Feta, as in “Feta Cheese”

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.BulgarianFeta2

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.


A Greek Salad

The Greek Salad, as it is usually called, can be found on countless menus these days from luncheon counters to serious dinner spots.  Except mostly for Greek restaurants, who take their roots seriously, It’s usually an Americanized version of the original Mediterranean dish the Greeks call a “choriatiki salata” or χωριάτικησαλάτα, if you’re being philologically serious.  It translates as “village” or “country salad.” In any case, it’s one of the great culinary triumphs of the Mediterranean in summer, which is the only time of the year that the salad is made.  That’s because the most important ingredient in the dish is the tomato at the height of its summertime Mediterranean glory, and which doesn’t exist in any form at all in Greece during other seasons of the year.  It’s also interesting to note that, during that same time of year, Greek lettuce really doesn’t exist, so a “Greek Salad” with lettuce, an almost standard phenomenon in the U.S. is a kind of combination that Greece would never even contemplate.

The ingredients of a true Greek Salad are simple enough:  gloriously ripe and sweet tomatoes, cucumber, green bell pepper, feta cheese, and Kalamata olives.  I like to peel the cucumber first, slice it lengthwise, and, with the tip of a teaspoon, remove the seeds and pulp.  This keeps the salad from becoming overly watery.  Cut 1/3 inch-thick slices from the block of feta, and reserve.  The Greeks never remove the pits from their Kalamata olives, so I don’t either.  Some cooks, including me, like to add small cuts of purple onion to the salad. If you’re worried about guests who don’t particularly like the onion’s strong acids, just soak the pieces of red onion in some ice water for about 1 hour, before squeezing them dry in a paper towel prior to their inclusion in the salad.

When ready to assemble and serve the salad, just gently mix all of the ingredients except the olives and feta cheese and array them, thus mixed, on a flat dish or platter … the Greeks never serve this salad in a bowl.  Now … drizzle the salad with a good extra-virgin olive oil.  It would be reasonable to use a Greek oil, but, if you don’t have one on hand, it’s no big deal.  The only kind of olive oil I would avoid is the Tuscan, slightly greenish variety … you know … the kind that sort of burns the back of your throat.  Leave that oil for other purposes.  Note, because this is really important: this salad is never to be dressed with a vinaigrette.  The inherent piquancy of the cheese, the tomatoes, and the olives are all the salad needs to merge with the olive oil … no vinegars, please.  Now, lightly salt the ingredients you’ve just oiled, scatter the Kalamata olives generously around and atop the salad.  Then take those slices of feta and scatter them around as well, breaking them into smaller pieces, if you like.  Do not crumble them.  Now, and as a final step, sprinkle everything with a light dusting of dried oregano flakes and serve.  No need to toss.

During my years in the Greek Mediterranean I have occasionally encountered a chef who like to add a few anchovies to the final assemblage, but, while I like anchovies, their addition is somewhat unorthodox, and there are lots of folk out there who despise those fishes, so enquire first if you are minded to make this variation.

You know … it strikes me that I should write something further about feta cheese, but I’ll save that for another time.  Meanwhile, as the Greeks like to say:

καλὴ ὂρεξη … bon appétit.