There’s more to Greece than Feta
“There’s more to Greek cheese than Feta,” says Yannos Hadjiioannou with a serious look. To prove his point, the co-owner of importer Maltby & Greek is hosting a grand Greek cheese tasting at its HQ, under railway arches in Bermondsey Spa, London.
It’s an impressive sight. A long table is laden with dozens of cheeses, from grainy wedges made with sheep’s and cows’ milk to smoked cheeses and fluffy ricottas.
“Greece is sold on sun, sea and sand, but there is so much more to the country – amazing mountains, beautiful rivers and waterfalls, fantastic wildlife and plant life,” says Hadjiioannou. “These different landscapes are reflected by its cheeses. There is huge variety.”
Greece has 24 cheeses with PDO or PGI status, many of which are stocked by Maltby & Greek. Cheeses such as Manouri – a PDO ricotta-style cheese from Thessalia made with sheep’s and goats’ whey left over from Feta production. Or Metsovone PDO, a sausage-shaped provolone-style, made in the mountains of Northern Greece, that is smoked over smouldering leaves, grasses and herbs.
There are also various hard Graviera cheeses (named after Gruyère), including the PDO-protected Cretan Graviera – a hard sheep’s milk cheese made in 16kg wheels and aged for 24 months until it is grainy and savoury.
Hadjiioannou and his business partner Stefanos Kokotos, both from Athens, first started selling on a market stall on Maltby Street in 2012, before wholesaling to restaurants and retailers, and moving to their current site in 2017. Today, the company stocks hundreds of products, from bottarga and olive oil through to preserves to wines, and it supplies delis including Bayley and Sage, The Ealing Grocer and Raoul’s.
“When we started, Greek wine was nowhere to be seen but now it’s regularly on wine lists,” says Hadjiioannou. “The same thing can happen with Greek cheese. It needs good retailers to stock it, explain it and taste it.”
Even Feta needs further explanation, despite already being well known, he says, because there are so many different styles and flavours. They are often very different to the young, sharp cheeses, matured in tin containers, found on supermarket shelves.
“I’m looking for the right balance between salinity, pH and creaminess,” he says, as we taste a 100% sheep’s milk Feta from Grevena in North West Greece, which is sweet and briny with a sheepy finish. There’s also a buttery, yeasty Feta from Lesbos, plus beech barrel-aged cheeses, such as Kourouniotis, made with milk from sheep and goats that graze high mountain pastures in the Peloponnese. It’s fruity with a little bitterness on the finish. The 12-month Kostarelos Feta from the island of Evia is radically different with a harder texture and piquant, savoury, gamey flavour.
“When we grew up, you didn’t go to the supermarket to buy Feta,” he says. “You would go to the local store where they had three barrels – some were hard, some were soft. People would buy a couple of kilos at a time.”
Brits are a long way off buying in those quantities, but Hadjiioannou is hopeful that with time and education interest will grow in the same way it has for Spanish and Middle Eastern foods in recent years.
“We open up the arches on Saturdays and the people that shop here don’t know the cheeses, but when they taste them, they buy them,” he says. “It just needs a little leap of faith.”