Friday, September 30, 2016

Introducing the Cyprus International Food Festival

The culinary scene in Cyprus has improved by leaps and bounds since I moved here ten years ago. The quality and diversity of the cuisine on offer is remarkable considering where the island was upon my arrival. Case in point, my first meal here—a rubbery, overcooked steak sandwich at Le Cafe, one of the better eateries at the time. As more Cypriots travel abroad and cheat on souvla, pastitsio and koupepia with exotic foods, local restaurateurs and chefs become emboldened to open new establishments that push the envelope for The Rock's (still somewhat) uncomplicated standards.

The latest in this group of—let's call them mavericks—is Saskia Constantinou, the woman behind Apollon Connections, a local organiser of international concerts and festivals. In collaboration with other like-minded individuals, Saskia will host the first Cyprus International Food Festival (CIFF) later this year and she took some time off her organizational duties to talk to us about the event and other issues in Cyprus' wine and food scene.

What led you to develop the 2016 Cyprus International Food Festival? How has this effort been received by people in the food and beverage sector?

Saskia Constantinou (SC): I’ve been involved in classical music most of my life, firstly as an orchestral musician in the National Symphony Orchestra of South Africa and in subsequent years as an organiser of international concerts and festivals. I wanted to diversify and realised that food and eating is something everyone does many times a day! So it wouldn’t ever lose its universal appeal and the scope and potential was huge. 

The Festival has been well received by those in the industry, although I can say that those in the international arena have responded with far greater enthusiasm and excitement by the prospect than some of the locals. I think it’s very much a matter of having to prove oneself the first time.

What types of activities have been planned for the two-day event? Any specific ones you are really excited to host?

SC: The festival will include chefs preparing foods that represent their national cuisine. This year we have representation from India, South Africa, Hungary, France and Cyprus. Next year, we will expand and offer an even greater selection. Local and international wineries will offer free wine tastings and we also have a cava area. Children, future generations and sustainability play an important role in our focus and mission, so we have the Cookery School of Cyprus giving organised classes for children throughout the two days. There will be of course lots of vendors with items to both sample and buy in larger quantities.

During the past five years, Cyprus has been exposed to a greater number of cuisines from regions beyond the Mediterranean. Which particular cuisines will be highlighted at the festival? In what ways?

SC: As above – We have had great interest from chefs around the world to participate in the 2017 event and will develop this section extensively next year.

High-end chefs throughout the world have made names for themselves and their countries by showcasing strictly local ingredients in an avant-garde manner. Alex Atala, Gastón Acurio, Magnus Nilsson and René Redzepi all come to mind. Is Cyprus ready for this sort of experience? Are there local chefs who could spearhead such a movement?

SC: There is absolutely no reason for local chefs not to take up this direction. Is Cyprus ready? Difficult question – we are always lagging behind because of small issues, which are made big and complicated. I am trying to collaborate with all those who are forward thinking and innovative – I believe that greater strides can be made when working in a team. After all, a restaurant doesn’t operate without a team! Everyone has a role to play. 

The Cypriot wine industry has taken off during the past ten years with better and better vintages being released each year. In your opinion, what is at the root of this improvement and what needs to be done to better compete in the local market?

SC: This is a difficult question for me to answer as I’m not an expert in that industry specifically. However, generally, I believe that competition is very healthy and forces higher standards. I believe that it is not a matter of competition in the local market that is important, but rather in the international arena. There’s no reason that Cyprus should not have a greater global impact with its products. This is something which needs long term planning, goals and a clearly defined strategy. I do not believe or accept the excuse that we are a small country. 

What is your Five-Year Plan for the Cyprus International Food Festival?

SC: Big plans and dreams which I don’t want to reveal at the moment. I would love this one to be a success, and then build on that, and improve all those areas which may not run as smoothly on the first one! 

One Cypriot dish matched with one local wine. What, where and with whom?

SC: I don’t like large meals, so my ideal would be grilled calamari or octopus, a fresh village salad (no onions) with a 2011 Levanda Rosé on a beach, served with full cutlery and starched, crisp white table cloths with a man who shall remain un-named.

Hope to see y'all at CIFF 2016 to be held on the weekend of November 5th and 6th at STOA Nicosia from 11 am to 7 pm!

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A Case of Questions with Elizabeth Gabay MW

Besides Commandaria, many people I speak to claim Cyprus' best collection of wines are its rosés. I even wrote about it years ago, back when these pages were my main moneymakers yet my pockets remained as empty as a Houston street corner without a taco truck. So it came as a pleasant surprise when I found out via Twitter that Master of Wine Elizabeth Gabay, who lives in Provence and dedicates most of her work to that region (plus Hungary, Greece, Israel and Italy), had come across several bottles of Cyprus' finest (courtesy of Yiannis Karakasis MW) and written an excellent, in-depth piece on the selection. A while after, I reached out to Liz who was kind enough to answer the blog's "Case of Questions." À vôtre santé!

Why wine?

Elizabeth Gabay (Liz): I don’t know. I grew up in a family which enjoyed good food, we spent holidays travelling around France, exploring and going to nice restaurants. This was in the 60s and 70s when there were excellent restaurants in every village – or at least that is how I remember it. My grandfather was a fruit buyer and my mother has always said visiting vineyards was the same – so maybe it was just always there as an interest. I was 16 when I got my first book on wine.

First wine that really captured your attention? How old were you?

Liz: The first time I really sat up and thought about wine – I was 21, going on an interrail holiday down the Loire valley, camping. At every campsite we arrived with food from the local traiteur and bottles of the local wine. I started a wine diary. My first wine tasting note said ‘Good.’ I still have the book. The next wine that caught my attention was at a trade tasting when I was 27. All I remember was that it was a Corton Charlemagne and it was WOW!

All-time favorite bottle of wine?

Liz: No – I don’t have an all-time favourite.

Favourite wine-producing region? Why?

Liz: Difficult one. Provence because I know it so well and it was the first region I worked with. Italy is lovely – landscape, culture, people, the sheer artistry in their approach. Hungary – lovely variety. The enormous variety around the Mediterranean…. Mmmm, can I just say I love the Mediterranean region? It must be the most diverse wine producing region with no pretension.

Your favourite food-and-wine pairing?

Liz: The most intriguing, Chateau Gasqui, Cotes de Provence. Their dry white wine with lemon cake is a perfect match.

What is Cyprus missing when it comes to wine?

Liz: I have never been to Cyprus and have to admit that my main knowledge of the wines has been Cyprus dry sherry (from years ago) and Commandaria. Recently, tasting a range of Cypus rosés was interesting – different styles, varieties, etc. Living in France, the thing that is missing for me is the availability of the wines to taste.

Lineup of Cyprus Rosés Sampled by Liz 

What do you foresee for Cyprus’s wine industry?

Liz: The interest in local varieties, the ability to use altitude to counter heat so a unique style of different tastes, ripe fruit with freshness.

What do you enjoy most about your work in the food & wine world?

Liz: Meeting people, travel, exploring. Wine is such an ancient essential part of our culture and learning about wine – not just in a technical sense, but in exploring the cultural context of every region – I love it – there's always something new.

What is your “Five Year Plan” for your career/business?

Liz: I have a book on the wines of Provence in the planning and a book on the history of the drink Punch which is nearly finished and a new project – creating a vineyard near my home at 1000m altitude – I am fascinated by altitude vineyards.

Who is your favorite wine personality? Why?

Liz: The late Christopher Tatham MW – witty, intelligent, real old school wine trade – he could quote poetry and literature throughout a tasting, write naughty limericks and was an excellent distance spitter!

Any embarrassing episodes involving spilled wine, corkscrews, sommeliers or drunken behaviour?

Liz: I use my hands a lot when talking – I was holding a glass of red wine and the lady next to me was in a white trouser suit…

Of course, your all-time favourite island wine?

Liz: One wine?!? A real cliché – I think I would go with Krug… and I could just relax on my hammock…

You can reach Liz on Twitter, Facebook or her personal website.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Hips Don't Lie

I love my labels. 

I don't mean those multisyllabic Italian names that dress wafer-thin models in clunky, mismatched fabrics, ghoulish make-up and heels that could be used to maim a disgruntled lover. Me trying designer clothing is akin to forcing a Fiat 500's chassis onto a naked Hummer; hips don't lie, people. Plus, those labels are for the cool kids, and cool kids don't cry watching Massimo Bottura talk about his wife and Parmesan cheese.

I love my wine labels. Whether we like it or not, plenty of consumers out there partially base their wine purchases on the label; it catches a corner of their eye with its modern design, its comedic undertones, its bravado, its refinement, you name it. I've been guilty of this plenty of times, specially when my phone's roaming and I'm looking at a region of the world that's as obscure to me as deep-fried pork belly is to a supermodel.

Since moving to Cyprus ten-plus years ago, the evolution of the Cypriot wine label has been interesting to follow. It's only during the past three-to-five years that some of the wineries on The Rock have embraced labels that have become something to write home about. Still, many remain stuck in the past with old fashioned, unimaginative and dull labels that fail to capture the consumer's imagination.

Rocky Ledge Above Vouni Panayia Winery
For me, it all starts with Vouni Panayia, whose labels experienced a massive transformation, and are the coolest on the island. After spending a sunset with the Kyriakides family on a steep rocky ledge one-thousand-plus meters above sea levelsharing stories and laughs, sampling their Promara and Spourtiko, taking in the myriad of colours scattering into blackthese labels make perfect sense: a mouflon, Cyprus' national animal, leaning over a large V that mimics said cliff.

Tsiakkas winery has also done a good job, adopting a series of drawn Cypriot motifs to embellish their bottles, and Zambartas, from the get-go, designed a sophisticated label that stands out for its finesse. However, as has come up in discussions with the team behind Evoinos, another Cypriot wine blog, it's not enough to just modernise one's labels without having a coherent, interesting and informative story behind the effort. Maybe this is a marketing or branding issue that has failed to take hold of the Cypriot wine industry, but it is one where there's tons of potential.

The Unveiling
The latest to adopt a new image was Kyperounda Winery, and I was honoured to have been invited to the launch for the rebranding of its entry level wines—Petritis, Andessitis and Rosé—which was held at Nicosia's Municipal Gardens.

The sophisticated affair perfectly complemented Kyperounda Winery's new labels, which consist of a series of pine cones coloured in gold, blue and fuchsia, one for each bottle. The design's lines are simple yet classy and are in touch with the winery's history and its geographic location in the Pitsilia region of the Troodos mountains.

According to the winery, "The new labels in the main series of wines by Kyperounta Winery exude refinement, highlighting the dynamic character and quality of the wines. The symbol is the pine cone, characteristic of the Pitsilia area. It is worth noting that Pitsilia took its name from the ancient 'Pitis,' which means pine."

Kyperounda's New Label Art
From my brief conversation with the Kyperounda Winery crew hosting the event, the winery is also looking into revamping the labels for their mid-range wines, which include the Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and always enjoyable Chardonnay. It will be interesting to see whether they will stick to the pine cone theme or come up with something altogether new.

In any case, it's about time Cypriot wine labels do justice to the vastly improved libation that's now found in the bottle and adds kilos around our waists. 

By the way, if any local winery is up for it, we can organise a label design competition and see what comes of it. Plenty of talented artists on The Rock and I'm sure plenty of them would be thrilled to design something for a case of your finest Maratheftiko, bragging rights and a shoutout/nickname on my third-rate wine blog.

Who's got next?