ʽʽHi, I’m Benjamin Nunn – critic, gourmand and author of Ben Viveur. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You might have read me in an in-flight magazine, or a beer publication, but here on my own blog I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others so anything goes.

I deal with real food and drink in the real world, aiming to create recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. Likewise, I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended.

Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Utterly Paphotic

Having an e-Passport is great.

It means you can breeze through immigration at Gatwick in no time, whilst pointing and laughing at the suckers in the lengthy queue with their manual passports.

'So long, losers!' you get to say, as you merrily scan your way across the border and into the Arrivals Wetherspoons.

Of course, as the new e-passports are phased in, the balance will shift. Soon we'll start seeing queues, and then they'll be the same length as the non-e queues. One day the last remaining people with old fashioned documents will be having the last laugh when 99% of us are waiting in line to scan.

But for now, it's the golden age of the electonric passport, and I fully intend to savour the schadenfreude.

Every silver lining has a cloud

So, yeah, we've e-passported ourselves back from Cyprus, as you've probably surmised, and it's been an interesting couple of days.

Apparently it's usually very mild and pleasant at this time of year, but somehow, the Gods (possibly the Wintersmith?) decreed that the two days we'd spend there would just happen to be the coldest spell Cyprus has seen in about a decade. Literally.

Now, I'm a hardy sort and not unduly bothered by weather, obviously, but this isn't necessarily true of the population of Kato Paphos who are used to warmer climes. Consequently around 80% of the bars and restaurants were closed, putting paid to most of my planned itinerary.

Maybe it was the weather, maybe they were just shitting themselves at the prospect of getting the BV treatment? Either way, it was just a couple of spectres short of a ghost town.

I'd deliberately booked a hotel close to the highly-rated Mothers restaurant, but Mother, like almost everyone else, had shut up shop and gone into hibernation, so we had to improvise. We were, nonethelesss, able to enjoy some excellent food in Methusulan quantities.

Traditional Cypriot fayre is, as one would expect given the islands location, very similar to that of Greece, Turkey and the Lebanon, and in many ways combines the best of these.

Thus they typically serve the dishes that I remembered from holidays to the Greek islands as a child - moussaka, kleftiko, stifado, keftedes - as well as the barbecue and kebab-type stuff that defines Turkish cuisine.

And haloumi. Lots and lots of haloumi wherever you turn. It's like a salty, rubbery cuddle of familiarity.

It's not original or unique, but it's the sort of stuff I enjoy eating.

Beef Stifado at the St Paul's Pillar Taverna
At the backstreet St Paul's Pillar Taverna (it's right by the St Paul's Pillar!) we started with a few dips - the classic trio of hummus, taramasalata and tzatziki, before moving onto thick slabs of grilled haloumi.

The tarama was fairly mild, and not as fishy as it can sometimes be, which for me is a plus point, and the warm, fresh bread is so much nicer than the hard, thin stuff that passes for 'pitta' over here.

For a main course we tried a couple of the classics. The Beef Stifado came on a vast bed of rice, in a winey, bay leafy sauce full of lovely slow cooked onion and tomato. It's hearty, filling stuff, and they didn't scrimp on the meat either.

If I had one tiny, criticism it would be that the beef could've been a little more tender, but that's certainly not something that could be levied at the Kleftiko, which was one of the tenderest meat dishes I've ever tried.

Love meat tender
It's ultra-slow-cooked lamb on the bone, infused with garlic and literally falling apart under the fork when served. The thing was so tender and soft and succulent that I actually ate a bit of half-melted bone at one point!

The juicy Kleftiko came served with chips, carrots and ('Tis the season) sprouts. The veg weren't overcooked, and given that this was the first time in about 20 years that I'd tried the dish, it was pretty much as I remembered it.

A party of Americans - the only other people in there - left soon after we arrived, so I'm glad we showed up when we did, otherwise the St Paul's Pillar Taverna may have been tempted to close early.

We finished with a shot of the local spirit, Zivania. Similar to the Italian Grappa, it's clear, potent, slightly raisiny, and probably best downed in one.

The portions were generous, the staff very friendly, and I can't remember the last time I left a tip which was refused!

Sometimes there's nothing else to do...
The pillar itself might not be worth visiting, but the taverna certainly is.

Nothing to do but...

The lack of things to do manifested large on our only full day in Paphos, so we generally took the advice dispensed at the St Paul's Pillar and found an open pub and stayed in it!

A strong British influence over Cyprus extends to a pub culture, though sadly not, in any way, shape or form, to the beer.

On the bar you'll find a handful of bland International brands - Carlsberg, Guinness, Carling etc. - and one or two Cypriot beers if you're lucky.

The most common, Keo, is a standard pilsner-style lager, with a slight bitterness, while Leon is extremely pale, gentle and soapy. Apparently it was relaunched a decade or so ago, having been 'the' beer of Cyprus back in the first part of the last century.

A more interesting drink on the island is Commanderia, which is to Cyprus what Port is to Portugal and Madeira to Madeira.

I have to admit I'd never heard of the stuff until, by happy coincidence, it got a mention in the drinks feature in the issue of the Spectator that I perused on the outward flight.

Fermented from overripened Cypriot grapes, it looks like a tawny port, but drinks like a ruby, with sweetness upfront and acidity in the finish and would go very well with a strong English cheese at Christmas.

Eat, drink and be Meze

On our second and final night we ate at the Hondros taverna - which came highly recommended and purports to be the oldest in Paphos - but once again we ended up being the only people in there.

A full Cypriot meze just had to be done, but while I was expecting something pretty big, it was too much even for my extremely 'healthy' appetite.

It's only just begun
It's good value at €18.50 per person but, fucking hell, how are two people supposed to eat all this stuff?!?

The usual range of cold dips come out first, along with a bowl of olives and a fresh Greek-style salad with crumbly feta cheese on top. Generous quantities of everything, naturally, and the tahini dip was extremely garlicy.

I wasn't so keen on the hummus here, which tasted to me a bit like bitter peanut butter. Strange. Everything else was lovely though, and again, the taramasalata didn't taste like a carp's vagina.

So we worked through the basket of delicious, fluffy bread, and accepted the offer of more, which would turn out to be the most absolutely fucktarded foolhardiness.

We were barely half-way through the dips and hadn't touched the salad when they brought out some Dolmades - vine leaves stuffed with spicy minced lamb - which were followed in quick succession by some barbecued mushrooms and little kofte/sheekh kebab balls, which were bloody superb.

There was, of course, Haloumi, and this came served on slices of lountza - thinly sliced smoked ham. It wasn't quite as tasty as the Haloumi we had the previous night.

The third course - or was it the fourth?
That little lot would've been a fair-sized, snacky sort of meal in its own right, especially with all the bread required to scoop up the dippy goodness, but things were far from over.

Several chunks of pork souvlaki arrived next, with nice charred fatty edges, and we were starting to feel full, but the relentless foody assault continued, and I groaned as a plate of chips was put before us.
Not one, but two different kinds of meatballs were served; Firstly dense, coarse, offally bastards grilled on the barbecue, followed by the lighter, crumbly steamed keftedes, with flecks of chilli and tomato. It's almost like the chilli sauce you get in British kebab houses, but mixed in with the lamb.

We were all set to hang up our knives and forks, with plenty of food still left on the table, when yet more dishes arrived - a pair of grilled chicken thighs (a bit boring and charred, but then I was pretty much stuffed) and a small plate of another grilled meat, quite possibly lambs heart. 

Chateau Uncle Sophocles
This quantity of food required some serious down-washing, and we were drinking a carafe of 'Uncle Sophocles' home-produced wine, which turned out to be a rather rough, bitesome red with peppery notes, served chilled, presumably straight from the cask. While being quite different to the Commanderia, the shared essence and character of the local grapes was very much in evidence. 

Prices are generally reasonable, though not excessively cheap, and for 20-25 Euros a head you can eat very well indeed. The beer isn't great, but it's inexpensive at €2-2.50 for a 'pint' (which is usually actually a half litre) of draught Keo.

One thing to bear in mind is that a lot of places in Cyprus, or at least this part of Cyprus, still don't take card payments, so you'll need plenty of Euros in your pocket.

Clearly in the heart of the Summer season this place would be heaving with sunbathers and stag-weekenders and glass-bottom boaters.

That's not my sort of scene at all, but it would've been nice to have a few more places open and eat al fresco, maybe try some seafood down by the harbour, that sort of thing.

By coming during the coldest spell in living memory, we took the whole 'out of season' thing a little too far and perhaps don't have a completely representative perspective on Kato Paphos in the Winter, but even so, I think it holds up nicely as a destination for good, honest and absolutely fucking massive food.

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