Feta is the cheese most people associate with Greece. But on the island of Naxos, dairy farmers tend goats, sheep, and cows to produce their own trademark cheeses. Hard, buttery graviera comes in rind-covered wheels, and the sour mizithra looks like ricotta and tastes of goat’s milk.
Unlike some of the smaller islands in Greece’s Cyclades chain, Naxos doesn’t depend solely on tourism. Towering quarries still produce the island’s trademark white marble, used since ancient times. Clunky bells warn of goats climbing near-vertical slopes to cross the road.
Amid white beaches lined with tavernas offering umbrellas and cold drinks, Naxos is also home to a robust agricultural sector. A few lots back from the beaches, potato fields and dairy farm fields dot the landscape.
One of them is in the coastal village of Glyfada, south of the main town. There, on a dusty plot adjacent to the Manolis Guest House, Emmanouli Gratsias produces fresh, creamy mizithra — made with milk and whey — from his sheep and goat herds. During a recent visit to his farm, a direct purchase proved difficult because of a language barrier. But the bearded, jovial Gratsias happily got his wife — who spoke English — on the phone to make it happen.
“How much?” she asked. “It comes in 5 kilo bags [11 pounds].”
That sounded like a bit too much, even for two cheese lovers. But the agreed-upon 2 kilos proved more than sufficient for a week’s visit on the island, enjoyed on crackers and with luscious Naxos tomatoes.
About 10 miles north in Naxos town, a maze of streets winds from the ferry landing, past gyro and ice cream shops, up to remnants of a 13th-century castle. The alleys lead back down to the center of town and a choice of cheese shops — the spotless artisanal or the traditional.
Floor-to-ceiling shelves of olive oil, ouzo, and canned tomatoes fill one wall of a narrow, windowless store called Traditional Products of Naxos. Rows of wooden barrels full of nuts, apricots, figs, and other dried fruit line another wall. At the center of it all, Kiriakos Tzimblakis presides over a table where a soupy tub of mizithra sits among wheels of hard cheese.
Graviera Naxos, which tastes like a milder version of the similarly named gruyere, is the island’s signature cheese, so much so that it has earned the European Union’s label of authenticity — the PDO (Protected Designation of Origin). To earn that designation, a product has to “be shown to meet a given quality standard, have certain objective features, or enjoy a reputation linking it with a given geographical area,” according to the EU.
Tzimblakis offers a bit of background to customers who don’t speak Greek. His grandfather started making cheese in 1945, and his father — who sits quietly near the back of the store in a cap and wool blazer — carried on the tradition. Tzimlakis now gets his cheese from local farmers and sells to restaurants and tourists.
He says it is the island’s dairy herds that make Naxos cheeses unique. The documentation filed for the cheese’s PDO makes the same point: “The milk used for the cheese comes from cow, sheep, and goat breeds which are fully adapted to the Naxos environment and whose diet is based on the island’s Flora. “
Greek chef and cookbook author Diana Kochilas says it’s the abundance of cow’s milk that gives the cheese its unique flavor. The host of an upcoming public television series, “My Greek Table,” she talks about how the variety of Greek cheeses springs in part from the country’s “microclimates.” Animal breeds, history, and tradition all contribute to those differences.
“Naxos cheeses are differentiated less by climate — Naxos is a relatively dry, ‘typical’ Cycladic island — and more by type of milk,” she wrote in an e-mail from Greece. ”It’s one of the few places in Greece where cow’s milk cheeses prevail. Most Greek cheeses are made with sheep and/or goat’s milk.”
Union of Agricultural Cooperatives of Naxos, a farmer’s cooperative that works with 500 farmers, describes the taste of graviera as “slightly sweet” and the makeup 80 percent cow’s milk and 20 percent goat’s milk.
Naxos has another agricultural claim to fame: it produces 8,000 tons of potatoes a year, including seedlings that are shipped to the mainland.
The potatoes also have earned special status from the EU — Protected Geographical Indication. (Like the PDO, the PGI links a product to a region, but allows for some stages of processing to occur elsewhere.) The application for that designation cites soil — “deep, coarse-textured sandy loam,” climate, and cultivation practices that produce a singular potato. Heavy rains from November to February allow the autumn planting to mature while the spring crop is sprouting.
In Naxos, most grocers will offer slices of graviera. Most tavernas serve crisp French fries and use graviera for saganaki, a fried cheese appetizer — or meze — as small plates are known in Greece.
But here in Boston, none of the local cheese shops contacted carries Naxos graviera. And it’s unlikely the yellow-tinted potatoes make it out of Greece. For now, those seeking the flavors of Naxos will have to make their way by ferry or airplane to the lush green island in the Aegean Sea.Tinker Ready can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.