Greece, since the days of Homer produces quality dairy products. The first ever reference to cheese making comes in the Odyssey. Perhaps surprisingly, the first recorded cheese maker ever is not any idyllic shepherd but none other than the one – eyed giant Cyclops. As Homer explains it, Cyclops was quite the avid milk fan. After he drank swaths of it, he would leave what was left in his cold, dark cave only to become cheese shortly thereafter.
Aristotle – when resting from the complicated moral issues he dealt with in his main lime of work-made cheese in his free time; and wrote a couple of recipes to remind himself. Thankfully, both his work and his cheese recipes are saved to this day.
Cheese making flourished during the Byzantine times as well. Among the very few records from that day, there are mentions of the “vlahiko” and “mytzithra” cheese. The Glory and the Flavor of Byzantium indeed.
The Greek dairy products have great nutritional value and they are rich in elements that are essential for the development of the human organism. However, the most dynamic Greek dairy products are: the famous feta and the also famous Greek yogurt.
Feta is arguably the best - known Greek food abroad. The European Union granted Greek Feta a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status and issued a decree prohibiting European countries other than Greece from using the name Feta. In Europe, similar cheeses now must be called “brined white cheese.” Within Greece, Feta can be made only in specific regions: Macedonia, Thrace, Thessaly, Central Mainland Greece, the Peloponnese, and Lesvos.
Feta is a simple cheese to make. It has a mild, milky flavor that remains fresh and accessible, one that can easily be enjoyed on a daily basis.
Greek Feta production abides by very specific rules that control the manufacture and the allowed percentage of goat’s milk in the cheese. Feta is made predominantly with sheep’s milk, although a small percentage of goat’s milk (up to 30%) can be added. Cow’s milk is never used in the production of true Feta.
Feta is mostly made in small dairies that buy the milk directly from surrounding farmers, but whether the dairy is large or small, the production process is similar.
The milk is either collected by or delivered to the cheese dairies on a daily basis. Sheep’s milk, compared to cow’s milk, is low in yield but high in protein and fat solids.
Greeks (together with the cheese-obsessed French) have the highest per capita cheese consumption in Europe. They are very particular about their Feta. Some like it soft and moist and rather mild, others prefer it as hard and crumbly as you can make it. Others want the distinct flavor of the goat-hide. Still others like their Feta to be lemony-sour.
Although the differences are subtle, cheese shops and markets throughout Greece carry at least a dozen types from different parts of the country. The most striking display is barrel-aged Feta, glistening with whey in the barrel, and cut in neat triangular wedges.
Feta is the quintessential Greek table cheese, but it is also excellent in all sorts of other dishes. As a main ingredient, it finds its way into savory pies, made with Feta and eggs, or combinations of cheeses, or mixtures of greens and cheese. It is also a staple on the meze table, and can be grilled or baked in paper and even sautéed, sometimes with a crust of nuts or sesame seeds or a simple egg and flour wash. In the summer, it is hard to avoid thinking of ripe, juicy tomatoes, crunchy cucumbers, and sharp, fleshy Greek olives. Add a few morsels of Feta and you’ve created the framework for a classic Greek salad. A diversity of ingredients makes it all the more opulent.Typical additions to this Greek classic are capers, dried Greek oregano, sliced peppers, fresh summer herbs such as mint, chopped scallions, thinly cut onions and a generous splash of extra virgin olive oil.
In Crete, the same basic ingredients comprise a local bread salad, made with the island’s whole wheat and barley rusks, which are moistened and used as a base for coarsely chopped the tomatoes, olives and onions. Local cooks drizzle some extra virgin olive oil and crumble some Feta on top of the whole salad; the rusk soaks up all the juices and softens. It’s a meal in itself.
Feta is almost always served with a whole family of foods in Greece known as lathera (vegetable stews gently simmered in olive oil until soft). In some parts of the country the cheese is mixed into the stewpot until it melts and melds with the vegetables, forming a creamy, luscious sauce.
Other Greek Cheeses
Anthotyro. (an-THOE-tee-roe) The word literally means "blossom" cheese, after the way the curds "blossom"-- as they are stirred, the curds rise to the tops of the vats and open in a shape resembling blooms. The cheese is similar to ricotta, but lightly salted. It is eaten fresh with jam or honey, and often baked into sweet pastries, especially around Easter time.
Graviera. Gra-vee-AIR-a) One of the best table cheeses in Greece produced in several areas. Graviera is generally a nutty, pale yellow cheese with a hard rind made either from sheep's milk or from cow's milk, depending on the region. Graviera, sweet, mellow, and nutty, is one of the most delicious Greek cheeses. The sheep's milk gravieras come from Crete, Mytilene, Dodoni, Arta and Kalpaki. (Crete is actually the most famous graviera-producing region, and here one of the unusual ways to serve the cheese is with honey and walnuts.) Cow's milk graviera, which is yellower and a little creamier, is made mostly in Tinos, Syros, Naxos, Corfu, Larissa, and Serres.
Kasseri. (Ka-SE-ree). Kasseri is the most popular table cheese after feta. It is a mild, yellow, spun-curd cheese made from either ewe's or cow's milk.
Kefalograviera (ke-fa-lo-gra-vee-AIR-a). Another pale-yellow cheese with a hard rind and an abundance of small air holes. As its name indicates, in both flavor and texture it falls somewhere between graviera and Kefalotyri. It can range from sweet and mild to quite piquant. Kefalograviera is the cheese of choice for grilling and frying, but it can also be eaten as a table cheese.
Kefalotyri (ke-fa-lo-TEE-ree). A very hard, light-yellow sheep's or goat's milk cheese with a sharp tangy flavor. The cheese is made mainly in Crete, as well as in Naxos, Cephalonia, Thessaly, and Epirus. It is a popular grating cheese.
Ladotyri (la-tho-TEE-ree). Another unusual product, the name of which means "oil cheese." The cheese, which is shaped like miniature barrels, is steeped in olive oil and aged for several months. Lesvos is the most famous place in Greece for ladotyri and most of what is in the U.S. is produced there. The cheeses is sharp, nutty and with a distinct, almost crunchy, texture. It’s excellent as a table cheese.
Manouri (ma-NOO-ree) This is a creamy, buttery mild white cheese that is sold in log-shaped loaves. It is excellent as a dessert cheese, topped with honey, or with poached fruits, and complements the sweet wines of Greece exceptionally well.
Metsovone (me-tsoe-VOE-ne). This is a rich, hard, smoked yellow cheese made in Metsovo, Epirus. It resembles smoked Provolone. Metsovone is made in large sausage like loaves, usually from raw cow's milk. It is delicious as a table cheese, but also is delicious fried (saganaki), as the local tavernas serve it--with a sprinkling of paprika--and melted into cheese sauce.
Myzithra (mee-ZEE-thra). The word dates to the 16th century, when it referred to a kneaded cheese. Myzithra is a feta byproduct. Traditionally the whey from feta is combined with some whole milk, and curdled for several days. The curds are collected, drained, lightly salted and pressed. Myzithra is sold either as a soft table cheese, or aged into rock-hard balls and used as a grating cheese.