Tahinopita and peanut butter: the two major loopholes for anyone who’s fasting (as many people are during Lent). They’re actually more like cheats than loopholes, making the whole penance-and-austerity concept look a bit silly when you’re scoffing such rich treats. Tahinopita is “a Cypriot cake flavoured with sesame paste” according to Wikipedia, which sounds about right – and note that it’s ‘Cypriot’, not even Greek, very much a local thing. The best tahinopita in Cyprus is – potentially – also the best in the world.
Is there really a ‘best’ tahinopita, though? A well-informed stranger in a bar whom I happened to meet some weeks ago (I didn’t catch his name, nor do I recall how we ended up on the subject) insisted that there is. Ioannou Bakeries in Nicosia, purveyors of a trademark ‘braided’ tahinopita, are the best by some way, claimed this helpful stranger. Never heard of them, I admitted. That’s because they’re out of the way, he explained – over in Sopaz, on the eastern boundary of Nicosia near the Green Line.
This, it turns out, is a common theme when it comes to tahinopita. People talk of the humble pastry the way they might talk of some really authentic taverna that makes its own sausage – but it’s hidden away at the end of some dirt road, you’d never find it. The obscurity of the location is in direct proportion to the excellence of the product they offer. Tahinopita appears to be a cult item – maybe because it’s so versatile, allowing small bakeries to add their particular stamp to it. Sure, there’s the mass-produced pies from Zorbas and Pandora; but if you want the good stuff, the real deal, the open-sesame (speaking of sesame), you have to go searching.
It sounded, I admit, a little precious and hipster-ish – but then I remembered that a while ago I was walking near the American International School and ran into an old friend, who explained that his office was nearby and he walked every morning to a bakery called Ta Xefournismata for a tahinopita. He pointed it out. It didn’t look like much – but I went in to see, followed my friend’s recommendation (the pastries were wrapped in cellophane; the bakery works mostly by selling to kiosks and other small shops) and found the tahinopita surprisingly strong, if a bit too bready – which, by the way, is a common complaint here. This is not a snack for the carb-conscious.
Maybe there was something to this talk of ‘alternative tahinopita’, after all – and meanwhile, the project was growing. A quiet American, encountered on a different night in the same bar, listened closely to my theory and suggested another, even more obscure baker: Mr David, an Armenian on Kallipoleos street – but you have to go early, he added, because all the pies get sold out by late morning. Another friend told me of Kalopesas, the well-known pâtissier whose cakes and pastries are now sold by Chrysovalandou bakery way out in Archangelos (like I said, you have to go searching). Pharos in the old town has its fans, earning a Trip Advisor review titled ‘Tahinopita par excellence’ (“This small bakery shop is hard to find, and the sign is only in Greek so you need to look for it”). Then there was Wood N’ Fire, the “art bakery” near Solonion Bookshop who do both a brioche version – none of that, thank you! – and an old-fashioned tahinopita.
Reader, I bought them all. On a mad Thursday morning I spent 90 minutes criss-crossing Nicosia, piling my car high with bakery bags. Xefournismata was shut, and Pharos was sold out, but the others came through. (I also bought one from Zorbas, as a kind of control.) Mr David turned out to be a small, bespectacled, preoccupied-looking man; the shop was empty when I arrived, but I called out and he shuffled down from his artisan’s lair. (I get the impression the entire operation is just him and his wife.) Ioannou Bakeries is indeed quite remote, at least by Nicosia standards, a nondescript building surrounded by open fields teeming with flowers. I emptied my bags in the Sunday Mail office, and the tasting began.
Kalopesas, we all agreed, was unlike the others: small and squat, rectangular rather than oval, deeply syrupy, more a rich cake than a tahinopita – and delicious, for those with a sweet tooth. Mr David’s was the most recognisably ‘artisan’, the crust clearly fired in a proper oven, the sesame paste not too sickly. Zorbas was interesting in being so crunchy and crumbly; the pastry exploded in the mouth, a pleasant sensation (almost like something deep-fried) – though it didn’t leave much to chew on and Agathe, our resident expert, also reckoned that the ‘secret’ lies in pumping the pastry with yeast (which of course makes it bigger, hence more economical). Wood N’ Fire, despite being huge, was undoubtedly the least stodgy, moist with tahini – and we also detected another sweet smell, reminiscent of pumpkin pie, though we’re not quite sure if it’s pumpkin or possibly raisins.
And what of the braided tahinopita from Ioannou? Is it really, as that stranger insisted, the best in Cyprus? Well, it’s very good: slightly too bready on first impression – but the bread is flaky and subtly spiced (cinnamon, obviously) and the twisty shape also helps, studding the dough with delicious little oven-baked ridges and valleys. In conclusion, there seems to be a whole world of tahinopita beyond the usual suspects – and I’m also quite excited to have now gained access to all this secret knowledge, the hidden alchemies of sugar, flour and sesame paste going on behind the unassuming shopfronts of inconspicuous bakeries. How long before I too am invited to join the tahinopita Illuminati? Next stop, peanut butter.