Cheese making in Greece has a long history that is reflected in its mythology, ancient literature, and in archeological finds. In Greek myth, Aristaios, the son of Apollo, taught the art of cheese making to humans, and cheese was given as an offering to the gods. One of Homer’s memorable stories in the Odyssey tells of the encounter by Ulysses, who entered the cave where Polyphemus, the one-eyed Cyclops, kept his treasured cheeses. From their descriptions some are remarkably similar to the simplest island cheeses still made in Greece today. Archeological excavations on Crete have found fired clay strainers, thought to have been used to drain away the whey when making cheese, dating from the Neolithic (5,000-4000 b.c. and the early Bronze ages (3,0000 b.c.) (At the Minoan Palace of Knossos, stone tablets depict men making cheese from both goat’s and sheep’s milk).
Aristotle writes at length about the lifespan, breeding and eating habits of sheep and lamb and devotes a large section to milk in his Study of Animals. He mentions how cheese is made using fig sap and rennet from the stomachs of suckling animals.
Cheese has been a staple of the Greek diet for eons. As Signe Isager and Jens Erik Skydsgaard point out in their scholarly work, Ancient Greek Agriculture, An Introduction, “cheese was part of the normal diet as a natural supplement. Cheese was made near the place where milking was done so that transport was avoided, milk being perishable, especially in a hot climate. Cheese-making requires few tools: facilities for warming the milk, rennet and strainers so that the whey may drip from the curds which may then be pressed into moulds and cured.”
In antiquity, Greeks established a kind of appellation of origin system for cheeses, and connoisseurs knew that specific cheeses were best from particular places. There was a “developed trade in gastronomic and other luxuries,” writes Andrew Dalby in his history of ancient Greek cuisine, Siren Feasts, and goes on to note that among other places, Sicily and Syracuse were famous for their cheeses. He elaborates in a later chapter:
“A character in a comedy by Alexis speaks of ‘fresh Cythnian cheeses”, which were made from sheep’s milk; we have seen something of the fame of Sicilian cheese at Athens….Cheese from the Thracian Chersonese was also available at Athens in the fourth century. Semonides had written in iambic verse of the Tromilic goats’ milk cheese of Achaea. From various later sources we know of Cretan cheese and of Phrygian, Mysian and Bithynian cheeses, the last a cow’s milk cheese.”
Cheese played a role, not only as a staple and dietary supplement, but as a luxury item in ancient Greek gastronomy. The ancient Greeks made many types of sweet cheese pastries and many similar pastries are made today and are popular, especially in the Aegean islands. Cheese was an ingredient in some of the wedding sweets of the ancient Greeks. According to Atheneus, the 2nd and early 3rd century author of the Deipnosophists, an account of an ancient Greek aristocratic feast, the best cheese pastries were made on the island of Samos. Cheese-based sweets were used also as wedding announcements or invitations. For example, in Argos, the Deipnosophists indicates, the bride sent gifts of roasted cheesecakes topped with honey to the groom and to his relatives.
Greeks today proudly believe that the basics of their much-touted healthful diet trace their roots to ancient food ways. Cheese is a good case in point. So much of the traditional cheese that is produced in Greece today is akin to the simple goat’s and sheep’s milk cheeses described in ancient literature; cheese is still a dietary supplement (in fact, modern Greeks have one of the highest consumption rates for cheese in the world, at about 22 kilos per person per year); and cheese appears in cooking in many of the same ways described both in ancient and in later, Byzantine, texts. For example, the great 20th century Greek Byzantine historian Phaedon Koukoules, in his magnum opus Byzantinos Bios kai Politismos (Byzantine Life and Civilization), notes that the Byzantines liked fried cheese, which he writes was finished off by pouring in a certain type of [unnamed] broth. It is a description uncannily similar to a dish of fried cheese served on taverna menus from Athens to Adelaide.