The French might be famous for brie and blues, but the Greeks are also excellent cheese makers.
The traditional comfort food of moussaka incorporates a creamy béchamel sauce, so you know what that means, cheese! If you're not familiar with Greece's cheese bounty and find the names kind of tricky, don't be deterred! Pop into a local deli, get your taste test on and read through these notes to boost your cheese IQ.
We couldn't travel to Greece (this time!) so, we ventured to the Sydney suburb of Marrickville, instead. This multicultural neighbourhood is home dozens of Vietnamese and Asian grocers, but it's Lamia Super Deli that stocks the Greek goods. An old-school emporium of olives, cheeses, cured meats, plus hundreds of continental products, this Sydney institution has been running since the 1960s. Curious to receive our cheese education, we chatted to Christina – who's worked at Lamia for more than 10 years – and (happily) tasted our way through their plentiful selection.
Probably the best-known Greek cheese, feta is a versatile ingredient. Crumbed in salads, baked in pies or spanakopita, or simply served with oregano and olive oil, the cheese is a staple for many. Some fetas are light and creamy, while others, particularly those made from sheep's milk, are more picantiki (full-flavoured), but tangy, sharp notes are most common. Under EU PDO regulations, feta can only be produced in certain areas of Greece and must comply with strict product specifications.
Tip: If you find feta too salty, place the cheese in a container and fill to the brim with water. The liquid will draw out excess salt.
Here's a recipe for a alevropita, a Greek feta pie that is a specialty of the northern part of Greece, Epirus.
Myzithra is an unpasteurised Greek cheese available in most Greek and European delicatessens. It comes in both dried and fresh versions and is produced all over Greece. Made from sheep's or cow's whey, myzithra makes a lovely breakfast cheese. The fresh version is somewhat similar to a ricotta, whilst aged myzithra, which is dried and harder, is traditionally used for grating. Some Greeks believe the popular breakfast dish tiganites, served with myzithra, was the first documented pancake in the world. True or not, with 2,500 years of culinary history, you can be sure they're cakes are delicious. Try this recipe for tiganites, currant, honey and walnut pancakes.
A superb grating and table cheese, kefalograviera has a firm texture with a flavour profile that ranges between mild to sharp. It can be made from purely sheep's milk or a combination of cow's and sheep's, or sheep's and goat's milk. (Confusing!) Slightly salty, it pairs beautiful with figs and is mainly used in batters, sauces and bakes. Here's a recipe for a modern take on Greek moussaka that is enriched by the kefalograviera cheese. If you want a vegetarian option here's an easy broccoli béchamel bake.
One of Greece's most traditional cheeses, kefalotyri is predominately a hard cheese used for grating. It's made from sheep's milk, goat's milk or a mixture of both, and literally translates as "head-cheese". Rather salty and sharp, this hard cheese really holds its form and consistency when cooked, making it a go-to for the Greek specialty of saganaki (pan-fried cheese). Basically, kefalotyri is Greece's answer to Italy's parmigiano, which is used to top pastas of all shapes and sizes. Similar to kefalograviera it also makes a great meze cheese alongside a glass of ouzo. Here's a recipe for a crumbed fried zucchini that uses kefalotyri in its batter.
Not only a Greek favourite, but kasseri is also found throughout the Balkans and in Italy. This variety is fairly mild and subtly sweet in flavour, making it an approachable and easy cheese to incorporate into dishes or eat as a snack. A rindless semi-hard, kasseri also carries a slight salty note, which is why you'll find it used as a topping for many classic dishes. Perhaps best of all, kasseri melts magically, which is why you'll find it in plenty of bakes (haloumi and kasseri bake, anyone?), pastas, pastries and pizzas. Here's a recipe for plakous, pita pizzas with prawns and caramelised onions.
Meaning "oil" cheese, ladotyri is a salty, hard yellow cheese made from sheep's or goat's milk. Once it sets, it is then air-dried for a few months and then submerged in olive oil. Ladotyri is a speciality of two places in Greece, Lesvos and Zakynthos, and both styles are completely different. Lesvos produces a more kefalotyri-style consistency of ladotyri – great as fried saganaki on top of toast. Zakynthos, on the other hand, produces more of a briny ladotryi, which is lovely in salads. In any case, the brining oil makes a wonderful dressing.
A semi-soft, almost cream-cheese-like, sheep or goat's milk cheese if often made from the whey left over from the production of feta. It's mild, slightly sweet and utterly delicious. Whilst it is slightly salty it goes really well in desserts, in particular, pastry, take these filo rolls with manouri, walnuts, raisins, figs and mint.
These cheeses are only scraping the surface. Greece has a strong cheese culture and whilst there is something to be said for their versatility and rationality, you can guarantee that there is certainly no shortage of choice.
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