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Feting Feta Any Way You Slice Or Crumble It, This Brined Cheese Shines

ATHENS -- The Greeks eat more cheese than any other people in Europe, and feta streaks way ahead as their favorite kind. As Panos Leontaritsis of the Fage dairy here explains, ``For us Greeks, feta cheese does not supplement food; it is food.''

Indeed, feta appears at almost every meal. Cooks mix it with spinach to make the classic spanakopita, and with leeks, chard, and other vegetables to make a seemingly endless array of other pies. They combine it with herbs to make cheese bread, and with cheeses to make fritters, and with eggs and vegetables to make omelettes. They stir it into dishes of baked pasta and sprinkle it on platters of grilled vegetables. One of the many appetizers that precede dinner is invariably a chunk of feta. Another may be a dish of shrimp with tomatoes and feta or a plate of small phyllo turnovers or rolls filled with mint- or dill-flavored feta. The traditional topping for the favorite tomato, cucumber, and olive salad is a thick slice of feta and a golden drizzle of olive oil.

Slicing is an important characteristic of feta, which gets its name from the Greek word for slice. But unlike other firm slicing cheese, feta also crumbles readily, so it is easy to toss into a salad or work into a bread dough or mix into a sauce. This versatility makes it a useful kitchen standby, and so though the Greeks and other Balkan countries have been making it for at least 2,000 years, nowadays France, Denmark, Israel, and the United States also make large amounts. Often they use cow's milk. Some Greek feta is also made from cow's milk, but this gets serious cheese aficionados very mad indeed. Leontaritsis explains, ``Feta should be made from sheep's milk or sheep's milk mixed with goat milk. If you use cow's milk, you don't get the right texture, and the cheese is yellow, so then you have to add decoloring chemicals to make it white.'' He is delighted at recently developed ``protected designation of origin'' standards for feta. ``These are similar to those used for wine. These standards, which apply to the European Union, say feta must come from milk produced in Greek mountain areas where feta has traditionally been made, and the animals must graze on local plants. And, of course, the cheese must mature in brine.''

Storing the cheese in brine has a crucial impact on the flavor and texture. The practice goes back centuries. Historically feta was made by farmers using the simplest of techniques. They poured the milk into leather pouches and left it until the curds separated from the whey. They pressed the curds into cheese in baskets. Then they salted the whey and left the cheeses to develop in it. This matured the cheese, and preserved it -- a necessity in the torrid Greek climate. Some remote farms still make feta this way, often creating cheeses with distinctive local flavors. However, dairies now produce the bulk of the 100,000 metric tons of feta that Greeks eat every year. Though dairies have modern stainless steel tanks and refrigerating equipment, they still brine their cheese for two months so it can achieve its characteristic salty taste and acid tang.

Greeks emphasize the long heritage of Greek cheese-making. As early as 1184 BC Homer mentioned cheese being made in baskets. A millennium later the Roman author Pliny reported on the excellence of Greek sheep-milk cheese. Eventually, feta made its way to America with Greek emigrants. It's now widely available in supermarkets and delis. Most brands in plastic packages are made from cow's milk, but authentic Greek sheep's milk feta is also available. Bread & Circus markets it under its own label. It also stocks a French sheep milk feta called Valbreso, as well as goat milk fetas from France and Israel.

Here are some feta recipes.

By Claire Hopley, Globe Correspondent
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