In Search of Cretan Cheese Secrets

Green and grey, every shade imaginable, flecked with bright yellow and splashes of purple. These are the colours which are illuminated in the early evening sunlight…

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The mountains are spectacular as I walk along the track of the E4, the European walking trail which runs from Portugal all the way to Cyprus. I arrive in a tiny village, white washed houses line the cobbled streets, and there is a peaceful calm in the air. Only the sound of running water from the village fountains, and the birds singing their evening songs. I stop to refresh myself from the tap in the main square, and as I’m studying the map of the E4, a young man appears, smiling at me with a look of surprise. Dark eyes are framed by glasses, a short beard and the look of somebody who works outside. “Gea siu” – your health – the eternal greeting. We begin to chat, and as luck would have it, Manoli tells me he is going to milk his sheep. The obvious question therefore is “do you make cheese?” He tells me yes, so I ask if I can come and see as I’m interested in cheesemaking. I explain about my cheesy experience, mozzarella making and how I started making cheese at home in Madrid. Then his father, Yanni, arrives, I am introduced, my story repeated, and seemingly accepted as they motion me towards the van.

I jump in the back and we drive off to the mountainside where they keep the sheep (and 3 goats).The next couple of hours are spent milking the sheep: the bucket fills with the fresh foamy milk, and a calmness descends – this is a process which is replayed every morning and evening, and it is only new for me.IMG_4184

Click on the link to hear the sounds of milking…and continue reading 🙂

My new friends smile as I watch attentively, and try to ask some questions in Greek. Occasionally Manoli looks up from his grip on the sheep and answers in broken English. His father seemingly cracks jokes (many of which are at my expense I imagine) which go over my head, but bring peals of laughter every now and then.

Once all the sheep have been emptied of their precious cargo, we head to a room where they obviously make the cheese. Hanging from the ceiling are planks of wood lined with Anthotiros, a fresh cheese which is aged and often used with pasta.Anthotiros sits on a wooden plank, hanging from the cieling

The milk is heated to 65° to pasteurize it and in the morning it will be combined with the fresh milk and then the cheese making can begin. I am handed a cup of fresh milk by Yanni, still hot from being heated. “You’ll stay with us tonight and tomorrow we’ll milk the sheep and make cheese”. I’m not really sure if it’s a question or a statement, but I happily acquiesce.

They show me to another hut – their main cheese storeroom. Inside the air is pungent with the smell of aging cheese, but not overpowering.

The Graviera aging in the storoom
The Graviera aging in the storoom

I am offered a taste from a bowl of something creamy looking. It doesn’t look altogether appetising but Manoli winks at me and tells me this is Cretan Viagra – in present company it’s not exactly what I had in mind, but I take a spoon anyway and tuck in…it’s so good I can’t resist a second, and a third before I realise what it is. It is called athogallo, and is a type of sour cream: It is the cream which forms over night after the milk is pasteurized, and then scooped off in the morning. It is often used as a dip and eaten with roast potatoes in Crete.

Back at the house I am treated to a home-cooked dinner, something which I especially appreciate when I’m on the road for a while. As ever the hospitality is incredible, including the obligatory (prodigious amounts of) raki!

In my broken Greek I talk with Manoli and he explains a little about the economic situation. They make cheese 3 months of the year and the rest of the time is spent on olives, vines, honey, and cultivating various fruit and vegetables. Unfortunately they are not organic farmers, and when I ask them about this they just shrug, as if to say what is the point. When you listen to Yanni explain the economics you can understand. 60 years ago they were making 30 kilos of olive oil, 30 years ago 60 kilos, 10 years ago 120 kilos, last year over 300. This is a combination of modern farming techniques and chemicals. In my Greek I cannot really discuss in detail, but I at least try to explain a little about why organic farming is important and the impact of chemicals is more than we can see. Manoli seems to accept my point, his father looks at me like I’m talking gibberish! This is a typical situation across the island: the older farmers do not see the point of organic farming. They cannot comprehend the impact the use of chemicals has and are interested only in the economics and making sure they can feed their families. In fact on many occasions farmers have told me that they do not use chemicals on Crete, but if you quiz them more they say “well just a little on these…but it’s nothing!”.

We talk more about cheese and Manoli explains that they don’t make it for profit. The family are all descendants of his great-grandfather, who bought the mountainside. Different members of the family own the land where the sheep graze and he gives them cheese in return. Each one gets a different share, totalling 480kg. So for example, the 1st son and his family get the most, and so on. Anything leftover is sold privately in towns and villages by Manoli and his father.

During all of this, somehow the small shot glass of raki is never empty, and as the night progresses, I find it more and more difficult to follow the conversation, and respond to their questions. Thankfully Manoli is aware of this, and shows me to a room where I happily collapse on the bed. In Crete they say you can’t have just 1 raki as you will be unbalanced. But then they also say that you don’t get a hangover and you can drink as much raki as you want without any effect.

In the morning my head is surprisingly ok, and after breakfast (which consists of coffee and cigarettes for Manoli – a typical Greek breakfast) we head back to milk the sheep and make cheese. Manoli heads up the mountainside while Yanni prepares food for the sheep, and the fire for the cheese making. After bringing them down from the mountainside, Manoli begins the milking once again, while his father stands inside the shed, ushering them forwards. I am given this job shortly after as Yanni goes off to perform some more tasks, The sheep huddle together like a huge moving rug, their black and white heads sticking out as if there is a huge multi-headed sheep! Warily they keep a safe distance from the intruder, a semicircular void surrounding me as they try to get as far away as possible. They wait quietly, their bells tinkling, staring at me with an expression of suspicion. One by one Manoli grabs them, squeezing the fresh milk into a foam filled bucket. They line up, eager to escape, and some of them are let through without milking. They have a shaved back, and Manoli explains they are only 1 year old and next year they will start milking them.The sheep carpet

The last few sheep decide the strange Englishman in their midst is definitely not to be trusted, and in a panicked moment of indecision they run around, neither heading for the exit, nor staying still, but following each other round and round in circles. Sheep really are not very intelligent! Finally Yanni comes in and smiling at me, takes over, showing how it’s done, with a few sharp whistles to get the sheep moving.

When the milking is finished, it’s cheese making time. They use an old style system to heat the milk – a wood fire outside heats a large metal tub inside. Manoli drives away to take care of other jobs, leaving me, Yanni and a huge tub of milk.Yanni collecting wood for the fire

The next few hours are spent in short clipped conversation (Yanni doesn’t speak English and my Greek is still not fantastic, especially speaking with an old Cretan man), and watching the fascinating process. Graviera is made first, a fairly simple process of fresh milk and rennet, and after separation it is pressed to remove all of the liquid. It will be stored and then eaten during the winter time after at least 4 months. Next up is Myzithra. Like ricotta, the myzithra uses the whey from the previous cheese and a little extra fresh milk. It is heated to 65° – 70° and then the flame is increases to 95° and it is “cooked” so that it bubbles and begins to come together. It is then left for 10 minutes or so before being scooped into the moulds.

Yanni making cheese
Yanni making cheese

Yanni passes me a bowl of the fresh curds to taste. It melts in the mouth with a delicious creamy tanginess and he nods as he sees my smile. This is all old news for him – he’s been making cheese this way for years and there is nothing exciting for him any more. He tells me in fact that it is lonely, monotonous work, and I can see that there is no magic here for him. For me however, it’s another lesson in cheesemaking, and another step into a world which I find more and more fascinating the more I learn and see. Manoli returns with a round Graviera in his hand, cuts it in half and passes it to me. “For the road” he says. We jump in the truck, the gate closes, the dogs bark, and it’s back to the village. For them it’s lunch and siesta time. For me…the unknown road is calling.

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