Feta Unbound: Greek Cheese Triumphs in Court
By DIANE KOCHILAS
IF there were a culinary equivalent of the Elgin Marbles for the Greeks, that would surely be their white, tangy national cheese, feta. But unlike the famous carvings from the Parthenon, which Lord Elgin carted off two centuries ago, the country's national cheese was recently returned to Greece by the European Union.
In October, after a decade-long legal battle in which Greece faced up to dairy giants like Germany, Denmark and France and their versions of white, brined cheese, the organization's European Court awarded Greek feta "protected designation of origin" status. That designation was created to assure the quality of traditional food products, including prosciutto di Parma, Roquefort cheese and Kalamata olives.
Feta can be hard or soft, creamy or crisp, depending on the cheesemaker's style, the time of year it is produced and whether the milk came from animals eating clover, grains or wild grasses.
The new legal decision means that in Europe the name feta can be applied only to cheese created by traditional methods within specific regions of Greece. (The ruling cannot affect how stores in the United States sell feta-style cheese made domestically or elsewhere in Europe.) The feta must be made with at least 70 percent sheep's milk. The rest is goat's milk, which lends it a characteristic alabaster-white color and gives the cheese a denser texture.
There are seven "protected designation of origin" regions for feta production: the Peloponnese, Thessaly, Epirus, mainland Greece, Macedonia, Thrace and the island of Lesbos. "There are some obvious regional variations," said Sotiris Kitrilakis, an expert on Greek cheese and exporter of artisanal feta. "Feta from the Peloponnese tends to be harder, drier and saltier than cheese made in Thessaly. Feta from Macedonia tends to be creamy and mild."
In the Greek ethnic markets across the United States, regional fetas have long been available. They are becoming more widely known in mainstream American supermarkets, too, with leading examples being brands like Dodoni, an excellent, textbook good feta from Epirus in northwestern Greece, as well as Mt. Vikos, Mr. Kitrilakis's cheese, which he gets from the Roussas Dairies in Thessaly. Regardless of regional differences and varying flavor profiles, good Greek feta should always be solid, with a glistening surface.
Salt is both the bane and the charm of the cheese. Industrial producers even in Greece tend to expedite the initial maturation stages of feta by shocking it in a salt brine, which results in a flat, bland cheese. In fact, true traditional feta is not brined at all; once the cheese is set and drained, it is sprinkled with coarse salt and flipped for 24 to 48 hours, long enough for the subtle herbal undertones to blossom. Traditionally, for aging, large triangular wedges of feta are fitted into old, reusable birchwood barrels (reuse helps foster fermentation), salted with coarse salt, and aged for a legal minimum of two months. Less and less barrel-aged feta has been produced as more cheesemakers have chosen to use large tins or plastic tubs, which are cheaper and easier to ship.
Many of the smaller producers, whose cheese is sold in high-end shops, age it for at least six months. "You can't rush the flavors," said Vassilis Roussas, vice president and scion of Roussas Dairies, one of the country's best-known artisan feta producers. "They have to develop over time."
Feta's robust nature is its forte. "Think of the acidity that feta provides," said Daphne Zepos, vice president of Essex Street Cheese Company and a consultant in affinage (cheese maturing) at Artisanal Premium Cheese in Manhattan. "Use it in layering flavors, the way you would squeeze a little lemon to revive a dish."
Michael Dotson, executive chef at Evvia Estiatorio in Palo Alto, Calif., said: "Sprinkled over something at the last minute, it gives a beautiful, fresh, sharp high note to the dish, but also adds richness. But I was surprised at how delicate and complex its flavor becomes when cooked. When baked, its sharp flavors mellow, and its richness and complexity come out."
At the restaurant Artisanal, Ms. Zepos, who is also a chef, developed a watermelon, feta and olive oil salad inspired by a classic Greek summer dish, and also served the cheese as a spreadable amuse-bouche with some bread. It pairs nicely with chili peppers and roasted tomatoes.
Ed Doherty, a chef and former general manager at the Capital Grille in Philadelphia, who is developing a Greek-inspired restaurant there, says he first started experimenting with feta six years ago.
"I wanted to do a salad with dried cherries, Roma tomatoes, pine nuts, Reggiano Parmesan and bitter greens," he said. "When I tasted the salad, it cried for something salty and earthy, and feta came to mind. I was hesitant, because this was our house salad and I wasn't sure of the mass appeal. I added a bit of honey to the vinaigrette and knew I had a winner. I've used the cheese in broths and even in savory tuiles. One of the most delicious things I have ever tasted was feta baked in a light broth in clay and served with a strip of roasted red pepper."
In Greece, feta is so ubiquitous that in many parts of the country people refer to it simply as "cheese." It is used, of course, in Greece's flagship tomato salad, but also crumbled into stuffings, gratins and savory pies, melted into sauces, especially with seafood, whipped into dips with herbs and olive oil, pan-fried with crunchy crusts, and savored on its own.
While American fetas often use only cow's milk or only goat milk (creating a sour, hard and crumbly loaf), real feta satisfies Americans' "craving of big flavors," Ms. Zepos said.
"People always respond to the real thing," she said.