August 10, 2022.27 min read.Featured
——— By Kendall

(Our Experience of) Greek Cheese Culture

Various Feta assortment in tins offered in a Greek cheese shop

Feta. Ask the average person to name a Greek cheese, and they’ll probably say Feta. (Okay, maybe not the average person, but at least your everyday cheese lover.) As cheesemongers, we’d also heard of Myzithra, a fresh cheese made from whey and sheep milk, somewhat akin to Ricotta. But honestly, that was the extent of our knowledge about Greek cheese. (If you’re wondering about Halloumi, a grilling cheese, it actually originates nearby on the island of Cyprus. While it has spread throughout the Mediterranean, it was not commonly found in Greece.)

Parthenon in Athens, Greece

So you can imagine our excitement when we decided our annual family trip this year would be to Greece. (Well, it was determined the year Covid hit, and has been rescheduled yearly since then. But finally, the trip was here and time to use those expiring credits!) Every year, we promise the kids that we’ll take a “month off” to spend time with them – off devices and away from daily work. That’s what gets us through those guilt-ridden holidays when our kids are sitting on a bench in the Cheese Shop while we work round the clock, or in the case of this past year, when they jump in to help manage lines and grab preordered cheese trays. Now, of course, it doesn’t hurt that each of our family trips has included a lot of cheese – and specialty food – research. I mean, isn’t that what vacation is?! Eating a lot? We just make sure it includes a lot of cheese. So while we’re not exactly working, we are learning and getting better at our trade, as well as meeting our producers and sourcing new products to carry. In fact, on our trip to Spain in 2019, we visited 18 cheesemakers across the country in the span of 30 days (basically living out of a car). That didn’t include the other producers we visited, from olive harvesters to jamon iberico curers to marcona almond folks. Okay, I’ve digressed significantly already. Greece. We were headed to Greece. And we were intent to fill in some gaps in our knowledge about Greek cheese. We spent John’s 40th birthday packing, and on May 22, we took off for our month in Greece. 

Historical Significance of Greek Cheese

Before we journey to a new place, we often revisit Cheese Slices, a film series diving into a region’s specialty cheeses, produced and narrated by Will Studd, an international cheese specialist. (Honestly, we can’t tell you how many date nights we spent watching an episode. Granted, that was pre-cheese shop and pre-kids…basically when we had free time!) I’ll let the Australian Will Studd sum up a history of cheese in Greece here:

Photos of Greek shepherds and cheesemakers hanging in a cheese shop on Naxos

“The significance of Greek cheese is grossly underestimated. It pre dates all other European cheeses made from cows milk, and the French name ‘Fromage’ and Italian ‘Formaggio’ stems from the Greek word ‘formoi’, a reference to baskets used to drain curd during cheesemaking. What’s more the earliest written records of how to make cheese date back to the ancient Greeks who very wisely regarded it as ‘food of the gods’, as well as providing essential nutrition for mere mortals. Milk and yoghurt have always formed an important staple of the Greek diet and there are literally hundreds of different types of cheese made on the mainland and islands, many of which have never been documented. The majority are fresh salted cheeses, sometimes matured for a few months under olive oil or wine, but unlike the cheeses of Northern Europe they are frequently used for cooking both savoury and sweet dishes, as well as being crumbled into delicious salads on hot summer days. Any one who has been lucky enough to enjoy the generous hospitality of Greece for just a few days will understand why the locals eat more cheese per head of population than any nation on earth.” Read More Here.

So, what did we find?

Greek shepherd crossing a street with a herd of sheep

Cheesemaking: The majority of Greek cheeses are made from goat and sheep milk. In fact, in certain areas, we were hard pressed (haha – cheese puns) to find a cheese made from cow milk. We have numerous videos and photos of both domesticated and wild goats and sheep traversing roads and mountain paths, yet we only recall seeing cows maybe three times the entire trip. Our thought is that it has to do with the terrain. Greece, situated in the Mediterranean, has diverse terrain but was predominately rocky and bushy, ideal for goats and sheep. There weren’t a whole lot of green pastures, better suited for dairy cows. In fact, we don’t remember feeling grass under our feet once on our entire month-long trip. Greece is mountainous; at times, you’re atop a rocky ridge staring at the sea just miles away. Nearby tiny islands, some made from volcanoes, go from sea level straight up a cliffside to mountaintop within a hundred yards. Neither makes for vast expanses of lush grazeland. In fact, every bit of square acreage (or hectarage) was taken up with olive trees, interspersed with occasional vineyards and citrus groves, as well as wild-growing fig trees (the biggest we’ve ever seen!). Many goats and sheep roam freely in mixed herds, without fences. The wild goats in Crete that dot the rocky hillsides are known as Kri-Kri, but these are far from dairy animals and get to live out their lives protected and respected. 

Cheese shop owner in Napflio showing John a specialty aged cheese in a gourd

Cheese Shops: Every cheese case featured three main categories of cheese: a variety of Fetas (in both plastic/tin tubs and barrel-aged), fresh cheeses (both to eat crumbled and also for grilling), and all sized wheels of Graviera – or what was labeled in English as “Greek Gruyere.” We didn’t see a single bloomy-rinded cheese (like a brie-style), nor a stinky washed rind cheese (with that characteristic orange-hue and b. linens), unless they were imported. We wish we could tell you more here, but our inability to speak Greek turned out to be a significant barrier. We were making all sorts of animal sounds in those cheese shops, trying to verify the milk type of a cheese. (Oh Americans!) A week into the trip, Everett started Duolingo just to learn some basic Greek and help us read road signs. (For the record: Cheese is τυρί in Greek, pronounced “tyrí.”) Still, we managed to find our “whey” into numerous shops and found similar cases in each: numerous offerings of three types of cheese, all made from the milk of goat, sheep, or a blend.

Cheese section of a menu in Greece

Cheese Service (ie Restaurants & Bakeries): Almost every single menu, without fail, had an entire cheese dish section listing about 7 dishes, mainly featuring some sort of grilled cheese. By “grilled cheese,” we’re not referring to sandwiches here. No bread is involved. In fact, these grilling cheeses refer to a slab of cheese that is grilled directly in a pan or on a grill. Due to the way these grilling cheeses are madethey won’t melt and run all over the place; instead, a slab warms up like a perfect cheese “steak”. In addition to that, cheese was incorporated into numerous dishes, including seafood dishes (surprisingly! The Italians must roll their eyes at this!) and of course, dessert dishes. Main ways we’d see cheese at a restaurant are (but certainly not limited to!):

  • On or in Salads
    • Choriatiki, a traditional Greek Salad, includes tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, sometimes olives and onions, and most often a thick slice of Feta on top (or occasionally crumbled and mixed in), all drizzled in great olive oil.
    • On the island of Milos, we also saw Watermelon Salads with Feta.
    • Numerous other salads, almost every one incorporating some type of cheese, whether a fresh goat cheese or aged Graviera.
  • Cheese Apps and off the Cheese Menu Section (ie “composed” cheese dishes)
    • Saganaki just means “little frying pan.” A [Insert Specific Cheese Name] Saganaki simply means it’s grilled straight in a frying pan and served heated, with a nice golden brown crust.
    • Tiropita or cheese pies made of phyllo dough, cheese, and egg. 
    • Numerous phyllo-dough cheese pastries, subject to regional variations and specialties. The most famous we’d heard of before is Spanakopita, or a cheese and spinach stuffed or layered phyllo dough pastry.
    • Tirokroketes are breaded and fried cheese balls, usually made with a mix of Graviera, Feta, and Gouda. (Think mozz sticks but in round form!)
    • Lots of Cheese Spreads, made with a combination of cheeses, milk or yogurt, and other seasonings like peppers and vinegars. They especially love a spicy cheese spread called Tirokafteri.
    • Kolokithokeftedes, or fried zucchini and cheese balls, as well as numerous other cheese stuffed veggies like peppers, mushrooms, and eggplant.
  • Prevalent in traditional cooked Greek Dishes
    • Saganaki Shrimp and Saganaki Muscles were on most menus, referring to these seafoods stir fried in a pan with a tomato-based sauce and topped with cheese.
    • Papoutsakia or Stuffed Eggplant was a baked eggplant dish stuffed with meat and cheese and covered in tomato sauce with a bechamel.
    • Pastitsio is a Greek lasagna, or layers of long hollow noodles with meat sauce, cheese, bechamel, and tomato sauce. (Our daughter’s fave!)
  • Dessert Courses
    • Bougatsa is a sweet phyllo dish layered with cheese or custard and sometimes topped with cinnamon and powdered sugar.
    • A Feta slab wrapped in phyllo and baked, then drizzled in honey and sprinkled with sesame seeds.

About the Cheese

Barrel-aged Feta

Feta is a name-controlled cheese. To be called Feta in Greece (or anywhere in the European Union), the cheese must be made of at least 70% sheep milk and the remainder with goat milk. (These name controls aren’t currently enforced in the United States, so many US producers make and sell their version of a Feta made with goat milk or occasionally cow milk, in no small part due to the scarcity of sheep milk in the US and the high costs associated with producing it.) Feta is a fresh cheese that is then preserved in brine. Traditional production used barrels to age these brined cheeses, imparting a flavor to the cheese much like barrels impart flavors to bourbon or wine. We found that various regions and even localities had their own preferred Feta and pride in their locally-made version, each boasting that theirs was the best. While we made sure to try Feta at every cheese shop, we can’t personally say that one was better than the other. (Hey, remember that we were a little distracted while making animal noises and all…) Throughout Greece, like most other places in the world, Feta is produced both industrially in large factories and artisanally in smaller batches by hand. 

  • In our cheese shop, we regularly offer Pure Luck Dairy’s Feta, made from 100% Nubian and Alpine goat milk; while not Greek Feta, it’s darn delicious and has even won numerous awards, including first in its category of American-made Fetas. 
  • You’ll also occasionally find a Essex Greek Feta in our case which we source through our friends at Essex Street Cheese. Hailing from the Greek island of Lesbos and made with 100% Lesbian sheep milk, this Feta is made seasonally December through July when the sheep graze on sun and sea splashed hills during their milking season.

Soft Cheeses like Manouri and Myzithra, made from whey and added milk, are usually eaten fresh on salads and dessert courses. Other soft cheeses sold in the Cheese Shop are tasteless if eaten straight out of the case, and instead are meant to be grilled and served hot. Examples include Formaela cheese in Arachova and Katsohiri cheese in Crete.

Lastly, we saw “Greek Gruyere” on many menus, only to discover its Greek name, Graviera. We found versions of all sizes, many ages, and made from various milk types. It’s also a PDO (“protected designation of origin”) cheese; to that end, it must contain at least 40% fat with a maximum moisture content of 38%. That means most of the Graviera is aged to be a firm or hard cheese. Graviera is delicious on a cheese plate and also eaten grated and cooked. While the agricultural island of Naxos had cow’s milk Graviera, the Cretan sheep’s milk Graviera is one of the most well-known. It’s sweet and buttery with nutty undertones. We loved it so much, we carried a wheel around Greece and brought it back as a team present. Definitely stay on the lookout for Graviera – and know that, like Feta, it differs from producer to producer and in various regions. Our suggestion? Try it again and again. (If you’re like us and you grab a hunk of hard cheese and cured meat to carry around in a backpack for an emergency “I need food now” situation, Graviera is your go-to choice in Greece.)

Of course, these were the main cheeses that stood out to us from counter to counter, menu to menu. However, in no way is this list exhaustive. To name a few, we also came across Kefalotyri, Kasseri, and Kefalograviera. The Spruce Eats lists a number of Greek cheeses, as well as has links for lots of Greek recipes and applications.

Visiting a Greek Cheesemaker

Before we travel, we often line up a series of producer visits. However, we also like to rent a car and veer off path, following any sort of “cheese” or “dairy” sign we see. We decided to lean on the latter strategy for this trip, which proved to be quite a challenge since we’re not as familiar with the Greek alphabet, nor do we speak the language. Oh, and a tip: Google led us on three different wild goose chases to a “cheese shop” only to find it was a cheese factory closed to the public. But it was worth it each time; you never know what adventures await. At one, John ended up being grilled in the CEO’s office about why we were on premise. Woops! At another, the two workers just cut me off a big fresh hunk of Graviera, wanted to pose for pictures with me, and sent me on my way. Needless to say, we’d had varying levels of success. So, while on the big island of Crete, we called a tour guide and asked him to arrange a cheese visit. He found the same thing we did: cheese tourism is not a thing there. But he did find a willing participant, took us into the interior White Mountains, and translated for us as we got a walkthrough of the creamery. While far from being able to deduce or stereotype about all Greek producers, this is what we learned from this specific maker, Typokomeion Eyarrelos Kostakis. 

They’re a small family operation, situated in the quaint town of Tzitziphia (with two other small cheesemakers). They source milk from 50-60 farmers in the area; in fact, one dairyman was delivering his five plastic tubs of sheep milk while we were there. Their team of four cheesemakers produce 120K kilos of Graviera per year. Each wheel of Graviera is made of 80% sheep and 20% goat milk. While we were there, they had five vats going at once; two were producing Graviera; Ricotta was being made in the third from the leftover whey of the Graviera production. They are usually making four vats of pasteurized Graviera at a time. (Note that while this is small compared to industrial standards, it’s still a lot more than a one–vat operation!) Once made, the cheese wheels are pressed to expel moisture and they are sent to the aging rooms in the basement, using a lift to get the cheeses up and down. We’re grateful for the “tennis shoe tour” (ie in an out visit) we got. Hopefully, our guide can continue to encourage the growth of the agro-tourism industry into cheesemaking. For now, just know that it’s not a developed tourist activity. (Give Yiannis from Chania a call on Crete and ask him to arrange it; just don’t expect any bells and whistles. We were grateful that the guys let us get a behind-the-scenes peek at their operation, but it definitely wasn’t customer-facing.)

Final Thoughts

We got schooled. The Greeks consume “whey” more cheese than we ever could in one sitting. Embarrassingly, at one point, we even said, “We cannot look at another piece of cheese.” We loved their willingness to put it on seemingly most things and their complete disregard for the hot weather when ordering all these hot, grilled cheeses. (Sort of reminds us of Texans eating melted Tex-Mex queso in the dead of summer! Now we know how “outsiders” look at us and think we’re crazy.)

Like every other cheese we’ve ever met, not all Feta is created equal. Try as many versions as you can – and definitely specially seek out the traditional, barrel-aged versions since they are harder to find in the US. (These are also not likely to be the ones on your typical Greek salad offered at every Greek Taverna.) Look for flavors ranging from buttery to peppery with both soft and crumbly textures. Same goes for Graviera: challenge yourself to find versions made from each of the three milks (cow, goat, sheep) and distinguish the difference. Sweeter? Nuttier? Fruitier? Tangier?

Take a food class. While we couldn’t find a cheese-centric class, cooking classes teaching the Greek classics (like Moussaka and Stifado) were prevalent. That would be a great place to ask some cheese centric questions while presumably speaking with someone who speaks English. (Better yet – learn some Greek in advance!)

Lastly, and you can read more about this on our Antonelli Travel Tips for Foodies (coming soon), seek out specialty stores, always visit the local open-air or enclosed markets, and never pass up a chance to wander through pop-up farmers’ markets for treats you can’t experience anywhere else.

P.S. Despite all the cheese we ate, guess what the first meal we had was upon landing in the DFW airport? Chili’s queso. Yep! Guess we hadn’t had our fill after all…

Written by Kendall & John Antonelli

NOTE: Right as we went to publish this piece on our blog, our weekly email from Culture Magazine: The Word on Cheese showed up in our inboxes. And lo and behold, they featured an article titled, “Cheese + Fish: It’s all Greek to Me.” It’s a great read and includes history on when, where, and why pairing cheese and seafood became taboo, as well as how the Greeks defy that mentality daily! They followed it up with an article distinguishing what makes Feta – and different versions of it – unique; check out “A Feta Odyssey in Greece.”

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