At the foot of the Acropolis in Athens lies the Acropolis Museum, a repository of treasures recovered from the hilltop site of ancient temples and edifices. From the museum’s cafe, you can gaze up, toward the Parthenon, the rebuilt fifth-century B.C. temple of Athena that sits on top of the citadel, or look down at the excavations of millennia-old dwellings and structures below your feet.
Walking across see-through floors of the modern museum is to tread across time, a worldly city revealed underfoot, while inside its recovered artifacts rub shoulders with the statuary toppled from their pedestals on the Acropolis.
This trip to Greece was the dream of a lifetime. A bucket-list item, as some would call it. The day before I was to ascend the Acropolis, I visited the museum to prepare myself. It turned out to be a wise decision.
When it comes to viewing ruins, it’s essential to understand how buildings actually looked before they were destroyed. Along with reconstructed friezes were schematics and models, descriptions providing historic context, and many other exhibits to give the visitor a sense of how buildings appeared, and how they were constructed and decorated.
As an American, born and raised in the New World, my visit to Greece went beyond my expectations. And it also left me with an unexpected feeling. Hope!
It’s as if the antiquities of Greece defiantly said to its destroyers, its conquerors, the Persians, the Romans, the barbarians, the Ottomans, “You are gone, but we’re still here.”
Athens, which birthed so much of Western culture, instills in the visitor a sense of continuity. It is reassuring in the chaotic moments of the present to see that a civilization can be rediscoverable. The eternal values of Greece — beauty, the arts, truth, philosophy, science, mathematics and architecture — left a tangible legacy.
We think of values as intangible, but they inspire creation and buildings that survive even as broken artifacts. That inheritance is easily felt in the presence of the museum’s exhibits. Less obvious is that culinary achievements preceded and accompanied the Greek culture as it evolved over millennia.
Greek culinary history lives on in the foods offered in the Acropolis Museum’s restaurant and cafe, although you won’t find any acknowledgment in the menu.
At first glance, menu items offer subtle haute cuisine twists on “traditional” dishes. But scratch the surface and you find foods, particularly cheeses, that pre-date our notions of tradition, a word which usually refers to a period of time less than a few hundred years. Instead, Greek cheese origins go back thousands of years. So, when visiting Bronze Age Mycenaean (1750-1050 B.C.) or Minoan (3100-1100 B.C.) ruins or museum exhibits, my knowing that prototypes of modern cheeses were already being consumed by those elusive persons depicted on murals and pottery was a delicious secret that no guide would ever mention.
The Acropolis Museum’s restaurant has an impressive reputation and lends its excellence to the more casual cafe that boasts outdoor seating with views of the Acropolis along with varied luncheon fare, desserts and refreshments.
If the view doesn’t slow a tourist down long enough to get a new perspective on her frenetic sightseeing, nothing will!
Of the many cheese dishes on the menu, I spotted a salad that featured a grilled variation on a favorite of mine, Manouri or Manoypi, pronounced man-o-yohr-ey in Greek.
I’ve enjoyed manouri served crumbled over vegetables and pasta dishes, as a companion to fruit, or simply spread on toast. I’ve tasted manouri in sweet pastries, as well as in savory spanakopita-type pies. Oddly enough, I’d never tried it grilled, but it is commonly prepared that way in Greece. I’ve never tasted it pan-fried to crunchy perfection either, but that too is an option on many menus here.
Manouri is versatile and upscale. Unfortunately, it’s too little known in America. It deserves to be the next “big cheese.”
Manouri is a PDO (protected designation of origin) whey cheese exclusively created in the regions of Macedonia or Thessaly. If it is not produced in those areas of northern and central Greece, it is not the genuine article.
Manouri is a by-product of feta or Batzos production. Batzos is a hard or semi-hard cheese made from goat and/or sheep milk. According to legend, Batzos goes back to ancient times and was originally made by shepherds in the same northwestern and central mountain areas of Thessaly and Macedonia. Today, authentic Batzos and feta are both PDO cheeses.
But what is a whey cheese? Whey is the liquid remains of the goat and/or sheep milk that has been drained away from curds during feta or Batzos production. To make manouri, whole goat or sheep milk and/or cream is added to the whey. The mixture is then heated until new curds form. These cheese curds are then shaped into logs to be aged up to approximately 60 days.
Considered a fresh cheese, much like buffalo or cow’s milk ricotta, which is also made from whey, manouri is finer in texture, more delicate and less acidic. It has a fresh, clean flavor and tends to be slightly sweet with lemony, nutty or fresh grassy notes. Manouri is white in appearance and creamy.
There are dozens of brands of manouri in Greece. Right now, only a few are available in the United States through specialty imported food shops and online.
The manouri served at the museum most closely resembled my favorite imported brand — Hotos, which feels on the tongue as though composed of tiny pearls of cream when crushed against the palate. The composition is well integrated with no oily separation. The mouthfeel is, in a word, luxurious.
For those readers who are familiar with feta, how does manouri compare? Feta strikes me as a heartier, everyday cheese, even though feta contains less calories than manouri, 74 calories versus 130 respectively for the Hotos versions.
When crumbled, manouri is more delicate and creamier than feta, the result of a higher fat content. Feta can be drier inside and fragment. Some low-end versions tend to clump.
And unlike feta, which is brined, manouri tastes far less salty than the nutritional label leads you to expect. Manouri can contain up to 1/3 less sodium than some fetas, but the difference isn’t usually that significant. Since there seems to be a fat versus sodium nutritional trade-off, read labels well and choose the product that best fits your goals.
The differences between one brand to another may only be 1%, but still, that can make a difference to a person close to their daily limit of fat or sodium intake. For example, a 28-gram (1-ounce) serving of Hotos feta contains 6 grams of total fat and 250 mg of sodium. Hotos manouri contains 13 grams of total fat and 240 mg of sodium. Other brands vary with regard to fat and sodium content.
For instance, another well-distributed brand in the United States is Krinos. Its manouri, per the same 28-gram serving, contains 14 grams of total fat and 270 mg of sodium. Taste aside, guess which brand this sodium-conscious consumer is going to choose!
Some brands offer lower fat and lower sodium versions of manouri. Personally, I always select for flavor and simply eat a smaller portion.
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How you serve manouri depends on whether you consider it an appetizer, part of a main course, or a component of a cheese and fruit or dessert plate. Wherever you might use ricotta, you can probably substitute manouri.
— Substitute manouri for yogurt. Or spread it on whole-grain toast instead of butter.
As an appetizer:
— Grill or pan fry slices of manouri. Serve with sun-dried tomatoes, a wedge of lemon or vinaigrette.
— Bake it in phyllo as a savory pastry.
As a main course:
— Substitute manouri for feta in a Greek salad.
— Toss slices of manouri in a favorite pasta dish or vegetable casserole. Think of it heating like ricotta, rather than expecting it to melt like mozzarella.
As a dessert:
— Sweeten manouri with sugar or honey, wrap the mixture in phyllo, and bake it as a dessert pastry.
— Manouri can be substituted for cream cheese in cheesecake.
— Drizzle honey over a plain slice of manouri, sprinkle with nuts, and garnish with grapes or kiwi.
The perfect finish to a Greek-inspired meal? Manouri with baklava and coffee.