may well be eaten raw but it tastes best when cooked, fried or on charcoal. It is this distinctive characteristic that makes halloumi a unique cheese. In fact, it claims to be the only commercially known cheese that can be cooked in a number of different ways and retain its shape. Though the cheese keeps its shape, its outward appearance turns into a crispy golden brown color taking on the grill marks while inwards it softens significantly but it does not melt.

Ways of serving

The versatility of halloumi allows for its presence in a broad range of Cyprus dishes. It may be consumed fresh in salad or sandwich, grated over pasta, as a stuffing in ravioli and pastries or in the more Cypriot style as a side to chilled wedges of ripe watermelon making this an excellent appetizer especially during summertime. Cypriot women also use halloumi as a stuffing in making pies, the traditionally known pourekia.

Halloumi slices of about an inch thick can be grilled on a stove grill, barbecued or fried with a spoonful of oil, flipping the slices once until the outside turns into a crusty golden brown color. Serve hot on pita bread with a slice of tomato. A typical Cyprus toasted sandwich includes cooked lountza, fried or grilled Halloumi and slices of tomato and cucumber.

Halloumi accompanies perfectly another Cypriot unique product, trachanas soup and is commonly added to the soup at the end of its preparation.

The saltiness of halloumi creates also a perfect combination with something sweet. Try halloumi, grilled or raw, with a drizzle of honey it makes for a healthy appetizer often served in genuine traditional restaurants in Cyprus.

Average Chemical composition

According to studies from the Cyprus Agricultural Research Institute and the Agricultural University of Athens, the average chemical composition of halloumi from different milk compositions is as follows:

% of composition

Sheep milk

Goat milk

Cow milk

Sheep and goat milk

58.69

56.47

58.39

57.51

Humidity

41.31

43.57

41.61

42.49

Fat

26.8

23.66

25.60

25.83

Protein

22.77

24.83

23.18

23.61

Salt

2.02

2.18

2.33

1.98

Source: Milk and its products in Cyprus, by Dr Sotiris Economides

Microbiological characteristics

Total aerobic counts of Halloumi from pasteurized ovine, caprine and bovine milk may be as high as 107 cfu/g and decline by almost 0.7 log10 cfu/g on ageing for 90 days. Counts of mesophilic LAB are also in the range of 105 (caprine) and 106 (ovine, bovine) cfu/g and their levels remain unchanged throughout ripening for 90 days (106 cfu/g) (Milci et al., 2005). E. faecium dominates the non starter lactic acid bacteria microflora in fresh cheese from sheep milk, but it is replaced by lactobacilli. In mature cow cheese the LAB microflora is composed of lactobacilli (Papademas and Robinson, 2000). Yeast is also found in mature Halloumi and exhibits activities of esterase and lipase enzymes. Both, lactobacilli and yeasts have Leu-aminopeptidase activity, and thus have positive impact on the flavor of the cheeses (Papademas and Robinson, 2000). Proteolysis is more active in the ovine cheese, which also has higher overall concentrations of VFA in both, fresh and the mature cheese. Acetic acid is the dominant VFA in fresh and especially in mature cheese (Papademas and Robinson, 2000).

Halloumi Industry

Most commercial halloumi is nowadays made in moderately large factories using a combination of new technology, automation and experienced labor force, since a hands-on approach is still an essential part of the making process. Hygiene standards are much stricter in modern factories and the Cyprus Organization for Standards and Control of quality ensures that manufacturers comply with the strictest international food standards. Milk is analyzed on a daily basis at the point of collection from the farm and the processed halloumi is regularly sample analyzed, especially in the larger size dairies, using in-house chemical labs. The whole process from procurement, milk delivery and production is closely monitored ensuring that the final product reaches the consumer in perfect condition.

Two companies, Pittas and Christies Dairies dominate the production and export of halloumi cheese using methods close to the traditional processes and adapted to EU health and food safety requirements. A dozen or so medium sized dairies with an island wide coverage and another 30-40 small local dairy units make up the rest of the Cyprus cheese industry whose major product is halloumi. All these dairy units are approved by the Health Authoriries and most of them are also certified to operate under the HACCP guidelines. A few local dairies make farm-house halloumi using milk that is produced in their own farms situated close to the processing unit. In these small dairies, the wife of the farmer is responsible for making halloumi an art that is usually developed and passed from generation to generation.

Packaging and Exports

Halloumi is today marketed under a number of variations depending on its milk composition, maturity and fat content. Recent technological improvements have allowed major dairy manufacturers to adjust halloumi characteristics to suit different market tastes. Hence, halloumi is also made from or semi-skimmed or skimmed milk for people who can accept less taste for a more dietary cheese.

Packaging is normally made in retail vacuum packs with a little brine surrounding the cheese or the more traditional way in 2-15kg plastic containers filled with whey (or concentrated brine). Halloumi cheese in retail packs may keep well for a year in deep freeze (-180C) or up to six months in normal fridge temperatures. Plastic containers filled with whey can keep halloumi for a year if stored in a cool place away from direct sunlight.

Halloumi fame has already spread far from Cyprus and it is steadily becoming another international choice of gourmet cheese. Its growing popularity has led manufacturers from other countries to produce halloumi imitations and compete in world markets. In the

U.S. an intense battle between Cyprus and a Danish company that lasted for 8 years ended up in 1999 with a verdict favorable for Cyprus. The verdict stated that halloumi is a distinctive cheese indigenous to Cyprus linked with a longstanding cultural tie and may only be produced in Cyprus using methods that are unique to the country. Following this, the US Patent and Trademark Office in 2000 granted Cyprus the renewal of Halloumi trade mark for a 10 year period ending in 2009, meaning that halloumi imported and marketed in the US and Canada should only be of Cyprus origin.

Halloumi is Cyprus major cheese export product with volumes showing a year-on-year increase. Total volume exports have grown from 3,000 tons in the year 2000 to 5,500 tons in 2006. The

UK remains by far the major export market taking around 32% of the total exports followed by Germany (14%). Countries of the Middle East have traditionally been important haloumi customers and total exports to these countries are estimated at 1.200 tons (22% export share). The US and Canadian markets are also regarded as important but demand has remained fairly stable over the years at around 300 tons of halloumi made exclusively from sheep and goat milk. Current potential for halloumi exports is high as people gradually appreciate its value and learn its cooking secrets. Supermarket chains in the UK and other European and USA markets are beginning to place halloumi cheese in their gourmet sections and a strong promotional program run by the two major dairy industries of Cyprus is beginning to give its returns. For more information on halloumi and the joint promotional program see www.halloumi-cheese.eu.

Suggested Bibliography:

  1. Dr Sotiris Economides: Milk and its products in Cyprus. The Cyprus Organization of the Milk Processing Industry
  2. Production of dairy products. Ministry of Agriculture, Natural resources and the Environment 2004
  3. Milci, S., Goncu, A., Alpkent, Z., Yaygin, H. (2005): Chemical, microbiological and sensory characteristics of Hallumi cheese produced from ovine, caprine and bovine milk. International Dairy Journal 15, 625-630.
  4. Papademas, P., Robinson, R.K. (2000): A comparison of the chemical, microbiological and sensory characteristics of bovine and ovine Hallumi cheese. International Dairy Journal, 10, 761-768.
  5. Richard Pococke, traveling experiences in Cyprus 1738. In Cyprus throughout the Centuries by Andros Pavlides

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