According to Greek mythology the Gods sent Apollo’s son, Aristaios, in order to teach the Greeks the art of cheese making. It’s an art that dates back thousands of years, and today the tradition of Greek cheese continues with well-known varieties like Graviera, Manouri, and the most famous, Feta.
What is Feta?
Feta is a pure white cheese, traditionally made from sheep or goat’s milk, though many commercial producers now use cow’s milk or a combination of milks. With tiny holes, its texture ranges from soft to semi-firm, depending on how long it’s aged. Because it’s cured and stored in its own salty whey brine (the liquid that separates from the solid curds in the cheese making process), Feta is often referred to as a “pickled cheese.” Rich and tangy, the cheese is prized for its sharp, salty taste and ease of use in recipes. Crumbly and rindless, Feta adds zest to salads and melts beautifully in hot dishes. And though it’s been a staple in the Mediterranean region for centuries, in more recent years, Feta has become a favoured ingredient among top chefs around the world.
The name “Feta” comes from the modern Greek “tyri pheta,” meaning “cheese slice.” It’s an appropriate name for a cheese that’s made in various sizes, but most often pressed into cubes or square cakes. Still made by shepherds in the Greek mountains, the classic cheese is also prepared in small, family-run dairies using traditional methods. In fact, aside from advances in automation and packaging, the process of making Feta has changed very little over the centuries. Even commercial producers pay homage and respect to the basic Feta principles.
While the cheese is originally from Greece, it is made in many countries today, with some slight variations in taste and texture. You’ll find versions in Albania, Bulgaria, Israel, Romania, Russia, and Turkey. And despite a long battle with Denmark, a country that once produced a similar cheese of the same name, Feta is now a PDO (protected designation of origin) cheese. In the European Union, the term “Feta” is limited to cheeses produced in Greece.
Better Fetas are aged four to six weeks. For the finest quality, go to a specialist cheese shop where the cheese is sold directly from barrels of brine. Always ask for some of the brine to be included with your purchase – this will keep the cheese moist. At the market, pressed or cubed Feta can also be found pre-packed in jars of brine or oil, or sealed in airtight vacuum packages for convenience. Again, look for containers that include some brine, as the cheese will be more moist.
Once home, store your Feta in the original brine and it will keep in the refrigerator for up to three months. The taste will become stronger, sharper and saltier as it ages. When removed from the brine, feta dries out rather quickly, rendering it unusable.
For the optimal flavour and texture, remove Feta from the refrigerator about 30 minutes before serving or using in recipes. If you prefer a less salty flavour, rinse the cheese with water or soak it in milk for just a few minutes.
Incorporated into almost every Greek meal in some manner, Feta can be added to recipes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Add crumbles to your scrambled eggs, toss with tomato and cucumber salads or fold into your favourite pasta dishes.
Feta is also wonderful fried, as in the classic Greek appetizer, Saganaki, or simply served with crusty bread and olive oil for dipping. For true Mediterranean flavour, pair Feta with anchovies, tomatoes, black olives and a glass of Roditis, a classic Greek rosé with hints of citrus fruits and almonds.