Feta: A Concise History
Updated: May 16, 2020
Photo courtesy of The Olive and the Sea
To know more about feta you have to travel back millennia to its modern-day home, Greece. Tangy and creamy feta cheese is ubiquitous in Greece and has been a significant dairy product since at least Homeric times. Homer’s epic, The Odyssey, recounts Odysseus’ encounter with the cyclops Polyphemus. A visit to his cave revealed that the shepherd cyclops was a prolific cheesemaker:
“His cheese-racks were loaded with cheeses, and he had more lambs and kids than his pens could hold. They were kept in separate flocks; first there were the hoggets, then the oldest of the younger lambs and lastly the very young ones all kept apart from one another; as for his dairy, all the vessels, bowls, and milk pails into which he milked, were swimming with whey.”
While no specific reference to the term “feta” is mentioned in Homer’s epic, as the term itself came much later, it is widely accepted that the sheep’s cheeses referenced in The Odyssey were an antecedent to the feta cheese produced and enjoyed today. Odysseus’ descriptions of the vessels used and the technology employed for cheesemaking are similar to what Greek shepherds have used to produce feta cheese for centuries. In Byzantine times, the term used for feta cheese was prosfatos (πρόσφατος), meaning, simply, “cheese”. The Greek term “feta” (φέτα) came in the 17th century from the Italian word fetta, meaning “slice”. This is thought to be in reference to the manner in which feta was cut into slices from the barrel in which it had been aged and stored. Parts of Greece were under Venetian rule from the mid-14th until the 18th century, and though the vast majority of Greece was under Ottoman rule at this time, Italian influence was prevalent in the Venetian-controlled Ionian Islands and beyond.
Today, in any given year, Greeks are among the leaders in total per capita cheese consumption, and the lion’s share of that cheese is feta. Greeks, in fact, consume upwards of 85 percent of the total amount of feta cheese consumed in all of the European Union in any given year. Feta is not only a necessary ingredient for many traditional Greek dishes – from tyropites (cheese pies) to the celebrated Greek salad – it is often served at the table alongside the main meal. Moreover, with many Greek dishes being vegetarian and over 180 fasting days in the Greek Orthodox calendar, where the consumption of meat is prohibited, feta cheese also takes the place of meat in many vegetable-based dishes.