Date: 20th March 1990
Venue: The Cypriot Hearth
Sponsor: Sir David Hunt
On Tuesday the 20th of March 1990 the club found itself in the Kypriake Estia in the warmth of the “Cypriot Hearth”, which nestles snugly beneath Spaghetti Junction. We gathered in a hall lined with the portraits of the moustachioed heroes of the Greek War of Independence (of 1821 that is), which is the focus of the 16,000 strong Cypriot community of Birmingham. These are formidable people. They can do anything. They have even changed the time of the resurrection of Christ. In the Orthodox Church, the miracle of the Holy Fire traditionally happens at midnight between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. Here by special dispensation of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, it occurred at 1:00 AM, on the grounds that Birmingham lies a few minutes West of Greenwich. Not unconnected is that most Birmingham Orthodox are Cypriot, and that most fish and chip shops close at midnight on Saturdays. Such practical and cheerful improvisation marked our meal, so making it authentic. The technical Orthodox theory theology theological term for this virtue is economy. We met in Lent, but the meal was not noticeably economical in the secular sense.
It is difficult to identify the lingering effects of British rule in Cyprus. Unlike in Corfu, cricket never really caught on, but Cypriot telephone boxes remain red – though that is probably because whether to paint them blue or green aroused passions, where economy prevailed. Perhaps the most enduring British contribution to Cypriot cuisine is the appearance of HP sauce in the most remote mountain villages of the Troodos. Here we were not authentic.
It is indeed difficult to create an authentic Cypriot meal. A summer picnic luncheon would have been the ideal. But we caught the authentic ethos of a culture which lies somewhere between Limassol and Haringey. Birmingham ‘s community has a direct flight from Larnaca every Thursday, but we met on a Tuesday whereby the fish came unstuck. But most authentic of all was the warmth of our welcome, so George Yiacoumis, President of the Cypriot Community was both our guest and host.
After broken olives and white wine (Bellapais and Thisbe), His Grace the Metropolitan of Patara, he who moved the time of Easter, otherwise Bishop Irenaeios of Harborne, sang his grace and we all sat down to Mezedes. A meal in themselves, members remarked especially upon the Choiromeri (a rustic palm ham), and Bakaliaos – correctly described as “Cod Balls” and David Wishart’s printed menu, where hardly a Greek accent was out of place.
Our president introduced our Sponsor, Sir David Hunt, whose honours fill columns of Who’s Who. Members were impressed that he had not been just Brain of Britain but is now Brain of Brains of Britain in some sempiternal runoff. We had asked him not because he had been High Commissioner in Cyprus, or was even married to an authentic Cypriot, but because he knew about Cypriot food. As it turned out, he handled the unexpected superbly.
The fact is that the Thursday plane, laden though it was with lovely bread, brought no swordfish from Cyprus to grill on our charcoal. Instead, we had halibut which had last swum around Iceland, the authentic food of really smart Cypriots from Camden Town to Kyrenia, and all the more delicious for it.
We had considered goat next. Indeed Savvas, our rumbustious cook (misnamed after an early Christian ascetic), knew of a nephew whose cousin’s aunt had two kids bleating to come. But Lady Hunt vetoed the idea: it was not just a trifle too authentic, but the British had protected the famous Cyprus goat. So, we had lamb. I will not tell you whether it came from Paphos or Powys, but it was served in the klephtic manner with vegetables and salads enlivened with glystirida and roka – the English names are purslane and cress, but hardly describe them. Red wine flowed.
After an over-enthusiastic attempt to serve out of turn Halloumi Tiganito arrived next. This is a delicious grilled cheese rarebit. It came with Zivania. The labels on the bottles of this stuff coyly describe it as “Mountain Drink”. It would certainly fuel mountaineers. Some members thought it might also serve as a high-octane paint stripper. It was, however, an authentic even sempiternal experience.
The coffee and sweets were as excellent as the Commandaria wine was sticky. There was a sticky moment when the Buckland club discussed the sempiternal question of whether it should elect lady members, rather than just roll home to bemuse wives of its eatings. Your Minutes Secretary could not help overhearing one of our distinguished Cypriot guests saying to another; “Watch these English: they will speak one way and vote another.” We did.
Members duly rolled home, full of the authentic warmth of Cyprus. There were XXX of them* together with XXX guests one of whom was Julie Davis whose cookbook entitled The Taste of Cyprus, which is truly authentic and economical, made members look forward to her sponsorship of a Welsh dinner.
*The signatures of many members and guests can be seen on the menu card.