Vittles 7.2 - Halloumi

Kupros: One Man’s Cheese Odyssey, by Jenny Linford

Restaurant writers, a certain kind of them anyway, are often said (or accused) to be obsessed with finding the ‘authentic’. The ‘authentic’ restaurant, the hole in the wall, the place that needs to be sniffed out and then pinned to your chest like a Scout’s Badge. For them the best type of restaurant is the one that evokes most precisely the feeling of another place, that would remind the regular clientele of home. The restaurants I recently profiled on the Old Kent Road perhaps? But the more I write about London the more I am interested in inauthenticity. Diaspora food is a form of translation. The German poet and translator Michael Hofmann said of translation “I don’t believe you should happily or miserably mimic what you are given. You want to make something that stretches as far as the edges of the original”. Purity, he says “is not a value”.

This is what I think of when I’m trying to describe something I’m tentatively calling ‘city food’. Like Soleil Ho’s ‘assimilation food’, it is what happens when the food of a diaspora suddenly collides with that of the host country. In Ho’s case these foods are personal acts of adaptation and survival, but city food is something a bit different. It soaks up influence from not just the host country but from other diasporas within a particular city, and then seeps into it and becomes entirely of that city and cannot be extricated from it. I think of the Korean-Mexican food in Los Angeles, the French Taco (whose origin no-one can agree on but was certainly born on the outskirts of a city in the Rhone-Alps), the Irani cafes of Mumbai, the entire history of Jewish cuisine. London has always seemed particularly bad at this. It assimilated the influence of Italians when pie and mash became a London food but it has done little since. I’m always on the look out for small disruptions: the possibility of a London style of pizza not in thrall to Naples, certain styles of kebab-shop burgers. I’m fairly sure the next big thing will come from a fast-food shop, and it will probably be something Turkish or Cypriot.

Maybe it’s already the falafel and halloumi wrap, a now common combination from takeaways which call themselves Falafel King, that takes into account the voracious British appetite for halloumi. Or maybe it’s Anthony' Heard’s halloumi-style Anglum itself. Ingredients too can be forms of city food. Heard’s cheese is not the halloumi you will get in your local Cypriot deli, but neither is it a faithful reproduction of Cyprus. It is a translation made with British sheep, on an industrial estate somewhere in North London. It is also, by a long distance, the best halloumi I’ve ever had.

In today’s newsletter, food writer Jenny Linford profiles Heard and his dairy Kupros in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the existential crisis it has proven for cheesemakers. Innes, the goats cheese makers, have recently stopped making cheese but by selling their herd to another producer their cheese will in some way survive. That isn’t the case with Kupros, whose Anglum is really a unique product within the UK. The work Heard is doing is important because it could be the start of a new tradition, of a city cheese first disrupting and then being assimilated into the mainstream, translating a millennia old tradition into a new world, becoming a mainstay of restaurants and home kitchens alike. Or it could die out, until someone takes up the mantle again. The next month will probably decide what happens — in the meantime all I can recommend is that you buy Heard’s cheese indiscriminately and enjoy it while you can.

Kupros: One Man’s Cheese Odyssey, by Jenny Linford

The compulsory closure of restaurants, pubs and hotels in Britain because of the coronavirus crisis has hit food producers hard, with many losing the primary market for the food they make overnight. Two months ago, I wrote a piece for my website on the British cheese crisis, sharing the stories of cheesemakers and cheesemongers I’d interviewed and the plight they were in. The piece struck a chord with people, many of whom responded by buying cheese to help artisan cheesemakers, as I’d urged. Since then I’ve been thinking about why I care so much about cheese. I’ve realised that while I love eating good cheese, I also really respect and care about its makers. Years ago, researching my book Great British Cheeses gave me an insight into how much hard work, care and attention goes into making good cheese. Making cheese from milk – a starting ingredient which varies according to factors such as the season, the feed, the health of the livestock – requires commitment and the challenges of making it well are absorbing for cheesemakers. Over the years, I’ve interviewed many people who got bitten by the cheese bug and then became happily obsessed with making it themselves. Anthony Heard of Kupros Dairy – a designer turned cheesemaker – is one of them.

The cheese he makes – Anglum – reflects Anthony’s British and Greek Cypriot heritage. “I call myself a British Cypriot,” he tells me. His grandparents on his mother’s side came over from Cyprus to Britain in the 1950s, settling in Islington. A vivid, humorous speaker, Anthony paints a picture of a close-knit Cypriot community. “The heart of the community originally was on Caledonian Road. They were bakers, cobblers, seamstresses.” His mother worked in the family fish and chip shop in Camden when she was young, with the Greek Orthodox Church on Camden Street becoming an important community hub. “We’ve ended up being more Cypriot than my family in Cyprus. For us, the third generation, we’re excited about our heritage.” His pride in it is clear. “People cannot strip away your background; that’s something you can’t buy. In Cyprus, they fetishise being American. In London, Cypriots still speak ‘village speak’, a dialect spoken more than 100 years ago, but food is the core of our Cypriot identity really. Around 60% of the time we’re talking about food. We grew up eating koupepia (dolmades), pork with coriander and red wine with bulgur wheat. The thing about Cypriot cooking is a lot of the dishes are very simple – they rely on super high-quality ingredients.” 

One of these ingredients is the Cypriot cheese halloumi. “It’s eaten in ridiculously copious amounts in Cyprus,” laughs Anthony. When it comes to per capita cheese consumption, Cyprus is fifth in the world, just behind France. Yet its cheeses are relatively unknown. The exception in Britain is halloumi – known as the ‘squeaky’ cheese – which has become increasingly known outside the Cypriot community. It is now widely available in British supermarkets as well as in Cypriot or Turkish food shops. Talking to Anthony, I come to realise that there is halloumi and halloumi. “The stuff that is produced for here is not what they eat over there in Cyprus.” The supermarket blocks are industrially produced, with much of it made in Eastern Europe due to the cheap labour there. “You probably won’t find halloumi-style cheese cheaper anywhere in the world than London.” Whereas I’d always experienced halloumi as a grilled or fried cheese, Anthony explains that he grew up eating it as an uncooked table cheese, which is how it is usually eaten in Cyprus. Family food parcels from Cyprus sent over during his childhood contained fresh halloumi, which he remembers eating. “You slice it, eat it with watermelon and tomato and cucumber for breakfast. The most traditional way I grew up eating it was on sesame bread, village bread. Butter the bread, slices of raw halloumi on top, maybe a slice of tomato if you’re feeling fancy. Simple but the flavour is just really good.” 

A ‘halloumi conversation’ at a family Easter gathering in 2013 was to prove a significant turning point. At the time, working at design studios, Anthony was considering starting his own business. “I was trying to find a way I could feel really passionate about something that I would spend all my time doing. I mentioned halloumi and said, ‘Come on, there must be someone in our family who made it.’” He pauses to laugh incredulously. “No one had mentioned to me in my entire life that the food parcels from Cyprus we received when I was very young were from my great-grandmother and that cheese we’d eaten was her cheese!” Intrigued, he asked for details of how she’d made it. “There wasn’t an actual recipe. It was very colloquial, but those bits of information were very evocative.” Following these vague instructions, Anthony tried three or four times to make halloumi from supermarket milk but failed each time. “As a designer, there’s an obsessive side – finding information, collecting, organising. I started buying milk from all over the country. I bought ten dairy science books and reading them it began to make sense. After that, boom, I made cheese!” Curious to see what someone outside his family would think of it, Anthony went to see Andreas Michli, the owner of one of the oldest Cypriot delis in London on St Ann’s Road, off Green Lanes. “He was an amazing, fantastic character. I showed him my cheese and he said ‘Bravo. Delicious. How much?’” Talking to Andreas about cheesemaking, Anthony discovered that “before it was cool” Andreas used to have a railway arch in Waterloo in the 1960s. “He worked with a very skilful lady from Cyprus. Milk came in on a train from Devon and they used it to make halloumi. When he told me that, I was like, wow, I’ve got to do something. It really inspired me. I did a farmers’ market just for fun. Six restaurants turned up and asked if they could order some for next week and that’s how I started the business.” The charismatic Michli – a remarkable man with a great connection to the land – sadly passed away in 2018, but his input was important and motivating for Anthony.

Halloumi, Anthony acknowledges frankly, has not got a good reputation as an interesting cheese in the UK. “People have been used to this homogenous, rubbery brick of nonsense! People were quite disparaging about this cheese and I wanted to show them what it could be like. My cheese has a tenderness, it has layers. There’s a milkiness to it. It’s a fresh cheese, not something that’s going to blow your socks off, but a cheese you could put on a table and eat every single day of the year. The quality of the milk used is 50% of the problem. When people try our cheese, they realise what halloumi can be. All I’ve done is give halloumi the respect it deserves.” Made with raw sheep’s milk, sourced from a farm in Lancashire, Anglum is made in individual cheese moulds, hand-turned, then cooked in its own whey. “It’s a very meticulous process. People think it’s an easy cheese, but it requires time and energy.” Whereas with mozzarella it is understood that there are fine, high-end versions of it as well as cheap, mass-produced ones, halloumi was simply dismissed – an “injustice” that rankles with Anthony. “I’ve made it my life’s work to persuade chefs that this is a good cheese. Over the years, when things have been tough, even just one person appreciating it gives me so much energy it’s crazy.” He chose the name Anglum for his version of fresh halloumi for a mixture of reasons. Practical legal considerations were a factor as Cyprus has applied for a Protected Designation of Origin classification for halloumi, but not the only one. “I wanted to differentiate my cheese from what was out there already. I wanted people to know specifically that this cheese is being made in north London using British milk and that when they tasted it they would understand it was a very different product from what they were used to buying. My market was very much not Cypriot.”

Anthony’s energy, belief in his cheese and persistence, together with the quality of his product, saw him selling Anglum to restaurants including Ottolenghi, Oklava and Caravan and to food shops including La Fromagerie and Fortnum & Mason. Like other artisan British cheesemakers, however, he has been catastrophically affected by the closure of restaurants. “When Boris Johnson advised people not to go to restaurants that was a key moment. Ten minutes later my inbox was full of cancelled orders. I was like, I’m screwed.” With the compulsory closure of restaurants, he lost “99% of everything overnight.” Left with perishable stock, Anthony set about trying to sell it where he could. “In these days, there’s no way you can sit and hope. You have to be beyond proactive to make things happen. Our initial online sales were good. It’s amazing that people supported us, but it doesn’t come to even 10% of what we were doing.” 

Kupros Dairy is a young business, launched in 2017, and Anthony invested substantial amounts of money in a new, purpose-built dairy. “The business was founded on debt. I didn’t have a rich uncle. It cost us half a million to build it. We need to sell a lot of cheese every week just to pay our overheads. We were very, very close to making a profit for the first time and I was feeling extremely positive about 2020. We don’t have a safety net. It’s very precarious. I’ve lobbied the government to say that supermarkets need to create space for artisan food producers, like myself, so we have a route to market. They are the gatekeepers. Now, I’ve given myself until the end of June to make the final decision.” I am struck by something he says to me as we talk about this stressful period he’s going through. “For me, the thing I’m always going to remember is all the amazing people who’ve tried to help or support in any way, no matter no big or small. Even among all the negativity, there’s been such an amazing response from so many unexpected areas and I hold onto that.”

While writing this article, I stopped for lunch. Thinking about Anglum had made me want to try some again. Luckily, I still had a packet of it in the fridge. Sitting in the sun in the garden, eating this gently nutty, subtly textured, bright white cheese – dressed simply with olive oil and some chopped mint, with ripe tomatoes on the side – I am reminded of breakfasts of cheese and olives and bread enjoyed on holidays in Greece. That is the beautiful simplicity of a good cheese, made with care and with pride.

Jenny Linford is a culinary writer and member of the Guild of Food Writers. She is the author of many books, including the seminal Food Lover’s London which details the shops and restaurants of the diaspora communities of London. You can find more of her work on her website https://jennylinford.co.uk/. Jenny was paid for this newsletter.

Photos courtesy of Anthony Heard and Jenny Linford.

You can find Anglum at:

https://kupros.london/

The Natoora app https://www.natoora.co.uk/how-to-buy/natoora_app.php

https://holtwhitesbakery.wixsite.com/website/shop

As well as many shops and delis around London, including Quality Chop House Shop and Jones of Brockley.