An invitation to eat moungra from Cyprus

By Evi Voutsina - Kathimerini

Spring arrives early in Cyprus. This year it has even rained and the island is already blooming and fragrant. Gastronomically speaking, it's the same here as everywhere else. There is French and Frenchified food in the hotels (lots of large hotels) along with good, mediocre and bad tavernas, just like everywhere else. The authentic specialities of Cypriot cuisine are invisible to those visitors who are not in a position to be invited to someone's house. The most specialized of all the typical Cypriot products is moungra. This is a method of preserving cauliflower that is not easily pigeonholed into established culinary categories. It's a kind of pickle, because the vegetable is preserved and has a sour taste. The sourness is the beauty of moungra. Unlike lemon, vinegar, sour grapes or sour plums, here the sour taste of bread dough makes for a great delicacy. Try moungra made by expert hands (let's face it, not all bees make honey) and it's like taking a heavenly journey. The delicate sour bread dough is purified of its humble flavor. This is the honest truth! I have never before encountered such a clever technique. I had tried moungra but didn't think much of its appearance or taste. I was sure that it had been badly made. But on this visit to Cyprus I was lucky enough to see moungra being made by the beautiful Leila Rolandi, wife of the minister of trade, industry and tourism. An excellent hostess, she has an impressive devotion to detail and a respect for the value of small things. Blanching to the clock Six kilos of well-washed cauliflower divided into large bunches were already waiting for the water to start bubbling in a large saucepan. The hostess blanched them a few at a time for precisely 30 seconds. She brought over a clock, leaned it next to the skillet and explained the procedure in detail. The water must be kept boiling, so as soon as she had blanched each piece of cauliflower, she removed it with a slotted spoon, put it into a bowl of cold water, and replaced the saucepan lid. This process was repeated six or seven times. Cutting the cauliflower into smaller pieces, she explained further: "When you wash cauliflower hold it up to the light. It's the only way you can see any slugs in it, otherwise you'll be boiling slugs." Then Rolandi uncovered a plastic bowl containing two kilo-sized pieces of ready-made dough from the bakery. You put the dough in a bowl and cover it with a woolen cloth and leave it for four days to turn sour without uncovering it or touching it at all. When you have scalded the cauliflower, uncover the dough and thin it down with water. Knead it until it acquires the consistency of condensed orangeade, adding tap water as necessary (around 3 liters). The moungra seasoning should be prepared in advance: 1 cup rock salt and 1 cup dark mustard seeds finely crushed. Use any receptacle that has a large enough opening to put your hand in comfortably. Place the pieces of cauliflower side by side and pack them tightly. Lightly season the first layer with salt and crushed mustard seeds, and repeat the process with each successive layer. Don't make the layers go right to the very top of the container, as there will be some fermentation and bubbling, which is quite likely to make it spill over. If this does happen, then the quality of the moungra will not be affected, but you will need to clean the outside of the container and put it onto a tray so that it does not soil the shelf. After some days the liquid in the jar will turn a milky color and the dough will form a sediment. After the first three days have passed, open the jar and remove one or two of the top layers. Replace them after turning over the pieces so that all of them get soaked in the liquid. After this, three or four times a day seal the lid properly and gently shake the jar so that both the upper and lower layers get soaked in the liquid. Leave it to mature for a week before you open it, remove the cauliflower, serve it on a plate and drench it with good olive oil. Different from the rest I have given you the instructions for preparing moungra in detail, as I believe that everyone who is interested in gastronomy should try the quality of this sour product, which differs from all others I have tried, but also for another reason as well: I wanted to present a traditional technique, which is both sophisticated and wise and requires many levels of knowledge, the result of which is far more imaginative than all the modern, one-dimensional foods that flood our lives, impoverishing our taste. Our hostess, moreover, who has traveled and accompanied her husband to all four corners of the Earth and has met countless kings, prime ministers, presidents and diplomats and who has eaten at their tables in both East and West, had prepared dishes with moungra (the last batch, as today's hadn't yet been finished) for a formal meal at her home that evening, with fondue bourguignon. Six genuine Swiss salads were to accompany the fondue along with the moungra - all prepared by the hands of this refined person, whose acquaintance I consider a privilege. 8 Femmes