The International Intrigue Of Feta

Feta with chopped Kalamata olives, olive oil, and bread

A specific cheese can instantly bring to mind an association: often of a place, region, country or dish. For me Raclette evokes thoughts of the snow-dipped mountains and hearth warmed chalets of Switzerland. Stilton makes me imagine the holiday season in England, with a glass of port to greet guests. And Manchego is as definitive of Spanish cheese as any I can think of, both here in the States and in the tapas spots throughout Spain. Some cheeses even take on, rightly or wrongly, the name of a place of supposed origin: Swiss cheese, not actually Swiss and American cheese, not actually cheese, come immediately to mind.

And so it is with Feta. For many Feta is definitively Greek: white and sharp with the tang of sheep’s milk and touched with residual traces of salt brine. The association is likely strengthened by the fact Feta is so often incorporated into a salad of similarly place named specificity — a Greek salad. My own first memory of Feta is of an outdoor cafe on a Greek isle, sitting at a simple metal table with a view of the Aegean Sea. My college-tour travel budget allowed for simple and inexpensive things and a salad of basic torn lettuce leaves, olives, olive oil, and the white crumbles of tart Feta fit that bill.

Feta clearly rings Greek to me, and to many, but that simple association is being challenged: legally, culturally and economically, in ways that bring Feta’s pedigree into a questioning spotlight like never before.

Chunk of Feta
A chunk of Feta

For all the countless varieties of cheese in the world, cheese itself is made up of easily countable ingredients: milk, cultures, rennet and salt. What makes each cheese distinct is the recipe for creating it: the way it is made and aged, the type or types of milk used and the culture that activates the process of transmogrification from liquid to solid. Each cheese, with only four ingredients, is after all at its root and variance, a recipe.

The influence of local geography can significantly impact the ingredients and the recipes’ end product. Most cheesemakers generally believe cheese has terroir, the unique sense of place, just as wine does. The specific foliage the animals graze on, the weather, the microbiological elements and everything else that influences a place, also influences the products produced there.

 A Product Of Place

Greek Feta is a product of its place. Cheese has always been an historic store of excess milk and the milk used historically was the milk available in the region. It is a simple white cheese made, in its original form, predominantly of sheep’s milk but with a portion of goat’s milk as well. The milk choice traces to the reality of the islands and land, which provide more rock than pasture and conditions generally favorable to sheep but not particularly hospitable to cows. Goats were brought in to help tend the olive trees by eating the bottom branches, which prevents total destruction of the tree during brush fires by eliminating the self-starting kindling-like lower branches.

Today Feta is proudly marked as either sheep, or goat or even cow. While occasionally sold dry, pre crumbled or with herbs added, traditional Feta is stored in a salt-water brine as a natural preservative. While oft forgotten, the brine is meant to be rinsed off before serving, and Feta, which does not melt, is primarily used as a condiment-like additive versus a slicing or melting cheese. Beyond Greek salads, simple salads of diced cucumbers and tomatoes, or freshly roasted beets, amended with Feta and olive oil, make delicious simple and healthy meals or sides.

But while the recipe we know as Feta brings Greece to mind, does Greece in fact own its origins, and should Greece be able to protect, in essence own, the name most associated with the recipe? The recipe known as Cheddar has historic ties to Britain, but since there was never an effort to protect the product’s origin the recipe can be freely made anywhere and the end product can be labeled Cheddar. Other cheeses, of similar recipes, have geographically protected names allowed only to those cheeses produced in their regions, regardless of how similar they are, in order to be protected and tied to their point of origin. Think of Blue cheese of similar appearance and appeal but different cultural origins: Gorgonzola, Stilton, and Roquefort.

Points of geographic origin are logical both from cultural rationale and from the unique terroir the region brings. A cheese’s ties to place of origin, season, and method is no less debatable than the same concept in wine, but when one claims the exclusive title, through claimed origin, the argument becomes a more contentious one.

In the case of Feta there is not a claim that there is a region specific to the product within the country, as a place of origin in the traditional sense historically offered to food products unique to a subregion of a country like the Champagne or Sauternes regions of France or Parmigiano-Reggiano in Italy, but to an entire country because of its strong association with that country. That country being Greece.

PDO Certification

While these cultural and country claims have existed for some time, they have become more pressing of late following Greece’s admission to the EU, in 1981, their adoption of the Euro in 2001 and the EU’s issuance of PDO certification for Feta as a distinctly Greek product in 2002, in a non-contestable ruling.

Contemporary Greek Salad
Contemporary Greek Salad

PDO certification, or “protected designation of origin,” is a politically sanctioned certification of historical origin that, once established, requires only product made in the region certified to be able to carry the product name. According to the European Commission it introduced the concept and process in 1992 “in an attempt to harmonize the protection of food products at EU level and to bring clarity to the market and protect the interests of producers and consumers.” With a centralized EU comprised of previously disharmonious, or even warring, nation-states, the attempt to standardize whom can lay claim to what, food-wise or anything-wise, seems a daunting task.

And it has been just that in the case of Feta. The EU granted PDO status defining Feta as Greek in 2002 only after 16 years of court battles with Germany and Denmark, which wanted to use the name on cheeses produced in the same form in their countries, not due to claims of origin, but for claims of economic harm and historical use of the name.

The more interesting, and more deep-seated and relevant claims, are those that Feta was not born in Greece at all. While Turkey has opinions on this issue, as it seems to have on all things Greek due to their long and acrimonious history, the strongest heritage based claim comes from Bulgaria, which claims to have been the original source of Feta, but Bulgaria did not join the Union until 2007, five years after the then member state Greece received the award.

“A 6,000-Year History”

Greece claims a 6,000-year history with Feta. When referring to Greece’s Feta legacy many, including the World Cheese Book, cite a ”record of cheesemaking in Homer’s Odyssey,” specifically of Homer “seeing Cyclops the giant making ewe’s milk cheese,” a cheese widely believed to be what we now call Feta.

The modern name “Feta means ‘slice’ in Greek,” according to Laura Werlin’s Cheese Essentials. Bulgarians, who are praised for their yogurt and cheese credited to a rare bacteria found only in Bulgaria have a “salty white cheese” known as Sirene locally. The title of Feta is commonly applied to the Bulgarian cheese we occasionally find in the states. Bulgarian Feta is significantly harder to find in the U.S. than Greek, but is generally considered the pinnacle of the product.

Historically this entire region saw many shiftings of borders, with one country invading another and a region populated by some, conquered and named after another; By 1000 BC Thracians had occupied parts of what are now Bulgaria, Romania and Northern Greece, then came the Romans and onward until the Bulgars created the Bulgarian nation in 681. Some find the debate nonsensical as the groups crossed over so much historically, but the EU’s declaration gives sole title to Greece alone.

Feta cubes with olives
Feta cubes with olives

While the EU considers the matter settled for its own nation states, the view externally varies by country, and is often tied to economic interest. In 2013 the EU entered into a trade agreement with Canada that included the protection of the name Feta for only cheese from Greece, though a carve out for producers already making a Feta in Canada as of or before the treaty date was established.

The topic is arising again because the U.S. had not previously recognized the ruling as binding on any U.S. companies, but origin rules are being examined anew as we negotiate the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). The U.S. looks at the naming instance as damaging to our own cheese producers who fear loss of brand identity or difficulty in marketing, all of which can result in economic impact.

When the U.S. finally agreed that Champagne, in order to protect Napa and other U.S.-centric wine naming conventions for our wine-makers, could only be labeled as such if it was made in the Champagne region of France existing marketers of U.S. sparkling wines labeled Champagne were allowed to keep the label. In practice, only low price U.S. producers have maintained the mark, while premium producers have chose to compete on merit alone and eliminated the Champagne designation. Based on the plentitude of quality U.S. sparkling wines with healthy markets it would appear the word alone is not required to succeed. What one would call a Feta that is not from Greece is unclear, though “Feta-like,” a poor alternative, has been bandied about.

There have been debates throughout time over the cultural origins of practices and foods claimed by one nation and disputed by others. In a “winners write the history books style,” it is the vanquished that must challenge the conqueror for the, perceived, rightful title, even if that title is who gets to take credit for the simple white cheese we crumble on our salads. CC

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