Every year in April, well before Easter, Costas starts the long process of searching and ordering the cheeses that will be included in the Kea Artisanal cheese-tastings. He calls up shepherds and artisanal producers from various Aegean islands and Crete, but also people in the north of Mainland Greece. After discussing the year’s production, he orders a variety of cheeses, hard and soft. Then we impatiently wait for the Styrofoam boxes that arrive by messenger from Naxos, Tinos, Macedonia, and Crete. After an initial tasting, we decide which ones will be included in the 12-15 samples we serve each year on our cheese-tasting board.
Slide Show: Gathering Cheeses
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that roughly every Greek village has its own cheese variety. These shepherd’s cheeses are seasonal, and are made mostly with a combination of goat and sheep milk. They seldom travel farther than the boundaries of the communities that create them. Shepherds traditionally use milk from the whole herd, as goats and sheep have slightly different milking seasons. On the islands the animals are semi-feral, wandering throughout the hilly landscape. Once or twice a day they are gathered and milked. The taste of the cheeses produced is directly related to the quality of the milk, which in turn is closely related to the kind of greens the animals feed on. The ratio of sheep to goat milk in the blend is never the same, and so the flavors of these cheeses vary considerably from one year to the next, and even within each annual batch; the distinctions are as fine as those that can be made among good wines.
The problem of distinguishing between different regional cheeses gets even more complicated by the generic names used for them. “Cheeses in Greece are notorious for the lack of diversity in their names, ” saysDaphne Zepos the renowned Greek-American cheese expert, owner of Essex St. Cheese Co. “Mind-bogglingly few names are used as passe-partout definitions applied to many kinds of cheeses. Graviera for example is made in myriad places all over Greece. The geographic adjective will somewhat define the type of cheese: Graviera of Crete and Graviera of Naxos are two extremely different cheeses. Moreover in Crete there are many types of Graviera within not only the island but each county, even village. The discriminating customer will ask for the Graviera made by the Sifaki shepherding clan of Yeryeri village,” explains Zepos, who some years ago did anything but curdle the hearts of cheese enthusiasts when she brought the deliciousgilomeni manoura –a cheese that matures in wine dredges– from the island of Sifnos to New York. This exceptional cheese is usually included in our cheese-tastings.
Spring is the peak season for fresh cheeses and that is the reason why various kinds of myzithra –a type of fresh cheese similar to Italian ricotta– are used in the traditional festive Easter sweets and pies. By late June, when the earth dries during the long sunny days, goats and sheep find just enough grass to survive, but they produce very little milk. Consequently, farmers stop making cheese, waiting to begin again in the late fall or winter, after the first rains.
Greeks consume more cheese per capita than all Europeans — slightly more than the French, even. Feta is the main cheese, part of every Greek table, complementing all kinds of foods. Mind you I am talking here about authentic sheep’s milk Greek feta, not the imitation ‘white cheese’ made all over the world from chemically whitened cow’s milk. We never imagine eating braised string beans with olive oil and tomato, or any otherladera –our favorite meatless vegetable stews– without feta cheese and fresh country bread. I know few people who would serve legumes, stuffed tomatoes, French fries or fried eggs without feta cheese on the side. Greek summers have the flavor of a simple tomato salad, dressed with plenty of fruity olive oil and sprinkled with oregano. This salad is often transformed into a hearty meal with the addition of feta cheese and fresh bread or paximadi –savory biscotti— that is dipped into the delicious salad juices to make our beloved papara. And, of course, feta is used as an ingredient in many dishes, especially in the countless pies that we prepare throughout the year with seasonal vegetables and greens.
There are very few artisanal cheeses from Greece in the booming specialty U.S. cheese market. “The amount produced is small and greedily kept at home,” explains Zepos. “In the large cities of Greece these cheeses are sometimes not available in cheese counters but in compatriots’ shops: Butchers, bakeries, even shoe shops will provide the homesick islander, for example, with the right cheese. This system of sale works more like a special delivery service, with telephone calls and pick-up arrangements.” Zepos laments the amount of bureaucracy involved in exporting a cheese, making the venture financially forbidding, not to mention foreboding, to shepherds and small cheese-makers. “If there was a way to overcome these technical difficulties, Greece’s rare and unique cheeses would thrive in the American specialty market,” concludes Zepos.