The Cypriot countryside offers up a plentiful bounty of natural gifts, many of which find their way into the kitchen. While you’ll often see Cypriots collecting wild herbs in the countryside, local markets are excellent sources of fresh herbs, as are the supermarkets. More recently, specialist shops sell them fresh as well as dried and beautifully packaged.
Here’s a little guide to the flavours you’ve simply got to savour whether you’re a local or are holidaying on the island!
1. Basil is always popular. Its name is thought to originate from the Greek word “Vasileus”, meaning ‘king’ and it is said to have grown on the site in Jerusalem where St. Helen, the Byzantine Empress and mother of Constantine the Great, discovered the Holy Cross. Basil is typically used fresh and added to recipes at the very end since cooking quickly destroys its flavour.
2. Coriander (also known as cilantro) is frequently found in many Cypriot dishes – the dried seeds are added to casseroles and mixed with olive oil, garlic and lemon, while they are also sprinkled over cracked green olives. It is also used to flavour Cyprus sausages (loukanika) and wine-cured/smoked meats. Many use the seeds in a special dish of tiny potatoes cooked in wine and olive oil. Fresh coriander, which looks similar to flat-leaf parsley, is very popular in salads.
3. Fennel leaves and bulbs are widely used in salads – the liquorice flavoured seeds are used for flavouring bread and as an infusion for herbal tea – and the fresh leaves also often appear in salads. Wild fennel is easily spotted growing along the roadside during springtime, its feathery leaves topped by a long stalk with yellow flowers, but this is not the edible variety.
4. Mint is prominently used in Talattouri – the Cypriot variation of Greek Tzatziki. A refreshing blend of yoghurt, cucumber, garlic, salt and pepper, Talattouri is a favourite local dip often served with meze and souvlakia (kebabs). Mint is also added to ‘ground’ meat dishes such as moussaka and meatballs (keftedes). And, of course, it is also used to make a refreshing tea, known to aid digestion.
5. Parsley found in Cyprus is generally the flat leaf variety which has a stronger taste than the ‘curly’ type. It is commonly used as a flavour enhancer in many local dishes and is most often seen finely chopped and sprinkled over kebabs or fresh fish.
6. Oregano is used in a wide variety of dishes. Like garlic and olive oil, oregano is synonymous with Mediterranean food and can appear on almost everything from roasted or barbequed meats and salads, to French fries and omelets.
7. Sage is mostly infused with hot water and drunk as a tea, but you can even try throwing a few leaves into the hot oil when frying chips just before they are done – absolutely delicious!
8. Rosemary and thyme grow everywhere in Cyprus. Rosemary goes particularly well with lamb and potato dishes. A few crushed sprigs of aromatic rosemary added to olive oil and left to infuse is a useful addition to your kitchen, while a small handful of thyme added to roast chicken is simply delicious.