One of the more unexpected outcomes of recent evolutionary biology is lactose tolerance. Contrary to popular belief, the default condition for most mammals is an aversion to eating dairy products, as opposed to the wide spread acceptance that milk, cheese, yoghurt, ice cream etc have been a staple part of our diet since sabre-toothed tigers were chasing us up trees.
It makes sense if you think about it. We are genetically pre-programmed to become intolerant to lactose after weaning. When our infantile dependency on the breast ends, (some guys never grow out of this stage btw), we stop producing the enzyme lactase, which is necessary in order to digest milk based products. However, at some point in ancient history, humans, in their infinite wisdom decided that they knew better than nature.
In the West we take dairy products for granted, having a long history of cultivating dairy herds. Consequently, only a small number of northern Europeans, around 5% have lactose intolerance. Contrast this with those of East-Asian descent and the proportion rises to around 90% of the population. You see, in the grand, cosmic scheme of things, we shouldn’t really be messing with the milk products of other animals. Let’s face it, donkey milk should be for donkeys ( although a neighbour here in Mani swears her hearty constitution depends entirely on ass-milk, if you pardon the phrase). Mouldy, fermented, rotten smelling, off-milk, should in reality produce reactions of disgust. Instead, the French consider their ripe, soft cheeses to be as much a part of their rich culture as poetry, fine art and beheading.
OK, so you might detect a slight anti-dairy bias. The truth is, I hail from semi-Asian descent and for a long time I’ve considered myself to have a perfectly valid mild form of lactose intolerance. Although I was brought up in the UK on Kelloggs Cornflakes, free milk at school, rubbery cheese sandwiches and strawberry yoghurts, deep down I’ve always suspected that dairy was not for me.
So imagine my shock when I discovered that Greece, per person, consumes more cheese than any other nation in the world. OMG, I’m in the cheese capital of the world! And it’s true. Cheese in Greece is as ubiquitous as olives, sunshine and moustaches. The ancients even credit one of their Gods, Aristaeus, a son of Apollo, with inventing cheese, and other luminaries such as Homer and Aristotle have been part of the grand cheese PR campaign ever since.
Half of the cheese consumed in Greece is feta. Made from sheep’s milk and served in parallel with the main course, feta comes in a thousand varieties and is eaten at any and every occasion. At meals here in Mani, a huge slab of feta take prides of place at the centre of the table, usually accompanied by another variety (because one type of cheese obviously isn’t enough). But feta can also be a meal in it’s own right; baked in the oven, grilled, or crumbled into any number of meat or veggie dishes. The most popular snack in Greece is known as τυρόπιτα (tiropita), translated quite un-poetically as ‘cheese-pie’. But cheese pie in Greece is a culture on its own right. It comes in so many variations you could probably eat a different recipe every day of the year.
So, how does someone who has a genetic predisposition against dairy products survive in a land where cheese is king. Well, the truth is, I’m actually starting to embrace my new cheesy life. One of the benefits of a dairy rich diet means that you don’t need to consume as much meat protein. I’ve been threatening to go vegetarian for years, and embracing cheese is a decent way to cut back on eating dead animals. Then there’s the cultural side of their culinary obsession. To not indulge in cheese consumption in Greece is a bit like being invited to Buckingham Palace and telling the Queen you don’t like tea. So, as the villainous Borg from Star Trek would say, “Why do you resist? Resistance is futile. Negotiation is irrelevant. You will be assimilated.” Oh, what the heck, “Waiter, one more cheese pie, parakalo, and bring me some cheese on the side”
Words of the day
- να είσαι καλά – be well (blessing) – (nassee -kallah)
- εκκλησία – church -(ek-lee-see-ah)
- καναπές – sofa – ( kan-a pess)