Cheeses from Greece have a storied
history and widespread appeal.
Say “Greek cheese” and most people think feta. But the cheese heritage of Greece is ancient, rich, and far more varied. Greeks had been producing and trading many fresh and aged cheese types well before the 8th Century B.C. We know this because Homer wrote about it. How much earlier were the Greeks making cheese? Archeology tells us that cheesemaking spread through trade and religion from Sumeria sometime after the 4th Millennium B.C. Cheese served as ritualistic offerings to Mesopotamian deities that would later appear in the Greek pantheon. The god Aristaious, according to legend, taught humans the art of cheesemaking, and the cult of Asklepios performed healing rituals involving milk coagulation, an essential step in making cheese.
With the collapse of the Bronze age Mycenaean civilization, around 1200 B.C., Greece fell into a dark age lasting several centuries. Cheesemaking then spread with the Greek diaspora to Anatolia, Cyprus and other points around the Aegean, Ionian and Mediterranean seas. Greece recovered its former glory and, by Homer’s time, plant (fig) and animal rennet were used to produce fresh cheese prototypes of feta, and cave-aged hard cheeses. Preservation of cheeses in brine, olive oil and by aging made it possible to ship products renown for quality from the colonies of Magna Grecia. Greek mastery of the seas spurred on prosperity as an exploding mainland population increasingly demanded quality goods.
Greek cheeses have had diverse uses for millennia. They continue to be central ingredients in sweet and savory dishes, pies and pastries. Hard cheeses are grated over other foods, while softer cheeses are crumbled over seafood, pasta and vegetable dishes. Cheese pies with layered, flaky dough (plakounta or plakous) go back to temple offerings, so phyllo, too, has ancient origins. Think about that connection to antiquity the next time you order a spanakopita!
Let’s set the record straight about feta. Domestic “feta” is usually made from cow’s milk. Cheese is rarely made from cow’s milk in Greece. Much of the land is unsuitable for pastoral grazing. Instead, the rocky terrain favors sheep and goats that clamber about, chowing down on the outcroppings of wild flowers, rogue grasses and brush. The local vegetation upon which the animals graze results in varied aroma and flavor notes. So authentic feta can be more complex than that mushy salt bomb on your salad.
Back to Its Roots
Although similar white, brined cheeses have been made in the Balkans and the Middle East for centuries, the European Union decreed that to qualify as feta, the cheese must be made in Greece. The ratios of sheep and goat milks can vary within limits, but the same basic recipe must be followed, regardless of whether it’s made in a home kitchen, small farm or industrial setting. Fetas vary. The two high-quality brands I sampled were quite distinct, even though both were the genuine articles, carrying the coveted European Union’s Protected Designation of Origin (or PDO). Feta, originally a sheep cheese, can contain up to 30% goat milk. A 70% sheep to 30% goat formulation seems the most popular. But some cheesemakers create an all sheep product while others offer an all “goat feta” with a qualifier on the label. Feta is soft, and you might mistake it as fresh cheese, but that isn’t exactly true. Once immersed in brine, the feta is left to cure from one to several months.
Where can you get authentic feta and other Greek cheeses? Astoria is a multi-ethnic neighborhood, famous for its Greek immigrant community, located in New York City’s borough of Queens. There are more authentic Greek restaurants or tavernas, bakeries and specialty stores in Astoria than anywhere else in the United States. And Astoria is home to Titan Foods, the largest retailer of Greek foods in North America. Want to find those impossible-to-find Greek cheeses? They’re right here. Don’t live in the New York area? Not to worry. Titan Foods ships anywhere in the United States.
To sample authentic Greek cheeses, I rode the LaGuardia Airport bound M60 bus across Central Harlem and got off the first stop after the Robert F. Kennedy (Triborough) Bridge to meet Anatoli “Anna” Mastoras, the director of marketing and public relations for Titan Foods. Anatoli is one of three American daughters involved in the family business founded in 1984 by her parents, Costas and Stavroula Mastoras. Costas and Stavroula immigrated from Thessaloniki Greece as graduate students in the 70’s. Costas was credited with introducing America to Greek yogurt in the 80’s. In 2001, the family launched an importing and distribution company, Optima Foods, formerly Titan Foods Imports. Optima supplies restaurants, supermarkets and gourmet shops throughout the United States and Canada.
Walking into Titan Foods, it was impossible to miss the display of bakery goods in front of the espresso machines. Mouth-watering, savory cheese pies and traditional pastries beckoned from refrigerated display windows. Titan’s bakery division is named for Costas’ late mother Domna who was a baker. Early for my meeting with Anatoli, I had just enough time to snap some photos and purchase a few boxes of those irresistible cheese pies and sweet pastries.
Turning right at the baklava counter, I found the entire back section of the store contains what is probably the most impressive selection of imported Greek cheeses and olives anywhere in America. Nearby, rows of imported canned and packaged goods line shelf after shelf, while along a wall to the left, I found spices and herbs. Concluding my reconnaissance, it was time to meet Anatoli. We selected a variety of cheese for taste-testing at home, since COVID-19, sampling at the counters of any cheese shop has been suspended in New York.
Whereas many sheep cheeses from Spain and the Pyrenees can break down oily, the Greek remains well integrated and buttery. All the cheeses I sampled finished exceptionally well on a neutral note with no sharp or unpleasant aftertaste.
Some commentators note herbal, even white wine aromas. The more goat milk in the formula, the tangier the taste. I sampled fetas by Dodani and Arahova brands, both with 70/30 sheep vs. goat. For those who find the 70/30 too sharp or tangy, try an all sheep version. The 70/30 Feta by Dodoni had a light aroma, the flavor was refined, smooth, not sharp. The 70/30 by Arahova presented a more complex aroma, richer flavor, with tangy hints of buttermilk and yogurt. Unsurprisingly, both brands were salty. How salty? 303mg of sodium per 30 gram serving. For a soft white cheese with less sodium, try Manouri, a feta by-product that contains approximately 1/3 less sodium.
Manouri (brand: Hotos)
Delicate and elegant. This is a fresh whey cheese, smoother and creamier than feta, used in sweet and savory dishes, including spanakopita and phyllo pastries drizzled with honey
Aroma: mild, fresh, sweet grass
Flavor: mildly saline, a whisper of sheep, nothing sharp or tangy
Texture: tiny minced curds, more buttery than creamy
Graviera DOC (Mendiodakis)
A semi-hard cheese made in Naxos and Crete (Kriti) aged three to five months. On Crete, made from ewe’s milk, sometimes goat. In Naxos, cow’s milk with ewe or goat. An all-around table cheese and an ingredient in pastries. Give it and all the semi-hard cheeses 30 minutes at room temperature before serving.
Aroma: sweet sheep butter
Flavor: sharp start, then sweet sheep with a tiny tang midway, not as salty as a Pecorino, nutty
Texture: similar to Gruyère, smooth then crumble turns dry with mild astringency
Finish: dry, astringency on tongue fades, leaves a whisper of pine nut
Kaseri/Kasseri DOC (Orino)
A semi-hard cheese made in Thessalia, Mitilini Island and Xanthis, aged 12 weeks. One of the most ancient cheeses.
It’s approximately 80% ewe’s, 20% goat milks, used as table cheese and for melting.
Aroma: mild, floral and herbal lurk under butter
Flavor: full bodied, sheepy-butter taste, yields to mild tang, well managed salinity
Texture: similar to a soft, springy cheddar, melts in the mouth, a touch of dryness
Finish: pleasing, slightly oily, bit of tang caresses the sides of the tongue and hard palate, perhaps least salty of the aged cheeses
Kefalotyri DOC/ Livadi
A hard cheese known since the Byzantine era, made from the whole milk of sheep or goats or both. Aged three to four months.
Aroma: woody, subdued butter notes
Flavor: salty and tangy, a whisper of goat although sheep dominates
Texture: firm, gummy, chewy, not melty
Finish: salty, particles remain firm, sticking to teeth, a long neutral finish
Kefalograviera Metsovou (Vlaha)
Aroma: buttery sheep
Flavor: first hit is salt, then fades to gummy butter, nutty midway
Texture: firm but gummy like the Kefalotyri
Finish: well integrated salt and toasted almond
Smoked Metsovou (Vlaha)
Smoked cheeses are rare outside Greece but Titan has them.
Aroma: strong wood smoke
Texture: firmer than smoked mozzarella, pasty
Finish: forest fire, definitely an acquired taste
Other Well-Known Cheeses
An ancient ancestor of all whey cheeses. There are two types, fresh and unsalted, and aged.
Another ancient fresh cheese often homemade from ewe’s milk. Aged from only a few days up to a few months.
A whey cheese (ewe, goat or both) with the addition of milk and cream, made in a fresh, soft form, for use in sweet and savory pastries. Can be aged up to 12 months as a hard cheese for grating. CC
How to Make Traditional Saganaki
Saganaki doesn’t refer to a cheese but the double-handled pan in which it is fried. Any small, cast iron pan is perfect for this simple recipe. The cheeses most commonly used are Graviera, Kefalograviera, or Kefalotyri. Use a semi-hard cheese cut thick enough to be fried on both sides without melting into a puddle.
• Cheese cut into 4 x 4 inches squares, between 1/2-2/3 of an inch thick
• A tablespoon of olive oil
• A dish of all-purpose flour
• Lemon wedges
1. Dip cheese in cold water to moisten, shake off excess.
2. Dredge the cheese in the flour, coating all sides.
3. Heat the olive oil in the frying pan over a medium heat.
4. When the oil just begins to sizzle, quickly place the flour-coated cheese in the pan.
5. Brown the bottom side of the cheese, then flip it over to brown the top. The sides should also be browned.
6. Serve with lemon wedges, nothing more.