There’s one thing a bitterly divided Cyprus can agree on—halloumi cheese is special

That’s the stuff.
That’s the stuff.
Image: Hans Westbeek/Flickr, CC-BY-2.0
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Nothing brings people together like food and football—even the bitterly divided Cypriots, split between the Turkish-speaking north and Greek-speaking south since 1974.

A few months ago, officials from the Turkish Cypriot professional soccer association made moves to join the governing body of the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot side. That is an important step in gaining international recognition for clubs in the breakaway northern state, which is only recognized by Turkey.

And this week, the island came together on an even more heart-felt issue: cheese. Officials from both sides of Cyprus jointly applied for EU protected status for halloumi, the cherished local staple known as hellim in Turkish. If the petition is accepted—which seems like a sure thing—halloumi would enjoy the same status awarded to Champagne, feta, gorgonzola, and other regional specialties. The designation would give Cypriot producers of the cheese exclusive right to label and market their products as halloumi/hellim, a mark of quality that research has showed allows producers to charge more for their products.

Importantly, the European Commission says that it will also relax its restrictions on trade with Northern Cyprus, at least when it comes to the cheese. It is highly symbolic that the special status will be awarded even to cheese produced in the area beyond the control of the southern republic, which is part of the EU. That is, of course, provided the producers follow a particular process to give the cheese its distinctive “aroma and taste of mint, a barnyard smell and a pungent, salty taste,” according to the commission.

“This step demonstrates the commitment of both communities of Cyprus to work together on projects unifying the whole island,” said European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker. The cheese, a crucial island export, “has played a very important role in the life and diet of the island’s inhabitants, both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, since ancient times and knowledge of the production process has been handed down from one generation to the next,” according to the application for protected status.

(To show your support for this delicious, diplomatically-transformative cheese, here are a few recipes to get you started.)

There have been many false starts in the negotiations to resolve the “Cyprus issue” over the years. By starting small, and focusing on things that both sides can get behind, reuniting the island doesn’t look so impossible after all.

Image by Hans Westbeek on Flickr, licensed under CC-BY-2.0