“Sifnos cheese or feta?” If you’ve been to this island, you’ll know the question. It’s what you’re most often asked when you order horiatiki. Which kind of cheese do you want on your Greek salad?
For me, the answer is easy. I can have feta almost anytime, pretty much anywhere, is my way of thinking, so if there’s a choice to be made, Sifnos cheese it will be. Soft, fresh and mild, with a swirl of olive oil on top and perhaps a lashing of black pepper, spread it onto a slab of fresh bread and I’m in heaven.
I am, it must be said, a cheese lover and one of the things I find so interesting about travelling almost everywhere in Europe is the quality and variety of its regional cheeses. I make it a practice to try the local version wherever I go and to learn what I can while I’m there. Once high in the French Alps, in front of a sunburned chalet, I asked two men about the Reblochon they’d advertised on the sign at the entrance to their farm. The next thing I knew I was in their kitchen sipping white Bordeaux while their sweet white-haired mother gazed happily out through the window and told me how she’d spent every summer of her life in that sunlit meadow, how excited the cows always are on the trek up the mountainside in spring, and that the rich array of wildflowers that grow at that elevation are what give the cheeses of summer an extra kick of colour and taste.
However, despite the amount of time I’ve spent on Sifnos, I’d learned surprisingly little about the topic here. Oh, I did know that the cheese you’re offered for your salad is called myzithra in Greek and that there’s another much firmer kind called manoura, though you’re less likely to encounter it in a restaurant or taverna. I’d assumed, given how many more goats and sheep there are on the island than cows, what kind of milk is used to make them. I knew I hadn’t spotted either of these cheeses in a store and, when I’d asked a couple of people I know where they get theirs, the answer was always some variation of, “There’s a guy …” One time a farmer presented my husband and me with a well-aged manoura as thanks for the handful of times we’d given him a ride back to his farm from the fields where he’d come every day to tend to his goats. It was obvious from his proud smile that this gift came from his heart and was likely of his own production. I hope we thanked him properly enough.
Then one time, not long before we were to leave home for the island again, that was it, I decided. I needed to learn more. I was in the midst of writing my second book, Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales, the subject of cheese had come up and, if I was going to write about it, I needed more facts.
Sifnos has this way of putting in front of me the very person I need at the very moment I need him or her. Often whether I knew up until then that I did. I never know when such coincidences will occur, but by now I just enjoy them when they come, always at the most unexpected times.
So it was again. We’d arrived a day or two before and my husband and I were walking through a quiet residential neighbourhood when a motorcycle roared up behind us and its driver realized that she recognized us. She stopped. “My house is just up here,” she said. “Would you like coffee?” Of course. Invitations like that I’ve learned not to turn down.
Coffee in such circumstances, of course, is never just coffee and soon she was preparing treats. Savoury cookies I think are called koulouria. Cherry tomatoes for a pop of colour against the white plate. And, lo and behold, Sifnos cheese. Both kinds. As we ate and we chatted and we drank, I learned more than I’d ever known about the topic.
Her father keeps goats, she said, and her mother makes the cheese. On Sifnos, while there are those who make it commercially, many people still make it at home for their own use, the way it’s always been done. You eat myzithra, the fresh one, right away and even when refrigerated, it lasts but a few days. Manoura is an aged cheese. Shepherds used to take it along with them into the fields where it could sustain them for weeks at a time. Made with goats’ milk, it’s formed into a shape that resembles a small Brie but a bit higher, then it’s salted and set to dry on a woven straw mat. Later it’s immersed into wine for a few days, then placed in gili, the sediment from wine barrels that gives it its characteristic and edible dark outside. There it is aged for varying periods, according to the maker’s taste. Some like their manoura mild, others like our goatherd friend prefer it pungent indeed. Barnyardy, even, I’d describe it in some cases. The one this lady gave us that day had been made not long before and was hence fairly mild. But soft like myzithra, it definitely was not. Manoura never is. When she stuck a fork into it, it practically squeaked. You never refrigerate this cheese, she said. You merely wrap it and keep in a cupboard or on the counter. Oops. I’ll know better next time if I’m ever presented with one again.
A few days later, I was walking again not far from there when I met a woman who was going the other way with a matsa, a hand-carved olive-wood walking stick, in one hand. In the other, she was carrying a very large plastic bucket. Rattling around inside it, I could see, was a well-used metal funnel and some other tools and her walk was definitely a purposeful one.
“Myzithra?” I asked. It was all the Greek I could manage right then.
She nodded and smiled. Yes, she was on her way to make some.
I smiled too. Though my Greek was still far from what I wanted it to be, at least I was starting to be able to talk cheese.
Sharon Blomfield is the author of The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and, new this spring, Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales. These books are available at To Bibliopoleio, The Book Shop in Apollonia, Sifnos, at Tithorea, a Greek food shop in Rockwood, Ontario, Canada and on Amazon.
My blog post, Greek Salad, Sifnos Style is here.