By Mariana Kavroulaki
www.historyofgreekfood.eu and www.historyofgreekfood.weebly.com
Feta cheese made of sheep’s or /and goat’s milk and stored in brine has been known in the area known today as the Middle East and around the Mediterranean shores since a long time ago.
The earliest evidence of milk processing has been provided by milk residues in clay vessels dated to seventh-millennium sites from north-western Anatolia. Although the actual place and time of the accidental discovery of cheesemaking are not known with certainty, it was surely a major innovation in prehistoric agriculture and diet. It not only allowed the preservation of milk in a nutritious and transportable form but also made milk a more digestible commodity.
In Greece, the earliest evidence of cheese perhaps comes from the small island of Therasia. Among the stored foods buried under ash by the catastrophic eruption of Santorini volcano (ca 1613 BC), French geologists and archaeologists found in a storage jar “une matière pâteuse” (a paste-like substance) which was believed to be cheese. Cheese is also mentioned in the 13th century’s linear tablets which come from Southern Greece and Crete and in the earliest Greek literary sources, the Iliad and Odyssey. In Odyssey, Polyphemus the mean and man-eating cyclops kept woven baskets filled with cheese in his cave. Was it a kind of brined cheese like feta? We cannot say for sure. However, cheese made of sheep’s or /and goat’s milk and stored in brine has been known in the area known today as the Middle East and around the Mediterranean shores since a long time ago.
In the love affair of modern Greeks with cheese, feta keeps the first place. Ιts per capita annual consumption is more than 12 kg, out of a total cheese consumption of 25 kg. The name feta literally means slice and it was not used before the 19th century. However, this cheese was well known under its local names or simply as cheese. Cretan cheese stored in brine was one of the most appreciated cheeses during the Renaissance. Crete, Venice’s last major overseas possession, exported it proudly to Italy.
Pietro Casola, an Italian pilgrim visiting Heraklion in Crete in 1494, distinctly described the production and storage of cheese in brine. ‘I saw great warehouses full of them (cheeses), some of which in the brine, or salmoria as we would say, was two feet deep, and the large cheeses were floating in it. Those in charge told me that the cheeses could not be preserved in any other way, being so rich…’
Casola doesn’t mention any name but it is not uncommon for cheeses to be named just ‘cheese’ or after the places of their production. Thus, one recipe for smoked yellow sausages in the anonymous fourteenth-century Venetian cookbook, the Libro per cuoco, calls for formazo di Candia, cheese made in Crete. It may be the kind of brined cheese that has been described by Casola.
Even though, to this day, Crete produces wonderful feta, they are not allowed to call it that. Feta is covered by a Protected Designation of Origin meaning that not only the production of milk and cheese but also the ripening must take place in mainland Greece, the Peloponnese and the island of Lesbos. Moreover, feta must have been prepared by excellent quality’s ewes’ milk or a combination of ewes’ and goat’s milk up to 30%. The curd is cut into big squares, and it is transferred into molds for the whey to drain out. Then it is salted and left to rest at 16-18 C for a while before being put in brine in wooden barrels or in tin containers for at least 60 days. The minimum fat content must be 43% and the moisture less than 56%. Feta can be soft and moist with a mild taste, creamy- almost like a spread-, or hard with a sharper taste. Barrel – aged feta has a complex rather acidic taste. The taste and flavor are also greatly affected by the greens and herbs the animals had been feeding on.
Feta is an easy made but big and surprisingly versatile cheese. It is much more than the classic top of the Greek salad and the filling in a phyllo cheese-pie. Mashed up with extra virgin olive oil and oregano becomes a delicious spread. It adds its acidic taste to green’s pies and complements all the vegetables and bean dishes. It can be cooked. It can be baked on top of pizza or as a stuffing for vegetables and meat. Oven baked feta makes a beautiful appetizer. It accompanies fruits like watermelon and grapes, and goes very well with dried figs. Phyllo -wrapped feta fried in olive oil, served with thyme honey or strawberry tree honey and sprinkled with sesame seeds and pepper is an explosion of flavors and contrasting textures. Not to mention that the simple combination of feta, bread, olive and tomato makes a meal and the combination of feta and honey makes a dessert. But first make sure you get the good stuff.