Part of Greece’s impressive cultural wealth is its cuisine, and the building blocks of Greece’s impressive culinary heritage: the exceptional produce of Greece. Over 100 Greek products are so exceptional that they have been awarded a PDO – a Protected Designation of Origin. This means that some preparations – such as a cheese, or a wine – or elemental building blocks of cuisine – such as legume or a vegetable, are such an expression of the very earth they come from that they are thought to be unique in quality, and given special recognition.
These products are worth sourcing – ways to taste Greece at its elemental best.
Here is a brief culinary tour of selected regions of Greece through some of their finest products:
Are we starting this list with the humble potato? Absolutely. There are several regions in greece that grow potatoes of exceptional quality, so rich in flavor they are not an afterthought or an unimportant side, but a feature attraction. Naxo’ soil and climate produce such excellent potatoes that they are given a PDO; the potatoes of Naxos are so celebrated that they have even been given their own festival, where they are featured in potato based dishes. The festival just had its tenth anniversary.
Other PDO products of Naxos include Graviera – a wonderful aged cheese that is also popular in other areas of Greece (the island of Crete, and Mt. Agrafa in central Greece also produce PDO graviera cheeses). Naxos’ graviera is one of the more gentle varieties, characterized by a sweet, buttery flavor. Unlike other gravieras produced in Greece, the gravieras of the Cyclades are produced exclusively from cows’ milk, rather than a blend or with sheeps’ milk.
There is also a PDO liqueur that Naxos is known for, flavored with citron. This fragrant liqueur is made from distilling the leaves of the citron (“kitro”) tree, and comes in clear, green and gold varieties, with varying degrees of alcohol and sugar.
The gorgeous north Aegean Island of Lemnos is virtually synonymous with its best-known export. Lemnos is famous for producing extraordinary wines, rich with perfume. The mineral-rich volcanic soil of Lemnos produces and extraordinary grape – Limnio – which has the added distinction of being among the world’s oldest grape varieties, referred to in the Iliad.
Lemnos actually has two PDOs- one for Limnio, and another for Muscat. The Limnio grape – locally known as kalampaki – also produces dry red wines, which must be made of 100% Limnio in order to have the PDO.
Lemnos also produces the prettiest feta-style cheese, which also has a PDO. “Kalathaki Limnos” means “Basket of Lymnos” for the characteristic basket weave pattern on the rounds of whiite cheese. This is a delicate tasting white cheese is excellent – like feta – in salads, pies, and on its own.
Greece’s largest island has a unique culture and cuisine, and several PDO products of note. The rigged terrain of Crete is suited to goats and sheep rather than cows. The animals, grazing on wild herbs under the sweet Cretan sun, produce extraordinary milk. From this, several excellent cheeses are made: Cretan graviera, pichtogalo (“thick milk”) of Chania, xigalo of Sitia, and Xynomyzythra of Crete.
An essential part of the Cretan table – enjoyed with cheeses, in salads, and as a base to the essential Cretan meze “dakos” are the hearty barley rusks. These hard, rich tasting rusks called “paximadi” also have a PDO.
The breezes of Crete are sometimes scented with wild thyme. Bees love this, and produce a delicious honey of thyme and pine which has a PDO. Crete’s excellent extra virgin olive oil also has a PDO distinction.
The vineyards of Crete produce some special indigenous grape varieties – some of them quite ancient. PDO wines of Crete include some made with malvasia, dafnes, handakas, archanes, and peza.
Thessaloniki is near some excellent dairy country. PDO feta is produced in the region. In fact, in order to be called Feta, it must be Greek. Manouri – a rich, smooth pure white cheese – is also produced near Thessaloniki, and so is kaseri. Kaseri is a semi-firm yellow cheese with a pleasing milky flavor and a lighter taste than graviera. It’s perfect for enjoying on its own or melting.
Northern Greece is also great wine country. Not far from Thessaloniki begin the famous “Wine Roads of Macedonia.” Wineries produce some exceptional PDO wines from indigenous grape varieties such as agiorgitiko and xinomavro.
The Halkidiki peninsula – Thessaloniki’s resort and beach area – is famous for producing exceptionally large, juicy green olives. These have been awarded a PDO since 2012.
Greece’s exciting capital is a culinary-forward city. The wealth of Greece’s natural products is prized, and young business seek to produce the highest quality PDO products, such as cheeses and olive oil. Some specialty products thrive near Athens. There are two designations for the pistachio – one for the pistachios of Megara, a suburb of Athens, and one for Aegina, one of Athens’ closest islands. In fact, Aegina is so famous for its excellent pistachios throughout Greece that pistachios in general are often called “from Aegina” to differentiate them from peanuts, which shares the word “fistiki.”
The Vostitsa raisins of Corinth are grown near Athens as well, and the Attica region also produces excellent PDO extra virgin olive oil.
Shops in Athens proudly source high quality PDO products from all over Greece. A good delicatessen or specialty shop is the ideal place to become informed about the terrific range of PDO products available in Greece.
One of Greece’s richest regions culturally, the Western Peloponnese is also a rich region for viticulture. Over 25% of Greece’s PDO wine is produced in the Peloponnese, including these seven varieties: PDO Patras, PDO Mantinea, PDO Nemea, PDO Monemvasia – Malvasia, PDO Muscat of Patras, PDO Muscat of Rio Patras, and PDO Mavrodaphne of Patras.
Many of Greece’s PDO extra virgin olive oils also hail from the Peloponnese, and from the Laconia region in particular. These include Krokees Lakonias, Petrina Lakonias, and Finiki Lakonia, as well as the oil named simply “Lakonia.”
Lakonia and Messinia also produce a delicious PDO cheese – sfela. Sfela is a brined, semi-hard, ivory colored cheese of sheep or goat milk or a combination of the two.
The olives of Kalamata – aso PDO – are one of the world’s most distinctive and recognizable olive varieties. Arcadia’s Meli Elatis Mainalou Vanilla – a superb “Vanilla Pine” honey – is also awarded a PDO, and so is the wonderful Tsakoniki eggplant of Leonidou.