Arseniko cheese of Naxos
Arseniko cheese is a kind of spicy kefalotyri in cylindrical-shaped heads with a dark skin due to the smearing with olive oil. The cheese mass is whitish to pale yellow, compact, and has small, scattered holes. It has a buttery, spicy taste, crunchy texture, and aromas that become more and more complex, depending on how many months it has been ripened. Also, aromas of nuts, herbs, and olive oil can be recognized. The fat content of the cheese usually exceeds 43% on a dry basis, while the moisture is below 38% and the salt is around 3%. This product is produced from unpasteurized local sheep and goats’ milk, which graze freely in the mountain pastures of the north and easter part of the Naxos Island, where they feed on the wild flora of the place, as noted by the saltiness of the sea.
Mythology relates Arseniko cheese to Za, Naxos’ Mountain, as it is the highest and holiest mountain of Cyclades, in which Zeus, the god of sheep, had been raised. Arseniko cheese was given this name because it gathers the power of sheep’s rich milk, while Zeus ruled the world with vigor and primitive urge.
Arseniko cheese goes through a process of adding rennet to thicken it. It drains in specially designed baskets known as tirovola, and the curd is smeared with olive oil and left to ripen under supervision since someone has to change their position at regular intervals—usually every three days—and renew its coating. Some people just ripen it with salt, but the addition of olive oil has been proven to add complexity to the flavor. In the beginning, its flavor is sweet, but after a few months, it develops a spicy and aromatic flavor. The ripening period lasts for at least three months. From November to May, conditions are the most favorable, as low temperatures are necessary for the success of the cheese. In spring, goats and sheep eat herbaceous grasses and herbs, which results in cheese’s aromatic character.
It accompanies food on the table. It is usually grated onto the pasta with roosters. Traditionally, ‘patudo’, is a stuffed goat that includes liver, onions, rice, chard, aromatic herbs, and Arseniko.
The Livestock Union of Filoti Naxos was used as a reference point to produce Arseniko cheese. A necessary condition was the existence of a licensed cheese factory in the wider area, which is why the Babuni cheese factory, the only artisanal cheese factory in mountainous Naxos, is there.
The Arseniko of Naxos is traditionally sold in cylindrical-shaped heads with a dark skin due to the olive oil smear; however, recently, apparently for reasons of convenience and cost, heads have been covered with a black food film.
Climatic changes have a negative impact on the development and growth of pastures in the area. The pasture areas are decreasing day by day, and lack of food is the main factor in reducing the population of goats and sheep in the region. It can be endangered for Arseniko cheese production in the future.