Feta cheese is a staple ingredient in a number of Greek and Mediterranean dishes. Most famously it is a component of a traditional Greek salad, which we’ll look at later, as well as in pastries such as filo spinach pies. Highly versatile, it can be grilled or fried and due to its salty taste is often crumble into dishes such as sandwiches, where salt would normally be added as seasoning, to give a salty kick combined with a touch of creaminess.
Under EU directives, cheese sold as “feta cheese” must be produced in Greece by the traditional method (see below) and must be produced using only sheep’s milk or a mixture of sheep’s milk with up to 30 per cent goat’s milk. This makes it relatively expensive, so cheaper alternatives are produced using cow’s milk and sold under names such as “Greek salad cheese”, “white cheese” or “feta-style cheese”. The EU forbids such feta-style cheeses from having packaging that alludes to Greece in it lettering or its pictures.
Although the Greeks therefore lay claim to all feta cheese, similar cheeses are made (in similar fashion) throughout the region, and are a popular ingredient in many Turkish dishes, for example. Due to the enmity between Greece and Turkey (over Cyprus among other things) there is of course dispute over where the cheese actually originated, as there is over many traditional aspects of both cultures. However, feta-style cheese making in Greece was referred to as far back as Homer (who mentions it in The Oddysey), so it’s certainly going on there for thousands of years.
Feta production is a time-honoured process. First sheep’s milk, or sheep and goat’s milk combined, is collected, fermented and rennet added. Rennet is a substance found in the stomach lining of mammals, and it helps them to digest their mother’s milk when young. When added to milk, it causes it to coagulate and begin to form curds and whey. The coagulated milk is then hung up in cloth sacks. Over a number of hours the whey drains away through the cloth, leaving the solid curds behind.
The separated curds are then salted and allowed to mature over a period of several weeks or even months. It is during this time that the distinctive feta flavour and texture develops. During maturation they are kept submerged in salty water, often in wooden barrels, which gives a rich, intense flavour.
The result is a sharp, tangy cheese, sometimes even with a pleasantly sour note. It is dense and as it is matured and usually stored in brine it has a high moisture content. This makes it wonderful in salads, in particular the traditional Greek salad. This consists at its most basic of chopped tomato, cucumber, olives and feta cheese. It is often seasoned with pepper and olive oil, maybe with oregano and then other optional ingredients such as capers or anchovies. It is not necessary to add a huge amount of salt, due to the saltiness already inherent in the feta.
Feta’s high acidity, as well as giving it that lovely fresh tangy taste, means it is great paired with fatty foods such as pastry, as the sharpness helps to cut through the fat. This is probably why it is such a prominent feature in filo spinach and cheese pies of the region.
Legend has it that the role of chief or head cheese maker was a prestigious social position in ancient Greece, and when a town’s chief cheese maker retired or died, a week-long contest would be held to find his successor (and yes, it was always a “he” in those days).
The final day of the contest involved blind cheese tasting of the candidates’ cheeses (what we today know as feta cheese), but before that a number of mini tournaments were held to whittle down the candidates to a final few. It was not felt that the role of head cheese maker should go to somebody with less than robust and noble character.
Accordingly, the first day of the contest involved all the candidates, all of whom must already be experienced cheese makers, having to publicly argue the case for various moral and philosophical positions. Members of the audience could question them and then could debate with one another. The best candidates – as decided by audience calls and applause – would then pass to the next round.
The next day the contest was about throwing. It was felt that while cheese making itself did not require vast strength, the head cheese maker should be possessed of physical as well as mental fortitude, as there’s was a position of great social respect and responsibility. As already mentioned, feta cheese is a particularly dense cheese, which made is suitable for use in this part of the contest. Barrels of brine containing feta cheeses roughly the size and shape of a modern day shot putt would be wheeled out, and each candidate in turn would reach in, pull a cheese from the salty water and hurl it as far as they could. Depending on the total number of candidates, the one or two who threw the least far would be eliminated from the contest.
The next three days would see events that would be familiar to anyone who has watched the modern day Olympic Games. Cheese makers would compete in disciplines such as running, wrestling and jumping. Unlike today they would compete in the nude, as it was felt that this suited the spirit of purity of the competition.
Again, the slowest and weakest candidates would be one-by-one eliminated, until just three or four remained. The sixth day was a well earned rest day, and finally on the seventh was the most important test – the blind feta cheese tasting.
Barrels of feta in salt water would again be wheeled out, but this time there was one for each candidate and each one contained what the cheese maker believed was his finest cheese. As mentioned above, feta is an aged cheese so sometimes the candidates would present cheese that had matured over many months. Others felt their strength lay in a younger, zingier cheese and so would present that. The names of each cheese maker would be inscribed on the bottom of his barrel, and one by one members of the town or village would reach into the brine, break of a chunk of feta and taste it, then marking on a parchment which of the four cheeses they liked the best.
Anybody who wanted to could vote, although not children as it was though their sense of taste not developed enough. Eventually, after the week-long contest and a final day’s tasting that could take many hours depending on the size of the town, the results would be totted up and the winner crowned as head cheese maker, amid scenes of great celebration.
Of course, the process of choosing feta cheese makers is today rather less Olympian, but the process of actually making feta cheese has changed hardly at all, and thus the flavour of feta is probably very similar to what the ancient Greeks ate. Next time you tuck into a Greek salad or feta cheese pie, take a moment to ponder – you are eating the same tasting cheese, made in the same area and in the same manner, as that nibbled on by Plato, Socrates and Aristotle. Quite a thought.