Over the past thirty years, feta has grown in popularity as a table
and salad cheese. Today, it is widely available in Western Europe
and the United States. Feta is an excellent appetizer cheese, table
cheese accompanying ham and salami, and a nibbling cheese with crackers
and drinks. It melts easily and can be used for fillings—feta and
spinach quiche, for example. However, feta’s forte is in salads!
Its use with greens accounts for its present popularity. Feta
compliments salad greens wonderfully. Its popularity started in the
1970's in New York City ethnic restaurants with “Greek salads” of tomatoes,
cucumbers and bell peppers with black Kalamata olives, garlic, lemon juice,
some mint or parsley and dressed with olive oil and crumbled Feta. In the
eighties, it was introduced into “California salads,” with many of the
above ingredients plus sweet peppers and avocado. Today, feta is
even used in tacos at fine dining restaurants in the up-scale resort city
of Zihuatanejo, Mexico.
Feta is a young, crumbly ewe’s milk cheese pickled in brine. It
is white in color and has a milky, fresh, acidity. It is soft and
flaky with a high water content, herbal taste and salt finish. While
it is not a cheese of great complexity, there are discernable variations
in creaminess, herbal flavor and saltiness. The best feta is perfectly
white and smooth.
Greece claims feta as her cheese made originally by shepherds in the
mountainous region north of Athens. Certainly, Greece is most associated
with feta. Bulgaria, France and Italy also produce notable feta cheeses
of quality. French feta, made on the island of Corsica, is less pungent
than either the Greek or Bulgarian varieties. It is described as
less salty and sharp, through rich and creamy. The Italians also
produce quality feta. Wisconsin makes a cream-colored feta, made
from pasteurized cows’ milk. It dominates the U.S. market.
It is mild, has a long shelf life, but is distinctly inferior to the real
stuff. To my taste, Bulgarian feta is the best of type. It
is more rich, sharp and tasteful than the others.
The production of feta cheese has been traced back to antiquity and
the Balkan countries. Here is how it is made: Fresh ewe’s milk
is poured into large containers and heated to about 90°F. Rennet
is then added. The curd is broken or cut. It is then spread
on a course cloth for draining. The firm curd is cut into blocks
and, during the same day, rubbed with dry salt on both sides. On
the following day, the blocks are cut into one inch thick slices, salted,
and then packed in parchment-lined wooden barrels, holding 100 to 170 lbs.
of cheese. A brine solution is poured over the slices to arrest the
ripening process and to keep the cheese young, fresh and savory.
The cheese is aged for one to six months. At home, feta can be soaked
in fresh cold water or milk for a few minutes to make it less salty.
Since feta has high water content, it should be consumed shortly after
aging, though it keeps about a week in the fridge, well wrapped.