Even before I leave for Greece, I am dreaming of the first meal I will have there. I know exactly what it will be: A Greek salad. It’s something I make at home in London regularly, and something I often order in restaurants, yet however proficient those efforts are, the lettuce is never as green, the tomatoes never as fragrant, the olives never as voluptuous, and the feta never, ever as flavorful as they are in Greece.
The feta is the star ingredient, the one thing that must be perfect in every respect, from appearance and texture to mouthfeel and tanginess. It must lie in one, pure-white feta (meaning “slice”) on top of the salad, so that I can savor the sight and smell of it before I pour on the golden olive oil, sprinkle with oregano, and break into large chunks. It’s a ritual, a way of increasing the anticipation before I take that first bite.
In that forkful, I can taste Greece–its history, its culture, its salty seas, its philoxenia, which means its hospitality. That one mouthful carries all the years that have passed since my last visit, and the satiation of the hunger I have felt to return.
Referred to as white gold, feta is one of Greece’s most emblematic—and evocative—products, with a mythologized history that starts in ancient Greece.
“Cheese is so important to our diet that we say mortals were taught how to make it by the gods,” said Vasilis Moschotas, head chef at the MarBella Elix, a new five-star hotel in the heart of the feta-making region of Epirus.
“According to legend, Aristaeus, the son of the sun god Apollo, descended from Mount Olympus to pass on this skill. That’s why we say cheese is the food of the gods.”
Moving on from the deities of Mount Olympus, but still sticking with fables, the Odyssey, written sometime between 675 and 725 B.C. by Homer, suggests that Cyclops, the one-eyed giant, was a master feta-maker.
“Plump sheep and goats grazed the tender sheets of grass, outside his cave,” comments the narrator. “Inside we found woven baskets full of cheese. All the pots, tubs, and churns were full of whey. When half of the snow-white milk curdled, the giant collected it and put it in the baskets, drinking what remained.”
More than 2,500 years later, feta is still made from the milk of plump sheep and goats grazing on wide-open meadows. Indeed, this is one of the factors that makes the cheese unique, and a key reason it was awarded Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status by the European Union in 2002.
“For a cheese to be given the name feta, it has to be made in precise geographical locations in Greece,” explained Moschotas. “True, authentic feta is made only in the Peloponnese, Macedonia, Thrace, Thessaly, Central Greece, the island of Lesvos, and here in Epirus. It must be made from pure sheep’s milk, or sheep’s milk mixed with a maximum of 30 percent goat’s milk. It must be produced from free-grazing local breeds. It cannot have any additives or preservatives, and when matured, it must have a fat content of 43 percent.”
The process, though strictly regulated, also follows historic traditions closely. The milk is coagulated and the curd cut and left to drain in molds. It is then salted and placed in wooden barrels or tin containers filled with brine. These are transferred to temperature- and humidity-controlled chambers and left for at least two months while the feta ripens and develops its full, distinctive taste and silky texture.
“Tradition is the most important ingredient in feta production,” said Panos Manuelides, founder of Odysea, a Greek food company that has won multiple awards for its range of authentic products. They mainly source from local and family-run enterprises throughout Greece.
“Of course, technology has brought the industry into the 21st century, but aside from that, little has changed,” Manuelides said. “One of our best-selling varieties is a barrel-aged feta from the Roussas Dairy. The family has been making it in the same way since the 1950s. It is dry-salted with Greek sea salt, which helps the bacteria that give the cheese its distinctive, complexity of flavor develop, and then it is matured for at least three months in beech barrels made from trees grown at an altitude of more than 1,500 meters [4,921 feet] in the Epirus mountains.”
The barrels are taken for a walk—in other words, rolled regularly to prevent the cheese from drying out and then, when the day comes to release it, are cracked open with a hammer. “Even this is part of feta’s heritage,” Manuelides said.
All this, and it’s also sustainable. “Collecting milk from goats and sheep is not like cow’s milk production,” Moschotas said. “First, the animals’ needs are paramount. They graze freely in meadows that are rich in biodiversity. More than 160 different plants grow here in our pastures in Epirus, and this variety in herbs and foliage gives feta its flavor.
“Second, production is paused between September and November when the mothers are having their babies and feeding their newborn lambs or kids. Third, there is no waste. The whey is used to make butter, for example.”
While talking, Moschotas had been preparing one feta delicacy after another. First came tyrokafteri, a spicy dip made with feta, yogurt, and chile peppers; then delectable feta and courgette croquettes, served with fig jam; and finally, bobota cheese pie.
“This is my family’s recipe,” he said. “It reminds me of my birthplace, my parents, my grandparents. Whenever I make it for guests, I feel as if I am sharing my own heritage with them.”
Vasilis Moschotas’s Bobota Cheese Pie
Makes one 9-by-13-inch pan
- 3 1/3 cups cornstarch
- 1 cup plus 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1 cup full-fat milk
- 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 3/4 cup Greek yogurt
- 16 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
- 7 ounces Graviera cheese (Gruyère is a good alternative), grated
- 3 eggs
- Pinch of dried oregano
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Put all ingredients into a deep bowl and mix until well combined. Coat a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with olive oil and flour, and then pour in the mixture.
Bake for approximately 30 minutes. Once cooked through, take the pie out of the oven and leave it to cool for 5 minutes before serving.
The writer was a guest of MarBella Elix, part of the MarBella Collection and Olympic Holidays. Half-board at MarBella Elix starts from 121 pounds ($165) per night per room. Olympic Holidays is offering 7 nights’ half-board at the 5-star MarBella Elix from 615 pounds ($843) per person, including flights from London Gatwick Airport, based on 2 guests. For bookings, visit Olympicholidays.com.