So, how many salads with feta cheese did you have during the Nine Days?? We are all cheesed out.

Feta, or something like it, has been made in the Balkans for centuries, probably as long as there have been Balkan shepherds tending goats and sheep. By heavily salting their cheese, farmers made it last through the winter months, when the female animals were being bred and not giving milk. Feta, the Greek word for slice, is the cheese?s modern name. The Bulgarian name for feta, sirene, means white cheese.

Feta production is relatively simple, which partly explains why so many countries make it. Greece, Bulgaria, France, Italy, Denmark, Israel, Germany and the U.S. all produce feta, although not equally well.

You can make feta with milk from cows, sheep or goats, but the best-tasting includes a large proportion of rich, high-fat sheep?s milk. In Greece, where herds are usually mixed, farmers would often blend goat?s and sheep?s milk for feta. Greek law now specifies that the country?s feta must be at least 70 percent sheep?s milk and a maximum of 30 percent goat?s milk, reflecting the importance of sheep?s milk to the final texture and flavor.

In traditional feta production, the salted curds are placed in large round molds to drain. (In Greece, the drained whey is used for manouri, a fresh cheese.) When firm enough to cut, each round is sliced into three thick triangles. The triangles are then packed tightly in barrels (the traditional method) or in tins (the modern method), with salt between the layers. The container is topped with brine and the feta cures for at least a month or two and sometimes longer. Some producers ship the feta in the original brine. Others repack it with fresh brine. The brine acts as a preservative and keeps the cheese moist; without it, feta?s shelf-life is greatly shortened.

?It should be submerged or it dries out,? says Charlie Vergiris of Krinos Foods, a Greek food importer. ?Once you start removing pieces (from the container), the brine level goes down, and you need to supplement with additional brine.?

Some stores package pre-cut feta in plastic wrap without any brine. As long as the cheese sells quickly and you use it within a few days, quality shouldn?t suffer. But brine immersion is preferable. ?The worst thing you can do is add plain water,? says Ron Cardoos, who markets Mt. Vikos feta in the U.S. Water will draw salt out of the cheese, leaving it tasteless, and the texture will soon break down. If you don?t have enough brine to immerse the cheese, then turn the cheese frequently, advises Cardoos. Use clean stainless steel tongs, never bare hands, which introduce bacteria that could spoil the brine.

Feta can be whipped with olive oil, garlic, oregano and hot peppers to make the spicy cheese spread known in Greece as htipiti. And feta never met a summer vegetable it didn?t like, harmonizing splendidly with tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, eggplant, zucchini and sweet peppers.

In 2002, Greece won a long, hard-fought battle to get European Union Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status for its feta. Although Denmark and Germany argued that feta had become a generic term, and that their versions, often made with cow?s milk, should qualify for the name, they lost their case. After a five-year grace period, only feta produced in designated areas of Greece by strictly defined methods will bear the name feta.

Similar cheeses from elsewhere will be known as something else. But expect to see new names for this age-old cheese in coming years.

Posted on July 29, 2004 at 9:16 am by Rabbi Jeffrey Rappoport · Permalink
In: General Topics, Uncategorized

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