My ninth cheese originated in Cyprus near the turn of the millennium. No, I’m not talking about the early 2000’s. That’s right, historians believe that some time around 1000 – 1200 A.D., Bedouin tribes crafted the first bricks of the meaty and infamously grillable cheese, Halloumi.
But if you think Halloumi is old, you ain’t heard nothing yet. Cheese had already been around for thousands of years before Halloumi made it onto the map. The making and consuming of cheese predates Christianity, the Roman Empire and the Mayan temples.
Way back when, around 9000/8500 B.C.E., humankind reached a major evolutionary benchmark by discovering how to cultivate and domesticate their own food. As pasturelands began to emerge across the Fertile Crescent, goats and sheep flocked towards them, attracted to the lush and consistent supply of field crops they offered. Soon enough, Mesopotamians began to domesticate these animals, creating additional stockpiles of food for themselves. There is historical evidence that cheesemaking began soon after this milestone. Strainers from 5500 B.C.E. have been found to have traces of milk fat molecules on them, Egyptian tomb murals of 2000 B.C.E. depict cheese and butter being made, and cheese is mentioned in countless ancient Greek myths, including Homer’s Odyssey from the eighth century B.C.E.
Historians are unsure of how exactly Mesopotamians discovered how to make cheese. They figure it was probably during travel when the Neolithic man discovered that in place of the milk he had packed in his travel bag (which he made out of a repurposed animal stomach), there was instead a peculiar solidified substance. It was the fashion statement that changed food forever. You may remember the importance of animal stomachs in the making of cheese from my post about Zimbro but if not, baby cow stomachs contain a magical enzyme called rennet that ferments milk and turns it into cheese.
Word spread around the Middle East that there was a way to prolong the shelf life of milk by turning it into cheese. As centuries rolled by, the craft of cheesemaking developed. One of the oldest cheeses that is still popular today to come out of this earlier period of cheesemaking is Halloumi. The cheese is made with a mixture of goat and sheep’s milk and has a higher-than-average melting point therefore can easily be grilled or fried. Traditionally made with raw milk, because of pesky FDA laws any Halloumi sold in the U.S. must be pasteurized. Travel to almost anywhere in the Middle East — Lebanon, Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, etc. — where Halloumi is consumed regularly, and you will find it made with unpasteurized milk.
Procuring and Tasting:
Because Halloumi is from the Mediterranean, I ventured to a grocery store that specializes in that cuisine to be sure I could find the best Halloumi in the city for the cheapest price. International Grocery is a Greek food store in midtown that carries bulk spices, olives, dried fruit, nuts, homemade baklava and the most important thing: Halloumi. I bought a 250 gram hunk for $6.25. Meanwhile at Whole Foods, they were selling 227 grams for $10.99. Stores that specialize in a certain region’s cuisine usually offer lower prices than general grocery stores.
Although Halloumi is considered a fresh cheese, its texture is similar to that of a grilled chicken. However, unlike chicken, it slips apart easily and sometimes makes a squeaky noise when bitten into. My Halloumi was made with mint, consistent with tradition. Not only does mint compliment the cheese well, but back in the day, it was used as a preserving agent because of its antibacterial properties. Equally sweet and salty, Halloumi is fresh, herbal and lactic tasting.
Cooking with Halloumi:
Halloumi is most popular during the summer months when people grill. Traditional Mediterranean pairings include Halloumi with watermelon or Halloumi with cured pork.
Since it’s December, I wanted to find a Halloumi recipe that was more winter oriented. I came across a recipe for Halloumi, Quinoa and Pomegranate salad on the food blog of Noha Serag Eldin called Masters of the Belly. Noha is an Egyptian expat currently living in Australia who posts recipes inspired by her North African/Middle Eastern roots. The salad was seasonal, easy to make and filling; the grilled Halloumi served as a satisfying substitution for meat.