Cheeses of the Greek islands

A "divine" affair acted out by humans!

The goat Amalthea nurtured and raised the king of the gods, Zeus, in a cave in Crete. The islander Cyclops Polyphemus (son of the god Poseidon), who was defeated by the resourceful Odysseus, was perhaps the first cheesemaker recorded in a written text and, according to Homer, he made cheese from sheep’s milk.
By Giannis S. Tsakiris*


According to another legend, Aristeas (son of Apollo) lived on the island of Naxos and taught cheesemaking. Hermes, on the other hand, flew on his winged sandals from one island to another as the divine protector of the shepherds, who called him “tyreftis”, i.e. the sponsor of cheese. Numerous stories and Greek myths, all revolving around this unique product: cheese, which seems to have been a… divine affair. An affair of the Greek islands.

Livestock farming has always ensured the food and livelihood of the inhabitants of more than 100 inhabited islands of Greece. The climatic conditions and the natural environment of most of the Greek islands led the inhabitants to raise sheep and goats, with the exception of some islands of the Cyclades, which have traditionally raised cows since the 17th century. Some of these animal breeds are perfectly adapted to the peculiarities of each island. Tough and hardy enough to survive in volcanic soils, these animals produce fat-rich milk, suitable for the production of excellent cheeses.

Greece boasts 20 types of cheese registered as PDO cheeses and hundreds of others produced on its territory.

Indicatively, we can mention the special breed of the sheep of Chios with their high milk production, the sheep of Lesvos with roots in the East who are much sought after for breeding in mainland Greece, the sturdy sheep of Kefalonia and Zakynthos with their high milk production, the small but productive sheep from Sfakia, Crete and the goat breed of Skopelos, etc.

Climate, sea & soil

The sun, the soil and the salt of the sea offer the Greek islands with a rich, greatly varied flora, which includes all kinds of herbs and aromatic plants. The pastures of the islands create the most favourable conditions for the production of sheep’s, goat’s or cow’s milk with a unique taste.

Cheesemaker Rena Laskaridou in her workshop in Lemnos Island, Noerthen Aegean, Creece. ‘Melichloro’ Cheese is the most precious of Lemnian cheeses.
Cheesemaker Rena Laskaridou in her workshop in Lemnos Island, Northern Aegean, Creece. ‘Melichloro’ Cheese is the most precious of Lemnian cheeses.


When this milk is processed with the help of the experience, the eternal knowledge and the passion of the small island cheesemaker, wondrous flavours emerge that have nothing to envy when compared to the famous cheeses of Europe. For centuries, cheese production on the Greek islands was a family affair. The unique technique and traditions of each family were reflected in the cheeses produced in each village.

Continuous development and progress has led to small, organised cheese dairies that meet all modern standards, applying the HACCP and ISO systems and combining tradition with technology. Safe, tasty, unique products have won the trust of markets both in Greece and abroad.

Among the other factors that make island cheeses unique is the short distance between the pastures and the cheese dairy, which favours the immediate transport of the milk and allows the cheesemaking process to take place only a few hours after milking, thus retaining all the flavours and aromas of the aromatic herbs.

Thymelis Cheese Factory, Adissa, Lesvos Island, Greece.
Thymelis Cheese Factory, Adissa, Lesvos Island, Greece
Products that stand out

The gruyere of Crete is made from sheep’s milk and it owes its spicy taste to the 12-month maturation period, while the famous gruyere of Naxos retains the signature taste of the cow’s milk that is used in its production. A similar type of gruyere is produced in Tinos, in small quantities. The “San Michalis” gruyere of Syros is a worthy competitor to the Italian Parmesan. In Zakynthos (Ionian Sea), the gruyere is matured in olive oil, while this is also the case with the unique and famous Ladotyri cheese of Lesvos.

Kefalotyri cheese is produced in many parts of the Greek islands from sheep’s and goat’s milk. Its taste is salty and spicy and it is the perfect accompaniment to a spicy pasta dish.

As far as hard cheeses are concerned, we should mention kasseri, a very popular cheese made from sheep’s and goat’s milk and the wine cheese of Kos, as well as similar cheeses on the islands of Nisyros and Leros, which are matured in wine lees. The Arseniko cheese of Naxos, the Volaki cheese of Tinos, the Kerkyra cheese of Corfu (Ionian Sea) and the Mytato cheese of Kythera are worthy competitors on the list.

Feta PDO: the king of soft cheeses 

The king of soft cheeses made on the Aegean islands is Feta PDO, only made on Lesvos and Lemnos (both in the northern Aegean Sea) and Kalathaki PDO of Lemnos, which takes its name from the shape of the small basket in which it is stored as it matures. On the other islands, other varieties of soft white cheese are also produced that are considered variations of feta, which, however, cannot bear the name “feta”, since they have not been classified as PDO and are therefore found under other names such as Armogalo from Samos, Kathoura from Ikaria, Armexia from Andros, Petroto from Tinos, Xyno from Kea and Lefkotyri from Crete.

A speciality of the island of Chios and the Cyclades is Kopanisti cheese, a soft cheese that perfectly accompanies ouzo and raki, with a taste that shines just as bright as that of French Roquefort. In Chios, we will also find Mastelo cheese which, like the Melichloro cheese of Lemnos, is ideal for frying in a pan or grilling. Another well-known cheese is Mizithra, which is often served as a dessert, fresh and accompanied with honey, or consumed dry and salted as an excellent accompaniment to pasta. Another such variant is the Xynomizithra cheese of Crete.

Giannis S. Tsakiris holds a degree from the School of Veterinary Medicine of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, specialising in sheep nutrition and flock hygiene, and has presented his work in many veterinary conferences. He served as Chairman of the Steering Committee of the Aegean Branch of the Geotechnical Chamber of Greece (GEOTEE) for four terms. During the period 1992-1998 and 2010-2013, he was Deputy Mayor of the Municipality of Lesvos. His articles have been published in professional journals and he has given lectures to students of the University of the Aegean.

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