A quick trip to Crete will have you looking at that cheese board with a fresh eye. One thing is for sure. Cretans LOVE cheese. Cheese for breakfast, cheese for lunch; cheese with rusks for extra crunch. Cheese is a massive part of the Cretan diet and they know just how to make it, eat it, and of course pair it. Methods have been perfected over centuries, and a smorgasbord of delicious cheeses have hailed from the sunny islands. Putting smiles on the faces of anyone who walks into the cheese shop. Start your day the Cretan way, with a selection of fresh produce straight from the fertile plains of this rich land, and of course – cheese. It’s only right to taste as many of the cheeses of the island as possible.
Crete is an island of goat & sheep breeders hence of cheese makers! Most Cretan cheeses are made from sheep or goats milk. Making them much healthier than usual, so the Cretan’s feel no guilt consuming it in almost every meal. The sheep and goats on the island roam free. Enjoying a natural diet of fresh mountain herbs and local plants naturally salted by the sea breeze even in 1000m height they provide purer milk and exceptional cheese. Tear your eyes away from the sparkling sea for a minute to gaze at the mountains and you’re sure to spot a goat or two.
The Origins of Cretan Cheesemaking
Livestock is the main source of income of the mountainous areas of the island, hence gives a high quality sheep and goat meat, and milk which is processed to cheese either in the open-air cheese factories called mitata, or in houses, and in technically advanced cheese factories. There are many variations of cheese products, most already popular outside Crete. The Cretans consumed the cheese in various meals during the day, and it had a special place in the dessert menu as well as in the traditional confectionery. The milk used is sheep and goat in various proportions but never cow’s milk.
One of the earliest historical cheese-making rituals in Crete involves the mitata. Which is a stone shepherd’s hut built in the mountains – built by placing flat stone upon stone. The mitata is a sturdy and functional structure. The lack of mortar between the bricks also helps the air to circulate and dry out the cheese. As their main task is to store – and subsequently age the cheese to ultimate richness. Amazing!
Many of the remaining mitata structures are in Rethymno, due to the ideal location of the Psiloritis mountains. Spiti tou Voskou in Krana is now a restored and functioning mitato. Celebrating the traditional cheese-making process by inviting guests on tours. The best chance to try a square or five of some of the best and most unique cheese flavours in the whole of Crete. Including the rarely found tyrozouli and kefalotyri. The shepherds will be delighted for you to try, and you will often be offered a fiery shot of raki for the perfect cheeky pairing.
For the love of Graviera
Practically every part of Crete is famous for its renowned cheese production. Though one of the most famous and delicious is Graviera. Crete’s PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) flagship semi-hard cheese made from sheep milk and rennet (pitia). Weight is applied to the cheese to remove the whey. Then it’s matured over 3-6 months to produce an oil-rich, buttery cheese. It practically melts in the mouth with a pleasantly sweet and salty flavour. Graviera is one of Crete’s most exported products, but to try it with fresh produce on the island is the absolute best way to experience its full potential. It goes down delightfully with a plate of Kimi figs (another fantastic Greek delicacy) and of course a large glass of red wine.
Pairing – Exquisite with a full-bodied red such as Skalani. The mature flavours and rich textures ask for something bold.
Smoked graviera/gruyere, is smoked gradually with wild Cretan herbs for a few days after the ageing process and has a piquant nutty flavour.
Pairing – It pairs well with a sweet red such as the Dafnios Liatiko by Douloufakis. But is phenomenal with a dry and fresh Assyrtiko and a plate of fresh and zesty oysters.
Perfect Cheese Pairs
What could be a better way to start, pause, or end the day than a fabulous pairing plate of cheese and wine selection? Perhaps breakfast is a little early but it’s always five o clock somewhere. Good red wine is always a winner with the cheeses, though it’s just as easy to pair with white. A good, cool white with a strong citrusy acidity will cut through cheese’s natural richness like a knife through butter. Or in this instance exactly like a sharp knife through a delicious cheese.
(Find out more about our fabulous Cretan wine varieties in this article.)
Malaka is a soft and sweet gem of a cheese that mostly resembles a mozzarella. Made from sheep milk in the first processes of making graviera. It is a curd cheese with a soft, light texture and creamy taste. Often used as the ideal pizza topping. In Crete, it’s the main ingredient of kalitsounia pies, an absolute staple of the Cretan diet and not to be missed. These little pastries stuffed with cheese and herbs are extremely moreish. You’ll be forgiven for devouring a plate full.
Pairing – Pizza, kalitsounia pies, and a medium white such as Dafni or Vilana.
One of the most commonly found Cretan cheeses is mizithra. Ricotta like cheese made from sheep milk. Simple, quick and delicious. It can be combined with almost anything and is a go-to staple for a meal any time of the day. Mizithra is regularly enjoyed as a breakfast snack simply topped with honey for a sweet and healthy start to the day. As it is so fresh, mizithra is much healthier than aged cheeses, so eat as much of the delicious stuff as you like. There’s also a sour version named xinomizithra. The aroma is quite pungent but the taste is mellow. An aged Mizithra is hard and very salty, which makes it ideal to grate over a lovely pasta or salad.
Pairing – Almost anything goes, pastries, pies and salads. Or on its own with a little sweet honey.
Galomyzithra has one of the simplest cheese-making processes. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. You don’t even have to squeeze any lemons. The cheese is left to oxidize and sour naturally to become cheese. Soft, creamy and spreadable.
Pairing – It’s commonly used in bourekia, a little savoury pie, risottos and salads. Alternatively, it’s most simple and delicious spread on a fresh crusty loaf with a little herb and olive oil. Enjoy with a zesty breakfast juice.
Anthogalo is a creamy, buttery concoction. Created by heating the sheep milk, adding rennet, and then straining the raised milk through a cheesecloth. It’s then left to dry out before refrigeration.
Pairing – The ideal cheese for thickening a creamy risotto or adding to pasta and salads. But the ultimate way is to spread a little anthogalo on rusks with honey – yum.
Anthotyro is a fresh cheese with a pleasant wild herb flavour. The fresh version is known as anthotyro fresco. The aged variety is anthotyro xero which has a dry, crumbly texture making it an ideal grating cheese for salads and pasta.
Pairing – Anthotyro makes a savoury accompaniment to sweet fruits like figs, pears, and apples. It’s also paired wonderfully in pastries and pies.
Kefalotyri is a salty hard cheese made from sheep or goats milk with naturally formed, quirky air holes. An aged kefalotyri is aged for at least one year (to 18 months) and has a strong taste bud tingling flavour. They call it ‘tiri tripas’ and you will be very lucky to find it. Try your luck at the Mitato of Manoli Samonaki in Geraki village of Heraklion.
Pairing – Kefalotyri is fantastic when grated over pasta and stews. Or as a rich accompaniment for fruits like figs, pears and grapes. Of course, as it’s a hard cheese, red wine is usually the way to go.
Tyrozouli is a fresh sheep or goats milk cheese which is curdled in fig sap. Cultivated in the Western mountains, it’s best eaten fresh and is one of the rare gems to try on a trip to the shepherd’s huts in Rethymno. Often it is further matured in olive oil when it becomes hard.
Certain cheeses can only be consumed on the island because they are too fragile to be exported. It’s the best chance to try a sour xinomyzithra, glykia myzithra (the fresh, or sweet variety) and xygalo Sitias; a creamy white with a granular texture and fresh salty taste.
Cooking With Cheese
Cooking with cheese, pan-frying, melting, or grilling alters the flavour profile dramatically. Lord do the Cretans know how to serve up a treat. Pan-frying a slab of saganaki (meaning ‘little frying pan’) makes all the difference. Saganaki is similar to halloumi as it goes crisp and brown in the oil. Delicious at any time of the day.
A sfakiani pita (pie) is somewhere between a crepe and a pancake. Light crisp, and filled with succulent, melty myzithra, anthotyro. Or any other creamy and spreadable fresh Cretan favourite. Sfakiani pita often comes in cute little parcels nipped up at the sides to contain the delicious filling. Never before was there such a delicious pie! Unless you also have a Kalitsounia on your plate.
Tip of the day: did you know that while boiling to make anthogalo, there is some fat revealing above? This is delicious to fry eggs with or to use when making the famous Cretan risotto called ‘gamopilafo’.
Hospitality supports local producers
In Legacy Gastro Suites great importance is given to original Greek products, which are stored and served in the suites’ food stations otherwise called ‘skrinio’. Excellent cheeses are presented from all over Greece..such as Arseniko Naxou or Ladotiri of Zante. But hey, local cheese could not be missing. For instance, the cheeses produced by Ntagiantas a family active in the field of Cretan Cheese since 1974. Among their varieties, you can find not only Graviera and Kefalotyri, but also Myzithra, Anthotiro, Smoked Gruyere and Galomyzithra.
Another dynamic family business with its own production plant in Heraklion is Zervos. The company is famous for their Cretan cream cheese, called galeni, with a rich family story behind its production. This cream cheese sued to be prepared by the mother of the family during the process of producing other cheese varieties. Due to its exceptional taste and its special characteristics, customers began to ask for it transforming it into the family speciality. The company also produces Galomyzithra cheese, a variety wit a granular texture, a rich, sour taste and a pleasant aroma, all characteristics that make it ideal for pies, salads and appetisers.
There you have it. You could spend weeks exploring the island if only to discover the very best cheese. If there’s one thing you must do before you leave, Crete, fill up a shopping bag and make room for a bit of cheese in your luggage.
More to know about Greek Cheese: The first evidence of cheese consumption dates back in 8,000 BC in Greece. Later on Greeks had developed cheese making so much that they were controlling its flavor by feeding the animals with herbs like oregon, thyme etc. Several types of cheese are produced exclusively in designated areas of Greece. Greece has in total 20 PDO cheese types, certified by the European Union. To begin with, who doesn’t know the national cheese of Greece, Feta. So, Feta cheese you may taste from local producers in Macedonia, Thrace, Thessaly, Central Greece, Epirus, Peloponnese and Lesvos island. But there are more to try. The Macedonian cheeses, are anevato, kefalograviera, telemes & mizithra. The Thessaly cheeses are touloumotiri, galotiri and manouri. The Central Greece cheeses are formaela and katiki. The Epirus cheeses are metsovone, maisio, and gruyere from cow milk (ideal for fondues). The Ionian islands cheeses are feta from Kefallonia, kefalotyri, pecorino from Corfu, ladotiri from Zante. The Peloponesian cheeses are sfela & mizithra. The Aegean islands cheeses are petroto, kopanisti, kalathaki from Limnos, San Michali from Syros, possias from Kos, ladotiri from Lesvos and the famous from the ancient ages gruyere of Naxos!