By Maria Gregoriou
HALLOUMI has come a long way in Britain from the 90’s when Delia Smith started writing recipes with and around ‘the cheese that grills’.
The unusually warm UK summers in recent years has seen halloumi become a staple of the British barbeque and the Cypriot cheese is rolling off the supermarket shelves.
According to a BBC article: “Britons are said to consume more halloumi than any other European country outside Cyprus, with Sweden coming in second.”
Halloumi sales in the UK rose 35 per cent between 2011 and 2012. Sales in Tesco’s increased by 132 per cent during the same period.
In 2008 some 1.76m kilos of halloumi were exported to the UK. In 2009 the figure was 2.09m kilos. By 2010 this had risen to 2.48m kilos, which rose to 3.03m kilos in 2011 and 3.21m kilos in 2012. Between January and June this year 1.98m kilos was exported to the UK.
Today halloumi is one of the top 20 cheeses in Britain according to Yiannis Pittas, a partner in Pittas diary industries Ltd.
“Pittas started exporting to Britain in 1983 to a Sainsbury’s supermarket in London. It seems that it went down well as there was a further demand for it in other branches,” Pittas said.
At the beginning Pittas sold halloumi to ethnic shops but now it has spread to mainstream supermarkets all over Britain.
The big boom came at the end of the 80’s when Delia Smith, UK’s best selling cookery author, started using halloumi in her cooking. From then on Sainsbury’s started selling the cheese on a national basis and other supermarkets like ASDA, Tesco, Morrisons and Marks and Spencer started stocking up on the cheese.
Pittas exports around 2,000 tonnes of halloumi to Britain each year. “Last year we exported around 600 tonnes to Tesco, 400 to Sainsbury, 200 to ASDA and 150 to Morrisons,” Pittas said.
The increase in demand is not only owed to food presenters like Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay making halloumi part of their shows, it is also due to co-branding between the makers of halloumi and British supermarkets.
“Because the supermarket’s name is also on the package, their marketing strategies are more aggressive,” Pittas said.
Supermarkets in Britain have also tried to put a spicy twist on Cypriot traditional cuisine to satisfy Britons’ obsession with curry. Tesco has been selling chilli flavoured halloumi for about five years now, while pepper and sun dried tomatoes flavours have also made an appearance.
“They keep asking us for new and different flavours and chilli seems to be a stable favourite,” Pittas added. Alambra dairy products in Larnaca has seen an increase in its exports of the cheese on an international level.
“Britain is the first on our list, then Sweden and Germany. Our sales in Britain have doubled over the last few years and we export about 500 tonnes of halloumi there a year,” general manager of Alambra, Georgos Petrou said.
Charalambidis Chrisis Ltd has been exporting halloumi to Britain since 1984. “In 2012 we exported 3,200 tonnes of all types of halloumi cheese to the UK. We hope that for 2013 we will go over 3,400 tonnes,” export manager for the company, Stefanos Aloneftis said.
Aloneftis said to succeed with any product a company has to touch the pulse of customers and know what they want, this is why new flavours are being introduced, he said.
The company does not stop with flavours, or with the UK. For the last two years it has been exporting halloumi in the shape of a burger to Arabic countries.
“So far this idea is going very well. It is the perfect alternative for vegetarians,” Aloneftis said.
A 30-year-old British-Cypriot teacher from Manchester, Christina Demetriou said she “loves, loves, loves halloumi”.
“We love it on the barbeque. Once we wrapped it in bacon and put it on the barbeque and it was lovely. We also have it on pizzas, our local does a special with halloumi and pepperoni. I buy it in bulks from Costco as it is cheaper there,” Demetriou said.
She has not tried the chilli flavour yet but says she will.
Going back to tradition, a housewife in Nicosia, Sophia Ioannou, who has been making halloumi every since her grandmother taught her 60 years ago, makes the cheese for sale in her neighbourhood, and is often asked to send some abroad.
“I have been asked to make halloumi for people in Britain, America and Canada. More people ask for it around September when their children go off to study or just to take back home with them after a holiday,” Ioannou said.
As of March this year when the banking crisis hit, Ioannou said her neighbours were not buying as much as much but the requests from abroad had risen.
“Now people here are afraid to spend money and don’t ask for halloumi the way they did before, but because I make traditional halloumi with only goat’s milk, those who understand this cheese prefer to take a few with them when they leave,” Ioannou said.
Even though halloumi is a great way to wave the Cypriot flag around on foreign soil, the cheese has not yet been awarded a protected designation of origin status within the EU.
The agriculture ministry has prepared an application stating 11 objectives to be considered in order to receive approval.
These objectives have to do with how the cheese is made, which has been a bone of contention between farmers, producers and the government for years in terms of the composition ratios of sheep and goats milks to cows milk.
According to Pittas, the ministry has already put some ratios in place and if these are not met, the manufacturer is fined.
Aloneftis said the formula will come at a cost. “The ministry wants the ratio of goats and sheep milk to be at 51 per cent in a couple of years and this is a big change,” he said. “Customers have learnt that halloumi tastes and smells a certain way. If we increase the sheep’s and goat’s milk, then consumers will not get what they are used to,” Aloneftis said. Sheep and goats milk also costs more, which would add to the price, he said.