There’s a common saying in our household: “Feta makes it betta!”
And let’s face it, it’s absolutely true. A salad is not a “good” salad unless it is covered in crumbled Feta. Fish tacos are not quite as fresh-tasting without Feta. And mindless snacking is just not the same unless you are able to pick fingerfuls of Feta off of the block and feel instantly satiated by the cheese’s salty goodness.
Feta is the pickle of cheeses. And by that, I mean to say that it is classified as a pickled cheese. It’s no wonder that my boyfriend loves Feta so much, since he is a pickle fanatic. So it follows that if you love pickled things, you can’t help but love Feta cheese.
We can call Feta a pickle by virtue of the way in which it is ripened. Feta is commonly aged in brine, although it is also dry salted and packed, kind of like old-fashioned salt pork except that it ends up sitting in its own whey, which pork decidedly does not do. In Greece, it is more common than not to find barrel-aged Feta—but it is not as common in the US because it is easier to export the cheese abroad in tubs or tins.
In general, Feta is young and fresh, with no rind. It is made in blocks of densely packed, drained curds that are cut into slabs, slices, or wedges. It can be creamy and moist or dry and crumbly. The cheese is aged anywhere from two months to six months or longer.
Feta is perhaps most closely associated with Greece. And it is safe to say that Feta is the most popular cheese in Greece, a country which tried to put a protected designation of origin mark on the cheese stating that Feta can only be called “Feta” if it comes from Greece.
An ancient cheese that people have enjoyed eating for centuries, Feta’s existence was first recorded in a document from the Byzantine Empire (the ruling empire in Greece from the 4th to 6th Century AD) in which the cheese was referred to as “prosphatos,” meaning “fresh.” The name “Feta” is said to come from Italian, rather than Greek—from an Italian word meaning “slice” referring to the way in which the cheese was cut before it was packed into barrels.
Since so many other countries produce “Feta,” the PDO Greece was awarded for the cheese in 2002 focused on Feta production in seven regions, and only for cheese made either entirely from sheep’s milk or from a blend of sheep’s milk and no more than 30 percent goat’s milk. Those cheeses, hailing from Epirus, central Greece, Lesbos, Macedonia, the Peloponnese Peninsula, Thessaly, and Thrace, are considered to be authentic, Greek PDO Fetas. Everything else is technically “feta-style.”
But Greece isn’t the only country in love with making and eating the pickled cheese.
The Eastern region surrounding the Mediterranean and the Black Sea—the Balkans—are historic Feta territory. But the cheese’s reach is broader yet: Just as hummus is as much a food of Lebanon as it is of Greece, so, too, is Feta deeply rooted in southeastern Europe as well as in the Middle East—that swath of the world which had developed extensive trade routes, literary cultures, and great civilizations long before the rise of European culture.
And yet the biggest competitors fighting against Greece when it applied for its PDO on Feta back in 1994 were France, Germany, and Denmark. Why? Because everyone loves Feta.
Following the PDO decision, Denmark’s Arla foods now calls their feta-style cheese “Apetina,” whereas France’s Valbreso (owned by mega-corporation Lactalis) is “French Feta cheese.” American food giant Kraft’s Athenos Feta is simply labeled “Feta.” You will see plenty of cow’s milk Feta on the market, particularly in the US, but “real” Feta should have sheep’s milk in it.
There is so much Feta on the market, it is sometimes difficult to parse which is the “best,” aside from tasting every type you can get your mitts on. Here in the Seattle area, I consistently hear that Bulgarians make the best Feta, but there is also Turkish Feta, Romanian Feta, Lebanese Feta, Israeli Feta, Iranian Feta, Italian, Bosnian, Hungarian, etc., etc.
Regardless of where it’s from in the world, Feta is traditionally served with aromatic herbs, olives, peppers, and fresh vegetables. It’s commonly served with bread and wine and a bit of olive oil, it is baked into flaky phyllo-dough dishes like Spanokopita and Borek, or melted into comfort foods like Pastitsio and Moussaka. It is fried, grilled, and cooked into pies.
While it is definitely a “salad cheese” as much as it is a “baking cheese,” Feta is also a winner when it comes to pairing it with fruit (think watermelon), on a cheese board, with charcuterie, as an appetizer or in a cheese-course dessert.
And while many people I know think of Feta as a “summer cheese,” it can—and should!—be enjoyed year-round.
(In other words, summer is almost over, but Feta season will go on if we want it to.)