For too long, I have been in the dark about feta. When I lived in Astoria, I frequented Greek markets for basic pantry goods, like big tins of deeply green extra virgin olive oil made from Kalamata olives, Greek yogurt, and salted anchovies. I bought feta occasionally, but was always as perplexed as I was enticed by the selection.
Feta is traditionally made by heating sheep's milk and adding rennet (an enzyme that coagulates the milk) to separate the curds, then drained in cloth until firm. The cheese is salted, sliced (feta means "slice"), and brined in large wooden barrels for a few months (which imparts the characteristically salty, almost pickled quality). Non-Greek Americans love feta, but know it simply as the stuff crumbled over Greek salad. But feta has been made for thousands of yearsit allegedly shows up in The Odysseyand is produced in almost every region of Greece, as well as in Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Israel, France, and the US. Passionate debates over the best feta often settle on a Bulgaria-Greece contest.
Considering that Diaspora, it's not surprising that Greek markets often have about ten different fetas displayed. Recently, I picked the brain of Nikos Panos, who manages the deli counter at one of my favorite markets, Titan in Astoria. There were no Bulgarian fetas to be found, and Nikos opined that they used to be better. "Better than Greek?" I asked, knowing this would be a scandalous statement. "No, nobetter than now," he clarified. Goat's milk is a fairly common variation on traditional sheep's milk feta. Extending samples on the edge of his long knife, Nikos offered tastes of a goat's milk variety (feta Gidas) and a delicious blend of sheep and goat (Kalathaki), which was dense but creamy. He explained that sheep's milk has more fat and therefore tastes better, though some people, as he put it, "don't want it, but really, they do."
My favorite of the day, Dodonis, at $6.99 a pound, was also the most expensive. It was sheep's milk and less crumbly than some others, and though salty, it somehow had more of a tangy "cheese" flavor. Nikos' favorite is Arahovaquite salty and crumbly. He told me to drizzle olive oil over it with a pinch of oregano or, in the summer, eat it with watermelon, which is traditional too. I was intrigued. He teased me, saying, "You can put it with something sweet, too, you know."
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