This is the first posting in a new series of spotlight articles on Greek food products and ingredients which I will be presenting on this blog.
My grandmother used to make her own cheeses. When I was a child, I used to love watching the woman set herself on a small wooden stool for the milking of the sheep and goats. She would call for me to bring the collection pails and I would run to fetch them. As she milked the swollen teats of the ewes and does, I would offer to help, but she always refused saying that the animals required practised, familiar hands. So, I had to content myself with helping her by swapping the buckets when she instructed. She always made sure to leave some milk for the sucklings; and there was always a cup of warm milk set aside for me, before she thickened the rest and drained off the whey from the curds for cheese-making.
Although she used rudimentary equipment i.e., wicker baskets, muslin cloths, wooden moulds, and an ancient wooden barrel, the cheeses my grandmother obtained were always surpassingly excellent. She often made Myzithra, which is a whey cheese made from sheep and goat milks. Yiayia (Greek for grandma) also made a phenomenal sheep's milk Feta cheese that was so creamy and rich it coated the palate and throat as you swallowed. To this day, I salivate when I think of her cheeses. Pasteurization was not part of her cheese-making process which meant her cheeses were of such character and flavour that they remain an unparalleled gastronomic experience for me to this day.
When she reached her nineties and could no longer tend the animals, my grandmother reluctantly slaughtered or sold the remainder of her flock and put aside her milking implements for the last time. It was not an easy thing for her to do; she resisted, but the family was insistent as she was starting to have age-related health issues. She reluctantly acquiesced. It was decided that she would spend the winters in Athens, living with my aunt. I happened to be working in Glyfada (a posh seaside Athens suburb) that winter and I was staying with my aunt as well, so I did my best to help Yiayia with the transition.
I remember taking her shopping with me one morning. A new supermarket had opened just down the street and we went to pick up a few things. One of the items I had on my list for purchase was Feta cheese. When we got to the cheese counter and placed the order, my grandmother asked the clerk to give her a sampling of the Feta I had selected. He provided us both with a small piece of the cheese. I popped the sample into my mouth and turned to look at my grandmother. I found her sniffing at her piece, as if it were some kind of foreign substance she was trying to identify by its scent. She made a face and then gingerly placed the cheese on her tongue and closed her mouth. She grimaced, turned to the clerk and began shaking a wizened finger at him, demanding to know what it was that he was trying to sell us. The man assured her that it was Feta cheese, and I nodded in agreement, feeling somewhat embarrassed by Yiayia's outburst. She snorted at both of us, and said in a matter-of-fact tone: "Any shepherd knows how to make Feta! I don't know what this is, but it's not Feta!" Both the clerk and I tried to explain to her that the milk for store-bought Feta was pasteurised according to government "health" regulations, but she refused to accept our explanations. After all, she was 90 years old and had been making and eating unpasteurised cheeses all her life! She kept on about it long after we had left the supermarket.
Many years later, and many, many miles away, I often remember my grandmother's outburst that day in the supermarket and I smile wistfully. How right she was! How different the world I live in from the world she knew; even the cheeses had changed, and not for the better. Traditionally, Feta cheese is a sheep's milk cheese. But, due to the high demand for sheep's milk for cheeses and other products such as Greek yoghurt, admixtures with goat cheese are quite common. However, by Greek law, no more than 30% of the milk used for Feta can be from goats. The best traditional Greek Fetas are still made exclusively from ewe's milk, and the very best Fetas are unpasteurised. But, these latter are only produced in very limited quantities by small artisan producers. Unfortunately, you will have to travel to the Greek countryside and know where to go to sample unpasteurised Feta.
Today, you will find all kinds of things being sold as "Feta" cheese throughout the world. Here in North America, you'll find flavourless cow's milk brine cheeses being sold as "Feta" in supermarkets and cheese shops. Such cheeses often include things like milk and whey protein powders, as well as caseinates and/or casein among their ingredients. You will even find imported "Feta" cheese from France! The French and several other European countries (notably Denmark & Germany among them) started producing, selling, and exporting ersatz "Feta" cheeses in the early 1980s, as Greek Feta had begun to make a name for itself in the global marketplace. Of course, such cheeses are not Feta cheese as the original is a traditional artisan product of the Greek countryside, and not the French Riviera, the Jutland, or the Rhineland. Indeed, Feta cheese is the oldest variety of cheese in the world and has been produced in Greece since antiquity. The cheese produced by the Cyclops in Homer's Odyssey is quite likely the direct ancestor of modern Feta. An explicit description of Feta cheese under its medieval Byzantine-Greek name of "prosfatos" dates back to the 10th Century A.D., at which time it was an already well-known and well-traded cheese throughout much of the Eastern Mediterranean.
As a result of Danish, French, and other attempts to capitalize on the widespread fame of the Greek Feta cheese brand, in an effort to end consumer confusion and to protect the good name of its traditional cheese products, Greece was forced to seek remedy in the European Court of Justice. After a lengthy and protracted legal struggle (20 years!), in 2005, Greece was finally granted exclusivity with respect to the use of the label "Feta cheese" within the European Union. Feta was declared a P.D.O. product of specific regions in Greece. In other words, within Europe, only the traditional Greek product can be referred to as "Feta cheese". Of course, this decision of the European Court of Justice did not (and still does not) apply to overseas markets. French and Danish exporters continue to market their counterfeit "Feta" cheeses in North America and elsewhere outside the EU. Quite ironically, the French zealously demand that their own traditional product names be respected the world over (i.e. Champagne can only come from France; ibid Roquefort cheese etc.), and yet, they blatantly disregard Greece's rightful claim to one of the most recognizable of all traditional Greek food products. Tu devrais avoir honte! Shame.
Greek Feta cheeses are far tastier and have superior organoleptic properties when compared to the copycat products opportunistically labeled as "Feta" by the Australian, British, Canadian, Danish, French and U.S. producers who continue to exploit the "Feta" brand. From the way it crumbles, to its creamy texture and unique fresh flavour, Greek Feta cheese is the genuine article. Do not be fooled by imitations. In Greece, Feta cheese accounts for well over half of the 27.3 kilos of cheese the average Greek consumes in a year. No other nation eats as much cheese, not even the French.
So, what makes Greek Feta cheese so special?
It should be emphasized that Greek sheep and goats are raised by individual/family producers and not large agri-business concerns. The animals are indigenous breeds, and they graze freely on the wild vegetation of the Greek countryside. The milk used in Greek cheese production is collected from these animals. As a result, Greek cheeses are ipso facto organic products even though they may not be labelled as such. In addition, many of the herbs and plants the animals feed on are also unique to Greece's specific geography and climate, which accounts for the distinct flavour of Greek cheeses. Along with consuming a wide variety of wild herbs and flora, Greek sheep and goats are watered from natural springs and sources. The combination of all these factors lend Greek cheeses their wholesome flavours and account for their overall high quality.
I cannot think of another variety of cheese which is as popular, versatile, nor as tasty as good old salty, crumbly, briny, Feta cheese. It can be eaten on its own, baked with vegetables or into pies, crumbled over salads, served with fruits and honey, or fried. With so many ways to enjoy it, Feta cheese has earned its place as a mainstream food product in many parts of the world. Yet, it is too bad that much of what is marketed as "Feta" outside of the European Union is not actually Feta cheese. Simply put, if it's not Greek, it's not Feta!
Recommendation: If you can find it, try "Feta Tripoleos" (i.e. Feta from the area of Tripolis). Many of the better cheese shops in most large cities should stock this cheese, ask for it by name or by requesting Greek "barrel Feta".
1 slab of authentic Feta cheese
dried Greek oregano
Greek extra-virgin olive oil
Plate the feta, sprinkle a generous amount of oregano over top and then pour some olive oil over it. Serve with warm pita bread and some Kalamata olives.
Kali Orexi! (Bon Appetit!)
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.