© Denzil Green
Feta is a soft, rindless white cheese with holes in it.
Some refer to Feta as a goat's cheese, but it is not: it is primarily meant to be a sheep's milk cheese. Feta was originally made from sheep's milk, or sheep and goat's milk (in Greece, no more than 30% goat's milk can be used), but now it is mass-produced everywhere else with partially-skimmed cow's milk.
While the milk is being curdled with Rennet, no heat is applied. The temperature is kept between 75 and 97 F (24 and 36 C.) The whey is drained off, the curd cut into large cubes, and put into moulds to drain further. Then it is salted, let rest a while, then placed in brine to age for at least two months. The heavy salting stops all activity of the microsobila bacteria in the cheese.
Feta has a salty, clean taste. It doesn't slice well; it is meant to be crumbled. You can buy Feta in brine or cubed in oil. At deli counters in stores, it is usually sold in brine.
France started making Feta around 1980, and became Europe's top exporter of it. French feta is made from 100% sheep's milk. The cheese is put in salted whey, not just salt water. The French version is milder, less salty, and creamier owing to the higher fat in sheep's milk.
Hard FetaHard Feta is crumblier and not as moist as regular Feta; you can grate or slice Hard Feta. It also has a stronger and saltier taste and smell. "Hard", though, is a bit of a misleading adjective; it's actually semi-firm.
If you find your Feta too salty, some people suggest that you can rinse it, but saltiness is the point of this cheese. If you find it too salty, you should be buying a different cheese.
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The brine to store feta in should be 1 part salt to 3 parts water, and should cover the cheese completely.
"... and he milked the sheep and bleating goats, let half of the white milk coagulate and set it away in tightly woven baskets for settling and firming"
-- Homer, The Odyssey.
In 1992, the European Union considered giving "protected status" or "Protected Designation of Origin" (PDO) to the name "Feta", so that it would only apply to Feta Cheese made in Greece. The EU changed their mind after intense lobbying. One of the countries that fiercely lobbied against it was France; the irony will not fail to strike anyone who knows how vigorously the French work at getting protected monopoly status for their own products. Greece hauled out its lawyers, dug out (dubious) references to cheese in Homer, and on 14 October 2002, the EU granted PDO status to Feta. The new rules state that not only can Feta only be made in Greece, but also that the milk used for genuine Greek Feta must come from either Macedonia, Thrace, Thessaly, Central Mainland Greece, the Peloponnese or Lesbos. Of course, French farmers by the thousands hit the streets in protest -- probably the same ones that routinely protest when someone outside of France tries to appropriate a French product name. Nevertheless, the EU ruling stands, and EU members other than Greece have been given until 2007 to call their Feta another name, or stop making it altogether.
While this will be a boon to Greek farmers, who will have all their competition knocked off in one fell swoop, it remains to be seen whether they will actually be able to step up to the plate or not in terms of supply: the Greeks even outdo the French as cheese eaters and currently, almost all the Feta produced in Greece is also eaten there, leaving very little for export.
The EU ruling does not affect North America, though the EU's next stated step is to bring it to WTO talks with a view to getting the ruling to apply everywhere.
Despite Greece's drawing on thousands of years of history to define the Feta tradition to which they claim ownership, storing the cheese in brine appears to be a recent innovation, possibly as recent as 1898, as a way of preserving the cheese long enough to ship. Good thing the PDO status wasn't granted in the 1800s, or their own modern version of the cheese wouldn't qualify as Feta, either.
Literature & Lore
It is related to the Greek (modern, not ancient) word "tyripheta", which means cheese slice, which in turn possibly derived from the Italian word "fetta", meaning a slice of any food.
Feta cheese made with cow's milk actually does have another name - Telemes.
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