The first famous cheese maker – of feta cheese to be exact – in history was Cyclops Polyphemous, in Homer’s Odyssey! One-eyed he might be but also world renowned!
And just as world renowned are the varieties of Greek cheese: Cheese is one of the most basic elements not only in Greek and Mediterranean cuisine but in nutrition all over Europe. In Greece, cheese-making dates back many centuries. In fact, in ancient Greece, cheese was a kind of sacred food, since, in mythology, it is mentioned that cheese-making was a gift from the Olympian gods to Aristaeus, son of the god Apollo. Greece ranks third in varieties of cheese world-wide; and these varieties are well-known and loved. Therefore, despite the financial crisis of recent years, their export is steady and going well!
But what are the products – and, in extent, the types of cheese – that are named PDO?
According to the Greek Food and Drinks Code, cheese describes the product derived from the coagulation of milk with the help of rennet or enzymes, its drainage to eliminate whey, and its subsequent maturing.
The acronym PDO derives from the first letters of the words Protected Designation of Origin. This means that it describes items produced in a specific region and that they owe their quality and characteristics precisely to their special environment of produce. As far as cheese and related products are concerned, the characterization PDO is determined by the breed of the animals and the way they are reared, as well as the practices during the times of produce and maturing of each cheese.
In order to ensure quality and secure protection for those products produced in certain regions, the European Union has decreed Council Regulation (EC) 510/2006; in this regulation are listed all the products characterized as PDO. So, according to this Regulation, France is the queen of traditional cheese worldwide – with 37 officially listed PDO types of cheese and a total of between 350-450 different kinds of cheese! The legendary phrase of Charles De Gaulle comes to mind… “How can anyone govern a nation that has 240 different kinds of cheese?” Next on the list is Italy with 30 varieties; Greece follows with 20; and then comes Spain with 11, Portugal with 10, England with 8, Germany and Denmark with 2, Austria with 2 and Belgium with 1. From looking at this list, it is safe to conclude that worldwide traditional cheese production is basically a European affair!
In Greece, there have been listed more than 70 different kinds of traditional cheeses; from these, as mentioned before, unfortunately only 20 have been characterized as PDO on a worldwide basis so far. All Greek cheeses are produced with traditional methods; also, producers use fresh milk (instead of any other type), mostly sheep’s or a mixture of sheep’s and goat’s, to a percentage of approximately 20%. So let’s look at some of our most famous traditional cheeses…
No introductions needed, I assume, as this is the most famous PDO Greek cheese in the entire world! With its characteristic white color and its acidic taste, feta is made with sheep’s milk and preserved in brine, either in traditional wooden barrels or tin containers. There are many delicious variations to feta, depending on the region where it is produced. Greek feta has been making an international career for many years. Yet, it is common knowledge that foreign super market chains, as well as catering companies (especially in the US) choose to supply their stock with Bulgarian white cheese that resembles feta – due to its lower cost; something that strikes a hard blow to Greek exports. But this is not the first time that the queen of Greek cheese has been under attack in the field of global trade, since our country faced special problems when trying to list feta as PDO; this was because certain of our European partners (Germans and Danes in particular) obstructed the procedures for a long time, arguing that feta is not a particular type of cheese but a family of different cheeses!
Graviera of Crete
The island of Crete is a blessed place. It produces the best quality of nearly everything; its graviera, in particular, is justifiably famous all over the world. It has a slightly acidic taste; it is made with combined sheep and goat’s milk and matures in the caves of Cretan mountains. We love it and cook it in every possible way!
Graviera of Naxos
It is the only graviera made of cow’s milk and to this fact it owes its particularly novel and delicious taste. It is produced exclusively in the Cyclades, in the beautiful island of Naxos. It has been officially listed as a PDO product; and a special way to enjoy it is with melon, as the combination best brings out the taste of the cheese.
Ladotyri of Mytilene
This is one of the most famous and loved cheeses of Lesvos; with a full, spicy taste and a peppery aroma. It is a typical table cheese, made with combined sheep and goat’s milk. It matures in olive oil and this fact skyrockets its nutritional value.
All Greeks love this cheese and honor it accordingly! Actually, in Thessaloniki, it is so well-loved that all yellow cheeses are referred to as kasseri! It is made exclusively with sheep’s milk, using the technique of elastic cheese mass, which we acquired from the Italians hundreds of years ago. That’s where it owes its ability to melt uniformly… therefore, Greek pizza… will only have kasseri!
Mizithra is made of tyrogalos, with the addition of fresh milk. Depending on the region of produce, either sheep, goat or even cow’s milk is used. It is a white cheese with an underlining acidic taste. In the market, we can find both its fresh or dry form. The latter is quite hard, with a strong taste and aroma; this makes it an excellent ingredient for pasta and pie.
Else called the cheese of those in-the-know! It is a perfect accompaniment for drinking ouzo by the beach – either raw or cooked as saganaki. It is a hard cheese made with combined sheep and goat’s milk, with a particularly spicy and acidic taste. When matured properly, we can add it to pasta or the traditional pastitsio. It is produced in West Macedonia and Epirous, as well as in the prefectures of Aitoloacarnania and Evritania.
It is the historically oldest of Greek hard cheeses. It is made with either sheep or goat’s milk and takes at least 3 months to mature. It is especially acidic and spicy, with a very pleasant aroma. It is produced in many regions: Central Greece, Peloponnese, Macedonia, Epirous, Thessaly, Crete, as well as the Ionian islands.
Katiki of Domokos
It is a typical PDO product; its very name declares so. It is the favorite traditional cheese of those who want to stay fit. It is a spread-like cheese, with a very light aroma and taste, and very few calories and fat. It is a table cheese made with combined sheep and goat’s milk in the region of Domokos, on the plateau of Othris, in the prefecture of Fthiotida. Its production is based on a traditional technique; one that has been used for many years and passed from one generation to the next among the families of regional shepherds.
Graviera of Agrafa
There are many who claim that this is the best graviera ever made on Greek soil! This may well be the centre of eternal dispute among “cheese lovers” everywhere! This cheese encompasses all the perfumes and tastes of the herbs growing on the Agrafa mountains; one of its characteristics is that, when baked and melting, it doesn’t form a thick crust. It is a hard yellow cheese with a slightly sweet taste, made either with sheep or combination of sheep and goat’s milk.
A soft white cheese with a buttery taste, which we often use in the making of desserts or serve with honey and nuts. If allowed to mature further, it has the ability to grow rather hard and can be grated over pasta. It is produced in Macedonia and Thessaly; the most famous for both quality and taste is the one made in the region of Vlasti.
A traditional white cheese, made by combining tyrogalos with fresh sheep’s milk or sour cream. There are two types of anthotyros: fresh and dry. Fresh anthotyros is a brittle white fresh cheese, ideal for the making of tyropita (cheese pie). This fresh type usually contains low quantities of salt and fat – making it ideal for diet. Hard anthotyros is very compact and salty, with a rather spicy taste and less popular than the fresh type; yet its taste combines well with both salad and pasta.
A smoked cheese made of combined cow and sheep’s milk, using the technique of elastic cheese mass. It comes from Metsovo, as the name declares, and is a creation of the creamery of the Foundation of Baron Michael Tossizza. It is extremely popular in Greece, especially in recent years, since there is a trend that has matched it with nights spent in the company of friends, being baked in the fireplace and served with the best Greek wines!
Kalathaki of Limnos
It owes its name to the cute shape of the small basket where it matures. It is white and looks like feta; yet it is much more salty and perhaps more buttery in taste. It is produced exclusively in Limnos by sheep or combination of sheep and goat’s milk; and it encloses all the wonderful aromas of the island.
Xinomizithra of Crete
Εlse called the Greek version of Italian mozzarella! This is one of the most typical Cretan cheeses: it is a white soft cheese with an acidic taste. We like to consume it at any given place in any given time, as it combines well with salad, with meat, in desserts, with honey and nuts…
Very spicy and especially peppery, it tickles the palate and ideal when served with ouzo or tsipouro! It is a creamy cheese, made with combined sheep and goat (even cow’s) milk, maturing under the burning sun of the Cyclades. Pies made in these islands cannot do without this cheese…
San Michalis cheese
It is worldwide considered one of the finest Greek cheeses! Rich in aroma and taste, it is made exclusively with cow’s milk and quite resembles the Italian parmesan cheese. San Michalis is a traditional white-yellow cheese of Syros and was named in honor of St Michael, the local saint of the island.
A cheese produced and matured on Mt Parnassus; more specifically in the famous village of Arachova, one of the most popular winter tourist destinations. Formaela is a medium-hard and medium-salty cheese, sold in small cylindrical items and is ideal for saganaki.
It quite resembles formaela but produced in the Kalavrytochoria of Achaia and on the mountains of Zireia. It is a salty cheese with a very rich buttery taste, made exclusively with fresh full-fat sheep or goat’s milk. Its use in traditional green-pies almost touches perfection.
Also called the feta of fire, since this is a kind of feta produced by reheated cheese mass. It is made with goat’s milk and is a traditional cheese of the Peloponnese – of the prefectures of Messinia and Laconia, in particular. Its name derives from the way the cheese is cut – as sfela means stripe; and the best way to taste it is baked on aluminum foil.
We find it on Mt Pelion and it is a very particular type of cheese, maturing in special containers, with the addition of fresh milk. Its taste is slightly acidic and it is made with goat’s cheese. Yogurt lovers definitely prefer it, as the taste strongly reminds us of Greek yogurt. The best galotiri is produced in Mt Pelion and takes at least two months to mature properly.
Pychtogalo of Chania
Pychtogalo is a kind of Cretan xinomizithra. It has a spread-like texture, while it differs from the rest of Cretan mizithra since it is made directly with a mixture of sheep, goat and cow’s milk – instead of tyrogalos. Like galotiri, it has a yogurty texture and a slightly acidic taste; therefore, it can be combined with sweet and salty foods alike.
It is a favorite cheese for diet, as it is naturally very low in fat. It is produced in Central Macedonia and Thessaly and has a spicy taste, with an underlining acidity.
It resembles anthotyros very much because it is a soft white cheese, with a slightly acidic taste, that is consumed fresh. It is produced in the cities of Grevena and Kozani. It owes its name to its production process, during which the coagulating milk rises to the surface of the cauldron instead of moving to its bottom due to gravity. Anevato has a very rich taste and, ideally, should be allowed to mature for at least two months.
This cheese actually comes from Romania; from there, it spread to the Balkans. In Greece, its systematic produce started in the beginning of the 20th century – rather late in comparison. It looks quite a bit like feta; made of cow, sheep or goat’s milk; and is kept strictly in tinplate containers in order to mature.
This cheese dates back to the days when Greece was under Turkish rule, when the thieves would use fleeces to make it and, still wrapped in them, would carry it to the mountains. It is quite hard and spicy, and matures in sacks. Today, there are few regions that still produce it the traditional way – mostly the Cyclades, Lesvos and Kea.
It is produced almost exclusively in Cyprus and is very particular in both taste and texture; this happens because, when allowed to mature, it is kept in brine flavored with fresh spearmint leaves. It is very famous as saganaki or baked on the grill.
No matter how much I write, it’s so difficult to complete this article because Greek cheeses are a huge chapter of both Greek and global gastronomy! From one island to another… from one village to the next… our cheese making tradition has been unfolding for centuries – like so many other things (arts, customs and traditions) in this corner of the Earth called Greece. And no matter how hard certain someones are trying to convince us of the opposite, we’re lucky to have them and worthy of preserving and evolving them…