Reading the Fridge Classics: Feta
Guaranteed to improve almost any meal, feta rescues salads from penitential joylessness, makes roasted vegetables sexy, and is a great match for pastry. Like goat’s cheese, its saltiness is a splendid foil for natural sugars, from sun-ripened tomatoes to balsamic vinegar or peaches. Roasted figs with feta ice cream is a dish I haven’t made yet, but fully intend to.
The Greek word feta is derived from the Italian one for slice, ‘fetta’. Made from goat's or sheep’s milk, its history is nearly as ancient as its native country's. Feta – or an early version of it – is first recorded in Byzantine times as prósphatos, meaning 'recent' or ‘fresh’, and makes its literary debut in Homer’s Odyssey (composed in 8BC), in the Sicilian cave of the cyclops Polyphemus, a shepherd and cheesemaker.
In The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker’s retelling of Homer’s Iliad from the perspective of Achilles’ slave girl, Briseis describes preparing ‘bread and olives and a crumbly white goat’s cheese that they used to make in Lyrnessus. The smell always took me back to my childhood. It had been my mother’s favourite; she used to eat it with some of the small, hard apricots that grew on a tree behind our house.’
Meanwhile in Madeline Miller’s reimagining of the life of the mythological witch Circe, the lone sorceress offers hospitality to successive ships of weary sailors who land on her island – ‘I led them to my tables, then hurried to the kitchen to bring out heaping platters of stewed figs and roasted fish, brined cheese and bread' – but soon learns not to trust them, and uses witchcraft to protect herself.
Feta also crops up in John Fowles’ postmodern masterpiece The Magus (1965), set on a remote Greek island inspired by the author’s experiences on Spetses: ‘We had lunch, a simple Greek meal of goat’s-milk cheese and green pepper salad with eggs, under the colonnade. The cicadas rasped in the surrounding pines, the heat hammered down outside the cool arches.’
In Louis de Bernières’ modern classic Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, set on the Ionian island of Cephalonia during the Italian-German Second World War occupation, it features in an evocative depiction of village life: ‘Outside, the pilgrims unloaded animals laden with feta, melons, cooked fowl and Cephallonian meat pie, shared it with their neighbours, and composed epigrammatic couplets at each others’ expense.’
These snapshots encapsulate feta's redolence – of simple summer lunches eaten amongst olive groves, feta-salted tongue echoing sea-salted skin. Although it’s a perennial kitchen staple that I rely on to spruce up lazy cooking (a godsend in lockdown), for me it will always carry that whiff of carefree island summers.
My favourite ways with feta:
Roasted peppers, aubergines and courgettes with couscous, crumbled feta, toasted pine nuts and torn mint, drizzled with tahini and lemon juice
Classic Greek salad: with tomato, cucumber and Kalamata olives
Scrambled eggs with crumbled feta and herbs, avocado and sourdough
Omelette of spring onion, red pepper, spinach and feta – a healthy breakfast or lunch
Crumbled over a rich Mediterranean lamb stew with aubergines, tomatoes, courgettes, olives and oregano
Oven-baked in foil with chilli and oregano – a decadent lunch with crusty bread and tomato salad
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