I may be dating myself here, but I still remember tasting feta cheese for the first time about 30 years ago when a Greek restaurant opened in town. It was served in a spanakopita, a delicious pie stuffed with spinach, herbs and feta cheese wrapped in a crispy phyllo dough. The taste was extraordinary, with the tangy, salty flavor of the cheese dominating. I was instantly hooked, and like many North Americans I added feta cheese to my list of staples. And still today, when I use feta in a recipe, my mind always wanders to the sun-splashed Greek islands where the cheese originated.
Feta: a brief history
The origins of feta cheese are shrouded in mystery. But in his Odyssey, written in the 8th century B.C., Homer described a cheese-making process that many consider to be the ancestor of feta. Cheese has always been a staple of Greek cuisine. The country has never been wealthy, and cheese was a relatively inexpensive alternative to meat proteins. Feta cheese is made of sheep and goats milk, and since sheep and goats have always been the main source of milk on the Greek islands, feta became the most popular cheese in a cheese-hungry nation. This might sound surprising but to this day, the Greeks still eat the most cheese per capita of all Europeans. But not all feta cheese is really feta cheese. In fact, the European Union intervened in 2002, making Greek feta cheese a protected designation of origin product. The PDO label means only feta cheese made in specific regions of Greece using at least 70% sheep's milk (the rest being goat's milk) can be labelled feta.
A unique taste
Feta is a soft white curd cheese. It is usually made in square-shaped blocks which are stored in brine (salty water). This gives it a slightly salty, tangy flavor. The longer the feta is aged, the firmer and sharper it becomes. When it is still soft, it is almost spreadable; when it is older, it tends to crumble easily.
The protected designation of origin is only in effect within the European Union, so it is possible to buy locally-made feta cheese here in North America. But many of our versions are made from cow's milk. It may cost more, but the best feta is definitely the real thing imported from Greece, although you can sometimes find real sheep's milk feta made by small independent cheese-makers that is pretty delicious.
True feta cheese made from sheep's milk is usually lower in fat than other cheeses. An ounce of feta has about 6 grams of fat. It also has fewer calories than most whole-milk cheeses. So you can pack proteins into your diet without adding too many calories.
Real feta is a raw cheese made using unpasteurized milk. Raw milk cheese contains probiotic cultures and active enzymes. And although there are some concerns about some of raw milk cheeses, feta is not among them, since it has been aged for well over 60 days. It is true that feta is stored for months in brine giving it a tangy, salty flavor. That gives it a high salt content. But simply removing the feta cheese from its brine and soaking it in water for a few minutes and rinsing it will help lower the salt content.
Pack along feta for paddling
Bring your feta cheese along with you on your shorter paddling trips. With the feta in its original brine and container, store it in your cooler for your trip. Or you can make (or buy) a feta marinated in olive oil. Properly packaged and kept in a cool location, it can be carried along on a paddling trip for a couple of days.
Recipes for Paddlers
Watermelon-feta appetizer (6-8 portions, depending on the size of the watermelon)
Do you want to impress your fellow paddlers with a delicious, elegant and fresh appetizer that is ready in 2 minutes? Try this duo. It is bursting with flavor! Watermelon can keep for up to 5 days if properly packed in the bottom of your boat.
- 1 small to medium watermelon (don't forget to pack a good kitchen knife!)
- 6-8 ounces feta cheese, packed in olive oil
- 1 tbsp good balsamic vinegar
Cut watermelon in slices 1 inch thick. Remove peel and dice. Arrange the cubes on a serving plate. Sprinkle crumbledfeta cheese on the cubes, drizzle a bit of olive oil on top, followed by balsamic vinegar. Serve.
Feta cheese scrambled eggs
- 8 large eggs
- 2 tbsp water, milk or cream
- 4 oz crumbled feta cheese
- 1 tbsp dried chive
- 1 tsp dried parsley
- Salt and pepper (to taste)
In a bowl, break the eggs and whip with a fork or a whisk until fluffy. Add water (or milk/cream) and remaining ingredients and mix well.
In a hot pan, pour a bit of butter or olive oil. Pour into the egg mixture and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly. Don't overcook the eggs. Serve with toasted English muffins.
Feta cheese spread for campers
- 6 oz feta cheese, packed in olive oil
- 1 package silken tofu (vacuum-packed), drained
- 1/2 cup kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
- 2 dried tomatoes packed in olive oil, chopped
- 1/2 tsp dried oregano
- Pepper (to taste)
Mix all ingredients with a fork. Add 1 tbsp olive oil from dried tomatoes or feta cheese and serve, either as an appetizer with raw vegetables and bread sticks, or spread generously on pita bread for a quick and delicious sandwich. For more convenience buy pitted kalamata olives.