Walk into a supermarket in Greece and you’ll find as many as 60 different packages of feta in refrigerated cases and up to 15 kinds of feta at the deli counter.
Mentioned in Homer’s “Odyssey” and in the tale of Polyphemus the Cyclops, some researchers believe feta dates back 8,000 years and the methods by which it is made are still basically the same as ever. Feta is eaten daily by most Greeks, as it has been for centuries, and is popular for breakfast, lunch, dinner and for snacks.
An extremely versatile cheese, it is added to salads, soups, egg dishes, seafood dishes, savory pies and more. A fairly low-fat cheese, it is a great source of protein, vitamin A, riboflavin, and of course, calcium.
In the 1930s, Greece set rules for feta production to ensure that it would be made in accordance with age-old traditional techniques and in the 1990s Greece sought to register feta as a Protected Designations of Origin or “PDO” product.
Today only 2% of what is currently consumed as “feta’’corresponds to the authentic European PDO version. PDO feta is made according to strict regulations that indicate where the sheep and goat’s milk is sourced, the way the milk is collected, heated and treated, and how the cheese is produced, including dry salting using coarse-grained salt before it goes into brine and finally the aging in brine for at least 15 days.
Aging normally lasts up to 2 months and was traditionally done in wooden barrels, but now 85% of all feta is aged in tins. What makes true PDO feta so special is the flavor of the cheese, which is determined by the diet of grazing animals that feed on hundreds of Mediterranean wild herbs.
While made in basically the same manner as it always has been, the Greeks are not afraid to innovate, infusing feta with different ingredients such as truffles and experimenting with longer aging and offering it in different textures from soft and creamy to dry and crumbly.
While you are likely familiar with some of the most common ways to enjoy feta such as in Greek salad, spinach and feta pie, in watermelon salads and baked with shrimp.
In Greece you’ll find it in many non traditional recipes as well. Walk into the modern Kostarelos retail shop in the chic Kolonaki neighborhood of Athens and you’ll find feta aged from 4-12 months and soft feta among other products the Kostarelos dairy produces and a menu of salads, sandwiches, cheese platters, fondues and more.
Contemporary and creative combinations include a spread with feta, chutney and chocolate, as well as a smoked pork, cucumber and tomato sandwich with a feta, mustard and tarragon spread, a feta fondue with truffle oil and nuts and oven baked feta with roasted red peppers, honey and fresh herbs.
Meanwhile in Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece, the Kourellas dairy has an innovative “feta bar” a shop and restaurant called Mia Feta. On the menu you’ll find seasonal dishes like a kale salad with balsamic vinaigrette, beet cream, orange, walnuts and feta and smoked feta cheese tart with tomato confit.
At the CIA’s Worlds of Flavor conference this past fall at Copia, Greek chefs demonstrated contemporary techniques for cooking with Greek cheese including a recipe for bouyourdi, which consists of feta cheese baked or grilled with peppers and tomato.
Another popular dish found all over Greece is sesame crusted feta cheese served with a drizzle of honey. Both of these dishes can easily be made at home and serve equally well as appetizers or snacks.
Grilled packages of Feta, green pepper and tomato
Yield: 4-8 meze portions
1 tomato, large, vine ripe
1 jalapeño, small, seeded, chopped
1 green bell pepper, sliced in thin rings
2 packages PDO feta, sliced, about 10.5-12 ounces
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tablespoon Greek oregano, dried
Country bread, sliced
Thick parchment paper and aluminum foil
Spread a double layer of kitchen paper on a large dish. Core the tomato carefully, slice horizontally into 5-6 pieces and spread them on the paper to drain.
Oil a shallow 4 pieces of parchment paper (10- to 12-inch square) and spread the tomato slices on each piece, reserving 4 nice slices for the top. Sprinkle with some jalapeño and divide half the bell pepper slices over the tomatoes.
Arrange the feta slices on top of the vegetables, place one tomato slice on each piece of cheese and finally 2 or 3 nice bell pepper rings on the tomato.
Drizzle liberally with olive oil, sprinkle with oregano and the rest of the jalapeño and close the parchment into a package, then wrap each with thick aluminum foil.
Place on the grill for 6-10 minutes, until the feta starts to melt. Open the packages and bake a bit more, until the oil is sizzling. Serve immediately with warm, crusty bread.
Recipe adapted from The Culinary Institute of America’s Worlds of Flavor International Conference and Festival and Chef Dimitrios Mavrakis.
Sesame Crusted Feta with Honey
1 package, about 5-6 ounces firm PDO feta
3 Tablespoons flour
6 Tablespoons sesame seeds
2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 Tablespoons honey, warmed
Cut the feta into 8 thin slices and pat dry with paper towels.
Beat the egg in a bowl. Spread the sesame seeds onto a plate and the flour onto another plate. Dip the cheese in the flour, then egg and then in the sesame seeds.
Heat the olive oil in a nonstick skillet.
Place half of the cheese pieces in the skillet, and cook over medium-high heat.
As soon as the sesame seeds turn golden brown, flip each piece to brown on the other side.
Remove and drain on paper towels and drizzle each portion with the honey. Serve immediately.
Satisfy your cravings
With our weekly newsletter packed with the latest in everything food.