I came back from a two-week vacation to Greece with one lingering thought on my mind – how soon I could get my hands on a decent supply of feta. If you have ever visited Greece you will know that this pristine white national treasure appears on every taverna menu, drizzled with olive oil, or generously heaped on horiatiki salata (Greek salad). I ate it twice a day or more and never tired of the tanginess and flavors of olive and ocean in every gorgeous bite.
Feta cheese is most closely associated with Greece, but other countries in the region, Bulgaria and France in particular, have delicious versions of their own. French feta is milder, and Bulgarian feta packs a bigger punch. Feta has become so popular around the world that the majority of what we consume is industrially made. Small-batch artisan versions can still be found in the country (and likely not much beyond the village) of origin.
Feta tastes best to me when made with sheep’s milk, though there are plenty of tasty cow and goat’s milk versions are out there. The fresh milk is left to curdle with rennet and a starter culture, and the curds are then ladled into molds lined with cheesecloth. After a few weeks of draining and salting, they are firm enough to cut into blocks, and are submerged into a brine or salted whey solution to cure and age for a month or more. Think of feta like a pickled cheese!
Feta has a long shelf life for a fresh cheese, so I usually buy a block from the supermarket without worrying too much about when I might get around to eating it. I’m also a fan of the feta cubes suspended in olive oil and dried herbs – they make a great snack or easy hors d’oeuvre, and the leftover oil tastes good drizzled over salad. However you like your feta, be sure to revisit it often this summer. Then throw on your bouzouki CD and break open the retsina, and welcome to my big fat Greek vacation.