Article and photos by Luz Sanchis, Wendy Shi
George Athinaios began training at the School for Processing of Dairy Products of the University of Athens at the age of 17. After a rich life well lived, he now has more than 35 years of experience making cheese and yogurt. His lifelong love of cheese and yogurt comes from his upbringing -- both items are essential parts of the Mediterranean diet, which is considered to be one of the healthiest in the world.
Mr. Athinaios started his Chinese adventure 20 years ago. “I first came to Xiamen in 1997 looking to buy stone material for my house in Athens,” recalled Mr. Athinaios.“I fell in love with the city, the country and its culture,” he added.“Since then, I have lived in several Chinese cities and I have now lived in Xiamen for three years.”
Why Xiamen? “My favorite place in Greece is my hometown, Santorini,” he said. “The weather is amazing and people get together to share a good meal, very much like in Xiamen,” he added.
He noted that Xiamen has changed greatly over the past two decades. “Xiamen was a rural place 20 years ago and it is now a very modern and cosmopolitan city,” he said.“People accept foreigners and make friends with us,” he added. “They like to enjoy the good life, which is why I decided to develop and sell my products here.”
His choice of cheese and yogurt was a strategic one.“Twenty years ago there was no coffee, bread, cheese or yogurt here,” recalled Mr. Athinaios. “At first I made cookies and owned a salad restaurant but soon after I went back to making yogurt and cheese,” he said.
He has also seen a trend toward new adventures and tastes among China's younger consumers. “Nowadays young people like the challenge of trying new products, they like to eat yogurt rather than drink yogurt,” he said.“They like cheese and bread and are open-minded even as they push for good quality.”
To reach customers, Mr. Athinaios relies on a variety of outlets. He has a physical retail presence in Huli District, at 233 Jiayuan Road (湖里区嘉园路233号之一) and also sells his products on Taobao and via his official yasascheese WeChat account.
To make his products, Mr. Athinaios sources local milk and invests significant amount of time into the laborious process of cheese making. It can take more than seven hours and 60 liters of milk to prepare less than 6 kilograms of Halloumi cheese.
The process begins with Mr. Athinaios pasteurizing the raw cow milk himself. He adds animal rennet, bacteria that stimulate natural milk protein to produce cheese curd. He then separates and strains the bean curd before cutting the cheese and boiling the pieces until they float.
“You need patience to make this cheese, but when it is ready it feels like magic,” marveled Mr. Athinaios. “We usually add salt or Greek mint on top of each piece of halloumi cheese to make it more aromatic and then it is vacuum-packed and refrigerated,” he added.
Mr. Athinaios's most popular cheeses include feta, halloumi, queso fresco and ricotta. He seasons his cheeses with thyme or mintto suit customer's tastes, preserving the cheeses in natural brine or olive oil. He also includes homemade jam with his traditional Greek yogurt.
He enjoys both the process of making cheese and engaging with his patrons. “What I really like about my Chinese customers is their honesty,” he said.“If they don't like the cheese they will tell me openly,” he added. “When they do like it they are not afraid to show excitement and, just last week, a customer came and hugged me after she tried a piece of Halloumi cheese.”
Mr. Athinaios seems to have found his place in life and in the market. “Every morning when I come to work it feels as if I am on holiday, I love this.”