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There are few foods as magical and wholesome as cheese. Over millennia, countless milk-drinking societies around the world have developed a culture, technique and lore that have resulted in unique and fabulous cheeses. It sometimes saddens me, as I scurry through a supermarket, that all this hard work and ingenuity is beginning to fade away - day by day.

In these sterile warehouses of banal consumerism, dozens upon dozens of cheeses are available - all in dazzlingly colourful plastic packaging. The irony here is sharper than all these cheeses combined, because once the wrappers have been removed, there is a disturbing uniformity to all these bright yellow blocks of processed milk.

If you love cheese, then do us all a favour and buy a unique, hand crafted cheese sometime soon - so that the tirelessly toiling producer doesn't give up and get an office job instead. As far as unique goes, you can't find many cheeses more individual than haloumi. This Cypriot cheese has been handcrafted for centuries, originally by local families with a surfeit of milk, but is now more often produced by specialist dairies and farmhouse producers.

Haloumi originated in the Paphos region of Cyprus, with some saying the original and best version of this pale cheese comes from the village of Pissouri. Traditionally ewe's milk was the raw material of choice, but today blends may include goat's milk, cow's milk, or both. What is certain is that all true haloumi will contain at least some proportion of ewe's milk.

The first factor that sets haloumi apart from other cheeses is the production. It belongs to a group known as "cooked curd" cheeses, the most famous representative of which is mozzarella. Milk is heated, then rennet added - causing a separation into whey and curds. The whey is drained and used for another purpose, possibly another cheese, or as livestock feed. The curds are salted, shaped and left to mature. To this point there is nothing out of the ordinary - just about all cheeses will follow this pattern. What makes cooked curd cheeses interesting is the re-heating of the curd. Haloumi curds are set in hot water, and cooked until the proteins have undergone a major transformation. In the case of mozzarella, the heating curds are cut and stretched, resulting in that cheese's trademark stretching when cooked - but haloumi is left to heat without mechanical intervention, resulting in its own unique melting properties.

It doesn't end there. Next, small slabs of haloumi are gathered, and the surface is sprinkled with more salt and dried mint. The cheese is then folded to create a neat parcel enveloping the mint. The finished cheese is packed in brine and stored for sale. Haloumi is sold in small blocks, roughly the size of a deck of playing cards. The cheese is milky white, save for a deep green seam through the middle where the mint has been enveloped.

Haloumi can be treated like any other cheese - cut into slices and eaten with bread, grated and scattered over cooked dishes or diced into salads, but the traditional method of eating haloumi; and one that really sets it apart from almost all other cheeses, is frying or grilling it before eating. All cooked curd cheeses melt with obstinate individuality - in the case of haloumi, it melts - but then again it doesn't. Let me explain. This cheese is so firm after the curd cooking process, that instead of oozing and stretching as it melts, haloumi holds is shape defiantly and softens only slightly. When haloumi is fried or grilled, it develops an attractive and totally irresistible golden crust, which is dangerously addictive. The most traditional (and simply elegant) addition to grilled haloumi is a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.

So what exactly does this one-of-a-kind cheese taste like? The first thing that hits you is the saltiness. Like many cheeses of Greek origin, haloumi is not salt shy. The salt is not overwhelming - just noticeably present, and is perhaps why lemon makes such a fine accompaniment. The texture of haloumi will most likely come as a small surprise - rubbery is an unfair, but reasonably accurate description. More kind would be firm, yet springy.

If you can locate some haloumi, try the following simple entrée which combines the floral taste of asparagus and the tanginess of lemon. It will be quite the talking point for your guests - unless of course they are Cypriots.


Grilled haloumi with asparagus, basil and lemon

Ingredients

Method

Slice the cheese into 8 thick wedges and set aside. Trim the woody ends from the base of the asparagus, and peel the bottom third if they are thick and woody. Bring a medium pot of water to the boil and add a generous amount of sea salt. Add the asparagus and boil for 30 seconds if the spears are thin (pencil), 60 seconds if they are medium (pinky finger) and 90 seconds if they are thick (thumb). Drain immediately and plunge into a large bowl of cold water to stop them cooking and set their vibrant green colour.

Slice the tomato into quarters and cut out the pulp and seeds. Cut the tomato flesh into smallish dice and set aside in bowl. Place the basil leaves on top of one another and roll the bundle up into a cigar shape. Using a sharp knife cut the basil into the finest slices you can manage. Set half the basil aside, and add the rest to the tomatoes with a lug of olive oil, some sea salt and pepper - stirring well.

Juice one lemon and cut the other 2 through the middle horizontally. Heat a non-stick fry pan to a medium-high (closer to high) heat. Place the 4 lemon halves, cut side down, directly onto the dry fry pan and cook for about 45 seconds - or until their cut surface has a nice browned appearance. Remove the lemons and set aside, then wipe the fry pan clean. Brush the haloumi slices with olive oil and place in the hot, dry fry pan. Cook for between 45 and 90 seconds. What you are looking for is a nice, lightly golden crust. Brush the top of the haloumi with more oil and turn to cook the other side. Remove from the pan.

Divide the asparagus spears between 4 waiting plates. Spoon some of the tomato mixture over, then top each with two slices of haloumi. Drizzle each with some olive oil, and sprinkle over a small amount of lemon juice. Place a piece of grilled lemon on each plate, and then grind over some black pepper. Serve immediately.

Asparagus is notoriously hard to pair with wine, its distinctive phenolic flavour playing havoc with most grape varieties. Sauvignon blanc is usually the first choice when dealing with this vegetable - but the saltiness of the haloumi demands a different tack. I would suggest a light to medium weight rosé, one with a dash of residual sweetness, or a sparkling rosé - again with a hint of sweetness to partner the salty cheese and demanding asparagus.

Halloumi as a substitute for bacon in vegetarian cuisine

How does one follow a writeup(1) by sneff? The gorgeously alliterative, adjective ridden, textbook example of gourmet noding. It feels like trying to replace a Billie Holiday song with a rock and roll band... Then it came to me - what would a modernist do? Ditch the flowers, kill the sublime similes and long sentences and make the whole thing clipped and staccato like a Raymond Chandler novel... Hard boiled cheese. There will be no "drizzling"; let's begin.




The first time I laid eyes on Halloumi the cheese was being sold on the side of greasy kebabs and falafels in a North London takeout. There's a cultural difference in streetfood between this city and the rest of the UK. Outside the South East the corner shops and restaurants are typically owned by South Asians - Pakistanis, Indians, Ugandans and Bangladeshis. As a kid I remember considering falafel a strange foreign delicacy - I don't feel like that anymore. In The Big Smoke, these immigrant retailers are all some variant of Turkish origin; I never can tell if it's Kurdish, Cypriot or Thracian (each has their own ghettos) but they're defiantly Turkish.

I live in one of these Turkish ghettos. At the end of my street is the most militantly international supermarket I've ever seen - tea smells, I buy okra and artichokes there, they sell fourteen different varieties of Halloumi and have a baklava counter. Six months ago a guy got attacked in the alley out back by a gang - he took a blow to the head with a hammer - but mostly the residents here are families who keep to themselves. The people are the sort that tend their gardens to cover the subsidence and the disintegrating brickwork. It almost works. Some don't bother.

Sneff has discussed the unusual reaction of this cheese to heat: a white goat's cheese that is almost never served raw and softens then broils when heated. I used to grill it in 7.5mm thick slabs but the difference between undercooked and burnt tends to be less than half a minute, and on the grill it catches too easily. Now I pan-fry in olive oil until the outer skin is going just past scorched and into charred (sneff's mistaken, lightly golden lacks the necessary crispyness, it needs a little charring). When the oil gets really hot the halloumi sweats like a boxer in a tinfoil suit. The moisture bleeding out causes the pan to spit and yesterday came an epiphany - this was like bacon in the key respects.

Sliced pig has a history as the breaker of vegetarians' will, with the smell of bacon dragging them back to omnivorianism. The result is a big market for fake-bacon processed substitutes, but substitutes sit badly with the current fashion for gourmet food, and many bacon dishes are abandoned for lack of a classy replacement... Fried halloumi is something that pulls all the necessary triggers: the saltiness, the fattiness and the texture. True, the flavour isn't quite as strong, but halloumi is a damn absorbent cheese. Marinated or particularly smoked (flavouring it the same way as bacon) it takes on the necessary bite.

In Britain it's often treated as a meat-substitute without people considering its unique properties. The rubbery, chewy texture means it's used along with portobello mushrooms as a staple at showier barbeques. Soaked in a nutty red-wine sauce, then rapidly seared above hot coals halloumi can work an afternoon of sunshine and beer. As a bacon substitute I've now tried a few ideas: in a BLT sandwich with pert and vulgar cherry tomatoes, it's good. In a fried breakfast halloumi sits beside the beans and mushrooms with dignity, very good. In my kitchen at breakfast a steaming, thick, gritty mug of Arab coffee completes the Aegean effect. The coffee must be pulled from the stove as the briki begins to boil over, with a substantial head of foam.

It would be simplistic to call this a straight substitute in the way Quorn or tofu often are - halloumi's behaviour is unique enough that it will shade any context in which it's cooked - but halloumi can take bacon's place and push a dish in a new and interesting direction, like changing the bassist in a jazz quartet. It's a delicious and unusual substance. In the mouth it emits a fiercesome squeaking as you bite down, arguably the noisiest food I've ever eaten, and the salt means it should be eaten with a drink on the side.

Below is a recipe that was not developed with bacon in mind, but it is a favourite and I know it makes good use of the halloumi. It is a varient on Oolong's tasty Spicy fried potato with garlicky mushroom spinach but where Oolong swings towards Indian food, my area is more Mediterranean and North African. This meal is good for two - serve to a breathtaking dame with violet eyes and skin the smell of summer.




Grilled halloumi on onion-spinach with harissa rice

serves two

  • Halloumi (about 100g)
  • Spinach (half a bag, around 125g)
  • Cashews (a small handful)
  • Fresh basil leaves (a small handful)
  • Onion (one small, you have discretion to swap this for garlic)
  • Harissa paste (harissa comes in a a lot of forms, I have a grinder that I use mixed up with a little tomato puree but I recommend a concentrated form rather than a condiment)
  • Sundried tomatoes (about 5 decent sized, soaked in olive oil)
  • Chestnut mushrooms (4 substantial mushrooms)
  • American long grain rice (quantity discretionary)
  • Olive oil (a slug, still in the barrel)

Harissa rice

Whether you boil or use a rice-cooker, this recipe is quite so fast (about 12 minutes in my hands) that you must put the rice on at the beginning. I choose American long grain because I like something dry and starchless with oily vegetables, but this choice is discretionary. Once the rice has boiled and drained add your harissa. I use a teaspoon of paste. Stir the whole mixture well until it's a pale shade of pink with spicy flecks. The main dish is only lightly seasoned, so the supporting carbohydrates should be noticeably harissa flavoured.

Grilled halloumi on onion-spinach

Chop the halloumi into slices approximately 6mm thick, but be careful with the slice size; halloumi has a habit of splitting so try to keep it in one piece. Wipe the halloumi on both sides with olive oil then dry-fry on an already hot frying pan until the edges are dark and crispy. Remove from the heat and set to one side. Once this has cooled, cut the resulting slices into chunks of about 2cm size.

The sundried tomatoes are a suitably Mediterranean oily vegetable to add at the end, if you can get your hands on preserved artichokes in oil these are also good. Slice the tomatoes into slivers a few millimeters wide, if you can and do get them chop the artichokes into quarters.

Dice the onion fine and slice the mushrooms thick, then begin to fry the onions in a large frying pan or wok. This is Mediterranean cuisine and the secret is to use a lot of olive oil - don't be a coward. I've cooked this recipe more than twenty times, and half the time I use garlic, the other half I use onion. It's really up to you which you prefer with your spinach but garlic can overwhelm the other flavours. Once the onion or garlic is beginning to go translucent, throw in the mushrooms. It'll be two or three minutes before the mushrooms have lost their moisture and taken on a greasy appearance.

Throw the basil in with the spinach and start feeding this leafy mass into the pan, a matter of waiting for it to wilt and then adding more, stirring constantly. When this has shrunk down to a dark green juicy-leafy concoction chuck in the halloumi chunks and the cashew nuts. Give it long enough now for the cashews to absorb a little oil and the halloumi to crispen along the cut edges and warm back up.

When cooked, take off the heat and throw in the tomatoes and artichokes, mix and serve. I tend to serve this dish in a wide bowl on top of the harissa rice. Grind some coarse pepper and salt on; your aim is for strong discrete flavours. Present.




Now settle down with a chess problem, put two fingers of Scotch in a short glass, and digest...


(1)Brief note: Sneff's recipe for asparagus and halloumi is missing a penultimate paragraph. He appears to have lost track of the shells of his tomatoes, his tomato mixture, lemon juice and half his basil. My suspicion is that he intended to spoon the rest of his tomato mixture back into the 4 shells (one per serving portion), sharpen them each with juice, and garnish the plates with the remaining basil. Personally I think the tomato mixture is more authentic with a little diced onion and oregano, but that's almost a Greek cliche. I recommend his recipe - it's a tasty and pretentious starter.

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