A long way from home, an Australian former journalist and ship’s steward is now making award-winning cider in an out of the way village in Cyprus. THEO PANAYIDES meets a man with a plan despite the difficulties thrown up by regulations
You have to go “in the trees” for a bit, says Nigel O’Connor, giving me directions to the small mountain village of Farmakas – and he’s right, you do. The turnoff from the main Palechori road is one of those narrow old roads with hairpin bends that twist up the mountain, twisting and climbing at the same time. You could just about fit two cars going in opposite directions (though in fact I don’t meet any cars, going up the road on a warm Wednesday morning) – but trucks tend to use the other road from Kalo Chorio, which is where Nigel lives with his Cypriot wife Natasa. Farmakas is Natasa’s home village. It’s also, since October of last year (when they finally got their alcohol producer’s licence, after months of the usual bureaucratic hoops), the location of a cidery making Militsa Apple Cider.
That old road is a hassle, but it’s hardly the Australian Outback. Neither, to be fair, is Warrnambool, a town of some 30,000 people in western Victoria, right on the ocean – but now we’re getting closer, because that’s where Nigel went to school (he was born, 36 years ago, in a nearby village so small he doesn’t even bother naming it). This is dairy-farming country, an “English climate” with rich pasture land and lots of rain coming in off the sea – and his uncles on his mum’s side are farmers, but his own parents are slightly different. His mother is a teacher (so, coincidentally, is Natasa), while his father is a chef with his own restaurant. Dad did other things too as a younger man, such as helping local Aboriginal people and working on ships at sea – both of which Nigel’s also done, before he got married in 2014 and moved to Cyprus in 2015. “I never…” he begins, then pauses (he pauses often; he has a slow, languid way of speaking): “…felt comfortable, I guess, in a nine-to-five environment. I like diversity, and doing different things.”
He sits in a backroom of the old Sedigep (farmers’ co-operative) headquarters that’s been modified into a cidery. He has blue-green eyes, a sandy beard and a calm, unruffled style. Maybe it’s his clothes – a khaki shirt and thick grey trousers – but he reminds me irresistibly of a safari guide, one of those composed, self-reliant outdoor types with years of experience in handling excitable tourists. He’d know the best time to spot a pride of lions down by the watering hole, or how to survive in the bush if the Jeep broke down, and he’d also be happy to relate campfire tales of narrow escapes and hairy moments – though only if you asked, never just to show off.
Nigel himself has had a couple of such near-misses. “Yeah, for sure,” he replies in his matey Australian accent when I ask about adventures. He almost died 12 years ago, “fishing off some rocks in Australia with my brother, and we both got swept into the Southern Ocean which is very, very dangerous”. (Luckily, a big wave came and washed them back in, allowing them to swim to safety.) Then there was the flight from Bangkok to Dhaka in 2014, when he was covering a story with a photographer friend; the plane tried to land in a full-on tropical storm, shaking like mad and “everyone was praying and crying”. Nigel could see that the pilot was coming in too fast – and fortunately the pilot saw it too, aborting what would’ve been a very bumpy landing at the last moment. That was another of those times when “I thought most likely we were done for,” he recalls mildly. Anything else? “When I was in Palestine, I had machine guns pointed at my face by jihadist groups in Gaza.”
Going in, I’d assumed he was an Australian cider-maker who’d decided to ply his trade in Cyprus – but in fact the cider is a whole new chapter, following years as a journalist (including a stint publishing a paper for remote Aboriginal communities in the vast Northern Territory) and a ship’s steward on oil-and-gas ships laying pipelines. He’d always had a vague notion about making apple cider. Growing up in the unnamed village near Warrnambool, “we had an old apple orchard at the back, and I loved the apples from there, and started thinking about how they’d work in a cider” – but meanwhile work took him overseas, eventually to Ramallah where he met Natasa (she was posted to the Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem as a schoolteacher). They moved in different circles – but a friend happened to invite him to a dinner party, and she happened to live next door. Not only did they click straight away, they also had apples in common. “I’d spoken to Natasa when we first met, to say ‘I’m thinking of going back to Australia one day to make apple cider’, and she said ‘Oh, my father has many apple trees, and he often has trouble selling the apples’. So literally in the first week we met, we were discussing that. Then, four years later, we started.”
It’s a funny thing, the random paths Life ends up taking. In another life, Nigel could indeed be making apple cider – but in Australia, not a small village down a twisty road in the Cyprus mountains. Or he might still be a journalist, or have pursued some other profession (or he might’ve drowned in the Southern Ocean 12 years ago). That said, Militsa – from ‘milo’, the Greek for ‘apple’ – couldn’t have taken off so easily a decade ago, just because cider has changed in the past few years.
“There’s a bit of a campaign within the cider community, which is called #RethinkCider,” he explains (yes, there’s a hashtag). The market has long been dominated by big companies – he names a couple of the best-known brands – making “mass-produced products that are essentially 95 per cent water with added colours, flavours and sugars. So we’re trying to bring it back to real cider, as with craft beer a few years ago”. I don’t need to be convinced about Militsa, having sampled it many times in Nicosia before meeting Nigel – but it’s nice to see that cider experts agree with me. In the months since its launch it’s already won three international awards, in New York, Berlin and “a quite prestigious one from the UK, the International Cider Awards”, winning Silver in its category – medium-sweet modern cider – on each occasion. ‘Modern cider’, by the way, means you don’t have to use the traditional cider apples, which we don’t have in Cyprus anyway; Nigel uses local Lortika and Kathista, sourced from farmers all over the Pitsilia area – including a few from the orchard of Natasa’s late father in Farmakas.
The timing felt right for this new venture. “I like working on the land, I’ve always liked the countryside. After working in journalism and pursuing more professional careers, I decided I wanted to make something with my hands”. Timing is important – but it’s not everything; temperament is important too. Life does indeed tend to go in unplanned directions – but you can’t just wait around for the universe to nudge you this way and that. “What working on the ships taught me,” he explains in his languid way, “is that if you want to do something, there’s a way to do it.”
Working offshore is a big commitment; sailors endure extensive training (in firefighting, sea survival and so on) before being allowed on an oil-and-gas ship. The result, says Nigel, is that they tend to be very positive, proactive people – “like, if you tell them ‘I’m going to make an apple cider factory in Cyprus’ they’ll be like, ‘Great idea, well done, I’ll come and visit you one day!’. Whereas often – and maybe this is partly why I left home, and I see it around here a bit too – the first reaction people have, if you say ‘Oh, I’m going to the beach today’ is ‘Don’t go to the beach, it’s cold down there!’ or ‘Be careful, don’t do that’.” Nigel chuckles grimly, at the safety-first mentality so endemic to small places – and middle-class mindsets – everywhere. “If you step outside, something might happen. If you stay inside, you know you’re going to be safe in there. But for me – you asked ‘Do I get bored?’” (I did earlier ask that question, wondering if life in Farmakas was busy enough after what he’s been used to) – “if I stayed inside I’d be bored out of my brain. That’s what I try to avoid, being bored!”.
Militsa was methodically planned; Nigel likes a bit of adventure – but he’s also a safari guide, and he understands that you can’t go off half-cocked. In 2015, he and Natasa moved to Cyprus. 2016 was a year of experimenting with her family’s old wine-making equipment (using a grape crusher, so every apple had to be chopped into small pieces; “It was eight hours’ work to get maybe 50 litres of juice”) and touring cider regions in the UK, meeting producers and learning techniques. 2017 was a year of setting up – getting an EU-backed loan (part of a programme for young people starting a business), trying to secure a lease on the factory, kicking off the 18-month process of obtaining licences, meanwhile going back to work on the ships “just to get some money coming in”. The business is small, literally just a juicing machine, two fermentation tanks (holding the juice from around 13 tons of apples), vats for ageing, and a bottling section. How much staff does he have? Nigel looks around, as if to summon invisible assistants, then chuckles: “It’s just me”. What hours does he work? “Let’s just say I haven’t had a holiday for two years. And it’s really not uncommon to do 14-hour days, particularly when we’re doing production.”
Something important should be noted here. Our mountain villages are notoriously neglected; an action plan was grandly unveiled a few days ago, making wide-ranging promises – and action plans are fine, but a lot of trouble could be saved simply by encouraging people like Nigel. He’s creating a Cypriot product that’s winning awards abroad; he’s helping apple producers, taking crop which would otherwise have rotted on the ground (due to all the hail last winter, many tons of apples weren’t presentable enough to be sold at market); as Militsa grows, he even hopes to offer job opportunities in Farmakas itself. Entrepreneurs should be cherished, not obstructed – and Nigel assures me that the civil servants he dealt with were helpful, yet our laws are far from ideal. At one point, he was told that – as per regulations – he had to establish a “tax warehouse” before he could proceed (“an authorised space that can house goods subject to duty”), which would mean a deposit of €85,000! (“Don’t worry, we’ll look into it,” said the man from the Ministry, presumably keen not to scupper an EU-backed programme.) Entry costs are high in general, especially if you’re a one-man show as opposed to a big corporation. “The cost of just setting up the company, and being compliant and all these things – just to have a company, to then produce something and trade – is very prohibitive to people starting something.”
Nigel O’Connor has done it, at least so far. This is still Militsa’s first summer, and it remains to be seen how much cider the market will bear (especially when it’s slightly higher-priced than the mass-produced stuff), though the list of outlets at www.militsa-cider.com is impressive. Most importantly, though, he’s done it on his own terms – an essential detail, I suspect, for a self-reliant person like himself.
I ask what he misses most about Australia, and of course he says friends and family – but also, he adds, “a certain freedom”. Admittedly it’s getting more regulated there (“That was one of the things that drove me away, I guess”) – but there’s still a freedom, especially out in the bush with its vast expanses of land: “There’s something about getting in your car and driving for four hours, and maybe not passing another car”. That’s what Nigel seems to love most of all, the intrepid thrill of going his own way and living life as he wants, free from the killjoys and busybodies.
It sounds like he works really hard, but in fact – he assures me – he’s always made time for himself too. He does a lot of sports (running, cycling) and reads a lot of books (history, mostly). He takes his four-wheel-drive into the mountains, just exploring. The eventual plan – or hope – is to work very intensely during the apple season then take a break in winter, which is summer back in Australia, maybe take the kids (Natasa is pregnant with their first child) to explore their roots while the cider is busy ageing. “I wouldn’t say I was looking for something,” muses Nigel, looking back on his life pre-Militsa, “but I think I found something, by meeting my wife and discovering Cyprus… It’s a small place – but I see it has everything you need to be happy, y’know?”. One thing’s for sure, it comes with some fringe benefits. He takes me on a tour of the factory (it doesn’t take long) – but first he pauses, and speaks the words I’ve been waiting to hear ever since going ‘in the trees’ off the main Palechori road: “So… would you like a cold cider?”.