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10 December 2023

Building bridges with cheese in divided Cyprus

Employees work on the production line at the Pittas Dairy Industries halloumi factory on January 15, 2015 in the Cypriot capital Nicosia. Forty years after Cyprus was divided by a bloody conflict, the island's Greek and Turkish communities are trying to overcome their differences and find an unusual common cause: halloumi cheese. (AFP)


Forty years after Cyprus was divided by a bloody conflict, the island's Greek and Turkish communities are trying to overcome their differences and find an unusual common cause: halloumi cheese.

Efforts to have the increasingly popular "squeaky" cheese granted a protected European Union status have raised fears that Turkish Cypriot producers will be excluded.

But cheese-makers on both sides are facing increasing competition from outside producers and are looking to set aside their divisions to protect their business.

"If we collaborate, if we can come together and find a solution for this problem it will help to find a solution for the Cyprus problem also," said Ali Cirali, the head of the Turkish Cypriot Chamber of Industry.

"This will bring the producers together from both communities, because both sides will win."

Once a niche food, the rubbery halloumi has now become a staple in many kitchens outside Cyprus, especially in Britain and the United States.

Made traditionally from a mixture of milk from sheep and goats, the cheese has become a favourite of the barbecue season, its high melting point allowing it to be grilled or even fried.

The cheese has been made in Cyprus for centuries by both its Greek and Turkish communities, who have been divided since 1974 when Turkish troops invaded and occupied the island's northern third in response to an Athens-engineered coup aimed at uniting it with Greece.

More protection

The country is split from west to east by a UN buffer zone known as the Green Line and -- while tensions have eased in recent years -- peace talks have failed to bring the two sides to a long-term settlement.

The internationally recognised government in the Greek-speaking southern half of Cyprus, which joined the European Union in 2004, last July asked the EU to grant halloumi its Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status.

As with Italian mozzarella or Greek feta, this status means that only a product produced in a certain area and using certain methods can use the name.

"What we are expecting is more protection on the name so that other countries will not copy it -- like in France they have Roquefort cheese, we will hopefully have halloumi," said Yiannos Pittas, a Greek Cypriot whose family has produced the cheese since the 1930s.

Halloumi has already become Cyprus's second-largest export, bringing in 76 million euros to its recession-hit economy in 2013, and producers hope that registering the name will lead to a major boost to foreign sales.

The initial request for a PDO was controversial.

Greek Cypriots first made the application without consulting their counterparts in the north and only later asked for the cheese to be registered under both its Greek name and its Turkish one - hellim.

Searching for a compromise

Turkish Cypriots were sceptical and filed a series of lawsuits against the request, pointing out that experts commissioned by the Greek Cypriots would not be able to operate in the north.

But Cirali said they would be willing to support a designation if a compromise can be reached, especially as it could open the door for exports to Europe. His chamber is waiting to hear from the EU on the designation of a neutral group to monitor production.

With halloumi accounting for a quarter of exports in the north, the Turkish Cypriot economy is also feeling the crunch from increasing competition.

"We need as soon as possible to get this registration. It is for the benefit of the island, because now all over the world -- Canada, Australia, Germany -- every day new producers are coming up," Cirali said.

Greek Cypriot authorities have sought to reassure producers in the north, with Agriculture Minister Nicos Kouyialis saying "the regulation... will allow the production of halloumi in Cyprus by anyone".

Government spokesman Nicos Christodoulides has called for the two sides to "build on the historic unifying nature of halloumi, which constitutes a common tradition and historic reality for Cyprus".

Authorities hope to have the registration process completed by the summer.

George Petrou, a Greek Cypriot producer who exports to 25 countries, said both sides would benefit if the designation is awarded.

"Demand is growing," he said. "With a common strategy for halloumi, we can conquer larger markets."