Ask Chuck

Location: Whitby, Ontario, Canada

Born in Malta but in Canada since age 5. Has written three books and presently does several columns about wine and food for various magazines.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Cyprus Day Three: Touring The Food Distributors

A Time For Cheese----Helloumi Cheese That Is!
Stelios picked me up at 8:30 am the following morning and we were off but not to a winery. Today it was to visit several dairy producers, a produce exporter and a dried fruit/nuts exporter.
Our first visit was to Charalambides Christis Ltd. Where we met Elena Charalambous, Research and Development Manager and Mr. Giannis Billis, Plant Manager.
Charalambides was first initiated in 1945 by Takis Charalambides which through the years went through several incarnations before joining with Dairy Kristis (Christis) which was founded in 1961. The present company produces a large variety of products ranging from milk, coffee products,juices, yogurt and cheese. It has formed several important partnerships with other companies such as that with La Delia Foods Ltd. in distributing their famous Lamprianidi sausages. The company exhibits much social conscience through its associated partnerships for research with Cyprus University in producing more nutritious products. It also supports athletics and sponsors various athletic competitions, as we as "Participation" and educational programs. One interesting factor is the company's involvement with "Project Dairius" which is a pilot project aimed at the processing and eventual recycling of dairy products for a safer environment. In addition to this, there is even a partnership in the production of the "McHellumi Breakfast Muffin" with, you guessed it, McDonald's. Both calorie conscious an delicious it would be a nice treat here in North America. As you can see Charalambides-Christies is a unique company that makes a fine array of products.                
After a brief meeting were we were given an overview of the dairy business, we proceeded with a tour of the dairy plant. The company is very particular against any type of infection from the outside so gowns and caps (even my bald head) had to be covered and we had to step into a disinfection solution even though we were given shoe covers to wear.
We saw the milk production as well as the production of a number of products but the most interesting was the production of the Halloumi Cheese.
It's Been A Halloumi Of A Day
The process of making Halloumi is multi faceted. Traditional Halloumi is made from either goat, or sheep's milk or a blend of the two. However cow's milk is also being used in its making. The cheese is white and somewhat salty to the taste. Charalambides-Christies makes a number of styles of this cheese which can be grilled over a stove or griller since it has a high melting temperature. The result is an absolutely delicious dish.    
The traditional method that has been passed through generations begins with the collection and heating of milk in a large cauldron. Unpasteurized milk is sieved into the cauldron using cheesecloth or other filtration  in order to clean any impurities. It is then heated to about 32-35°C. Rennet is added to start the curdling process and after about half an hour, the milk begins to turn into soft cheese/ soft curds. The curds are then cut to small pieces (depending on the preferred size of halloumi) and are placed either in specially woven basket moulds or wrapped in large cheese cloths where they are mechanically pressed to drain the excess whey and this is followed by the re-cooking of halloumi in the whey so as to give the appropriate firm texture.
The temperature is then raised to 900C and the halloumi pieces are heated up for approximately 30 minutes until they get a fine texture. The cheese takes on an additional texture and taste.
Salt is sprinkled atop as is dry mint. Halloumi is formed and cut either into bell shaped forms or squares. It is cooled and is ready for eating. Halloumi may also be left to mature into a hard texture if kept in salt water for a month or so and could be stored for up to a year without refrigeration.
 Delicious To The Last Bite!
Grilled Halloumi is a true experience. It can be eaten in a number of ways. Raw is good but grilled or fried is better. The cheese does not melt and takes on a crispy brown colour and has a "squeaky clean" texture on the palate that is delicious as a side dish with salads, pasta, ravioli,watermelon, fruit, bread, pita or it can be quite good with honey since the saltiness of the cheese interacts well  with the sweetness of the honey OR try it with the oldest wine brand in the World, Commandaria. This sweet dessert wine is a perfect match with the cheese and the cheese/wine pairing is taken to new heights.  It is a unique cheese with a history as old as any culinary product in the Middle East.
Our visit with Charalambides-Christis was indeed a very interesting one and I couldn't help but smile every time I went passed a McDonald's sign and saw the McHallumi Breakfast (their spelling) billboard on the road.
Lefkonitziatis Dairy Products Ltd.
Lefkonitziatis Dairy was founded back in 1960 and processes milk and produces a series of traditional dairy products. Halloumi and Yoghurt are the main products the company manufactures today.  It relocated to the Ayios Athanasios industrial area within the City of Limassol in 1997. Limassol.We met with Mr. Antonis Botsaris and discussed the products that were made at the dairy and shared some nice Halloumi during the meeting. 
Aside from milk, Lefkonitziatis products include both folded and non folded Halloumi, Yoghurt, Feta Cheese, Anari, Regular Cheese and Kefir.
Anari referred to above is a cheese that is made from the whey obtained from either the making of Halloumi or Kefalotyri cheese.
The whey is heated to about 65-70 degrees Centigrade and either goat or sheep milk added. The temperature is raised to the Boiling Point. Curds form as the heating takes place and are skimmed off the top and placed in a drainage cauldron. The product which tastes like ricotta cheese is mild and can be eaten after it is made. Sometimes the Anari is allowed to mature and dry for a long lasting hard cheese. Salt is usually added for flavour.
The hard, dry Anari is used similar to grated Parmigian cheese over pasta etc. The soft can be used for soups, pastries (Pourekia) both sweet and savory, cheese cake and cheese filling.    
Kefir is a cheese made from the addition of a yeast/bacterial mixture called "Kefir" to ferment sheep or goats milk used in the making of the above cheese. A fermented drink the same name also exists.
The liquid is either "cold strained" or heated to allow the curds and whey to separate. The curds are allowed to set and then stained again. The resulting cheese is very tasty and similar to a brie cheese.
All the above cheeses and products are highly nutritious and healthful.  
The visit to these dairy establishments was quite interesting. Alas here is where Stelios and I had to part ways as another guide--Marios was taking over for the day. I gave my adieu to Stel but as it would become apparent in the next few blogs, Stel and I have remained in touch in a great friendship.
Onward To Nicosia  
Marios proved to be a quiet but very apt travelling partner. The first place we went to was Alion Vegetable and Fruits Co. Ltd. Where Theodoros Zavos gave us a tour. I immediately liked Theodoros who was a passionate yet very hospitable host. He made me laugh when he found out our similar passion for good scotch. "Let's have some now or do you want to wait until after the tour?" were his first words.
Tour was conducted through a state-of-the-art facility for first rate produce preparation, packaging and shipping of vegetables and herbs to over 25 countries. The company was established in 1990 as a packing and exporting company of fresh fruit and vegetables. In 2008 the new contemporary packing facility in Pera Chorio Nisou, Cyprus was opened.  The new space offers a much more comfortable area to select, pack, store and preserve vegetables and fresh herbs. 
Theodoros's enthusiasm was infections as we went from one packaging area to another. The packaging was exceptionally well done with a good view of each vegetable and herb in a very well protected package of cellophane and carton. 
As we were on our way through the premises, Theodoros pointed to a door leading into a room. "This" he said, "is the most important room of the whole company. It is where all the great ideas are born!" We walked into the kitchen and before one could say "Scotch" out it came!
Shortly there after and after much prodding from Marios (who was taking on a strong appearance to Tibor, "Two in a Vineyard's"  former guide in Austria) I hesitatingly pulled my self away from the scotch and to the car for our lunch meeting with Aliki Iordanou of the same ministry as Stel and Marios. 
We went into downtown Nicosia to a restaurant called EYOCHIA which is part of the "More" restaurant chain. Place was welcoming and very well arranged. 
Here we had traditional Cypriot dishes and deserts such as lamb, chicken and well prepared grilled vegetables. The serving table was full of Mediterranean dishes as well as international fare. The style was buffet and the wine a Maratheftiko/Syrah blend was excellent though I also enjoyed what they called "Super Coffee".  which is made of the finest Arabica and Robusta beans and leaves a huge sediment in the cup. But strong------well let's say it makes the hair of you chest curl a bit. Great stuff for a coffee addict such as I!   
Aliki Iordanou was a stunningly lovely woman who held a very responsible position in the Ministry. We all enjoyed our buffet of fine Cypriot fare and ended it with some superb deserts such as Mahalepi which is a white creamy dessert that is made from corn starch, milk or cream, gelatin, sugar and almonds. Served cold and it is delicious. Another dessert called "siousioukkos". It is from boiled grape juice batter (paluze) and made with  nuts threaded on a string and cooled/drained after being dipped in the batter. Another dessert was fruit such as pears and peaches immersed in rose water. All healthy and excellent to the taste.
After my usual five or six cups of coffee Aliki and I said good bye and Marios drove us to our last tour of the day------E. Neophytou Trading Ltd. owner of the Serano Brand of dried fruit and nuts.
We met Mr. Giannos Neophytou at his office where we were welcomed openly by this very pleasant man. He introduced us to his family who worked with him as well as many of his employees.
This company's organization and in-house laboratory allows it leverage in various areas such as : product design, research and development, manufacturing, packaging, environmentally controlled warehousing, sales and service. 
Established in 1974, it supplies many countries with dried fruit, nuts and trail mixes to many countries and a huge diversity of products.
The day ended with the owner giving me a selection of his products to bring back with me to Canada.Then it was back to Limassol and back to the Mediterranean Beach Hotel.
End of day three.



Thursday, October 2, 2014

Cyprus: Day Two Continued-----More Wineries

Stelios Afxentiou, Ministry of Energy, Commerce, Industry and Tourism
I was met by Stelios Afxentiou of the Cypriot Ministry around 8 am the following day and was impressed by not only his English but also his complete friendliness and, what became apparent as the day wore on, his competence in both job, contacts and wine knowledge. Very affable, it was easy for us to become instant friends which I must say---a friendship that has endured after my arrival back home. He was/is a credit to both his country and government.       
Welcome To the Troodos Mountains!
 Stretching across the Western part of Cyprus, the above mountain range is an example of what Cyprus has to offer in regards to those seeking to know its historical, geographical, cultural and culinary heritage.
Known scientifically as the Troodos ophiolite complex, the area was created about 80 million years ago and rose from the sea about 20 million years ago to create the island. Now rising to almost 2000 metres above sea level the various peaks (Mount Olympus is the highest at 1,952 metres) they offer a panoramic view of Cyprus.
Full of quaint and welcoming villages with their unique architecture, gardens and cobbled streets there is something for everyone. The people are super hospitable and the food sumptuous.
Then there are the wineries which are equal to any that I have visited anywhere else int he World. Most are modern (many recently renovated or constructed), innovative and tourist friendly. Many of the wineries are increasingly becoming involved with Agrotourism as part of their offerings.
Considering the wealth of scenery, culinary, ancient/ historical, religious and pictorial sites, I believe that the combination of food, wine and tourism will be a boon to the area.                      
Zambartas Winery, Ayios Ambrosios Village
Ayios Ambrosios (or Agios Amvosios) 
One of the villages mentioned is the village of Ayios or Agios Amvrosios which should not be confused (as I was) by a village of the same name in another part of Cyprus. Small in stature but utterly lovely in itself, the village. Located some 27 kilometres from Limassol it has a historic church, wineries and a geographic phenomena known as  "river capture" as points of interest. 
With in this village is located a winery that has been in production since 2006.
The Zambartas Winery was quite an attractive sight when we drove up to it. We were greeted by stunningly beautiful Marleen Zambartas Brouwer whose education was in History and International Relations (Masters Degree) but who also amazed me with her depth of knowledge about the wines they produced and about viticulture also.
She told us about her husband who left the corporate field to become a winemaker and how he went to Australia to get his degree and experience. She also told us about the power behind the winery----her father in law, Mr. Akis Zambartas who was Managing Director of one of the biggest wineries in Cyprus plus being its award winning wine maker for many years.
A PHD in Chemistry and a wine degree from France as well as teaching an Oenology course at the University of Limassol, make this man one leading authority on wines in Cyprus.
Son Marcos is not to be outdone as he holds degrees in Chemistry in addition to his wine making degree.
Backed by expert and capable staff the owners have produced a superb winery.
We tasted several wines:
The Xynisteri was a lovely wine with citrus, white fruit and spice on the nose and similar flavours on   the palate. Light in body and refreshingly nice in acidity it was a hit. The Semilion/Sauvignon Blanc blend was full of citrus, white and  tropical fruit flavours both on the nose and palate. A nice medium body  and pleasant acidity added to the finish.  The Rose made from Lefkada and Cabernet franc was amazing with strawberry, raspberry, cherry on the nose and levels of the same on the palate. Its medium body and acidity completed the package. The Maratheftiko was young with years of life ahead but it already showed a certain elegance with cherry/oak/vanilla flavours on the nose and Black Cherry, Plum and Blackberry flavours. A nice finish indicated that the wine was maturing well but needed more time. The Shiraz/Lefkada blend was a complexity of nuances on both nose and palate with black fruit, pepper spice, cinnamon, chocolate and leather. The wine had a medium to full body with a great mouth feel. It gave every impression of a first class wine.
We were fortunate to  experience these wines and only know that the future here looks great.
However we had other places to go land our hopes were that the next winery would be as good as the last.
Vlassides Winery Ltd., Kilani Village 
Kilani (Koilani) Village
Kilani or Koilani is a village some 36 kilometres north west of Limassol. It is located at an altitude of just over 800 metres. Mountain peaks for its neighbouring mountains can be seen from the village which has its feet firmly planted in tradition with earthenware  pots, cobbled narrow streets, two story stone houses. The village is known for its wine and food. It is situated on the west bank of the river Kyros which is a tributary to the Kouris river..  
A scenic newly constructed winery is the Vlassides Winery which is run by Sophocles Vlassides, a graduate of U of Davis in Oenology and a remarkably welcoming individual. The winery is self sufficient in the production of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Shiraz, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Maratheftiko, Giannoudi, Pomara, and Xynisteri.
The winery is very modernistic in style and construction. Within the winery reception area one can look down via large glass enclosures to the barrel and bottle storage cellars which are built into the mountain. The vineyard elevations range from 800 to 1000 metres and consist of 50 acres.
We tried some of Sophocles wines including some very interesting blends. The wines were all excellent and indicative of the Gold medals they have been winning at expositions such as in Thessaloniki and Brussels.
 The winery and its owner look youthful, seasoned and full of potential. They have a great future.
Lunch at Ayia Mavri Restaurant, Kilani
My official guide Stelios took me to this small but ever so beautiful village eatery were we had something to eat. Lunch was an array of various Cypriot dishes ranging from sausages to chicken to lamb and beef. The whole presentation was great and the food was delicious. Nothing tastes better than lamb kabobs that have been freshly cooked on an open flame.
Dessert came in a mixture of sweet custard and sweetened fruit.  One of the items was so delicious  that I devoured it with glee. It was called Karydaki, which means small (or young) walnut, is one of the best Greek traditional spoon sweets.   The spoon sweet is made with baby green walnuts  in Spring, when the outer shell has not become hard. The procedure for making it is a bit labour intensive  but it is worth while.  Amazing!  Demetra, the owner, saw that I enjoyed the dessert so much that she gave me a jar full of it. Just more to add to my already overflowing luggage!
Tsiakkas Winery, Pelendri Village
Pelendri Village
This picturesque village has existed sine the medieval times. Some of its buildings date back to the 12th Century. The village is some 40 kilometres from the port of Limassol and is surrounded by hills with an altitude of almost 900 metres. While there are some modern buildings, the core of the city is strictly controlled to reserve the unique historical architecture---some of which is Byzantine.
The village's ample rainfall ensures that it supplies itself with most of the vegetables and food needed. A lovely place but---I found that every Cypriot village is unique and lovely
The Tsiakkas Winery was truly an experience. It owner/winemaker, Costas Tsiakkas, so reminded me of one of the "stars" of the movie "The Saint".  There was a strong resemblance of the Costas to the actor Rade Serbedztija . The mannerisms were so similar as was the passion. We shared many of Tsiakkas Wines-----one of which, a Chardonnay, was sublime. I kept my remark as Costas mentioned the high ranking given the wine by famed wine writer/author/consultant Robert Parker. The wine was one of the best I have ever tasted. However, what did this have to say about his other wines. Every wine either from domestic or non domestic grapes was a class act. How could such wines have escaped not being included in being exported to other countries.                    
Shortly after our visit we were off to the last winery of the day and this was to be the highest in elevation.
Vasilikon KyperoundaWinery, Kyperounda Village
Kyperounda Village
At an altitude of 1100-1200 metres Kyperounda or Kyperounta as the third highest village in Cyprus. The village's history goes back to Byzantine times. It is said that the village of about 1400 people derives its name from a plant known as Kyperos or Kypiros that grows wild around the area. The village has a colourful history and has some unique wineries also. It is home to Kyperounda Winery that is reputed to be the highest in Europe and a very serious wine making prospect.       
Kyperounda Winery (Also known as Vasiliko(n) Kyperounda Winery)
Minas Mina is a serious person when it comes to wine. According to one writer, his wines have won and continue to win awards but he refuses to put the "stickers" on his wine labels since "------more important is what our customers are saying------competitions are meant to make us better not help promote sales."
Mr. Mina was trained in Greece and the UK in Oenology and Food Biotechnology and has been serving as Kyperounda's Director and Head Of Wine Operations  since 2001. The winery is run by the Photo Photiades Group. 
The winery has a reputation for producing superb wines and on this occasion it was apparent that the repute was well earned. The vineyard altitude at 1400 feet gives it a micro climate similar to that of Bordeaux, 
We tasted several wines from the winery. The "Petritis" made from the indigenous Xynisteri grape was refreshing with some depth from barrel aging. It impressed me with its lively notes and pleasant character. The "EOS" blend of Chardonnay/Local blend was a wine of premium quality as was the amazing and excellent Chardonnay varietal wine. The Rose made from Grenache/Shiraz(Syrah) was inviting and pleasant as I found most roses of Cyprus to be. The Cabernet Sauvignon was excellent as was the Syrah/Shiraz. Since I enjoy a good Syrah, I truly enjoyed this upscale Syrah/Shiraz. While my interest was to try the indigenous grapes of Cyprus, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to this winery  and with the very capable Minas Mina. I look forward to hearing about the Kyperounda Wines in the future.
It was the end of a perfect day touring the wine region of the Troodos Mountains. I was tired but happily so. Stelios drove me back to the Mediterranean Beach Hotel for a relaxing evening in the five star resort.
End of Day Two


Friday, September 19, 2014

Cyprus, Day Two: Wineries of Cyprus

The Mediterranean Beach Resort
Before I go on any further, I must describe the sheer joy of staying at one of Cyprus's major resorts. The four star Mediterranean Beach Resort is an amazing place to walk into after a long voyage. Excellent and caring staff greet you and introduce you to a part of luxury that you did not anticipate. The look of the hotel as one enters is palatial as it is spacious, well designed and colourful foyer with leather furniture and local stone design.
The gardens are exceptionally well planned and beautiful with lovely rows of palm trees and hibiscus  hedges lining the pathway to the huge swimming pool just below the restaurant level. Stairs lead to the superb beach that houses the crystal clear and warm water of the Mediterranean.
There are several dining areas that one can go to: The Celeste Terrace Restaurant with its extensive service of dinners and buffets; the Aquaria Restaurant where breakfast is always a pleasure; the Nautical Restaurant on the beach; A Japanese style Sushi Bar and an Italian Restaurant called Ristorante Bacco. If that is not enough there are several bars on the premises.
The rooms are exceptional and very comfortable with excellent  balcony views of the complex and come in different sizes and types suited to the needs of the hotel's guests.
For the health conscious there is a full service spa.
This hotel seems to have everything for everybody and I for one was impressed with the layout of the building as well as the courteous and professional staff.
Land of Ancient Wine!            
Cyprus is one of the oldest wine producing nations in the World and in fact is noted to have the oldest named wine anywhere: Commandaria. This dessert wine is made from sun dried grapes and represents a style of wine making that is ancient. The wine was known to Crusaders in the 12th Century and was used at the wedding of Richard the Lion-heart in Limassol. 
Made from local grapes Xynisteri and Mavro, the wine got its name from the Knights Templar since the area that they occupied was called "Commandaria" and was eventually passed onto the wine by those who drank it. The name stuck.
The Wineries 
According to the "Wines of Cyprus" there are some 48 registered wineries in Cyprus with many more "private" home based wineries. Since 2004 legislation was made to classify the wines into quality levels which dictated percentage of grape types in various wines as well as wine making methods and quantity of grape production.
Four major wine appellations were made, these being: Akamas Laona in the north-west, Vouni Panayas-Ambelitis in the west part of the Cyprus, Pitsilia and Limassol.
Since time was a precious commodity our visits were limited to a few representatives of the best wineries.
ETKO Ltd/Olympus Wines
 Christodoulos Hadjipavlou founded ETKO Wines in 1844.The company is still in (6th generation) family hands. I met with Export Manager Olvia Hadjipavlou and discussed the company's wines and future. .ETKO also is largest distillery on the island and is equipped with the most modern and up-to-date plants and equipment.
In  1992 the company started another winery in Omodos, a village in the Troodos Mountains and within the Limassol District. It also purchase a property in the Peleponnese of Greece . The winery which was called Olympus Winery Hellas, has been modernized to make it ultra ready for great wine production.
All wine at ETKO is produced from its own vineyards. Many varieties both native and non native are being grown to produce first class wines.
While at the winery we tried several wines. Of course the Commandaria was superb. I enjoyed the white made from Xynisteri grapes and thoroughly loved the Rose which was a blend of Grenache Noir and Carignan Noir. It was a phenomenal sipping and food wine and I believe a great future.
We also tried the red Maratheftiko which was very young and in need of some age though still impressive. I became a bit "cheeky" and asked to possibly taste an older wine and as I speak, one will soon be delivered for future tasting.
With new cellars, modern equipment, healthy vines of various varieties I can only assume that this winery's history is still quite young and promising.