Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Feta cheese (Φέτα)

Big slabs of white cheese, preserved in brine, were first seen in Crete in 1494. How strange that feta cheese is not associated with Crete in modern times. Although Cretan cheesemakers are nowadays producing it, feta cheese is not a specialty of Crete, and modern Greeks would never think of Crete as a feta producer, which is why the feta that is produced in Crete usually stays here.

feta from karpenisi
Feta made in Karpenisi
Feta is the national cheese of Greece. When referring to feta (which means 'slice'), Greeks never use the word 'cheese' to go with it, as the word is naturally understood to mean 'cheese'. And in Northern Greece (anything above the Peloponese), the word 'cheese' is synonymous with the word 'feta', since it is the main cheese available in the area. Because feta cheese is a PDO product, not all white sliceable cheese can be labelled feta. So when a Cretan company producing meat products recently diverged into the dairy market, it could not label a white sliceable cheese it was producing as 'feta', even though this is what it looked like. Instead, it called it 'Mesogeiaki', with no mention of the word 'cheese', leaving me a little confused when I saw it being advertised - it did not even mention the word 'cheese' - until I realised it was simply trying to avoid using a PDOlabel. This product is made with 90% sheep and 10% goat's milk, with a final olive oil content of 11% olive oil. Mesogeiaki won the 'Best Launching 2011' award as a new product.

The olive oil content is the 'value-added' part to the product, which is a common theme in the modern marketing world. Labeling anything as containing olive oil is a clever marketing ploy because of the well-known health properties of olive oil. The company in question has actually added olive oil to many of its meat products too, like salami, compressed ham and mortadella: they have experimented with removing the natural animal fat found in meat, replacing it with olive oil. Testing conducted on the final products has shown that the products containing olive oil are in fact healthier than the original products that contained the natural animal fat (MAICh thesis study from the Natural Products Department).

The move to add olive oil to products that usually contain animal fat is well accepted by consumers. People prefer these products over others, for obvious reasons, and many say that those products' taste is not compromised.

Which feta cheese you prefer is a matter of individual taste. I don't think I will ever change my preference for the feta that I have been buying for the last 15 years, since I discovered it. Feta Plataion is a firm feta, not very salty, with a mild taste. You can buy it pre-cut and packaged, but it is also sold in bulk (which is cheaper, naturally). It's widely available in national-chain supermarkets all over Crete, although this is probably not the case in mainland Greece, because feta cheese is produced to extremely high quality in various parts of the country and each feta-producing area claims its own fame for its own version of Greece's national cheese.

In the summer, we buy less feta cheese, preferring the local soft white Cretan cheese, called mizithra, served in the same way as feta. Hence, I was a little puzzled as to why feta cheese had to have olive oil added to it. Adding olive oil to feta cheese is completely unnecessary if you eat feta cheese the traditional way: drizzled with olive oil and some oregano. It usually goes into a Greek tomato salad, so again it will be served with olive oil. I'm sticking to my traditional feta - some things were made the way they were meant to be. 

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