How the generosity of Cypriots is embodied by the staple lunch dish at Elpiniki
Words: Mark Riddaway
Image: Joe Woodhouse
Generosity. That’s the quality I associate most readily with Cypriots. Well, that and surprising physical strength, particularly among the elderly. A few years ago, the head of a Hellenic cultural centre invited me to a dinner, at which London’s Cypriot diaspora gathered for slow-cooked lamb and a knees-up. I was hoping to sit at the margins, quietly enjoying the experience of watching an ancient culture going through its social rituals; I wasn’t expecting to be treated like a dignitary, my hand repeatedly shaken, cheeks kissed, and glass refilled after every third sip. And therein lay the problem.
In these troubled times, as Britain risks turning into a series of tight, angry huddles, perhaps the one thing that unites us is our enduring belief in the importance of getting your round in. So, touched by the warmth of the welcome, I decided to go to the bar and buy some wine for the table. The friendly old man sitting next to me, who was probably in his eighties but given the vivifying effects of a Mediterranean diet could easily have been 100, vehemently dismissed this idea. He held my arm, but I shrugged him off, laughing. He wasn’t laughing. He leapt up after me, grabbing ahold while seeking some purchase with his heels on the wooden floor. As I dragged him towards the bar, he began to wrap his legs around mine, forcing me to give up when the possibility that he might take me down with him to the floor became unavoidably real. I surrendered, sat down, and he refilled my glass with a satisfied smile.
The dishes at Elpiniki, Borough Market’s Cypriot-inspired stand, are like that, but in food form. Generous in every way: large in scale, massive in flavour, satiating of both body and soul and big-hearted in their use of products (kid goat, veal, seasonal veg gluts) that would otherwise be wasted. I love it. I go there every week. I try, though, to limit myself to Fridays. An Elpiniki pilaf is as generous a lunch as it’s possible to have—and as I learned, while trying to prise those whitening fingers from my blood-starved forearm, the generosity of Cypriots can prove a little overwhelming.