Graviera cheese comes in second to feta as the most popular cheese in Greece. It's a hard cheese with a light to deep yellow color, small irregular holes, a hard rind, and flavor ranging from slightly sweet and nutty to a bit spicy. The most common Cretan version comes from sheep's milk or sheep's milk mixed with a small amount of goat's milk. Graviera from Naxos uses cow's milk.
Flavor: Sweet and buttery with nutty undertones
Uses: Cooking, grating, cheese plate
Availability: Specialty cheese shops and Greek markets; larger grocery stores
What Is Graviera?
Graviera, especially when it's young, tastes sweet and buttery. The version from Crete is known for a burnt caramel taste, and longer-aged graviera tends toward increased nuttiness. Goat's milk adds a spicier characteristic, which aging accentuates. Under Protective Designation of Origin (PDO) rules, graviera must contain at least 40 percent fat, with maximum moisture up to 38 percent. This gives it a high calorie count—about 110 per 1-ounce serving. But it's also a good source of calcium and protein.
Other than feta, graviera from Crete or Naxos is probably the easiest cheese to find outside of Greece. It's sold in wheels or wedges; you can often identify it by the crisscross marks on the rind, which come from the cloth used to drain it. The Greek word for graviera is γραβιέρα Κρήτης and it's pronounced ghrahv-YAIR-ah KREE-tees. It may be available in larger grocery stores but you can definitely find it in Greek markets and specialty cheese shops or online. Like many imported cheese, it commands a premium price.
How Graviera Is Made
Three regions fall into PDO status, and strict production rules vary slightly among them. Graviera Agrafon requires sheep's milk with up to 30 percent goat's milk; it's the most limited in production volume and rarely available outside of Europe. For Graviera Naxou, cow's milk predominates, with up to 30 percent mixed sheep's and goat's milk allowed. Graviera Kritis allows up to 20 percent goat's milk mixed with sheep's milk, and it must all come from free-range animals.
While temperature requirements, storage conditions, and aging standards vary, each variety follows a similar production process. It starts with heating the milk to form curds, which get pressed into wheels of varying size. They then undergo surface salting, brining, and aging to different degrees. Greeks first started making graviera in 1914 and it received PDO status in 1996.
Gruyère makes a natural substitute for graviera because the Greek cheese closely resembles the Swiss style of alpine cheese. In fact, graviera has been called the "Greek Gruyère." For cooking, you can substitute any firm, buttery cheese, but the flavor won't be exactly the same.
Like feta, graviera cheese can be used in many different ways: as a table cheese, in cooked dishes such as au gratin, or grated over salad or pasta. It makes excellent cheese fritters and Greek saganaki, a pan-seared appetizer with flour, oregano, and a little lemon, traditionally served with bread.
If you want to serve saganaki in a burst of glory, pour a shot of ouzo over it, set a match to it, then douse the flames with lemon juice. It's not an authentic Greek tradition—this showy table-side presentation originated at the Parthenon Restaurant in Chicago—but it adds an element of fun to dinner.
Graviera can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for at least a couple of weeks, but wrap it in cotton cheesecloth first and bring it up to room temperature before serving. Graviera can be safely frozen, although the texture won't be the same when you defrost it. Use it within a few month if you put it in the freezer.
You can use graviera in place of Gruyère to give classic recipes such as mac and cheese a Greek twist, or replace some or all of the feta and other Greek cheeses in traditional Greek recipes.
Can You Eat the Rind?
Graviera naturally develops a hard rind during aging, similar to that found on a wedge of good Parmesan. While it's edible, it gets tougher with age. It may enhance the flavor of a younger graviera, but it may be too hard to enjoy; try a nibble and decide. Like a Parmesan rind, you can toss it into a soup or sauce while it simmers to add a deep flavor component.