Friday, 30 July 2010
(Local cheeses in the Cooperation shop of Molyvos)
The Dutch have the surname ‘Cheese heads’ (Kaaskoppen), not because Holland is the biggest cheese producer, that’s France, nor is it because they are the world’s biggest cheese eaters —the Greeks are, but, there’s a nice explanation: in earlier times, the wooden casks in which cheese was made were used during wartime as helmets. So when you had a cheese cask on your head, you became a Cheese head!
The biggest cheese eaters do not have a surname to indicate their cheese consumption. And I don’t think that they used to defend their lands with cheese casks on their heads. But they have defended the cheese that makes up two thirds of Greek cheese consumption: feta. There used to be ‘Turkish feta’, ‘Danish feta’ and lots of other countries produced feta. However since 2002 the European Union ruled that feta was a specific Greek cheese that could not be produced as such in any other country. The Danes argued against this saying their feta was made from cows’ milk, while the Greek feta is officially a mix of milk from sheep with 30% from goats.
The Swedes also were not too particular with their dairy products. For years they marketed a ‘Turkish’ yoghurt on the market, with packaging showing a smiling Greek farmer. This Greek became pretty angry when he heard that he was being represented as a Turk and recently he received a large indemnity.
Choosing feta in a Dutch supermarket has become a lot easier thanks to this European regulation, but here in Greece and on a feta-island like Lesvos, it’s still difficult. Lots of villages produce their own feta and so the taste can vary a lot, from creamy and soft to quite spicy. The biggest producers are around Mandamados, Skalochori and Vatoussa, but as a lot of feta is also made at home, for local consumption (or for the restaurant) and it’s always a nice surprise when you are served a super tasty homemade feta.
A real treat is the soft cheese that I used to call ‘fresh feta’ because I did not know it was altogether a different kind of cheese: mizithra. Fresh mizithra is eaten from just a few hours to a few days after it is produced and is made from sheep, goat or cow milk. Dried mizithra is saltier and good for grating.
Another popular cheese is graviera, which takes at least five months to ripen. It is a hard cheese and I find it often too dry, so I just use for grating. The Greeks use a semi-hard cheese called kasseri, made mainly from sheep milk mixed with a little goat.
Greek cheeses are mostly eaten young and although you will find some spicy fetas, there’s no old cheese like they have in Holland. But I did discover an export cheese made in Lesvos: ladotiri, also called kefalaki. It is made of – what else – sheep and goat milk and has to ripen about three months but the difference is ladotiri is preserved in olive oil. It comes in a conical shape and although it’s not a Lesvorian tradition, but I learned a trick from somebody from the island: leave ladotiri for a year in oil somewhere dark, and you get a super ‘old’ cheese, as tasty as the ones they make in Holland.
I must admit that one of the things I miss in the Greek kitchen is a wide variety of cheeses. Just hearing the word France makes my mouth watering because then I have to think at Camembert, Chaume or Roquefort. Greece however does have quite some different cheeses, but they are hard to find together. All the local cheese made in the different regions and islands in Greece like the metsovone from Epidaurus, or the soft chalumi from Cyprus, are not exported to the Greek islands, only to the markets in big cities like Athens and Thessaloniki.
That is why most tourists think there’s nothing but simple feta here on Lesvos. Which is wrong. The feta saganaki and garides saganaki are made with feta, just like the cheese on top of a choriatiki (Greek salad) is feta. But tiri saganaki, is a baked slice of hard cheese, like kefalotiri or ladotiri, coated with breadcrumbs, sometimes even served flambé. The cheese grated over different dishes or to make moussaka is mostly kasseri or an old mizithra.
There is no Greek meal without cheese. Which is both healthy and tasty. Maybe there should be more information about them so tourists can find out about the different cheeses made here on Lesvos. I have a nice idea for that: create a Sheep Light Show, where during the performance pieces of cheese can be tasted. Then the tourists will have a lovely evening (just like the farmers). How? Take a look at the linked video (Extreme Sheep LED Art) and I am sure that instead of a Mona Lisa, the sheep could create a nice collection of ladotiris.
(With thanks to Tony Barrell)
@ Smitaki 2010