As a Dutch, I’m often teased about the strong relationship I am supposed to have with cheese. And although it is true that, as a kid, I ate at least one cheese sandwich each day. But are one or two slices a day really that much? Well, no. Not after I witnessed the use of (feta) cheese in Greece.
Cheese in Greece
The average Greek is good for the consumption of almost 25 kg (55lbs) of cheese each year. This is higher than the average in the EU (20kg) and definitely higher than the cheese consumption in the US, where just 18kg of cheese is eaten on average per person each year.
The most famous cheese in Greece is feta. Yearly, the Greeks produce over 123.000 tonnes of feta, supporting over 100.000 families. But feta is not the only cheese in the country. Crete for example does not have feta. The name feta is covered by a Protected Designation of Origin by the European Union. This means, that its production is strictly regulated and limited to specific regions in Greece.
Cretans make what they have to call “white cheese,” which is actually feta, without the name. But besides this “fake” feta, every region in Greece produces its own type of cheese as well. Metsovone from Metsovone, kefalotyri from Kefalonia, or kalathaki from Lemnos, are just a few examples.
History & Mythology
The fact that every region in Greece produces its own kind of cheese, shows how important cheese is for the Greeks. Cheese is a part of the Greek culture, and has been for a long time. The earliest know produced feta cheese dates from the 8th century B.C. The recipe for this delicious cheese had been unchanged for thousands of years.
But how did the Greeks discover the art of cheese making? Two stories in Greek mythology explain the first feta of thousands of years ago.
Story number one is a myth about a one-eyed cyclope called Polyphimos. He was transporting the milk that he collected from his sheep in bags made of animal stomachs. One day he realized that the milk had curdled and had become solid and conservable. Tasty cheese! When later Odysseus visited Polyphimos in his cave and found it to be full of cheese, feta became famous.
The second story about the origin of Greek cheese says that the art of making cheese was given as a gift to men by the Olympian Gods. These gods sent Aristaeus, a name that translates into ” the best”. He thought the Greeks the useful arts, of which one was the art of cheese making.
It doesn’t matter if cheese was a gift of the gods or just an accidental discovery during the transport of milk. Both explanations result in the importance of cheese in Greek culture. Either as an honor to the gods or as the need for milk conservation, the outcome is that the Greeks eat cheese with every meal.
Whenever I have a meal with my Greek family, there is always a block of feta on the table. And this counts for every Greek family. It is a part of every Greek meal and goes with literally everything.
How to eat greek cheese
Since there are many different types of cheeses in Greece, the way of eating each cheese varies. But here are the main Greek cheese dishes you must try when visiting. Besides these cheese dishes, don’t forget to eat some feta with everything else you eat in Greece. A feta a day, keeps the doctor away?
- Feta with olive oil and oregano
- Karpouzi me feta. Watermelon mixed with crumbled feta and sometimes mint or onions
- Tiropita, a cheese-filled pie. Delicious!
- Tirosalata, cheese salad. It is a Greek cheese dip, perfect on a gyros or just with a pita
- Melopita. Honey cake with cheese. Like a traditional Greek cheesecake
- Saganaki, fried cheese often served with lemon
Tips for the vegans amongst us
After reading everything about cheese in Greece, you might be upset when you choose to live on a plant-based diet. But don’t be! Since the Orthodox Greeks, who make up a big part of the Greek population, do not eat dairy products most of the year, there is very good vegan cheese produced in Greece. You can find this cheese in the supermarkets, and a few restaurants even serve it as well. You can recognize plant-based cheese by the word nistisimo.