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What is Feta Cheese?

Greece is a beautiful country in Europe, known for its goat milk and sheep milk. The country is mostly arid and rocky, with very little grassland cover. Located on the southern tip of the Balkan peninsula, Greece is considered to be the cradle of Western civilization and is also the birthplace of democracy, Western philosophy, Western literature, historiography, political science, major scientific and mathematical principles, theater, and the Olympic Games.

Apart from this, one of the most famous things Greece has given the world is the Feta Cheese. Feta cheese is a Greek brined crumbly white cheese and it is the most important cheese in all of Greece. So much is its popularity and importance in Greece that about 70% of the cheese consumed in Greece is some form of Feta cheese.

The Greek word ‘Feta’ comes from the Italian fetta meaning ‘slice ‘. This term is further derived from the Latin offa which means ‘morsel or piece’. ‘Feta’ as a name for the cheese became popular only recently, in the 19th century, believed to then be referring to the cheese being cut to pack it in barrels.

Feta cheese is commonly called Pickled Cheese, the flavor of Feta gets sharper and saltier as it ages. The cheese also becomes firmer as it ages. Fresh Feta cheese is creamy white in color, has small holes, high moisture, and has a crumbly texture. It does not have any rind and is usually sold in small square blocks. However, nowadays, one can commonly find pre-crumbled feta cheese with or without brine, with or without seasonings, ready to use.

What milk is Feta Cheese made of?

Traditionally made from sheep milk or a mixture of goat and sheep milk, both of which has been abundantly available in Greece, today Feta cheese is made from goat milk, sheep milk, or cow milk, or a mixture thereof, which can be raw or pasteurized. However, ask any Greek and they will tell you that true Feta cheese is made from a mixture containing 30% raw goat milk and 70% raw sheep milk.

It is then usually cured in brine made with sea salt and left to ripen before consuming.

History of Feta Cheese

Feta Cheese is one of the oldest cheeses in the world.

One can find sheep milk and goat milk cheeses very commonly in the Eastern Mediterranean region. The region has had a lot of such cheese since ancient times. The earliest documented reference of cheese production in Greece goes back to the 8th century BCE and the technology used at that time to make the sheep milk and goat milk cheese has been found to be similar to the one used for the manufacturing of Feta cheese in current times. However, since brining is not usually mentioned in the historical records of those times, it is believed those records refer to modern cheese like Pecorino and Caprino, instead of Feta. However, some historians believe that this cheese could have been an ancestor of the modern Feta.

The very first unambiguous mention of preserving cheese in brine dates back to the 2nd century BCE, in De Agri Cultura, by Cato the Elder. However, it is believed that the practice is a lot older than that. In the 11th century, Psellos mentions Feta Cheese produced by the Cretans in his writing, using the name ‘Prosphatos’ for it, which in Greek means recent or fresh. In the late 15th century, there are mentions of the process of making, preserving, and storing the Feta cheese in brine.

How is Feta Cheese made?

Such is the popularity of Feta cheese in Greece that just about every Greek dish incorporates it and Greece exports very little of the Feta it makes. Most of the Feta we find across the world outside Greece, is likely to have come from some other country. However, chances are the Feta you find may not be a true Feta made from sheep and goat milk, instead being made from pasteurized cow’s milk, or even skimmed or partially skimmed milk to keep the fat content low.

Traditionally, in Greece, rennet and culture are added to the raw milk from sheep or goats or a mixture of the two. Once the curd forms, it is separated from the whey, and pressed into molds to remove the excess whey. Once the desired acidity and moisture content is reached, the molds are removed and the larger blocks are cut into smaller squares. The Feta is then salted and dried for two days before those squares are submerged into brine, where they could be aged from anywhere between one week to many months.

Why is Feta Cheese (and many other cheeses) made using raw milk?

Irrespective of the type of cheese, raw milk cheeses will develop a more diversified and intense flavor than cheeses made using pasteurized milk. These superior flavor characteristics develop because of some important factors like:

Making good raw milk cheeses including Feta cheese which is safe for consumption requires hygienic clean milk production and its quick conversion to cheese. Monitoring of quality and hygiene at every step is critical. Quality of raw milk is also critical in making cheese like Feta cheese because the natural microflora of raw milk would compete with the culture added to the milk to make cheese. Older the milk, larger the quantum of the natural microflora, more the competition with the added cheese culture in the milk. Once the cheese is made, the culture microbes will do their best to deter the growth of other microbes. However, there is such a large and wide world of microbes out there that the exact conditions that maybe unfavorable for the growth of one set of microbes could be highly favorable for the growth of another.

Does Feta Cheese have a GI tag?

Feta Cheese is a PDO or a Protected Designation of Origin product as designated in the European Union and the United Kingdom. The PDO tag or designation was created in 1992 and it identifies products that are produced, processed,and prepared in a specific geographic area using the recognized know-how local producers & ingredients from the region concerned. So, like we have the Geographical Indication or GI tag in India, the European Union and UK have the PDO tag.

According to this PDO classification, for any cheese to be labelled as Feta cheese, it should have been made of ilk having minimum 70% sheep’s milk that has been obtained from the local breeds of sheep or goats, which have been traditionally raised on local pastures and from designated parts of Greece. Feta Cheese cannot contain any additives or preservatives.

Also, according to the European Union, for a cheese to be called Greek Feta cheese, it has to come from one of the six Feta-producing regions of Greece –

How do I know if I am buying the real Greek Feta Cheese with the PDO tag?

When buying Feta cheese, always look for the PDO indication labelling. The real Feta cheese would be labelled “Greek Feta”, all the other cheeses would be labelled “Feta-style cheese”.

Check the ingredients and the manufacturing facilty’s address, which would give you a fair idea of whether you are buying Greek Feta or Feta-style cheese.

Does Feta Cheese from different parts of Greece taste different?

Yes, absolutely!

Feta cheese from Thessaly and Central Mainland Greece is usually considered to be more flavorful.

The Feta cheese from Peloponnese packs a lot of flavor but is usually drier and has a more crumbly texture.

In contrast, the Feta cheese from Macedonia and Thrace is milder, creamier, less salty, and will have fewer holes in it.

Interesting trivia – Did you know that on the island of Limnos, people cure their Feta cheese with salt by leaving it in the sea water!

What are the alternatives to use if you don’t have Feta Cheese?

In case you do not have Feta Cheese available but still need to use it for a recipe, there are alternatives that can step in. they won’t taste the same or may not have the exact same texture or effect in the recipe, but it could work.

Ricotta Cheese is the closest substitute for Feta Cheese in terms of flavor. However, Ricotta cheese would usually be less salty than Feta Cheese but the former’s moist texture should serve the purpose.

If you are planning to make a salad and want to toss in some crumbled Feta cheese but find out you don’t have any available with you, try using a salty Cotija Cheese. The Crotija would crumble easily like the Feta and would work very well in the salad.

For some recipes, a fresh or a slightly aged goat cheese will also work very well as a replacement for the Feta.

What is unique about Feta Cheese?

Feta Cheese tastes amazing cooked as well as raw. The best flavors of Feta can be experienced by having it at room temperature. One very unique thing about Feta Cheese is that it will soften in hot dishes but it never fully melts like say a processed cheese or a Mozzarella. So, Feta works beautifully in stews like the traditional Stifado or baked casseroles, savory pastries like a quiche, etc. It also works great in stuffed burgers and it pairs very well with lamb.

Do you like Feta Cheese? What is your favorite recipe using Feta Cheese? I love having it on my salad and in my quiche. Tell me what you think in the comments below or find me on Instagram – @banjaranfoodie.

Cover picture from Pexels.

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