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As Greek as pi, feta cheese is the soft, crumbly, briny, virginal-white, ewes-milk cheese without cubes of which a Greek salad would be but tomatoes and cucumber on a plate.
Origin and Governance
... and he milked the sheep and bleating goats, let half of the white milk coagulate and set it away in tightly woven baskets for settling and firming
- Homer, The Odyssey
Feta cheese is one of the most famous of all Greek products, and certainly the best-known of all Greek cheeses, and as such it is protected by European Commission Law, through Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) legislation. This means that the European Commission has decided that only feta cheese made in Greece can now be sold as feta, a decision which is considered to be a significant victory for Greece.
While imitation fetas are manufactured outside of Greece, it is the milk of lean goats and sheep that ensures the cheese is naturally white, as it is the fat of cows' milk that gives bovine cheese its yellow colour. Further, it is the natural geo-specific flora of Greece, on which the livestock feed which contributes to the flavour of true feta.
Somewhat cryptically however, feta may not necessarily have its origins in Greece, despite claims that it has been around for some 6,000 years. Certainly it is a new (as opposed to ancient) Greek word stemming from tyrifeta (meaning cheese slice) and originally deriving from the Italian word fetta, meaning slice of food.
When discussing the origin of feta, the description of the sheep and goat milk cheese that Homer's giant cyclopian shepherd, Polyphemus elaborated in his caves in The Odyssey is often cited as evidence that it has been around in Greece for donkey's years, although some naysayers will argue that Homer's writings actually describe the manufacture of something not dissimilar to the Italian cheeses tuma or canestrato. Further, a 14th Century Venetian cookbook, the Libro Per Cuoco, contains recipes requiring the ingredient, Formazo di Candia, a (thought to be feta-like) cheese made in the (then) Venetian island of Crete.
Nevertheless, the Greeks have been credited with the invention of feta cheese, which was first commercially registered as a commodity in 1898 on the Greek island of Syros. Now, according to both Greek and EU legislation, feta must be made according to the specified 'recipe' from sheep's milk (or a combination of sheep and goat milk providing the goat's milk content does not exceed 30% of the total milk content), and this milk may only come from specific geographic areas of Greece, being Macedonia, Thrace and Epirus in Northern Greece, Thessaly and Mainland Greece in central Greece, the Peloponnese in southern Greece, and the island of Lesbos.
The fresh goat and sheep milk is heated to 35°C (95° F) at which time rennet1 is added, causing the milk to curdle and coagulate. After separation the curd is cut and the whey is drained off by placing the moist curds in a cloth bag that is twisted oh-so-gently to compress them before being placed in special moulds for completion of the draining process. After solidification the cheese's surface is dry salted and a thin mould develops on the cheese curd. The cheese is then placed in wooden or metal vessels (barrels) containing a 7% NaCl brine solution.
Notably feta has been called both tsadila and 'barrel cheese', the tsadila being the cloth that is used in the process of draining the curd.
These vessels then spend 15 days in initial ripening rooms where the temperature is kept at 18°C (64°F) and the relative humidity not below 85% for 15 days. Further ripening then occurs for not less than the remainder of two months (around 45 days) at 24°C (75°F) and the relative humidity again not below 85%.
Obtaining and Consuming Feta
While real feta cheese (as opposed to the tubs of artificial cow-milk based cubes) is stored in rectangular pieces of 1-2 kg, preserved in brine in barrels or tins holding between 25 and 50kg, it is most commonly sold in supermarkets in prepackaged pieces. Alternatively, it may be possible at a decent delicatessen to purchase directly from the barrel.
Greeks rank at the top of the tree for cheese-per-capita consumption with an average yearly intake of around 23 kg per person, 40% of which is feta. Thus it is worth noting that they eat their feta with a tyropita or a culuri (the Greek bagel). The first food that is brought to the table during a Greek lunch is a fresh slice (not a cube!) of feta with olive oil and oregano.
For many palates, the cheese tastes of little other than brine, although this may be the result of market saturation with imitation fetas. One way to reduce the saltiness is to soak the cheese in fresh cold water or even milk for a few minutes before use.
Otherwise, so-called Greek salads aside, authentic feta is delicious crumbled over salads, especially when served with sliced tomatoes, sprinkled with olive oil and fresh herbs.
And apart from sunshine, what can better epitomize Greece than a handful of olives, a jug of Ouzo and the salty taste of feta?