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Feta Cheese

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. 


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