I ate pan-fried halloumi, a firm, mild cheese, for the first time this summer—and then, smitten, sought it out the next time I was at the grocery store. But I stopped short when I did locate it, wrapped tightly in plastic, in the cheese case: I was not prepared to pay $8 for a half-pound package of halloumi.
But it turns out $8—and even, sometimes, as much as $10—per half-pound (that's $16 to $20 per pound) is the going rate. For a cheese that has a lot in common in the flavor and texture departments as cheese curds and paneer (which, at only about $4.50 per pound, I think of as inexpensive cheeses), I was dubious. So why is halloumi so expensive? According to Walshe Birney, the buying manager for Murray's Cheese in New York City, there are a few reasons.
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"The geography of Cyprus is to blame," Walshe told me. Halloumi is made almost exclusively in Cyprus, and lack of infrastructure exists for getting goods out of Cyprus to Greece and beyond. (And the economic troubles Cyprus and Greece have had in the past few years have not aided in the export of halloumi or the reinforcement of infrastructure. These economic issues have also influenced the prices of other Mediterranean cheeses, like feta, which also goes for about $6 per half-pound.)
What's more, halloumi is made from sheep's milk, which is more expensive than cow's milk or goat's milk due to a lower milking yield from sheep. And halloumi is often aged, which can also amplify the price. This explains why paneer and cheese curds, both fresh, unaged cheeses made from cow's milk, are so much less expensive.
And finally, because halloumi has had a bit of a moment—Walshe says he's seen a huge spike in interest from people coming into Murray's—increased demand has coincided with the country's economic downturn. With Cypriot banks failing, there has been little money to invest in the halloumi industry and few opportunities for it to expand. More demand for halloumi than the ability to produce it puts it at a premium.
But if you do get your hands on some halloumi, there's a lot you can do with it; it's one of Walshe's favorite cheeses ("Nothing is harmed from the addition of some halloumi," he said) to eat as part of his breakfast or dinner. Fry it in a pan or grill it on skewers: The low levels of acid in the cheese keep it from melting, so it browns instead and becomes pleasantly squeaky (try it in saag paneer, or a grapefruit halloumi salad, or baked with lemon). But if you'd prefer not to spend so much on halloumi, you can achieve similar results with paneer or Scandinavian bread cheese.
First photo by Izy Hossack; second photo by Kulsum Kunwa
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