Feta is perhaps Greece’s most glorious contribution to fine cuisine. It’s certainly not the only country to make it, but it was clearly the first to do so. The name “feta,” or φέταis, is the same as the Greek word that means “slice.” There’s an Italian word fetta, which also means “slice,” but I’m not sure which of the two has historical priority. In any case, feta is a sheep’s milk cheese (sometimes a little goat’s milk is thrown in), which is fully brined, producing an immediately recognizable sharp and piquant character to its taste. It is often observed that a similar sounding cheese can be found in Homer’s Odyssey, and, though no one can prove that Homer’s cheese is the true linear ancestor of Byzantine and modern feta, the roots seem clear enough. In any case, feta is famously used to adorn the well-known “Greek Salad”, yes, but the Greeks love the stuff so much (as do I) that they frequently serve it all by itself as an hors d’oeuvre, just anointed with a splash or two of excellent olive oil. I like to mash it and the oil together with that same olive oil, sprinkle a little fresh or dried oregano on top, and serve it with some crusty bread. The Greeks like to eat it with a fresh, right-out-of-the barrel glass of Retsina … but Retsina’s another topic altogether.
So … who really does make the best feta cheese? Being the professional Hellenophile that I am, I hate to admit it, but Greek feta runs but a close second to the world’s finest: Bulgarian. You can find it easily at a good Near Eastern deli, and also at the Super King market chain. The best brand is called “Zer Güt,” which is itself a subsidiary of “Indo-European Foods.” Zer Güt comes in variously sized small plastic boxes colored green and white. The cheese is packed in its own brine, and, if you keep it in the box and in the brine and in the refrigerator, tightly closed, it will stay bright and fresh for several weeks.
Danish, French, and American feta cheeses are nothing but truly wimpy imitators; pay them no mind. Oh, and the first syllable of the word “feta” rhymes with the English verb “let.” Take my word for it: you’ll love the Bulgarian stuff, and, to add more good news, it’s relatively inexpensive.