Friday, October 7, 2016

A Taste Of Cyprus At Committee

…When I rouse I feel either to massacre or to put out my thirst by drinking Cyprus wine…
--Hesiod (Ancient Greek poet)

It is said to be the birthplace of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty and pleasure, which is why she is sometimes referred to as the Lady of Cyprus. Maybe the most famous legendary resident of this island was Pygmalion. Ovid, an ancient Roman poet, detailed the legend of Pygmalion in a narrative poem, Metamorphoses. Pygmalion was a skilled sculptor who created an ivory statue of a beautiful woman and subsequently fell in love with the statue. After making offerings to Aphrodite, wishing for a live woman like his statue, he returned home, kissed the statue and it came to life. They married, eventually having a daughter, Paphos.

On the darker side, the waters surrounding this island are also said to have once been the lair of Scylla, a terrible sea monster which is alleged to have possessed a serpent's body, six canine heads, and twelve limbs. Scylla was supposed to have taken six sailors from the ship of Odysseus. The waters around this island, especially around Cape Greko, still supposedly are home to another sea monster, known as Ayia Napa. Some have described it as being similar to Scylla while other claim that it is half-crocodile and half-serpent. However, this sea monster is also called To Filiko Teras, the "friendly monster," as it is said not to harm fishermen or other residents.

These are but a few of the fascinating items to know about the island of Cyprus.

Cyprus is located in the Eastern Mediterranean, south of Turkey and east of Greece, and is the third largest island in this sea (after Sicily and Sardinia). Throughout its history, it has often been invaded and conquered, by a variety of empires and powers. It finally gained its independence in 1960 though that didn't last long as they were invaded by Turkey in 1974, and Turkey still controls part of the northern island, which they have declared to be the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

With the history of conflict and invasions, it's understandable that Cypriot cuisine has many influences, though much of it is related to Greek and Turkish cuisine. You will also find influences from Byzantine, Catalan, French, Italian, and Middle Eastern cuisines. Wine production on Cyprus extends back thousands of years, and a number of ancient Greeks felt that their wines were some of the best in the Mediterranean. However, Cypriot cuisine and wines haven't made much of an impact in the Boston area yet, but maybe that is starting to change.

Earlier this week, one of my favorite restaurants, Committee, began the fall season of their monthly wine dinners, which take place on the first Wednesday of each month, with a Cypriot Wine Dinner. Wine Director Lauren Friel, Consulting Chef Diane KochilasSous Chef Luis Figueroa, and the rest of the Committee team put together a six-course dinner of Cypriot dishes, paired with Cypriot wines. I was invited to attend as a media guest, and as I have limited experience with Cypriot wines, mostly from the Lambouri Winery, I was intrigued to taste more wines from this fascinating island.

Wine production in Cyprus has a lengthy history, extending back at least over 4300 years and possibly even over 5500 years. At least one of their wines, a sweet wine now known as the Commandaria, has been famous for nearly 3000 years and is still produced today. In more modern times, their wine industry languished throughout much of the 20th century until the 1990s when there was a major push to modernize and improve the quality of their wines. So, despite its long history, in some respects it still is has a young wine industry.

In 2007, a new Appellation of Origin system was established in Cyprus, based on European Union law, and there are three categories including Table wine, Local wine, and O.E.O.Π. (their top designation). There are four designated Local areas allowed, including Lefkosia, Lemesos, Larnaca and Paphos, and 85% of the grapes for a Local wine must come from one of these regions. Wines with the O.E.O.Π. designation have a number of regulations and restrictions, including a minimum altitude for the vineyards, yield restrictions, ageing and more. There are about 120 indigenous grapes in Cyprus though only a small number are actively used in wine making. You'll also find a number of international grapes in their vineyards.

The wine dinner was held in a private room and there were sixteen guests, fourteen women and two men. During the course of the dinner, General Manager Demetri Tsolakis discussed the various dishes we enjoyed and Wine Director Lauren Friel explained about each wine. It was a fun and casual evening, with plenty of delicious food and wine. The attendees nearest me, a group of six women of Greek ancestry, all seemed to enjoy the evening very much, and had attended prior wine dinners there as well. I was impressed as well, gaining an appreciation for Cypriot cuisine and wine.

We began out gustatory pleasures with a dish of Salted Cod Roe Dip with preserved lemon strips and warm pita bread. Committee makes a number of tasty dips, from hummus to sun-dried tomato & feta, and this was delicious as well, with a creamy, briny taste of cod and hints of lemon.

Our initial drink, which was also paired with our first course, was a KEO Brandy Sour, the unofficial national cocktail of Cyprus. This cocktail was made with cardamon, saffron, preserved lemon and a little simple syrup. It was refreshing, with a mild sourness, bright citrus flavors and hints of the intriguing spices. And it worked well with our first course, a type of fresh salad.

The First Course was Glistrida, which is a Greek term for purslane, a leafy vegetable which grows wild in Greece thought it was once thought to decrease sexual desire. In Cyprus, purslane is commonly eaten, usually served raw, and it is quite nutritious, being one of the only plants that contain alpha linolenic acid, a type of omega-3 fatty acid normally found in fish. It also has lots of vitamin C, some vitamin B, magnesium, calcium, potassium and iron. We all should be eating more purslane.

The Glistrida was accompanied by some cucumber slices, cherry tomatoes, grilled Halloumi cheese and covered by a lemon-honey vinaigrette. Halloumi, a goat and sheep's milk cheese, is also known as "squeaky cheese" and is the national cheese of Cyprus. It is a semi-hard, white-brined cheese with an elastic texture, and it is common to serve it grilled or fried. This salad was fresh and bright, enhanced by the saltiness of the grilled Halloumi. A nice, light dish and a good way to start our multi-course dinner.

The Second Course was Eliopites, Cypriot olive pies, which consisted of film dough filled with black olives and lemon. They possessed an interesting briny taste, enhanced by the lemon, with the light and crisp filo. In some respects, the flavors reminded me of East Coast oysters, calling forth the taste of the sea. Even if you don't usually enjoy black olives, these eliopites will satisfy.

This course was paired with the 2015 Tsiakkas Xinisteri from the Tsiakkas Winery, which was established in 1988 in the town of Pelendri, though the family history of wine making extends back much further. It is a small winery, producing only about 150,000 bottles each year, and exports to a number of countries, including the U.S., Belgium, Germany, Netherlands and Switzerland. They source grapes from their own 5 hectares of vineyards and also purchase grapes from other trusted vineyards. Though they currently use some international grapes, they are moving more towards using only indigenous varieties, such as Xinisteri.   

Xinisteri is a vigorous and productive grape, with thick skin, and is the most common white grape on Cyprus, accounting for almost 25% of all vineyard area. It tends to produce fresh, light wines with lots of citrus flavor, though if the grapes are sourced from high altitude vineyards, the wines have more mineral notes and tend to be more vibrant.

The 2015 Tsiakkas Xinisteri ($15-$20 retail) is made from grapes in the High Pitsilia region, at an altitude of over 1300 meters, and the vines average about 50 years old. With a 12.5% ABV, the wine was fermented in stainless steel and sees no oak. Possessing a light golden color, it possesses a pleasant aroma of apples and citrus. On the palate, it is crisp and dry, with lush apple and peach flavors, enhanced by some minerality. Easy drinking, it would be excellent with seafood, such oysters, and worked well with the briny olive pies.  

We moved onto the Third Course, a dish of Koupes (plural of koupa), a type of Cypriot street food that is sometimes called a "meat donut." It is also known as kibbeh in the Middle East. This koupes, rather than the usual beef, was made with shrimp and crab meat, encased in a crusty bulgur and topped by a Commandaria wine salsa. Pourgouri, the Cypriot name for bulgur, is their traditional carbohydrate other than bread. This tasty dish had a crunchy coating with a pleasant seafood taste, from the sweet crab to the firm shrimp, enhanced by the lightly sweet salsa. Each dish seems to get better and better.

This was paired with the 2015 Oenops Wines APLA Rosé, a blend of 60% Xinomavro and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine is part of a new endeavor by wine maker, Nikos Karatzas, and though the wine is produced in Greece, Nikos is a Cypriot. "APLA" means "simply" or "naturally" and this is the first vintage of the new endeavor. Nikos currently purchases all of his grapes as he doesn't own any vineyards. Pale pink in color, it has a subtle aroma of red fruits with a mild hint of herbal notes. On the palate, it is crisp and dry, with pleasing strawberry and cherry flavors, enhanced by some subtle herbal elements. This is a style of Rosé that appeals to me so I was very satisfied with it. Committee is the only place in Massachusetts where you can find the APLA wines.

We moved onto the Fourth Course, Afelia, basically pork tenderloin braised in red wine with coriander seeds atop a chickpea hummus. Traditionally, this pork dish is cooked in an earthenware dish, called a tava, in a clay oven. My knife slid easily through the tender, juicy and flavorful pork, which also possessed a nice spicy flavor and some well caramelized and crunchy exterior bits. The creamy hummus was delicious too, and I slathered it onto some warm pita slices. An excellent dish which I would order again if it were on the menu.

This dish was paired with the 2013 Tsiakkas Vamvakada ($25-$30 retail), made from 100% Vamvakada, which is also known as Maratheftiko. About 15% of the grapes are from old vines, over 80 years old. This is another indigenous grape, dark-skinned and late ripening, which grows primarily in the mountainous region of Páfos as well as in Pitsilia. However, it still is only planted on a relatively small number of acres though that is changing. And it is still rare to find this bottled as a single varietal.

This wine has a 13% ABV, underwent malolactic fermentation and then was aged, for about nine months, in 85% new French oak and 15% American oak. With a dark purple, opaque color, its subtle aromas were enticing and appealing, beckoning for you to taste it. And on the palate, I found a complex and compelling wine, with plenty of juicy ripe plum and black berry flavors, with hints of blueberries. It possessed low tannins, spicy elements and a mild herbal note, especially on the lengthy finish. So much going on in this wine, and each sip seemed to bring something new to me. It went great with the pork and I could see this wine going well with everything from burgers to a Bolognese sauce. Highly recommended.

The Fifth Course was a dish of Kleftiko, slow-cooked oven-baked lamb and served with patties antinahtes (which means "tossed potatoes"), potatoes baked in white wine with coriander seeds. The scrumptious and tender lamb fell off the bone, and had such a succulent taste. I love lamb and this was an excellent example of a perfectly cooked piece of lamb. I even ate the marrow from the bone, sucking some of it directly out of the bone. The potatoes were tasty too, well soaked with the wine, adding plenty of flavor.

With the lamb, we enjoyed the 2013 Argyos Mavrotragano (about $50 retail), a wine from Santorini. The winery was established back in 1903 and they now own about 65 acres of vineyards. The wine is made from 100% Mavrotragano, an ancient, rare and indigenous grape, and is aged for about two years in French oak. This was another very dark purple colored wine, with a richer aroma of ripe plum and dark spices. On the palate, it has more moderate tannins, good acidity, and more muscular flavors, black fruits, rich spice, vanilla and a touch of tobacco. It is a wine that needs a strong food, like lamb or a thick steak, and this dish was a fine pairing.

The final course, Dessert, was Tahini-Phyllo Rolls, which had a light, flaky with a heavier, creamy sesame seed-flavored filling. With this dessert, we had a glass of the St. John Commandaria, a famous Cypriot dessert wine.

Commandaria is produced in the Commandaria region on the foothills of the Troödos Mountains. It is made from sun-dried Xynisteri and Mavro grapes, and is commonly fortified. It's history extends back about 3000 years and is the oldest named wine still in production.

One of its most famous historical references was during the wedding ceremony of King Richard the Lionheart in the 12th century. The King declared Commandaria to be "the wine of kings and the king of wines." Later in that century, the wine acquired its name from the Knights Templar, who controlled a region known as the Commandaria, where Commandaria referred to a military headquarters. The Knights produced much of this dessert wine, exporting it all across Europe, and the wine soon took on the name of the region.

Currently Commandaria holds a protected designation of origin (PDO) within the European Union, the United States and Canada. By Cypriot legislation, enacted in 1990, it can only produced in a collection of 14 neighbouring villages: Agios Georgios, Agios Konstantinos, Agios Mamas, Agios Pavlos, Apsiou, Gerasa, Doros, Zoopigi, Kalo Chorio, Kapilio, Laneia, Louvaras, Monagri and Silikou. The designated area has assumed the name of the Commandaria Region and is located on the south facing slopes of the Troödos Mountains. Commandaria, by law is aged for at least two years in oak barrels. Commandaria may be a fortified wine, but fortification is not mandatory.

Some raise a glass of Commandaria and toast to Aphrodite, as this wine is said to be one of her preferred offerings.

The St. John Commandaria tis produced from a blend of different vintages, using a Solera system like Sherry.  The amber-colored wine was sweet, though with plenty of acidity to balance it so it wasn't cloying. The flavor was complex with notes of caramel, dried fruit, honey and nuts. A very satisfying after-dinner drink, which could be sipped on its own or paired with dessert. I think it would be a killer combination with blue cheese.

Overall, this was an impressive evening with so many delicious dishes of Cypriot-nspired food and plenty of compelling wines. The pork tenderloin and the lamb are essentially tied for my favorite dishes of the evening. The Tsiakkas Winery provided my favorite wines of the night, especially the Vamvakada. Demetri and Lauren were fine hosts, helping to make sure everyone had an enjoyable time. I continue to highly recommend Committee, for lunch, dinner, brunch or any of their monthly wine dinners.

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