The common way to serve feta on the table – with a sprinkling of oregano and a drizzle of EVO oil.
Up until the beginning of the economic crisis in Greece, Greeks regularly topped the table of the world’s highest cheese consumption per capita, eating more cheese than even the French. And even after 7 years of devastating economic depression, Greeks are still in the top ten of cheese eating nations. The main reason for this is, of course, feta – the white cheese in brine that tourists know from its inclusion in the famous Greek salad (xoriatiki – village salad, in Greek). It’s not the only cheese eaten in Greece, there are many other good Greek cheeses, but it’s the cheese traditionally served at the table with most meals, either in a salad or separately, drizzled in olive oil and sprinkled with oregano.
In the past, feta was an important source of protein, as people didn’t eat a lot of meat and the diet consisted mainly of seasonal vegetables and pulses. So a winter bean soup would be greatly enriched by the addition of feta cheese and some good bread. It’s a winning combination too. Even the most basic peasant dish of lentil soup attains a gourmet status with the addition of decent feta and lovely grilled sourdough at the table. Although I wouldn’t wish Greece’s economic crisis on anyone, one positive outcome has been a return to traditional foods. Greece had never entirely lost its food traditions but some were beginning to slip away under the pressure of convenience foods and a more Americanised lifestyle. So, I am happy to see a return to some basic food principles in Greece.
Another thing worth mentioning is that not all Feta is made equal and that it also has a wide variety of taste and textures. The very commercial feta available in plastic boxes from the supermarket is never going to be as good as that sold in barrels or from tin drums. The commercial type is likely to be the only sort of feta available to people in the rest of Europe, unless you can find a real Greek shop run by those escaping the crisis. Some of the feta in boxes is passable and at least it’s a million times better than the abomination sold in European supermarkets under the title of ‘Greek style cheese’. For the love of all things food holy, don’t eat that rubbish. Support the Greek economy and get a halfway decent feta cheese.
When it comes to the taste and texture of Feta, it can range from a firm almost hard crumbly cheese with a sharp acidic taste, rather like a good Lancashire cheese, to a softer creamier cheese with a more delicate flavour. Try the Feta from Kalavryta for a sharp Feta and from Dodoni for something creamier but still with a bit of sharp after glow.
Feta is used in many dishes in Greece. Served alone, in salad, baked, used to stuff squid, in pies, in a tomato sauce with prawns for prawn saganaki, in lots of lovely dishes. I’m going to give two quick easy recipes for this short introduction to the uses of feta: a baked feta and a Cretan Salad.
Take a thick slice of feta (2 – 2.5 cm thick), if you’re buying a boxed commercial feta from the supermarket it will be divided into slices, so just use one of those. Place the slice of Feta on a square of foil big enough to enclose the cheese. Place on top of the cheese two finely sliced rounds of red onion, some slivers of green pepper and a couple of very thin slices of tomato. Top with a drizzle of EVO oil, a good sprinkling of oregano and some chili flakes (optional). Twist the ends of the foil together to make a packet of the cheese and veg. You want there to be a good opening in the foil to let out steam, as feta and the veg give off liquid. Don’t completely seal the packet. Bake for around 20 minutes in a pre-heated medium hot oven.
3 medium sized toms cut into wedges
1 medium sized onion cut into half moon slices
1 large green pepper sliced
½ a large cucumber roughly peeled, halved lengthways and cut into chunks horizontally
3 Cretan barley rusks
a handful of Kalamata olives rinsed
a handful of good capers rinsed
a handful of chopped flat leaf parsley
a thick slice of good feta cheese (about 150g)
Run the barley rusks under the cold water tap for a few seconds to make them a little wet. Break into little chunks in a salad bowl. Put the salad veg, olives, capers and parsley in the bowl too. Break the feta* into chunks and add to the bowl. Sprinkle the salad generously with sea salt and dried oregano and add several good hearty glugs of evo oil. Mix well and chill before serving. The salad is hearty enough to eat alone as lunch or served with a chop or whatever you fancy.
- By rights this salad should be made with Cretan ksinomezithra cheese. But I doubt you’d find it and it works perfectly well with feta.