North or south, Nicosia’s Old Town is history in a bowl. A stone-walled container crammed with churches, mosques, museums and other landmarks all proclaiming a deeply human, multi-layered and complicated past.
Once a hive of interlaced streets and alleyways, visitors or residents today traverse the divided city via the filtering chute of the Ledra street pedestrian crossing. Whatever their destination, however urgent their trip, they must first contend with the tourist-congested lines and one-at-a-time procedures that increasingly clog up the checkpoints.
Cross north and forge beyond the cluster of souvenir shops and displays of Gucci and Prada clones. Here is where you will discover Old Town authenticities. Learn the stories of the older, family-run businesses that resolutely maintain, sustain and build on generations of traditions and skills honed with pride and an abiding love of the walled city environs.
Sabir – one at a time
Among the best guarded secrets of north Nicosia is a tiny restaurant called Sabir, surely one of the island’s very first slow food venues.
Almost hidden behind the bulk of Buyuk Han, this small establishment in Kurtbaba Street has the sleepy look of a place that seldom opens. Don’t be fooled. This lunch only outlet is a seven days a week operation with a loyal following of devotees.
“Sabir, Sabir, you need to wait a long time for your kofte [minced meat balls] at Sabir,” its patrons will tell you. With knowing smiles, they explain its mystique. “Because the name Sabir means patience.”
And in truth Sabir regulars come ready to patiently await the only dish owner-chef Soner Ulusan, son of the restaurant’s founder Mehmet, prepares.
Soner’s delicious grilled minced veal kofte are truly a one man show. He presides from a high stool, next to a spotlessly clean silver grill, chops all the vegetables himself and never talks. Not a word. No exceptions. Elderly Turkish Cypriot ladies or local VIPs, they are all the same to Soner. This is his kingdom and in Soner’s court there is only one rule. Pay heed or don’t bother coming.
Sabir demands respect and respect demands sabir.
Ozerlat – one of the oldest coffee shops in Cyprus
A few steps on from Sabir towards the Ayia Sophia Cathedral lies Ozerlat, one of the longest running coffee concerns in Cyprus.
It goes back to a coffee-loving young man named Dervis back in the early 1900s, or so the family story goes. Each day Dervis would roast beans for his morning coffee. The tantalising aroma wafted around Tahtakale until, unwittngly, he had the neighbourhood literally by the nose as people began asking for his special roast blend. Thus began his career as a coffee trader, one that was to evolve into the family business that today spans four generations.
Demand for Dervis’ services grew. Soon he was known by the nickname “Tahmis” [coffee roaster]. In 1917, he opened his first coffee shop in Ermou Street.
“This was my great grandfather,” says Ilke Ozerlat, his great grand daughter. Her father Dervis Ozerlat now presides over a family concern that includes his wife and two of their three daughters.
When the original Dervis died in 1932, eldest son Hasan Dervis Ozerlat, coined the brand name Hasan Dervis Ozerlat Kurukahve, and took the business to its next level, introducing the first electrical coffee grinding machine and packaging Turkish coffee for local sale. It was Hasan too, who, during the troubles of the early 60s, relocated from Ermou to Arasta, resolute about staying within the walls.
Dervis, Hasan’s only son, succeeded him on his death in 1972. Dervis modernised and upgraded the packaging and production side of the business, changed the brand name to Ozerlat Turkish Coffee and in 1981 moved the coffee shop to its current location.
His wife Imren developed a distribution network for their products all over the north while he set up the current factory to meet increasing demand. The factory produces and processes 350 tonnes of coffee a year – three varieties for the Turkish Cypriot market and two for UK sale.
“We all love coffee and we cannot live without it,” exclaims Ilke, a one-time lawyer, who stresses her father’s commitment to the importance of quality control and not over-extending themselves.
“If you do it, do it perfectly. It is better to move slowly but well.”
Three generations of two-wheel specialists
The Ayrancioglu motorbike and bicycle repair business is a three-generation affair. On any given day, founder 73-year-old Altay, his son Erem (50) and his son Altay (25) can be found on the premises, a large corner building two blocks from the Ayia Sofia square.
Erem Ayrancioglu is the face of the business today, dealing with customers and repairs. His son Altay, who joined the firm three years ago, looks after the bicycle and spare parts shop. Grandfather Altay, offically retired, still makes a point of coming to the premises most days.
In a backroom, two beautifully maintained vintage motorbikes and a pair of bicycles hold pride of place. Once this prized collection included 10 impeccable Raleigh bicycles, upright models of two-wheeled dignity. Two years ago, a window was smashed and the bikes vanished under cloak of darkness. Coincidentally, neighbourhood elders were relieved of their stately bikes about that time too.
The family story begins when Altay senior’s father, a yoghurt maker with seven children one already designated to succeed him in the yoghurt field, apprenticed his younger son to an Armenian-owned bicycle shop in the Asmaalti neighbourhood. Later, the young man moved to a Greek Cypriot shop near the Ochi roundabout, owned at the time by Savvas Ioannides, and still in existence.
By 1961, aged 18, Altay senior opened his own small repair shop on the corner of Izzet Efendi and Altay Bey streets, where today’s much expanded business stands. A slow start, then six years on began working with motorbikes.
It hasn’t all been free-wheeling. Motorbike use throttled back during the time the Turkish Cypriot sector had no petrol. They began making a comeback from the 1970s onwards but, according to the young Altay, today’s high tax in the north on imported motorbikes has made serious inroads into potential market growth.
The switch in gear in the bicycle market as people moved away from cycling as a means of daily transport to machines designed for sports recreational leisure-use has opened up new markets.
“This is our place. People come to us because they know they can find everything they need in our shop. We have expertise and experience. We are not planning to move. Others appear and disappear. We stay. We love what we do. We love our customers as people.
“These values were passed to me by my grandfather. He taught us. We always try our best to be polite, helpful and honest,” he says.
Resa Budak – a singular rebel’s breakthrough
There are those who sometimes need to break through walls to make their way in life. One is 51-year-old Aysa Budak, who broke away from a family-run, landmark patisserie inside the walls and set up on her own not far away, alongside one of north Nicosia’s main exit routes, near the Turkish Cypriot administration’s offices.
Aysa’s late father’s old shop stands inside the Venetian Walls on Istanbul Street, run today by her brother and nephews. Always something of a rebel, Aysa had long wanted to try something a little different and so today, with due respect for their origins, she offers variants on traditional recipes with a twist.
She uses all natural ingredients. Everything is baked from scratch. For example, when we meet, she and her mother are busy peeling apricot seeds which she uses instead of traditional almonds in one of her recipes.
Her father Resa arrived in Nicosia as a 14-year-old from his Kyrenia district village of Krini (Pinarbashi) to work in a bakery near the Bandabulya. He then moved to his uncle’s pattiserie in Agah Necad Street still learning his trade.
Resa opened his own establishment in 1956, but only built his landmark shop close to the original Budak in 1970. He shrewdly employed a special pastry chief from Ankara to create new cakes and confectionery lines. Relatives of his Peristerona-born wife were among his employees. Her family had moved to Nicosia in 1963 as a result of communal problems.
Aysa was an early starter. From age nine she loved to create and experiment at her father’s side. She remembers the buzz of the place, the energy, the daylong flow of customers, many drawn to the area by the three open air cinemas in Caglayan.
Her father’s signature ice cream became a springtime ritual. His customers knew it would only be available as of April 23 each year. To this day, Aysa honours and continues that tradition in memory of her father.
It was after her father’s death that Aysa’s eldest brother took charge, intent on keeping everything more or less the same, sticking with the traditional lines. She preferred a more experimental approach, something she believed her father would have approved of.
In a clear break with tradition, she struck out on her own and beyond the walls in 2006. Bent on taking courses, she set off for Turkey, researching and studying widely. She checked out confectionery shops all over, even arranging through a Greek Cypriot friend of her late father’s to visit establishments in the south. In one place in the south, she so “wanted to smell the kitchen” that she offered to work for free. The offer was taken up and today her former Greek Cypriot boss remains one of her closest friends.
Aysa finally opened her own place in 2009, the culmination of a labour of love, dedication and hard work.
“We do everything ourselves. We cook our creams, our fruit cakes have no additives. Our tahini cake is all fresh. I am sure the day will come when everyone will understand that this is the best way.”
Halva Shop – one recipe since 1830
Mustafa Cerkez, the owner of Helvasan, can trace the history of his family’s affair with halva back to at least 1830.
“The first recorded family shop was in Ermou Street and our brand name was Cerkez Helva,” he says.
“We were originally Cherkessians [Circassians], refugees from the Russian conquest,” he explains, relating how his ancestors came to Cyprus hundreds of years ago from the north-west Caucasus – hence the family name.
Forced almost 60 years ago to relocate from the original Ermou shop rendered inaccessible as a result of the 1958 disturbances, Mustafa’s father moved the family to the safer surrounds of property he had near the Yeni Cami (New Mosque), also in old Nicosia. Undaunted by his losses, Mustafa’s father set about starting anew. He opened a small grocery and coffee shop, and began producing sweets.
In 1996 Mustafa, after a career in the public sector, found himself retiring earlier than planned. He confided in his father, by then also retired, that he would like to revive the family’s dormant halva business.
So in retirement Mustafa became his father’s student and began learning the old techniques. Poignantly, this belated apprenticeship came to an end six years later when Mustafa’s father died at age 82.
The new business, now called Helvasan, produces tahini (“the purest, with no additives”), three kinds of helva (“plain, pistaccio and carob”), crunchy, hand made carob and sesame seed biscuits, carob juice and small quantities of the purest sesame oil (“well known for its healing properties”).
A business that once produced 100-200kg of tahini and halva daily now produces three tonnes a day. The firm distributes all over the north, as well as exporting to Turkey. Despite many expressions of interest, it cannot however export to the south because of the Green Line Regulations.
Fittingly, Mustafa attributes his inherited passion for halva to his father and grandfather. “It is in my blood and I think it is running also in the blood of my sons,” he says. One already works with him. As for the other, a successful plastic surgeon, who knows what he will do once he retires?