The Glory of Greek Cheese: More than Just Feta
Alright so if you are Greek or have some inkling of Greek in you, you have been raised on Greek cheese. Do I smell feta? Feta, the most popular and the most widely used of Greek cheese, is my favorite. I grew up with feta for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and desert. For breakfast: feta with rusks paximadia or the friganies, Papadopoulos brand toasted crackers, bathed in butter and wild flower honey; for lunch, Greek salad with chunks of feta balancing on tomatoes sprinkled in a shower of pungent freshly picked oregano; for dinner, fried feta saganaki with omelet or tyropita with stuffed feta oozing warm from the oven; even for desert, juicy watermelon pinioned with a sprig of mint and what else? Feta! While feta is ubiquitous and the No 1 answer on Family Feud surveys of Greek cheese, it is not the only one.
In fact the universe of Greek cheese is so diverse, there are several types of Greek feta, pegged to the town or region of Greece they are coming from. And I am not including here the “wanna-be” feta, feta from Bulgaria or France. Perhaps you haven’t heard but the EU designated Greek feta as the one and ONLY, the real genuine Hellenic article. Just like bubbly white wine can only be called “champagne” if it comes from that region in France, feta can only be branded feta if it comes from Greece. But that’s only if you live in the EU. Here in America, any old salty white cheese can pass for feta. But we all know that the stuff sold in yogurt plastic containers passing for feta in your local Costco is not really feta. That’s because real feta is made from sheep or goat’s milk or a combo of the two and NOT cow’s milk.
Feta is the quintessence of the Greek table. It is available in various dishes and is used in many dishes, in addition to accompanying appetizers at the table. Grill it in the oven, bake it wrapped in paper, fry it – try frying it with nuts or sesame seeds, or sprinkle with egg and flour mixture. Whatever the case, the slice is a meal in itself. (By the way, “feta” means “slice” and comes down as the name of choice when grocers had to fish it out of the brine barrels by cutting a slice here and there.)
Cheeses in Greece, as people, are categorized geographically. Everyone knows where kefalograviera comes from-Crete. Feta Dodonis, that’s from Dodoni in the north. Regions of Hellas are known for their specific type of cheese. That’s because the specific environment that the sheep and goats pasture from that gives their milk the specific flavor. The goats on the dry Cycladic islands have become so tough and resistant their cheese comes out sharp and pungent with traces of the wild herbs and grasses they eat. There are distinctive flavors even to the same type of cheese based on where it comes from.
Here is a very short survey of the most popular types of Greek cheeses using a map:
Let’s start with Epiros, the kingdom of Feta. La crème de la crème of feta cheeses starts in Dodonis, the area near the ancient oracle and the amphitheater. Of course other places produce feta—Trikala, Metsovou, Corfu even. But somehow, Dodonis is creamier and richer (and that is reflected in the price).
In Epirus you will also find Galotiri, translated to “milk cheese” incredibly creamy and intense, but hard to find except outside the pastures of Epirus, Thessaly and Roumeli.
The tough, spicy Kefalotyri, picantico Kefalotiri, made from sheep’s and goat’s milk is mainly used for grating over macaronia. Sweet Manuri, made from sheep’s milk or a combination of sheep’s and goat’s milk with cream, is soft and placed in long white logs. Delicious with fruit or plain, as a dessert.
How about some Formella? a semi-solid cylindrical cheese with full, spicy taste produced from sheep’s milk or sheep and goat’s mixture from the Arachova area.
Agrafa Graviera from the far north of Epiros is pungent and fragranced by the aroma of the mountain flora from that famous mountain range. It can be made with both goat’s and sheep’s milk. In fact, Graviera is as widely produced and ubiquitous as feta– from northern Macedonia to the south in Crete, from Corfu to Mytilene.
The Peloponnesus is not so well known for its cheeses but there is one. Sphelas is sliced, but reheated, brine cheese made from sheep’s milk or a mixture of sheep and goat.
From the Aegean, in the Northeast, there is Sifno’s Manura, which ripens in a wine cellar. From Lemnos, Lemnos Basket, or
Kalathaki Lemnou, which looks like a slice of white goat’s brine cheese, and gets its name from the basket in which it is made.
A little further down, in the Dodecanese, there are Krasotiri and Sitaka.
You will find Krasotiri
(or wine cheese) in Kos – it looks like a trunk of wood, has streaks and is basted in wine. In recent years, producers have exported it. Similar cheeses infused with wine are found in Nisyros and Leros. Sitaka, a specialty of Kassos is very unique as it looks like your Greek yogurt gone bad. That’s because it is made from fermented sheep’s or goat’s milk. It is slightly salted and cooked in a slow oven in a traditional oven. It is served with delicious local pasta accompanied with caramelized onions.
Ladotiri Mytilene, from the island of Lesvos, is a very special spicy cheese with strong aroma that ripens in the oil, is made
from sheep ‘s milk that can be mixed with a little bit of goat too.
Full disclosure: as a Cycladic citizen myself, I can’t help but be partial to our cheeses. In fact you will find that healthy dose of Greek rivalry transfers across to cheese making too. There is San Michalis or St Michael’s cheese from Syros which dates back to the Venetians who made it with local goat’s. Think Greek parmesan. It also has a seal of Protected Designation of Origin from the EU. The Manifra Sifnos, with a pink hue and a strong wine aroma is also unique.
There’s Chlori of Santorini, eaten fresh and soft or ripe with pasta.
And don’t forget one of my favorites, Kopanisti, the smushed spicy cheese from Mykonos drenched in olive oil and packed with spices including thyme and oregano even red peppers which can be made from cow, sheep or goat’s milk.
If you are in Crete, you will understand why the Cretans consider cheese a part of their prosperity and longevity. In fact, the cheese is sacred to Zeus, king of the gods. He was brought up drinking goat’s milk from Amalthea because his mother Rhea hid him in a cave in Crete to shield him from his hungry father Cronos who was devouring his children.
Here is a short list: Graviera, this Cretan celebrity, has several tasty stages – sweet when “young” and walnut and intense when “ripe”. Kefalograviera is spicier and tougher than Graviera and is mainly table cheese, which is also used in pasticcio or moussaka. Mytzithra, fresh and milky, relatively low in calories, looks like ricotta. Staka takes cholesterol and taste naturally and is found only in western Crete. It is made from the cream of cream on top of sheep’s milk.
Xinomizithra is a soft cheese with a grainy and slightly sweet taste and is derived from the cheese obtained during the preparation of gruyere and kefalotyri, while the Cretans made strict provisions and specifications to distinguish it from other cheeses. And the peel has a sour, cool taste. Until a few decades ago all Chania residents made their own home. Today, it is exclusively produced in Chania cheese dairies.
Ios island Cheese:
As a proud member of the island of IOS (Ios, not Chios!) the party island one stop before Santorini or Naxos on the ferry, I am happy to note that cheeses made from our island have garnered awards. For a place with less than 2000 inhabitants, it has become a source of pride. I visited one of two cheese plants on the island last year and spoke to the family that is in charge of the operation.
Skotiri: very salty, very pungent, pounded to a paste resembles kopanisti cheese. You can’t hide it even if you are carrying a teeny tiny bit on you. Not for the light of stomach
Oinotiri: wine cheese, aged for years in barrels of wine and the mousto or grape jelly at harvest time.
Pepper Cheese: a barrel hard aged cheese full of peppercorns
Greek Cheese Factoids:
-Greeks, not the French, are the highest consumers of cheese in the world (French come second).
-the average Greek consumes about 50-65 pounds (23-30 kg) of cheese a year. At least half of that cheese consumed is feta.
-Back in 1996 Greece applied to the European Commission to include feta on the register of protected designations of origin (PDO). However, Denmark, Germany and France, challenged that decision, saying that the word feta is generic and simply describes salty cheese and the EC decision was cancelled. In 2002, however, feta was once again granted a protected designation of origin. This time, Germans and Danes took the case to court indicating that the manner and method of production is what’s important and not the country of origin. OK…but their “feta”, was primarily produced from cow’s milk, using different technology. The court was not convinced either and rejected the request. So hurray, finally feta has been “officially” Greek for 10 years! (Thanks to www.olivetomato.com for the back story).
-The word “feta” means “slice” and was the name that stuck because from the wood barrels it had to come out in thick slices.
-Greece has not just feta, but 20 other cheeses with the PDO designation
– a primitive form of feta is mentioned in the Odyssey, where the hero Odysseus takes the cheese made by the Cyclops Polyphemus while escaping from his cave
-Feta makes up roughly about 10% of the export market of Greece; for one single product, that’s a huge feta/slice of the barrel!