20 March 2012

The Cheese Stands Alone

Greece has gotten a lot of credit for its historic dietary choices. "The Mediterranean Diet" isn't just a trendy weight loss plan or hot topic on The View, it's actually recognized by UNESCO as a piece of "Intangible Cultural Heritage." I'm not here to knock an eating pattern focused on olive oil, fresh fruit and vegetables, some fish, poultry and very little to no red meat. But, what kinda gets left out of the whole "eat like a Greek" thing is cheese. Greeks eat more cheese per capita than any country on Earth. Above is a classic Greek salad: tomato, cucumber, red onion, olive with an oregano sprinkled slice of feta cheese on top and a pool of olive oil below.
The production of feta in Greece, specifically Crete, dates all the way back to Byzantium. The cheese was made and kept in a brine to mature, which is a common method for cheese-making in hotter climates. Since it's a salty, crumbly curd cheese, it can be used for almost anything. And, in Greece, it is. It is baked in sweet pastries and savory ones like spanakopita (spinach, feta, phyllo pie). It's cooked in a pot with tomato, green pepper and spices as pikandiko (which comes out looking a lot like an egg white scramble). It is whipped into shape, I mean paste, with hot pepper to make tyrokafteri dip.
Since 2002, feta has been a protected entity in the EU. Like, for example, gruyère, cheese cannot be called 'feta' unless it comes from a certain place (Greece) and is made a certain way. This includes being made from at least 70% sheep's milk. If not 100% sheep, the rest of the milk can only be goat and both animals need to be from the same area. There are millions of sheep in Greece and we've seen our fair share just about everywhere. This picture was taken out the window of our rental car. Oncoming traffic. Very often, a goat or two would be hanging out amongst a flock of sheep. I can't help but look at those scenes now and think "mmmm, feta."
While feta is the Big Cheese it's far from the only one. We've been amazed at the variety. Every town seems to have a little shop with at least four different cheeses, all local. Mostly, they are sheep or goat, but cow pops up as well. This sheep cheese was made in Northern Greece, but sold to us on the island of Andros. The cheese itself was bland, but covered in dried oregano, thyme and red saffron, it became something woodsy and substantial. Sort of like the flavor equivalent of a nice flannel shirt. Beside it is some local Andros chocolate. Putting impulse-buy-ccentric products at the checkout counter really is a worldwide marketing strategy.
Here we have graviera, which is often simply called "yellow cheese." This version, from Syros, was stronger and harder than its Cretan incarnation. Aged sheep, it is nutty and a little sweet and is versatile enough to earn the rank of Greece's second most popular cheese. When we opened this on the ferry, its odor surprised us. We weren't expecting something quite so pungent and worried about the attention it would draw. No one seemed to mind, though we did turn at least one head. The kind man behind the nearby cafe counter brought us a plastic knife after watching us attempt to cut the cheese with a coffee stirrer.Our Greek picnics have all included a cheese, like the bitingly strong spreadable kopanisti above. There are always more cheeses you wished you had tried. But, in Greece, chances are you'll have enough lactic indulgence thrown into your daily diet to keep your desires to buy a wedge here and there at bay. Aside from the aforementioned salads and dips and small plates, main dishes include some seriously cheesy casseroles. There's the ever present moussaka, a layer dish of eggplant, minced meat and cheese, and au gratins galore.
A mainstay dish at any taverna is saganaki, which is simply fried cheese. Hard varieties like kefalograviera, kasseri and kefalotyri are usually used - ones that will get brown and crispy on the outside and gooey at the center. Above is a fancy version we had at a restaurant named Menu on Andros island. The cheese was wrapped in a spring roll wrapper before frying and then coated with sesame seeds (the base of the ubiquitous Greek sweet halva) and honey (the base of just about every other Greek sweet). Seafood saganaki keep the cheese-in-skillet element the same, but add in shrimp or mussels and spicy tomato sauce. Feta is employed in those cases.
One of the most pleasant eating experiences in Greece is asking simply for "the local cheese," and seeing what arrives. Add to that the pride on the server's face and the inevitably yummy taste experience. It may not have been one of the things I was expecting out of my time in the land of the Mediterranean Diet - a far cry from salt encrusted fish and delectably bitter kalamatas - but what a wonderful surprise.

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