TV Presenter. Author. Columnist. Foodie. Cyprus Traveller met with famous Greek Cypriot cook Tonia Buxton and gathered her thoughts on the relationship between Cypriot cuisine and tourism, what the Cypriot food industry is doing right and what it’s doing wrong, what’s her favourite food to eat, and more!
CT: Why do you feel Cyprus is a great place to visit as a tourist?
Tonia: Cyprus for me has so many memories. I’m British born but my parents are Cypriot born so when they came to England and brought us up the first bit of money they made they brought me here to see Cyprus. It has such an emotive feeling for me. I do believe that we have fantastic seas, we have fantastic food, we have lovely people, and that’s part of the reason why I think Cyprus is a lovely place to visit.
CT: Your famous for your cooking so how do you believe Cyprus’ F&B can compliment a tourist’s experience when they visit here?
Tonia: I think that the tourists that visit Cyprus need to be a little more discerning because I think, and I might not be popular in saying this, but we do have some amazing places to eat and amazing places to visit but you have to do your homework. It’s not necessarily on your footpath and I think that everyone should do that. When I go to visit another country I do my homework about it, I don’t just turn up and walk to the first restaurant and then feel disappointed if it’s not perfect. You need to look for places that have picked up good rewards or have had good write-ups and go visit them.
There’s places like Limassol with its kind of eccentric fusion food, and then there’s Kornos – a place where tourists wouldn’t necessarily go to but I would recommend that they hire a care wherever they are staying and drive there. It’s a beautiful Cypriot village and there’s a restaurant there called Arhontiko Papadopoulou and they are doing some fantastic things. They’ve got ancient recipes that they’ve found and the girl that’s got it her grandfather was the mayor and he left her this building which she restored beautifully and it’s that typical old-style Cypriot house with a cellar. It’s just amazing and the ancient recipes they have found they modernised them.
I don’t like going to a typical taverna and just having masses of mezze. Unfortunately I’ve known people that haven’t looked into anything and they just go into these touristic-style tavernas and I think that the Cypriots have lost their way a little bit. They are trying too much to accommodate tourists basically saying “this is Cypriot food, try it and see if you like it”.
Tonia: In the five-star hotels here do you believe there is too much emphasis on international cuisine as opposed to local cuisine?
Tonia: Sometimes when you’ve got the best thing you get used to it and you just look outside. I do think the mentality is changing though because when you look back 10 years-a-go when everything had to be Italian, French, Chinese or Indian, people are now looking more to the Cypriots and appreciating that we have amazing foods like Halloumi [brined cheese made from a mixture of goat’s and sheep’s milk, and sometimes also cow’s milk] which is known worldwide. It’s ours, little Cyprus which is this small island has this cheese which is known around the world and that in itself is pretty amazing.
There’s also the traditional ways of making Chiromeri [smoked ham] and Lountza [smoked pork loin] – not the mass factory produced ways but the traditional ways that they do like up in the villages in places like Agros who really produce the best cured meat. They’re better than any Italian cured meat, they have better flavour, they are marinated for longer, they are just fantastic.
I’ve had great cook-offs with many Italians about things like that and not one of them doesn’t love Chiromeri. A finely sliced Chiromeri with a good Cypriot wine – which is another thing that Cyprus is doing so well at the moment – you just can’t beat that.
CT: During a past episode of ‘My Cypriot Kitchen’ you mentioned that you were worried traditional food making techniques in Cyprus would die down with the older generation. Is this something that you still fear?
Tonia: I really do think that unfortunately – although I think maybe it’s turning now but I’m not sure if it’s too late – the indigenous Cypriot takes for granted the things that their grandmothers do for them. It’s actually more grandmothers now than mothers because my generation doesn’t really do it.
An example is that this year I was making Flaounes [cheese filled pastry, which sometimes includes raisins or can be garnished with sesame seeds] with my girlfriends in London when every year the five of us get together and we make them because it’s a tradition and we don’t want to lose it. It’s something that we used to do with our mums and a lot of our mums have relocated back to Cyprus and because we don’t want to lose that tradition we get together and we do it.
My cousin phoned me from Cyprus and asked what I was up to and when I told her I was making Flaounes she started crying with laughter questioning why I was doing it when I could just go somewhere to buy them. It’s just that attitude that is killing off the tradition.
In September up in the mountains, with all the excess grape harvest when they make Shoushoukos [sweet made of white grape juice known as “xynisteri”, whole wheat flour (optional) or farina and rosewater, almonds or walnuts], you rarely find anyone young doing it because before they just used to make it for their families but now nobody can be bothered to make that effort anymore and I am very worried about that dying out.
There are pockets, however, where there are youngsters that have the same enthusiasm. I think ecologically as well for the environment eating indigenous foods, it’s that green movement that’s much more progressed in Europe and Britain and it’s just stating to hit Cyprus.
There’s a guy that’s got a restaurant in Pafos called 7 St. Georges Tavern and he is a wild flora and fauna expert and he goes out foraging and picks wild mushrooms, asparagus, and wild greens – whatever’s seasonal and he serves it. One of his sons who is in his 20s is so enthusiastic about it all, he knows all the wild foods, he knows how to make smoked Lountza if you ask him. He knows all this because he has a passion about it and keeping the old ways. He took me Urchin and Crayfish fishing at night and I asked him “how come you know all this stuff?” and he said that it was part of his country’s tradition and he didn’t want it to go away.
CT: Countries nearby such as Lebanon and Morocco have restaurants worldwide dedicated to their cuisine but rarely you see Cypriot restaurants. Why is this the case?
Tonia: There are Cypriot restaurants around the world but unfortunately they don’t serve good food. It sounds like a terrible thing to say but they are more into the quantity. You look at Italian cuisine, things like pasta and pizza which is the simplest and most idiotic dish in the world, but they have rejuvenated them, and they have made them more aesthetically pleasing.
There’s this Italian restaurant in London and you have to pay £35 for a plate of pasta. It’s just pasta – flour and water! – but they put the best ingredients and present it beautifully so you’re happy to go and spend that money.
We haven’t had that done with our food, we haven’t modernised it, I’m not saying we should change it too much but you’ve got to go with what food fashions there are and just make it more presentable. All the restaurants serve mezze with all those little dishes, nothing really presented that great, and you leave stuffed without that memorable flavour in your mouth because it’s all about the quantity and not quality.
However, there are people like Michelin starred chef [Andreas] Mavrommatis at Four Seasons Hotel Limassol – he’s a Cypriot man that went off to France and learnt some interesting French techniques and fused them with Cypriot food but his cuisine is still quite traditional. There’s Le Mavrommatis in Paris and I think he’s opened one in Japan now so we do have him promoting Cypriot food but we need more people to do that.
CT: Do you think that this is something that can realistically happen?
Tonia: I do but it has to be born from someone’s passion and that’s quite hard because I’ve only minimally worked in a restaurant kitchen before and it’s the hardest job in the world. It really is. I’m a cook, not a chef, and it’s a really hard job that you just have to love so we need to spur some youngsters to have some serious passion about Cypriot food and take it on. It’s not something that you can instil in someone, it has to come from them.
CT: Can the education sector contribute better?
Tonia: Every chef I have ever spoken to from Jamie Oliver to Paul Hollywood, and everyone else, they all say that they have been inspired from home. Very few have been inspired from outside their home. Jamie Oliver is the one that’s actually inspiring youngsters from outside of the home, a lot of the chefs he has under his wing are 15-years-old and those that he has helped are those that didn’t really know what they wanted to do with themselves.
There’s a young chef that he trained a few years ago in London called Aaron Craze who said that his mother never cooked, they had two industrial sized freezers at home so every fortnight she would go to Iceland, stock up these two massive freezers, and that was the food for him and his family who never ate together.
He didn’t realise that food didn’t come from out from anything other than a microwave, and now he’s this absolutely brilliant chef that was inspired by Jamie and was given a chance for a better life. I still do believe that inspiration must come from home, however, there are exceptions like this.
CT: What’s your favourite dish?
Tonia: I hate that question! I say that because my favourite foods depend on my mood and my environment. I absolutely love something hearty and warm like a Stifado [meaty stew made with shallot onions] in the winter when the whole house smells of aniseed, the onions and beef being slow cooked in a wintery kind of feel, that’s what I love.
When I’m sitting on the beach and the sea’s there, the sun’s shining I don’t really think anything beats a good pitta of souvlaki [kebab] and a very well-made sheftalia [lamb-and-pork sausage]. I’m very discerning about my sheftalia! The other day my dad went somewhere in Oroklini and I was very upset because they were horrible! They were dry, no flavour, it was devastating.
There’s this one place in Limassol that, in my opinion, makes the best sheftalia in Cyprus. I think it’s called Nicki & John’s and it’s a family-run business. When I leave Cyprus I crave them and it’s almost worth making the trip to Limassol just to taste their amazing sheftalia.
I also like Cypriot Mahalepi [rose-flavoured pudding] in the summer. It reminds me of my uncle who, sadly my family lost this summer, he used to make rose water so mahalepi has an even more emotive feeling for me. Anything with rose water brings tears to my eyes because I just miss him so much and it transports me back to Cyprus, to the land of my family.
I think that’s why I love Cyprus so much because it’s all to do with family. I’ve travelled the whole world, I’ve eaten in Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa, India, I’ve tried some of the best foods that they produce and I genuinely do think that Cypriot food – when made well – is the best.