MENIKO, Cyprus -- Her sleeves rolled up, 63-year-old Augustina Nichola crouches over a vat full of fresh goat milk. With a slow flame burning underneath, she uses her bare hands to stir.
Slowly, the milk begins to solidify and Nichola starts removing slabs of a creamy substance that she wraps in white cloths and places under square marble tiles to squeeze out any liquid that remains.
This is the way to make traditional halloumi cheese, the Cypriot delicacy that has for centuries been a staple on this eastern Mediterranean island.
Cypriots say halloumi is unique to the island but, as they try to export it, they've wound up in an international trademark battle. Other cheese makers -- faraway Danes -- say Cyprus' halloumi is much like other Mediterranean cheeses and thus deserves no special cachet.
Halloumi has a salty tang and its rubbery texture gives it an unusual property: it can be grilled or fried without melting. If made of goat milk only, as tradition dictates, it can keep for up to a year without refrigeration.
In the village of Meniko outside Nicosia, Nichola has been making halloumi for 18 years at a small farm with a herd of 300 goats. It's a family business like hundreds of similar operations across the island.
Combined, they meet half the domestic demand for halloumi. The remainder of the $10 million local market is supplied by big manufacturers.
"We make it the traditional way," Nichola proudly declares, saying mass-produced halloumi is too moist and goes bad unless refrigerated because it also contains sheep and cow milk.
The steady stream of buyers at the farm in the foothills of the Troodos mountains testifies to the quality of her cheese.
"We don't supply supermarkets or even small grocery stores. People just come here from Meniko and surrounding villages to buy," says Anna Kambari, part of the family that owns the farm where Nichola works.
Halloumi is almost a national symbol for Cyprus' 700,000 people. It is found in virtually every home, thanks to its surprisingly varied use -- Cypriots eat it fresh with watermelon and figs, use it in sandwiches and omelets, eat it grilled or fried, and even grate it for pasta dishes.
Despite its versatility, the cheese remains little known in most of the world, but that's changing.
Halloumi is showing encouraging signs of turning into a growth export, with markets as far afield as the Persian Gulf, the United States, Brazil and West Africa.
Cypriot exporters most want to break into the mainstream market in the United States and western Europe, where ethnic Greek and Middle Eastern communities remain the main halloumi buyers.
In 1997, Cyprus exported 2,240 tons of halloumi, nearly half to Arab countries. Only 91 tons went to the United States, where authorities in 1990 awarded Cyprus halloumi an exclusive trademark.
"We have recently entered gourmet shops in selected U.S. cities in the hope that halloumi will be noticed and picked up by the big supermarket chains," said Mylonas Pittas.
His Pittas Dairy Industries has built a $20 million plant in hopes of expanding export sales.
But the way ahead for Cypriot halloumi depends in part on fending off assaults by rival producers in Turkey and Denmark. That means obtaining trademark recognition in Europe and preventing halloumi from becoming a generic name like, for example, Greece's feta cheese.
Pittas and Panicos Hadjicostas of the Christis dairy, another big concern, say cheese from Denmark and the Turkish-occupied north of Cyprus is competing with their halloumi in key markets.
Danish dairy producers have challenged the U.S. trademark awarded to Cyprus halloumi, and the case has dragged on for seven years, involving expert witnesses from Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and the United States.
Dennis Droushiotis, head of the Cyprus trade office in the United States, said in a telephone interview from New York that a verdict in the halloumi case is expected soon.
"In the meantime," he said, "a seven-ton trial shipment of halloumi is on its way to Brazil, where a large Arab community makes it an extremely promising market."
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