The Blog

Selling Cyprus

How does an island nation convince a superpower that it matters? With good food, good wine, and the truth.

12:00 AM, Apr 24, 2002 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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IT ALL STARTED with an invitation to a dinner at the home of the Cypriot ambassador. It's not everyday one gets to go to an ambassador's house, so how could I refuse? Of course, I'm not one to pass up on fine dining no matter where or for what reason. In fact, I supped at the Iraqi mission last week. Kidding.

The home of the ambassador to Cyprus is in the upper-crust D.C. neighborhood of Kalorama--a towering brownstone once owned by Frank Sinatra. A sharply dressed woman in her forties with dark olive features graciously welcomed me. She was the ambassador, which, to my embarrassment, I did not know. The invitation said "Ambassador Dr. Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis"--but since Erato, the Greek muse of lyric and poetry, was not the most popular name where I grew up in New Jersey (there were more Ginas), I didn't feel totally at fault.

The spacious interior was a mixture of dark wood and marble, warmly lit by sparkling chandeliers. The furniture was plush, and all around were paintings and sculptures shipped from Cyprus. The pretext for the dinner was to meet George Vassiliou, former president of the republic and now chief negotiator for his country's accession to the European Union. His plan was to meet with as many U.S. officials and journalists as possible, to brief them on Cyprus's EU prospects, and hopefully to garner some international support.

And my pretext was to write about the types of food and drink served at diplomatic residencies. After all, Cypriots have been making wine for centuries, and I was curious about the influence of Greece on its cuisine (it turns out the Cypriots use less oil) and perhaps the influence from the surrounding countries (Turkey to the north, Syria and Lebanon to the east). Cyprus's chances of joining the European Union were only of mild interest to me.

But the more I listened to President Vassiliou, the more I was intrigued not only by Cyprus's yearning to join the EU, but also its long struggle to regain the north. (In 1974, Turkey, after an attempted coup by a military junta against Cypriot president Makarios, invaded the northern half of the island and still occupies roughly 37 percent of it.) He spoke passionately about reunification and talked of how it is only a matter of time before Cyprus enters the EU.

Throughout the dinner (chicken breast stuffed with spinach swirl, sides of fingerling potatoes, and hearty asparagus), we sampled the dry reds and whites of Cyprus, all of which were full-bodied, though Vassiliou admitted "we are still a little behind" in comparison to Greek wines. The dessert wine, however, was a different story. It is called Commandaria and its savory sweetness is reason enough to fly to Cyprus. In fact, legend has it an Ottoman sultan invaded the island just to acquire this fine wine. And the grapes used to make Commandaria were the same grapes brought to Portugal that eventually became famous as the source of port wine. It certainly doesn't hurt to offer such refreshments (along with glazed fruits and walnuts, another Cypriot tradition) while making the case for either unity or membership in the Union. The evening was a pleasure, and if the Cypriots wanted me to be sympathetic to their cause, it was working.

One week later, I was invited to a breakfast with Demetris Christofias, president of the Cyprus House of Representatives. This time it was at the new Ritz-Carlton--the one whose gym Michael Jordan exercises in. Even though the invite said "continental," I held out hope for supple, poached eggs on lightly toasted English muffins, tender smoky lox, and crispy strips of bacon. Things didn't bode well when I got to the hotel--an embassy official asked me if I was going to be serving the breakfast. The actual conference room was striking in its opulence though not ostentatious. The walls were paneled with fine grain wood, and in the center was an extended dining table adorned with a few Cypriot flags. It actually resembled the scene in "Godfather Part 2" when the industrialists met with Batista: "And introducing our friend from Miami, Senor Hyman Roth." (I half-expected someone to pass around a gold telephone.) But this was not the case--and neither was my hope for a full-spread breakfast.