From Milk to Feta
By Awake! correspondent in Greece
THE New York hosts prepared some traditional dishes that they thought their Greek guest would especially appreciate. However, when the last dish, a plate of Greek salad, was put on the dining table, the guest somewhat jokingly asked: “But where is the feta?”
Oh, yes, the feta cheese! If you think of Greek food, one of the things that may come to your mind first is fresh, white, soft, and spicy feta. In Greece, feta is a must on any traditional table, and of course, it is one of the basic ingredients of the famous Greek salad. As part of a recent effort to protect the distinctive nature and character of feta, the European Union officially recognized it as an exclusively Greek name and product, setting it apart from white cheeses produced elsewhere. To satisfy cheese lovers all over the world, Greece exports more than 9,000 tons of feta every year.
A Bit of Background
Cheese making goes back a long way in man’s history. The Bible character Job, who lived in the 17th century B.C.E. in what is now Arabia, in poetic language described how he had been formed in his mother’s womb, saying to his Creator: “Did you not proceed to pour me out as milk itself and like cheese to curdle me?” (Job 10:10) It is believed that the art of making cheese was introduced to Europe through the seafaring Phoenicians, who established colonies on Cyprus and the islands of the Aegean.
Remains of implements used in the making of cheese have been discovered both on Greece proper and on the surrounding islands, including Crete. At least one Aegean island struck coins bearing the image of little cheeses, and athletes preparing for the ancient Olympics were put on a cheese diet. In the Odyssey, Homer has the mythical Cyclops Polyphemus making sheep’s milk cheese, perhaps a forerunner of feta, which he ripened in wicker baskets in his cave. In fact, the Italian and French words for cheese (formaggio and fromage) come from the Greek word for·mosʹ, meaning “basket”—the wicker basket used for draining cheese.
The Pickling of Feta
Let us, though, come back to feta. What makes genuine feta different is that it is made exclusively from goat’s or sheep’s milk. In Greece, by law, feta is at least 70 percent sheep’s milk, with an allowance of up to 30 percent goat’s milk; cow’s milk is strictly prohibited, something that is not true of “feta” produced elsewhere. Feta is not cooked or pressed, but it is cured briefly in a brine solution that adds a salty flavor to the sharp tang of the milk.
Let us visit a small cheese factory in the mountainous Peloponnisos and follow the steps taken to make, or pickle, feta. By the time we get there, Thanassis, the owner of the premises and a cheesemaker for decades, has already been busy since early morning collecting sheep’s and goat’s milk from the local producers. When we arrive, he is in the process of skimming, pasteurizing, and cooling the milk by means of a radiatorlike contraption.
“One goat or sheep produces about a kilo [two pounds] of milk a day,” Thanassis informs us, “and it takes from 4 to 4.5 kilos [eight to ten pounds] of milk to make a kilo of feta.”
Now it is time for him to add rennet and yogurt, the ingredients necessary for the milk to set. “Rennet is the lining of the stomach of a ruminant,” Thanassis notes, “and it contains an enzyme called rennin. When rennin is combined with milk, the milk curdles and separates into curds and whey.” The milk in the large vats appears deceptively still. But if we could use a microscope, we would see ferocious activity, as chemical reactions are changing the nature and composition of the milk. Peering over the vats, Thanassis remarks: “At this stage the temperature has to remain steady.” He stresses that it is really a delicate balance. “One degree up or down, and my cheese is ruined.”
Next, big crystals of raw salt are added to the mix. Forty-five minutes later, the milk is visibly transformed. Now it is thick and white, like a cross between jelly and yogurt, and is afloat in deep yellow whey, from which a rather bland Greek cheese is made. The set milk tastes nothing like the salty and spicy feta it will eventually become. Smooth, warm, and mellow, it feels strange on our palate.
Curd Cutting and Salting
Now is the time for the cheesemaker to take more drastic action. Thanassis takes the cheese cutter—a long, stainless steel, paddlelike frame with rows of wire evenly spaced about an inch apart—and runs it horizontally and then vertically through the vat, forming a grid. Next he uses a long wooden oar with several large holes to stir the curds.
After being stirred, the paste is placed in round, stainless steel slotted molds to drain, and the yellow whey is pumped out. The curds are left in the molds.
We are told that the texture of the paste and the density of the curds in each mold are of utmost importance to the quality of the final feta product. The cheesemaker salts the molds and then, about an hour later, flips them and salts them again. Over the course of that day and the next morning, the curds are flipped and salted a couple of times.
Now the molds are solid enough to be placed in kegs or barrels. This stage is called lanʹza. The curds stay in kegs from three to five days. Then they are removed, washed down, and placed in other kegs. They will be left in the kegs for anywhere from two weeks to 40 days to ferment, mature, and exude their own brine. Finally, the kegs are sent to the refrigerator, where they remain for at least two months before the cheese can be sold. To keep for months, feta should be stored in a liquid bath of brine, water, or milk. Although feta is exported in tin cans, in Greece it is usually sold in wooden kegs or barrels, which add to the flavor of the cheese.
“In winter the milk is creamier and softer,” says Thanassis, “but not as tasty. From April to October when the milk is thinner but more fragrant, the feta is firmer.”
As Thanassis takes a fresh piece of feta from the barrel, salty milk drips through his fingers. He gives us some to taste, along with a hot piece of freshly baked bread from the wood oven, and reminds us that, like all great cheeses, feta has been widely imitated but never equaled. Later, feta ranked prominently among the delicious Mediterranean dishes served during lunch at his house nearby.
Now that you know a little more about the making of this unique cheese, why not broaden your gastronomic experience and taste some fresh, salty feta? As you do so, think of all the time and effort that went into producing that delicious cheese—from the day the goat or sheep was milked to the moment the finished product was placed before you.
[Picture on page 26]
The ingredients of a typical Greek salad