When most Americans think of Greek cheese, they think of white, chalky feta, usually in its crumbled state atop the ubiquitous Greek salad. But there is more to Greek cheese than feta.
Sotiris Kitrilakis, the owner of Peloponnese in Oakland, Calif., started to bring in regional Greek cheeses about five years ago.
Kostas Mastoras, the owner and cheese buyer at Titan Foods in Astoria, N.Y., said he discovers new cheeses every year. He has seen his selection grow from a handful of the best-known cheeses several years ago to about 50 today.
And Greek cheeses have moved beyond the ethnic market: Many stores that carry a variety of foods from around the world now offer many Greek cheeses other than feta.
There are a slew of Greek cheeses available. Many regions and islands, and sometimes a single village, have their own indigenous varieties.
Formaella, a cheese made of sheep's or goat's milk, is made only in the mountains of Parnassus in central Greece. It is aged in caves for months and is similar in texture to mozzarella.
Sphela, a cheese that is formed by hand, is similar to feta but with a stronger, less salty taste and softer texture. It comes from Kalamata in the southern Peloponnese.
And kopanisti, which is Greek for pounded, is a soft mold cheese, not unlike blue cheese in flavor. It is kneaded intermittently over three months until it ignites, as the Greeks say, or turns pungent and peppery.
(Kopanisti is not yet available in the United States, but an ersatz kopanisti can be made by beating feta to a paste and seasoning it with olive oil, oregano, pepper and lemon juice. It can be eaten immediately or refrigerated for about a week.)
Europe is the largest consumer of Greek cheese outside Greece. Less than 1 percent of all Greek cheese is exported to the United States, where about 2 million Greeks and Greek-Americans live. About 200,000 of them live in the New York area, most of them in Astoria, N.Y.
Several things distinguish Greek cheeses from those made in Western Europe. In Greece, the majority are made from either sheep's or goat's milk. More than any other single factor, the country's myriad wild grasses and greens put their mark on the flavor and texture of Greek cheese. Sheep and goats graze freely and are nourished by the likes of lemon balm, sorrel and dandelion.
In the countryside, cheese making moves with the seasons, and the best cheese is made after the spring and autumn rains. On the islands, which are sprayed by the sea all year, the greens are tastiest. So are many of the cheeses.
Cheese is an integral part of the Greek meal. Kasseri or any of the yellow cheeses, sliced and sauteed in butter and then sprinkled with lemon juice, is a classic appetizer.
Formaella, sphela and touloumi are expected to be imported to the United States for the first time by the end of the year.