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The Cheese that Launched a (Trade) War

Has there ever been a cheese more controversial than Feta?
Whole websites are devoted to its cause, each espousing a different Feta philosophy. Board postings on some of these sites can get nasty; ethnic epithets can fly. And Feta is the only cheese to have spawned a vicious international legal battle, one that lasted for over a decade.

Some might wonder what all the fuss is about. After all, isn’t Feta a pretty innocuous and uncomplicated cheese?
In truth, it is not -- though most of the world’s consumers may be forgiven for believing so. This is because feta has come to mean just about any sliceable, slightly salty, white cheese.

Authentic Feta
Just as Stilton, Maytag and Roquefort all belong to the blue cheese family, Feta belongs to a family of cheeses made since antiquity by nomadic shepherds. The Cyclops Polyphemus, one of the earliest gods, was credited with the invention of this family. Homer sung of its production in his "Odyssey". As within the blue family there are flavor, consistency and other differences, so are there differences in the shepherd’s cheese family. This family includes such cheeses as Bulgarian Sirene and Turkish Teleme, both often mislabeled as Feta.

This mislabeling is the source of much bitterness, as evidenced in the aforementioned Internet sites and posts. In these you will find Bulgarians, Macedonians, Greeks, Hungarians and Turks all arguing, unpleasantly, about which "feta" is better. I have no opinion; cheeses from these countries are all different – and only one of them is Feta.

Authentic Feta is quite distinct. It is made primarily from sheep’s milk. Varying amounts of goats’ milk may be added, as long as this milk makes up less than 30% of the total mixture. There are different kinds of Fetas, ranging from dry and fairly brittle all the way to creamy and almost spreadable. These variations are a function of the amount of goats’ milk added as well as the culture used and the methods employed in the early curing phases.

The early curing phase is an especially complex matter. In it, the cheese maker’s skill plays a very important role. Temperature, humidity, rate of drainage of the whey all have important influence on texture as well as flavor. Far from being simple to produce, authentic Feta is an artisan cheese.
(To understand just how artisan, see the following section "Feta Alchemy".)

Feta is never, ever, under any circumstances made from cows’ milk.Not ever. It is true that otherwise reliable periodicals, newspapers and web sites, such as Specialty Food Magazine, the Washington Times, and Wikipedia claim that Feta can be made from cows’ milk. They are wrong. It’s a shepherd’s cheese, not a cowherd’s cheese.

The reason that many claim that Feta can be made from cows’ milk is due, I believe, to a campaign of misinformation. Feta is a well-known name. Well-known names are easier to sell, and the desire for sales by companies and the countries in which they operate is what engendered the Feta war.

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