Lovers of Greek cuisine know there’s more to cheese than just feta. Some prefer halloumi, a chewy, salty cheese made of sheep’s milk that turns up in salads, sandwiches and pasta dishes or simply grilled, a popular option since it refuses to melt.
But what fans the world over may not know is that halloumi is about as Greek as a balanced budget nowadays. Its roots lie in Cyprus, where it’s celebrated as a national treasure; it has represented the Cypriot culture for centuries. Through myriad invasions, including a bloody month-long conflict with Turkey in the summer of 1974 that split the small island into Turkish Cyprus and Greek Cyprus, there’s always been halloumi.
And there’s always been hellim — as it’s called in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which arose that summer after Turkey invaded in response to a coup aimed at annexing the island as a vassal state of Greece.
These reluctant neighbors, whose feud traces back to Antiquity, agree on little, but even they acknowledge that a good cheese by any name is still tasty, not to mention, in this case, quite profitable. It is the island’s second-biggest export, according to Quartz.com.
In fact, during the 2012 recession that resulted in Cyprus’ plea for a European Union bailout, halloumi was said to be the “only thing moving” on the island – or rather off it. The E.U.-recognized portion sent halloumi across the Atlantic and to the U.K. — the Brits especially love the stuff — while the Turkish half shipped hellim to Istanbul and south to Dubai and other Arab nations.
This unspoken agreement filled the exporters’ coffers and the importers’ plates just fine — until Greek Cypriot leaders let national zeal get the better of them and filed in 2007 for an E.U.-protected designation of origin (PDO) that would have officially named halloumi an original product of the island.
Such designation has been granted to other regional cheeses, including Roquefort, mozzarella and Camembert, ensuring that those names could only be attached to products from those regions.
But Turkish Cyprus’ name was nowhere to be found on the initial application, and while the request was eventually amended to add hellim as a name under which the cheese could also be registered (although only after the northerners sued), the slight did not go unnoticed.
And so when the designation was denied (with the E.U. citing a feud among Greek Cypriot farmers over whether to use milk from cows, goats or sheep), the unthinkable ensued: Without the PDO, cheese makers outside Cyprus began creating their own version of halloumi/hellim, slapping on a label claiming authenticity and reaping the profits.
After five years of this, a fed-up Greek Cypriot government enacted legislation that defined halloumi as containing at least 51% sheep and goat’s milk. Cattle farmers protested, and when Greek Cyprus tried anew to secure a PDO, Turkish Cyprus objected, charging that hellim — which by then accounted for 25 percent of the northerners’ exports — would be left out in the cold.
As Ali Çirali, chairman of the Turkish Cypriot Chamber of Industry, told The Cyprus Mail:
We will not be able to use the name hellim if halloumi is registered as a PDO. Hellim will have to be produced according to the registration’s standards, and Turkish Cypriot producers will be excluded from the process.
While some outsiders may smirk at the goings-on on this strategically placed speck of land as nothing more than a food fight, talks aimed at reunification, which had progressed in fits and starts over the years before getting a new lease on life in June, seemed destined to curdle if someone didn’t break the stalemate.
And, finally, someone did.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, fresh from the rancorous Greek bailout negotiations, waded into the fray and after having a chat with the respective governments on the island, declared on Friday that the cheese clash had come to an end.
“[A]fter tough discussions,” he said, “[I am] happy to announce we found a common understanding as far as the geographical protection of halloumi/hellim cheese under E.U. law is concerned. This . . . is highly symbolic and confirms the willingness of the two parties to work together with the commission to build confidence.”
As to exactly what this “highly symbolic” understanding entails, well, the world will just have to wait. The details will be disclosed, Juncker added, when “a political solution for the divided island is reached.”
If this novel approach to spurring peace talks bears fruit and a beloved cheese manages to reunite a nation ripped apart four decades ago, gourmands worldwide will find themselves toasting a pretty great — if not grated — outcome.