“The fact that some were alarmed shows how right we were.” A statement like that, coming out of an official news wire, would normally be attached to ramped up security measures, a tight new squeeze of corporation tax or a diplomat being told to pack their bags. Not so for Nicos Kouyialis, Republic of Cyprus’s Agriculture Minister, who was referring instead to something white, tasty and that squeaks when you bite it.
Halloumi, the Eastern Med’s much-loved rubbery cheese, has become a fixture on the negotiating table between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. Talks for some sort of settlement to the territorial conflict that has divided the island since 1974, and that has left vast swathes of the country out of bounds in a UN buffer zone, have cautiously resumed on and off. But last year, when the Republic of Cyprus applied to the EU for protected designation of origin (PDO) status for halloumi, a dairy-based diplomatic debacle unfolded on a grand scale.
A successful PDO application would mean that only halloumi made in the Republic of Cyprus and according to a certain recipe could carry the name. Turkish Cypriots were certainly cheesed off: most of its exports currently go to Turkey and the Middle East – here in Istanbul, we eat Cyprus’s hellim, which uses less cow’s milk than the southern variety. A PDO would prohibit northern Cyprus getting a similar protected status for its produce. “Economic destruction” was the hyperbolic prediction.
All this seemed ready to derail negotiations between the two sides once again before an unlikely consensus emerged. In July Jean-Claude Juncker, basking in one of the finer moments of his tenure as president of the EU Commission, revealed that he’d managed to get both sides to agree over the halloumi question during a visit to the island. Both halloumi and hellim will jointly enjoy PDO status. It was not quite the Oslo Accords but it was a step in the right direction.
What a pleasant agreement like this needs now is a little outside interference. So enter Britain – former colonial protector and the biggest market for halloumi outside of Cyprus. This week British cheesemakers have challenged the EU’s PDO, claiming that it’ll stop them from selling their product. They could just give it a different name, of course, but “squeak cheese” doesn’t have the same palatable punch.
The response to this development from both sides of the island has been fascinating. North and south are somewhat miraculously united by a common cause. Agriculture minister Kouyialis has said that while the Cyprus PDO is pending, no one else can make a bid. The underlying message was, whether you call it halloumi or hellim, the stuff is broadly “ours”.
The Cyprus question remains a top priority. On the Turkish mainland, the island’s division is a critical roadblock for Turkey to join the EU. More pressingly – and this little nugget can’t have escaped the attention of Mr Juncker – if Cyprus reunites, a pipeline will carry gas from the eastern Mediterranean’s extensive gas fields to the EU via Turkey. As long as the island is divided, Turkey has vetoed any such pipeline however lucrative it may be.
The positive gains in this halloumi hullabaloo therefore have region-shaking implications. If Cyprus’s settlement talks stay on track ahead of a May 2016 deadline, it may not just be cheeses that are ripe for a rebrand.
Christopher Lord is Monocle’s Istanbul bureau chief.