Cyprus: Land of love, invasions, and our first Levantine treats
Armchair travelling to every country in the world is not my only grand gesture of love for our planet. The first was promising the children that I would take them to every country in Europe. We had hit country 39 (Poland) when Covid turned our travels virtual. And the very first country we visited on those real travels was Cyprus, an unforgettable, sunny island that is so well placed it has been conquered by Hittites, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Assyrians, Greeks, Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Franks, Genoese, Venetians, Ottomans, Turks and British armies. The last time was in 1974, when Greek nationalists staged a coup d’etat and the Turkish retaliated by invading the North, thereby separating this island in two with a “thin green line” between them.
This traumatic period is at the heart of this week’s novel “The Island of Missing Trees” by Elif Shafak, the perfect book to go armchair travelling with. Not only does Shafak weave history into the storytelling, she also teases the tastebuds with evocative descriptions of the food and drinks that would accompany any real trip to Cyprus. It is pretty cheese and honey heavy and so we fell off the vegan wagon for this one, but as this is our first Levantine country, there is plenty of vegan food too. I tried to cook as much as possible, but couldn’t do as well as Ada’s (the main character) aunt who fixed breakfast of “grilled halloumi with za’atar, baked feta with honey, sesame halva, stuffed tomatoes, green olives with fennel, bread rolls with black olive spread…” it goes on… for ages.
The novel is part-narrated by a Fig Tree, but don’t let that put you off, it is readable and accessible and borrows heavily from the Hidden Life of Trees, and Gods Wasps and Stranglers, two of the best tree books I’ve ever read.
Whilst revelling in Shafak’s words, I gorged on honey roasted figs, honey baked feta, Greek salad, Makaoronia Tou Fournou (a Cypriot pasta bake), and anything from the Levant that I could find in the supermarket. It was easy to cook and the only complaints were that there wasn’t enough of it. This was one of those countries where you could eat a different dish every day of the armchair travelling week and still not get through the recipes.
But what do you wash it down with? Well, having visited five different shops looking for Greek wine, I finally found a shop that sells Cypriot wine from Keo, a brewery which seems to have a monopoly on Cypriot booze. It even owns St John Commondaria, which has been brewed the same way since the 8th Century. The only problem is that winemaking has got far, far better since then and so I am not a fan of this sweet, sweet wine, nor, if I’m honest, the Othello wine that we drank with our meal (though it got better after a few glasses!) Keo beer though, THAT I got on well with, though I guess it is similar to good quality lager the world over.
For our film we retuned to the 1974 war with “The boy on the bridge”, which tells the story of traumas passed on to generations, coming of age in a small Cypriot village and life growing up in the 1980s. Despite the subject matter, it is slow, relaxing, and like spending a couple of hours experiencing village life. There are twists, there are turns, there is a parrot (just as there is in The Island of Missing Trees) and there are no mobile phones. What more could anyone ask for?
Cyprus is also the home of Aphrodite, the Goddess of love, beauty and sexuality so you would have thought that it would also be an island of love songs, and maybe it is, it is hard to tell what they are singing about in the excellent Music of Cyprus: it could be love, or God, or death, or war, or losing their favourite jumper in a nightclub, but it is certainly emotive and I should maybe had started by recommending that you listen to it whilst you read the blog, which is now done, until next week, when we visit Czechia!