Greek cheeses: Feta is best-known, but the selection is varied

Jody Feinberg

If you want to have fun, light a piece of fried Greek cheese on fire, watch it flame and douse it with lemon juice. And then savor the warm cheese on crusty bread.

The flaming saganaki is a specialty at many Greek restaurants. But you can make it at home with kefalotiri cheese and Bacardi 151. Or, if fire isn’t your thing, simply dredge a slab of kefalotiri in flour and fry in olive oil until golden.

“Saganaki is very popular in Greece,” said Thomas Mallakis, general manager at Desfina in Cambridge, Mass. “It or feta is eaten with bread or olives as part of the meal. But people know this only if they know Greek culture.”

Many Americans are familiar with feta but aren’t aware of its variety of tastes or of other cheeses popular in Greece.

“I use a kind of feta that is not too strong or too salty that is imported from Greece,” Mallakis said. “How it tastes depends on who makes it and how it’s made.”

To start, true Greek feta is made with sheep milk and goat milk, not cow milk. In fact, that’s true for other popular Greek cheeses – kasseri, manouri and kefalotiri – and it gives them their distinctive tastes.

And the best of these are made in the traditional Greek way, from the milk of animals who graze freely in the mountains and whose milk is quickly processed.

“You can always make bad cheese from good milk, but you can never make good cheese from bad milk,” said Sheree Cardoos, general manager and former owner of Mt. Vikos, a Marshfield, Mass., company that imports Greek cheeses.

When Cardoos and her husband, Ron, founded Mt. Vikos a decade ago, they were among the first to import high-quality, consumer-friendly packages of Greek cheese (other than feta) and distribute them to major grocery stores.

“At that time, you had to go to a Greek market or specialty store to purchase Greek cheese, which only came in large wheels,” Cardoos said.

While other companies now offer Greek cheese, Mt. Vikos is distinctive because its cheese has no additives or preservatives. And it’s made from the milk of free-grazing sheep and goats who receive no antibiotics or hormones and whose milk is pasteurized within a day.

Over the years, Cardoos has found favorite ways to eat the cheeses she imports.

“People only think of feta as that dry crumbly, salty, really tangy cheese that they put on to top of a salad,” she said. “They never think of eating it as a table cheese, but in Greece it’s on the table at every meal.”

At breakfast, she puts feta on toast and drizzles honey on it. At lunch, a Greek salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and olives – but no lettuce – is topped with a slab of feta. At dinner, feta is roasted and spread on crusty bread. Or it’s topped with olive oil and herbs and served as a meze, a small plate similar to an appetizer but eaten as part of the main meal. For dessert, feta is tossed with watermelon cubes and mint.

“The sweetness of the watermelon balances the tangy, saltiness of the cheese,” she said.

In the United States, feta consumption increases in the spring, when salads become more popular, she said. And more restaurants in recent years have offered meze or tapas, which introduce people to other ways of eating feta and kefalotiri.

“The Mediterranean way of eating little plates is popular now,” Cardoos said. “People like to try a little bit of a lot of different things.”

In addition to traditional feta, Mt. Vikos sells a barrel-aged feta, which has a stronger flavor. Feta, 80 percent sheep milk and 20 percent goat milk, actually refers to a style of cheese, where curds are pressed and aged in a saltwater brine. It’s used in the Greek favorite spanikopita.

Kasseri, another popular Greek cheese, often is used in omelets, grilled cheese sandwiches and pizza because it melts smoothly.

Manouri, made from sheep’s milk and sheep’s cream, is a soft, rich cheese, similar to cream cheese.

And kefalotiri not only is perfect for frying because it doesn’t melt, but is a good grating cheese.

The Cardoos also created their own cheese about three years ago called fetiri. It’s feta-flavored with mint and oregano or cracked pepper.

Greece has received a lot of attention recently because of its economic problems and worker protests, but Cardoos said she’s used to coping with trucking and shipping problems.

“It can be a big headache,” she said. “But the cheese is worth it.”

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