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Say Greek cheese January 13, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Food Greece.

From the hills of northern Greece to the tables of Melbourne’s finest restaurants, this food is a favourite.

In the small, weather-beaten and none-too-glamorous village of Anavra, in the hills of Thessaly in northern Greece, Evanthia Tzani is performing a weekly ritual. It’s pie day. For this sprightly, diminutive grandmother with a scarf around her head, right out of a Stella Artois ad, producing pies (or pita) is something she’s been doing since childhood, which explains why the process of making filo pastry looks so simple in her hands. It’s not.

For while Anavra, perched above the coastal plains that stretch along the Aegean like a ragged piece of the elastic pastry Evanthia is rolling on her kitchen table, may not do much on the aesthetic Geiger counter, it is renowned throughout Thessaly for its pita.

It starts with the dough. Evanthia combines flour from a hard wheat, water, olive oil and salt to produce a mound she will later roll into small balls, and then, with great dexterity, roll extensively with a piece of thick dowel to produce her own sheets of “country filo” that is slightly coarser than the filo in the supermarkets.

She layers a huge, aluminium pie tin first with sheets of pastry, then olive oil, then tops it with a layer of the filling: chopped red onion, trachana, a little like a Greek couscous for moisture absorption during the cooking, horta, or wild greens roughly chopped, and two cheeses, both produced at home from milk that is predominantly sheep’s, although most flocks have a few goats among them leading the bleaters.

One of the cheeses, of course, is feta: in Greece, it is a staple, and around Anavra’s outskirts there are sheep and goats grazing free-range in flocks of up to 50. The other is myzithra, a whey cheese, a cheese produced from the whey left over from making feta curds, not dissimilar to the more familiar ricotta. Evanthia alternates pastry and filling until the pie is ready for her makeshift wood oven outside.

The result is sublime although with such high oil content, the pita loses its appeal as it cools. What it doesn’t lose is its significance: Greeks are the highest consumers of cheese per capita in the world, largely because they cook with it so much. Also, many fresh Greek cheeses, such as myzithra and manouri, not to mention the sublime, thick, hung sheep’s milk yoghurts, cross-dress as desserts when they’re not employed as savoury components. You tend to think of the Greeks as great lamb eaters, but in reality, an ovine’s first duty here is to milk production.

The region of Thessaly is not only known for its pita. Down on the coastal plain, at Almyros, is one of the dozen or so cheese-making companies left in Greece that still makes a percentage of its feta traditionally, ripening the salted curds in barrels. The dairy still works with about a dozen free-ranging herds from nearby hills, roaming on communal and national pastures such as those around Anavra.

Refrigerated trucks collect the milk daily and cold milk is brought to the dairy no later than 15 hours after milking. The population of animals produces on the average a blend of sheep and goat’s milk that varies from 15-25 per cent goat milk content, well within the goat milk limit of 30 per cent for authentic feta.

Once the milk has been turned to curd, and the fresh curd drained, it is transferred the next day to wooden, birch, barrels and coarse grain salt is placed at the bottom of the barrel as well as between the rounds of cheese.

The best feta stays in the barrel, at varying degrees of temperature and humidity, for between six and 12 months. Some, under the label Mt Vikos, makes its way into cheese shops and it’s worth trying to make the comparison with mass-production feta.

Feta is the hero from a Greek pantheon that includes, as well as the aforementioned cheeses, kasseri, kefalotiri, kefalograviera, often used in the dish haloumi, pan-fried cheese, ladotiri and graviera. But there are hundreds more, because simple cheese making from domestic herds still happens all over Greece, as it has for thousands of years.

“In even the poorest homes there will always be a jar of home-cured olives, a wheel of some variety of cheese and a loaf of bread in the cellar or pantry,” says Maria Tsihlakis, general manager of the Essential Ingredient and a frequent visitor to Athens and Crete. “They reflect what is available or affordable. It is unheard of to be at a table where cheese is not served as an accompaniment.”

Lately, in Melbourne, Greek cheeses have been coming out of the tavernas and Greek delis to find a wider audience at smart restaurants. At Mini Perry Peters incorporates with different dishes and seasons kefalograviera, kefalotiri, feta, myzithra and telemes, manouri and kalathaki. The cheeses are a mix of imported and locally made versions of the originals.

At the Press Club, George Calombaris uses feta, demonstrating the versatility Greeks achieve with their cheeses and cuisine: haloumi might be incorporated into a souffle with mint; feta on a bean stew; while more feta, this time crumbled, dances between sweet and savoury with a dish of fresh watermelon, yoghurt sorbet, crumbled feta and basil oil.

It’s a long way from a basic hills village in northern Greece, but then, food makes for unlikely connections.

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