Whether we are out at a taverna or dining at home, there is one constant on the table. The production of cheese in Greece dates back over 6,000 years. The ancient poet Homer describes the production of cheese, like feta and kasseri, in his epic works. Greece is still an important producer and exporter of a wide variety of cheese today, with the majority of the production coming out of Northern Greece. Most Greek cheese is made from sheep’s or goat’s milk since such a mountainous country cannot support vast herds of cattle.
Many countryside housekeepers still make their own cheese using traditional methods. Straining the heated milk through a cheesecloth, allowing to stand and then slicing to release more whey. The word feta means slice in Greek and it is from this part of the process that the cheese gets its generic name.
It was produced to be able to withstand time without being refrigerated. The salt and liquid in which it is stored help it maintain freshness even in warmer conditions. You can buy feta packaged or you can get it from the delicatessens or supermarket deli straight out of the barrel and most regions produce their own local version each one varying in taste from the other. Feta is excellent in salads, baked or served on its own as an appetizer. It is a standard side dish with any Greek meal.
Types of Greek cheese
Kasseri cheese is also commonly used. Made from sheep’s milk it is a mild, semi hard, pale yellow cheese that has a tendency to be slightly oily. It is a little salty and slightly pungent, but has a sweet finish. In Greece, Kasseri seems to have taken the role of mozzarella. It is easy to slice and use for sandwiches, as well as chopping in small cubes for hors d'oeuvres, added to pizzas, omelets or baked in filo dough to make cheese pies. Thessaly, Macedonia and Mytilini are renowned for their Kasseri production.
Mizithria cheese is produced from either sheep’s or goat’s milk. It is available in two forms. You can buy a fresh, sweeter Mizithra that is very soft, resembling a ricotta cheese. Sifnos Island produces Mizithria locally and it often replaces feta in their horiatiki salata (Greek Salad). Aged Mizithra is firm and quite salty. As a hard cheese that doesn’t melt very quickly, it can be easily grated and added nicely to pastas and as a top off to other cheesy dishes.
Graviera cheese is a personal favorite! It is a light yellow, hard texture, wheel cheese with an external rind that is very versatile. Naxos and Crete are most widely associated with this particular type of cheese. Crete uses sheep’s milk to make their famous Graviera, while the Naxos version is made from mostly cow’s milk. It is excellent served as an appetizer and adds a zing to anything. It can be fried up saganaki style, served in salads, grated and used in combination with most other cheeses for things like stuffed peppers or on pasta. It can even be sliced and added to a sandwich to give it a richer flavor. The flavor is fruity and nutty with the Cretan varieties having a heavier caramelized taste.
Kapnisto Metsovone is one of Greece’s only smoked cheese varieties. It makes its way to our dinner tables from the village of Metsovo, in Northern Greece, 1200 meters high up in the mountains. It is a mild, smoked, yellow, semi hard, wheel cheese that is known for its high quality. It is delectable by itself, but also goes perfect in a sandwich or served as an hors d'oeuvres with smoked salmon or crackers.
Kefalotiri is made with a combination of sheep’s and goat’s milk and sea salt. It has a tangy, sharp taste and is dry and salty. In some seasons, the cheese is almost white, but also appears again in a golden yellow. The texture is very hard, therefore, is primarily used for frying or grated and added to stews and sauces. Kefalotiri is made in several regions of Greece, including the Ionian and Cycladic Islands.
Kefalograviera is made from sheep’s milk and is used similarly to Kefalotiri. The flavor is between Graviera and Kefalotiri. Often fried for ‘saganaki,’ grated or used as a table cheese, it pops up often in a Greek meal. Western Macedonia and Epirus are large producers of this type of cheese.
Other cheese worth mentioning are Anthotiri and Manouri which are similar to the soft Mizithra. They are often used in pastries or served with honey as a dessert.
Part of the fun of traveling in Greece is sampling all of the great food. Wherever you travel in Greece, ask what cheese they produce locally. In the villages, some even make their own at home! Greeks are always proud of their local production and more than willing to let you have a sample to taste. You will find that there is something different to try just about everywhere you go. Just when you have declared your favorite, you will stumble across something new!