– Words by Angela Cowan Photographs by Lia Crowe
When Christina Loucas first started researching traditional Cypriot foods and flavours for a cookbook, she hoped to preserve a slice of her family’s history along with the generations-old recipes, and Cyprus Cuisine absolutely accomplishes that—but it’s also so much more.
The cookbook, published earlier this year, is a love letter to the food she grew up with, the family that loved and supported her, and Christina’s own experience with strength, resilience and following her heart.
Though she’s always loved food and grew up in Victoria as a “restaurant kid,” Christina never considered a career in the culinary world, largely due to her father’s insistence. Harry Loucas built and ran the Victoria Harbour House until he sold it in 2006, he built the Beagle Pub (originally the Oxford Arms), he was named Restaurateur of the Year in 1992, and he actively discouraged his kids from going anywhere near the food industry.
“My dad was adamant he didn’t want us to go into the restaurant business! He always said it’s long hours and it kills your family life,” says Christina.
So instead, she earned a law degree from Oxford University and became an international arbitration lawyer. Not that a law career offers a balanced family life either, she laughs, and despite her best efforts, food followed her everywhere.
“Even when I was a lawyer and in Singapore going out for lunch with clients, inevitably I’d end up talking about food,” she says.
She practiced law for six years in England and Singapore, and then life threw her a curve ball when she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in her early 30s. When complications from treating the cancer caused her to lose her voice, Christina made some drastic changes.
“It was a wake-up call for me. I knew I’d wanted to make a change,” she says. “The illness was the catalyst to give myself permission to take a year off to heal, but also to pursue this.”
She moved to Cyprus and devoted her days to researching Cypriot cuisine, from the ingredients and flavours to the methods and huge varieties of preparing common dishes.
Christina also took the opportunity to immerse herself in photography, developing her skills and her eye as a way to express herself, especially in the early days when she didn’t know if her voice would return. (It did, within two months.)
Part memoir and part cookbook, Cyprus Cuisine is bursting with gorgeous, full-colour photographs of incredible dishes like the brilliantly red tomato soup with orzo, or the crumbly one-cup sesame orange biscotti. But some of the most beautiful pictures are the ones that show off the aged hands of her aunts. A collage of photos on pages 49 and 50, for example, shows her Aunt Evri’s hands as she demonstrates how to roll out Cypriot crepes.
“Her hands are so expressive. It’s like I can hear her telling me how to do it,” Christina says, with a laugh. Her Aunt Evri was the first person Christina started following around and asking questions of when she decided to embark on the cookbook project, but her entire family—and their extended friends and neighbours—eventually got involved too.
And while by their nature, cookbooks are precise in their measurements and instructions, Cyprus Cuisine also includes a sense of flexibility so often common with old family recipes. Christina adapted some recipes to include easier-to-find ingredients and substitutions.
“One of my aims was to make sure you can make Cypriot food no matter where you are in the world,” she says.
One example—and something Christina prepared when I visited as part of an array of goodies on her table—are the butternut squash pies (page 53). They’re typically made with an enormous, long-necked squash that she’s only ever found in Cyprus. So, for the pies we’re about to snack on, she instead used cubed acorn and kabocha squashes. Similarly, the recipe calls for fine bulgur wheat in the filling (as well as aromatic cinnamon and fennel fronds, shallots, sultana raisins and a touch of brown sugar—yum!) but she suggests cooked quinoa could be a good substitute if bulgur is too hard to find. Many recipes are easily adapted to be vegetarian or vegan as well because so many people in Cyprus fast for religious reasons.
“It’s its own unique cuisine,” says Christina. “It’s a nice mixture of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavours. Lots of lemon and olive oil, which I love. It’s comforting and really soothing.”
Comforting seems the right word. The squash pies, with their sweet-savoury flavours and touch of cinnamon, present as quintessentially autumn, and the Easter butter cookies we nibble afterwards are gently sweetened and perfectly flaky. But perhaps another reason it all feels so comforting is the undercurrent of a mother’s touch.
“The person I owe the most amount of gratitude to is my mom,” says Christina. “A lot of the recipes that have been handed down are hers. This cookbook is as much hers as it is mine.”
And indeed, Katherine Loucas is the first person Christina dedicates her book to, the loving text accompanied by a beautiful photograph of her mother. On the opposite page is a picture of Christina’s daughter Clemmie, then five days old.
A lifelong love of food, a major life change and an unwavering dedication to following her passion came together when Christina wrote her cookbook, and preserved a family legacy she can now pass on. As anyone who has spent time in a kitchen with mothers and grandmothers can tell you, food is love. And Cyprus Cuisine is Christina’s heart on the page.