On Easter Day, if you can get yourself onto the high ground, you will be able to look around you and see columns of smoke rising into the spring air, fragrant with the aroma of cooking meats. At the lower end of these columns will be a foukou, an essential and historic accessory for Cypriots. Put simply, the foukou is a barbecue, but one that is specially adapted to the particular Cypriot way of grilling.
An idea as to the range of these devices and their differing levels of sophistication can be obtained by visiting a particular shop in Nicosia. The self-made foukous are given names like Mercedes, Volvo, the F16 and potential customers will take a suitable amount of time choosing one. They are usually rectangular and vary in size, in the form of a shallow tray to take the charcoal.
Cypriots learn early how to get the charcoal burning and take pride in doing it with ease and the least amount of fuss. Some eschew the use of firelighters, claiming they taint the food, others say these are essential. Then there is the metal sleeve that is filled with the charcoal to get it alight before releasing it into the base of the foukou.
Whipping the charcoal up to the right temperature (when it is a whitish grey it is ready) sees the use of a number of different implements, from a handheld fan, to a simple piece of cardboard or a hairdryer. On the charcoal a vast range of foods will be cooked, from small pieces of meat – chicken or pork known as souvlakia – to large chunks or pork and lamb (souvla) cooked on dangerous-looking and sharp skewers. These are marinated in herbs beforehand to lend them a particular taste.
Halloumi, the Cyprus cheese, doesn’t melt when it is cooked and grills beautifully, lending the taste of the burning coals beneath. Cooking methods vary, from a simple tray over the charcoal (baked potatoes will be wrapped in foil and dropped straight into the hot coals) to a complicated engineering structure which is internally geared and will take three metal skewers. Now, you can either turn these by hand, or attach a motor to the foukou and have them turned with no effort whatsoever. But even here you have a choice; from a simple one-speed motor to one that has up to 12 different speeds so that you can adjust it as the cooking progresses. This is for the serious griller who wants to get things just right…
Friends and relatives will gather around the foukou giving advice to the chef while the table and the salad are prepared. Cans of ice cold beer are an essential accompaniment for the griller in chief. One Cyprus custom that the foreign visitor will quickly get to know is that of philoxenia: hospitality. Walk past a garden where the barbecue is brewing and, whether you are an old friend of the family or someone who just happens to be passing by, someone will say ‘kopiaste’.
It means, come in and join us and is much more than a simple invitation. It is meant genuinely and you are indeed welcome to sit down and join family and friends as they enjoy the delicious food that comes from the barbecue. So, don’t be shy when that word is spoken; go on in and you will soon find yourself being treated like one of the family.