Since the mortal origins of cheese are unbeknownst to us, we must make do by offering our heartiest gratitude to Aristaeus, son of Apollo and Cyrene, for bestowing upon us the gift of cheese. Fortunately though, for all cheese- loving atheists who prefer something more tangible, the story of cheese gains real mention starting from Homer’s Odyssey (all hail Homer for recording these important aspects of life).
Described almost as a side hobby of the man- eating Cyclops Polyphemus, Odysseus discovers racks filled with cheese, among other “live” tastes, when he and his band of men ransack Polyphemus’ cave. Waiting for the mighty Cyclops to return, the group of men feast on this stored cheese (obviously these fine men of honor lack the understanding of “private property” even if it is with respect to a big, mean, flesh- eating, one- eyed Cyclops), eating some themselves and offering some to the Gods of Olympus (such a waste). As Polyphemus, our villain of eclectic tastes, arrives with his flock, he is observed to curdle half his milk in a “wicker stainer”, while he reserves the rest for drinking later.
This depiction of cheese (made from the milk of ewes and goats) is known to be the first ancestor of Feta cheese, a type of cheese that has come to gain immense popularity the world over (aka the thing that makes you comfortably forget you’re eating a salad).
Feta is a “crumbly aged” and brined white cheese which is made from either just sheep’s milk or both sheep (approximately 70% or more) and goat’s milk, with a maximum moisture content of about 56%. Its name literally translates into “slice” in italian, and refers to the practice of cutting up cheese in slices so as to store it in barrels. Although introduced to the greek language in the 17th century, it attained prominence only in the 19th century. The specific mention of this cheese is first recorded in literature from the Byzantine Empire (referred to as “prosphatos”, meaning ‘fresh’) and was exclusively produced by the Cretans and Vlachs of Thessaly. It’s storage in brine and general marketing were elaborated upon by Pietro Casola, an italian pilgrim visiting Candia (present day administrative capital of Crete) in the 15th century.
His description of spotting warehouses that were overflowing with Feta represents the tradition of commerce that was centred around this particular greek cheese. Not just domestically, but even greek immigrants who had scattered around the world took along this gastronomical delight with them. This helped create an extensive network of international trade for Feta cheese. However, along with this boost, came also the competition and cheap imitations.
Thus, to preserve and uphold the rich tradition of this high- quality unique product, the European Commission awarded the term “Feta”, the status of Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) in 2002, post a protracted legal battle with Denmark (which called cheese produced from cow’s milk as feta also). Under this status, the term “Feta” is limited only within the European Union for brined cheese made exclusively of sheep/ goat milk produced in Greece. Nations were given a period of five years to either change names or completely curb production. In 2013, Feta made in Canada was agreed to be known as “Feta- style” cheese, with the added condition of not depicting anything related to Greece on the labels of these cheese packages.
Other than the high- status legal protection it has earned for itself, it is still quite homely a cheese, as compared to its contemporaries. From salads to pies, Feta cheese breaks away from the usual specificity of french cheeses, in the sense, that they can be eaten throughout the day and are not restricted to any particular meal, time or occasion. Greek homes usually keep it as an addendum for all their meals, especially as filling snacks accompanied with bread, olives and figs.
Needless to say, Feta warrants every bit of exclusivity and fame that it has attached to its name. If it’s fully packed punch of a taste could have Mr. Polyphemus, The People- Eating Cyclops hooked, it’s credibility clearly speaks for itself.
By Akshita Mathur
Akshita has completed her undergraduate degree in Economics from Symbiosis School of Economics, Pune. she loves her hot cup of chai and good food.