Although ‘feta’ means ‘slice’ in Greek, this delectable cheese is available in blocks and doesn’t lend itself well to slices or cubes, crumbling on touch.
Although ‘feta’ means ‘slice’ in Greek, this delectable cheese is available in blocks and doesn’t lend itself well to slices or cubes, crumbling on touch. Made of sheep’s milk, it’s considered to be one of the healthiest options for cheese lovers, especially when compared with cheese made from cow’s milk.
It’s exclusive as well. Since 2002, it has been decreed that only cheeses made in particular regions of Greece, and with no more than 30% milk from the same area, may be labelled feta—trust European culinaires to up the snob factor. But it also makes business sense. Feta is steadily climbing up the popularity charts on the back of its health benefits—it is low in fats compared to other cheeses and is a staple of the Mediterranean diet, considered to be one of the most healthy diets in the world. And it tastes good. With its tangy, salty bite, it’s a flavourful addition to any dish.
Feta’s history dates back to eighth-century BC and the cheese is even referenced in Homer’s Odyssey—the process described is similar to what’s followed today. I am particularly partial to feta because it got me eating salads. I encountered feta at an Italian restaurant for the first time.
The owner-chef happened to be Greek and insisted on including Greek salad on the menu. The salad counter in the kitchen—being a small enterprise, there was no room for a full-fledged garde manger—meant that it was easily accessible and I was always quick to swipe a few bits off the top of the feta immersed in brine. Of course, I love smelly blue cheese as well and this was much before I knew of the health benefits of feta, but it remains a special foodie memory.
Since then, the interest in feta has increased exponentially and it has become a favourite amongst health-conscious eaters. Experts say it isn’t great for cholesterol, but is loaded with other benefits, including vitamins and calcium. It is also low in fats and is probiotic, if you care about your gut. Plus, it pairs nicely with olives.
Feta usually finds itself in Greek salads, but also tastes delicious with watermelon, a great summer salad option. Easy to make, one can toss up some watermelon slices with baby spinach, mix in an easy dressing of olive oil, honey and lemon juice, season and add feta. Or if you want to keep it simple, a dish of just watermelon and feta works wonderfully as well and is most refreshing—and a great replacement for the sun-dried tomatoes and mozzarella salad.
Of course, it works well with pizza as well, especially if you are looking for a healthy alternative. Get a wholewheat base, a little pasta sauce, rocket leaves and top it off with feta. If you’re into something a little more substantial, another delicious combination is gnocchi with feta, walnuts and spinach.
Feta has had its share of food controversy. A 16-year, and reportedly acrimonious, legal battle was fought between Greece, Germany and Denmark. The top EU court finally decided that Greece had won the right to the term ‘feta’—a minister at the time termed the win ‘historic’.
The court stated that certain sheep and regions gave Greek feta a distinct flavour and aroma profile that set it apart from all others. And in an acknowledgement of the authenticity and provenance of feta, other European competitors were using Greek symbols on their labels to market their cheese. A fatal mistake! Feta belonged to the Greeks and it was decided to grant it a DOP, or ‘Designation Origin of Protection’.
The French, who are quite proud of their own cheeses, kept away from this long-winded battle, although they make their own version of the cheese. It was the Danes, usually quite laidback, who led the legal battle for designating feta a generic food category. It was not to be.
Thousands of miles away, here in India, feta is catching on as well, first as a gourmet cheese in five-star hotels and now in shopping aisles. Unfortunately, it’s still hard to come by unless you go to the bespoke food marts, but it’s worth the trip. It has made a long journey to get here!
Advaita Kala is a writer, most recently of the film Kahaani. She is also a former hotelier having worked in restaurants in India and abroad.