Greek island cheese... a divine affair!
Polyphemus, the Cyclops who was defeated by the legendary Odysseus on his island, was perhaps the first cheesemaker recorded in written text and according to Homer, he made a renowned sheep’s milk cheese! According to legend, it is on the island of Naxos that Aristeas, son of Apollo lived and taught cheesemaking. Hermes flew with his winged sandals from one island to the next as divine protector of shepherds who called him “tyrefti”, the bestower of cheese. So many tales and Greek myths... all around this unique island product of cheese.
On more than one hundred inhabited Greek Islands, livestock farming, has secured the nutrition and livelihood of the inhabitants.
The climate conditions and the natural environment of most Greek islands have led inhabitants to raise sheep and goats. Certain islands in the Cyclades are the exception where, cows have been traditionally bred since the 17th century. In-deed, some species of these animals have evolved, over time, adapted perfectly to the peculiarities of each island. Τough and resistant enough to survive volcanic soils, these animals produce milk rich in fat, suitable for the production of excellent cheese.
The particularly husky Chios sheep breed with high lambing rate is indicative of this adaptation. Also, the sheep of Lesvos, with Eastern roots, have perfectly adapted to the island and are sought after for breeding on mainland Greece. Others include the hefty Kefalonia and Zakynthos sheep with high milk production, the small but productive Sfakia sheep of Crete and the goat breed of Skopelos. These are just some of the most well known.
The sun, the soil and the saltiness of the sea endow the islands with rich and varied flora including all kinds of herbs and aromatic plants. This unique vegetation provides grazing land for the animals, creating the most favorable conditions to produce delectable sheep’s, goat’s or cow’s milk.
When this very milk is processed with the experience, eternal knowledge and passion of the small island cheesemaker, then truly wondrous tastes are created that rival any of the famous European cheeses.
For centuries, the production of cheese on the islands was a family affair. The unique technique and traditions of each family were reflected in the cheese each village produced thereafter.
Continual growth and progress led to small organized dairies that meet all mod-ern standards, implementing HACCP and ISO systems combining tradition with technology. This results in the production of safe, appetizing, unique products that delight the tastes of the consumers and have won the trust of markets at home and abroad.
Additional factors that make the island cheese unique is the short distances between the grazing fields and the dairy. This favors an immediate transfer of the milk. The cheese-making —only a few hours after milking— captures all the fla-vors of aromatic herbs and spices. The small quantity of milk processed by dairies combined with the personal alliance between the cheesemaker and the shepherd, ensure the pure quality of the product.
It is practically impossible to list by name all the fine dairy products you can taste in the Greek islands. Even homonymous products differ in taste and aromas from island to island.
The Graviera (Gruyere) of Crete made from sheep's milk and its spicy flavor results from 12 months maturation, whereas the famous Graviera of Naxos has the characteristic taste of cow's milk. A similar Graviera is prepared in Tinos in minor amounts. In Zakynthos, the Graviera matures in olive oil, and such is the case with the unique and famous “ladotyri” of Lesvos. The San Michalis Graviera of Syros deservedly competes with parmesan cheese. Indeed, one may find Gra-viera on all islands, each with its own distinct identity.
“Kefalotyri” cheese is made in many parts of the Greek islands from sheep’s and goat’s milk. The flavor is salty and spicy and is the perfect accompaniment to a spicy pasta dish. As for hard cheeses, we should mention the very popoular “Κaseri” cheese made from goat's milk. The “Krasotyri” - wine cheese - of Kos and similar cheeses in Nisyros and Leros islands mature by marinating in mud or lees of wine —the yeast at the bottom of wine vats. The “Arseniko” of Naxos, the “Volaki” of Tinos, the “Corfu” of Corfu and the “Mytato” of Kythira are deserving competitors on the list.
The king of soft cheeses, manufactured on the Aegean islands is the PDO “Feta” cheese prepared only in Lesvos and Lemnos and PDO “Kalathaki” cheese of Lemnos, which gets its name from the shape of the small basket it is stored in while it matures. On the other islands, other varieties of soft white cheese— variants of feta—are produced, but cannot bear the name “feta” since they are not designated PDO and thus they are found under other various names such “Armogalo” from Samos, “Kathoura” from Ikaria, “Armexia” from Andros, “Petroto” of Tinos, “Xyno” from Kea and “Lefko Tyri” from Crete.
Specialties of Chios island and the Cyclades islands are “Kopanisti”, a soft cheese which is an excellent accompaniment to ouzo and raki, with a flavor that rivals French Roquefort. In Chios we also find the famous “Mastelo” cheese which, like the “Melichloro” cheese of Lemnos is ideal for frying in a pan or on a griddle.
Another well known cheese is “Mizithra”, often served as a dessert, on it’s own or accompanied by honey or consumed dry and salted. Another such variant includes “Xynomyzithra” of Crete.
Greece boasts 20 types of cheese registered as PDO cheese. The cheese can be served at all hours of the day during different courses of a meal, either alone or as complement to other dishes. It is always a favorite choice and may often be consumed as a main course.
It is no wonder that Greece is first in per capita cheese consumption worldwide! It is no coincidence that, in Greek mythology, the goat Amalthea nurtured and brought up the king of gods, Zeus, in a cave in Crete!
by Giannis S. Tsakiris
Veterinarian - Former President of the Geotechnical Chamber of the Aegean Islands