What doesn’t it go with?
Once you start thinking about all the foods that marry merrily with fetta cheese, what you end up with is a long list. For an ingredient whose entry into contemporary cuisine was slow and subtle – and unlike other foods such as rocket, moghrabieh and beef cheeks bereft of faddishness – it is extraordinarily versatile.
And yet probably only in the past few decades, even less, has it begun to stud menus and recipes. Produced in Greece since ancient times, with some sources claiming it was even the earliest cheese known, it was traditionally made with sheep or goat milk. Now it it is commonly concocted from cow milk all around the world, with many countries claiming their interpretations are superior – Bulgaria and Denmark being glaring examples. In fact Australia is one of the few countries allowed to continue calling the salty white cheese made outside Greece fetta ever since; in 2002, the European Commission granted Greek fetta PDO, Protected Designation of Origin, denoting that not only does it come from Greece but also that its production has complied with strict guidelines, including the provenance of the milk. Within the EU the cheese is re- marketed under a different name; the Danish product, for example, is called Apetina.
Essentially – and regardless of whence it derives – it is a brined curd cheese, a white crumbly compact cheese which comes in blocks. It can be soft or semi-hard and its flavour is tangy and salty, the latter due to the fact it is cured in a brine solution for several months. Curdled milk with rennet is separated and left to drain in a special mould or a cloth bag then later cut to large slices, salted and packed in barrels filled with brine. Explaining why sometimes it is referred to as pickled cheese. The actual word fetta comes from the Italian word meaning slice, dating back to the 17th century when Greece was under Venetian influence.
Most people are unconcerned as to what is authentically fetta and what is not; like artwork, it comes down to a matter of I know what I like, the unspoken ‘and to hell with your opinion’ floating on the air. I personally find some traditional Greek fettas too intensely sharp and hard and have long been a fan of the phoney Danish stuff – which, incidentally, is also the cheapest. I love the way Danish fetta melts lushly into the final turns of a wooden spoon through hot, drained, tomatoey pasta; becomes a salty cream for a panful of thyme-fragrant roasted mushrooms; slides pinkly down the sides of baked baby beets; collapses happily into wilted garlicky spinach to fill the buttered filo layers of a spanakopita. I use fetta cheese constantly, be it as a cautious crumble over a skillet of prawns simmering in tomato sauce or as the final creamy flourish to a lemony lamb roast. Fetta cheese endows dishes with a salty sort of sexiness which means you can dispense with condiments such as, well, salt, as well as dairy. Pumpkin roasted oozey with fetta and maybe some nuts tossed in for crunch – macadamias, walnuts – there’s another thought. And while you might never see fetta offered on a cheeseboard, or hear someone profess that it is their favourite cheese, fetta is a foodstuff you should, unless dairy-intolerant, keep a sturdy supply of. It lasts endlessly, its uses are endless, and it is never expensive. Not even the genuine (hand-crafted-by-Greek-shepherds) article.