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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Greek Food Feature: Feta Cheese (Φέτα)

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.

A slab of Feta served up in classic Greek fashion - Click to Enlarge

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.

A selection of Greek cheeses: Feta, Kefalograviera & Kasseri - Click to Enlarge

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".

Recipe:

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!)


Sam Sotiropoulos
Greek Gourmand™
http://www.greekgourmand.com
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.

34 comments:

Hugging the Coast said...

I could live on feta cheese! Great post! I especially loved hearing about the origin of feta.

You might want to look into submitting this excellent post on FoodRenegade.com's excellent weekly Friday locavore themed blog carnival too.

Rosa's Yummy Yums said...

An interesting walk down memory lane... Nice post!

Those laws are destroying our traditions. Pasteurized milk doesn't give the same results. You can't compare a cheese made with pasteurized and one made with raw milk!

Anyway, I love Feta and I'm lucky to find good Greek feta cheese here in Geneva.

Cheers,

Rosa

Anonymous said...

Very informative post! I am now hot on the trail of authentic feta in the Los Angeles area.

Stamatia said...

I don't think I'll be able to get good Greek feta in Fredericton, but there is occasionally Greek-origin stuff pre-packaged in the grocery stores...

As for that Krinos brand kefalograviera, is it any good? There's a shop here that has it, but they want $40 for a wheel of it, and I won't spend that much unless I know it's worth the money.

Creative Junkie said...

As a Greek, I really enjoyed this post. And I could live on feta cheese, but I unfortunately, I cannot find a good one around me.

Kundry said...

Love this post, can't wait to see the continuation of the series.

I'm glad, you're back at posting

KundryCooks

jessiev said...

oh yum! this makes me super hungry for the REAL stuff. i love hearing about your gramma, esp in the store! too bad we're losing these old ways. thanks for the great history and sharing your family with us!

Cynthia said...

Your are blessed to have such rich memories that you can share with all of us and your children.

Kevin said...

Great post! It would be really nice to be able to sample some of that unpasteurized Greek feta. Feta has quickly become my favorite cheese and I almost always have it in the fridge. It is definitely worth the trip to Greek Town to pick up some imported Greek feta.

SavoryTv said...

I knew it,so many fetas are lacking that authentic taste! In college, I worked at a greek restaurant where they served the real thing so many ways, my favorite was a tomato feta cheese omelet. Once you taste the real thing, you can recognize the imposters quite easily!

Mamaliga said...

This is the MOST informational post about feta cheese on the web, PERIOD. And I can even picture your Grandmother outburst at the store! hehehe -
No fake Feta could pass her judgment!

And how good (and sad) is to know about Feta cheese in the Americas. I don't think you can get the real thing here (unfortunately) as it is with many imported things, you can only get closer to it.

Sam - I really want to complement you on your posts.Each time I read one I am getting enriched (not with casein - lol)!

Gabi

Crystal Victoria said...

I use to live in Greece and miss the taverna's that would serve up slabs of feta w/ olive oil and rigani like this! Yum!! Thanks for this great blog!

farida said...

I do believe home-made feta cheese, the type of your grandma used to make, is much better than any store-bought. great story, as usual!

Cookin' Canuck said...

What an interesting post! Your grandmother sounds like a woman who spoke her mind and stood by her principles. I'd give my left arm to try her cheese.

pixen said...

hahahaha...I won't be surprised if your Yiayia made such fuss that day. She's specialist in Feta! What a grand age and grand skills. It's true nowdays, cheeses had to be pasteurised and definitely lost their original taste. Just like pasteurised milk and raw fresh milk. But if Camembert still can be found unpasteurised, why not Feta? That still left me dumbfounded.

I had a fun and feta week when I was in Athens last week. I ate quite variety of fetas with my greek family (my best greek friend is nounos to my son) :-D. I was gawking at those barrels on displayed in the Feta shops and supermarkets. Like your Yiayia, I asked for sample before I purchased them. Not only that I adored Greek Soft cheeses as well.

Matter of fact, I easily adapted to Greek food (as I'm originally from tropical island) compared to North European cuisine which were quite buttery and creamy to my liking.

Please do feed me with more infos of Greek cheeses and other ingredients. Kala Orexi!

TheGourmetGirl said...

Feta, it's a beautiful cheese! Great piece with attention on finding what is authentic.
There truly is nothing like 'the real thing.'

kahliyalogue said...

I dont eat cheese anymore..but I just loved the story about your yiayia...I can see it so clearly..! :)besides..she was right,nothing is made today as it was used to..

Miranda said...

What an absolutely incredible story...Loved it being a family person myself.

I absolutely love greek food, but have not tried to make it in my own kitchen.

My husband loves it...I have checked out your recipes often...
Hopefully, I will try my hand at a few items soon.

Thank you again for the incredible story.

Anonymous said...

I am US living, working and cooking in Greece since 1973. I've eaten feta all over the country. I recommend the following two brands: Klysouras and Meteora. It's good to sample; there's a great variety

Chris Nyles said...

Very informative and enlightening. Nice story about your grandma who made the real unpasteurized feta cheese. You're so lucky to have tasted her cheese. Thank you for sending me this posting.

katiez said...

My Feta is 100% brebis - but it's also Salakis brand which may not be authentic. I live in France.... I try....

katiez said...

My Feta is 100% brebis - but it's also Salakis brand which may not be authentic. I live in France.... I try....

David Hall said...

Great article Sam. I adore feta and agree - we have some terrible products claiming to be feta. Nothing beats the authentic stuff.

Cheers
David

TheSnackHound said...

I love feta cheese. Sometimes I have a big craving for greek salads that I just have to satisfy. I have not thought of eating feta on its own in a long time. Thanks for the post, and I am definitely going to try feta for feta's sake!

jacoba said...

This has been your single most frustrating post. I have come back to it a million times, feta in hand to check on my purchase. I can proudly announce that I, finally, found some sheep's milk feta - unfortunately only made by a Greek friend of a Greek friend (no kidding) who farms with sheep in the Karoo (a region where sheep is typically farmed in SA. There is absolutely nothing of the kind in the retailers and we can find only goat's or cows milk feta. Phew, thought I'd let you know.

Irene said...

All of this time I thought I was actually eating Feta cheese. Now I have to search for it and find it. I have beautiful Oregano growing wild, and some luscious EVOOs. Can't wait to try the real thing! Thanks so much for an informative post.

George said...

I adore good feta cheese. I'm very lucky to live near a good deli with a super cheese counter as our supermarket feta is hardly feta at all.

Anonymous said...

I've lived and cooked in Greece since 1973 and have sampled dozens of Feta. My favorites are "Meteora" and "Klisouras".

Tangled Noodle said...

I would say that I love Feta but now I'm not sure that I've tasted the 'real' thing! I will have to see if I can find some imported from Greece and taste test versus what I find at the local grocery store. Thank you for all this great information!

love menu said...

now I want to eat feta!!!

applecrumbles said...

How simple yet perfect for a get together with friends.
I love feta cheese anyway. Keep trying the reduced fat version and it just should be called Feta Cheese. No comparison.

Janet said...

Great post. I love feta cheese. I appreciate the interesting facts about feta.

tasteofbeirut said...

Enjoyed reading your post. Your grandmother's outburst in the store made me chuckle and reminded me of my own situation with a grandma who loved haggling with the cart vendors in Beirut.
I can't remember the last time I had good feta. I have given up on it years ago!
I love it crumbled on my plate with a lot of LEBANESE
olive oil!
Salam!
Joumana

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