The national cheese of Greece, feta is one of many cheeses with Protected Designation of Origin, which means it may be produced only in Greece and only in certain specific regions: Macedonia, Thrace, Epirus, the Peloponnese, Mainland Greece, and Lesvos. Feta by law is produced from either 100% sheep’s milk or a combination of sheep’s and goat’s milk. It is aged either in barrels (fewer and fewer producers make barrel-aged feta) or in tins and in recent years there has been a considerable effort to produce organic feta. Feta graces the iconic Greek salad, but is an excellent cheese on its own. It pairs well with tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, and squashes, among other foods. It may range in flavor and texture from mild and creamy to sharp and hard, depending on production methods, regional distinctions, and season.
Apart from feta there are more than 60 regional Greek cheeses ranging in flavor and texture from soft, spreadable and sour, to sharp and hard, to smoked and nutty. Of these, 20 are Protected Designation of Origin cheeses, but only a few ever make it outside the country’s borders. These tend to be the most popular table cheeses. Among them are
- The mild, semi-hard sheep’s milk “Kasseri”, which is in the pasta filata family of cheeses and is not dissimilar to the Balkan kaskeval. The best comes from Macedonia, especially Soho, outside Thessaloniki.
- “Graviera”, a delicious, nutty, mild-to-sharp cheese that is made predominantly with sheep’s milk or a combination of sheep’s and goat’s milk, or, in the Cycladic islands of Tinos and Naxos, with cow’s milk. Cretan sheep’s milk graviera is probably the most widely available.
- “Manouri”, a delicious creamy whey cheese similar to the Italian ricotta salata, is an excellent dessert cheese.
- Another delicious Greek cheese, and one especially suited to red wine, is the smoked “Metsovone”, a cheese shaped in logs, aged, smoked, then dipped in wax.
- The fez-shaped “Ladotyri” of Mytillene, a hard cheese aged in olive oil, is also an excellent accompaniment to red wine.
Greek yogurt has become one of the country’s most successful exports. It is renowned the world over for its thick creamy texture and deliciously sour flavor. Traditionally, Greek yogurt was set in clay bowls and made from either sheep’s or goat’s milk. It was and is especially sharp, with a thick creamy “skin” on the surface. There are several basic types of Greek yogurt distinguished by the kind of milk with which they are produced (sheep’s, goat’s, and, today, cow’s), and there thickness, which is determined by whether or not the yogurt has been strained, usually in muslin bags, until it is the consistency of sour cream. Greek yogurt is the ingredient that gives tzatziki (the yogurt-cucumber-garlic dip) its tang. It is used as a condiment for spicy meat dishes and some savory pie. It is also used in lieu of béchamel in some baked meat dishes. But best of all it is a classic breakfast item, mixed with Greek honey, or the traditional light evening meal, served plain with a little bread.