Everything is damp at Takis Langas's cheese factory on the cool mountain plateau of Mandinía, deep in the Pelopónnisos region of southern Greece—one of about 800 small, family-run, traditional-style cheese concerns left in the country. The strange, thick, sweet-and-sour smell of fermenting milk permeates the place. Hoses carrying milk and whey snake across the wet cement floors. Salt cracks beneath your feet as you walk around. Balls of myzithra—an air-dried whey cheese made with feta residualswith feta residuals—dangle like Christmas ornaments from the rafters. There are barrels everywhere—empty ones piled in pyramids outside, new ones being washed out with whey, barrels filled with feta at various stages of maturity, barrels deconstructed into tired staves destined for the wood-burning oven that Langas lights once a week to cook his famed roast pork "for the boys".
Feta, the definitive Greek cheese, salty and sourish and earthy, is descended from the soft, tart goat's-milk cheeses that have been known in the Balkans, and especially in Greece and Bulgaria, forever. The Greek word feta means "slice"—the form in which the cheese is customarily served. It is not an old name; it was probably coined by a market-savvy cheese-monger or producer around the turn of the century.
Greek law decrees that feta must be made from at least 70 percent ewe's milk and up to 30 percent goat's milk. Each animal produces one to three kilos of milk per day; it takes at least four kilos to make a kilo of cheese. The more goat's milk in the mix, the firmer the cheese will be. (Bulgarian feta is traditionally made with about the same ratio of ewe's milk to goat's milk, but cow's milk is sometimes added today because the country faces an overall milk shortage.)
Feta of one kind or another is made in many European countries and in North America. Bulgarian feta can be excellent—though it is quite sour and tangy because of the local yeast used as a starter. There are also good ones from Sardinia (a Greek-style, barrel-aged version), where many of the cheesemakers are expatriate Greeks, and from France—a wonderful, creamy feta made, ironically, in Roquefort. The Danes, the Dutch, and the Germans make generally dismal versions of feta, mostly from cow's milk; these are typically chalky, and squeaky in the mouth. American and Canadian feta is usually sold at half the price of the rest—and with good reason. Non-Greek European feta is about to become a thing of the past, though—at least by that name. According to a recent European Economic Community ruling, after July 21, 2001, no member nation will be able to sell white brine cheese—either inside the European Community or anywhere else—as feta. Names like "white cheese" or "white brine cheese" (or their equivalents in the local language) are suggested alternatives—though the marketing departments of the major European cheese producers will doubtless come up with more evocative terminology.
According to Eric Moscahlaidis, the president of Krinos Foods, the largest importer of Greek food products in America, feta is the fastest-growing specialty cheese in the United States. It was first imported to this country in the 1930s, but for years it was sold only in ethnic markets. Exports from Greece stopped during World War II and the ensuing Greek Civil War. During the latter conflict, says John Moscahlaidis—Eric's father—who founded Krinos Foods in 1956, many Greek cheesemakers moved to Sardinia "because that's where they found sheep." A few entrepreneurs even tried producing fetalike cheeses in the U.S.—one marketed under the very weird name Cream-O-Gal. The elder Moscahlaidis credits the award-winning 1964 film Zorba the Greek and the marriage of Jacqueline Kennedy to Aristotle Onassis with spurring American interest in Greek foods—feta included. The many Greek-owned coffee shops and diners along the eastern seaboard helped, too. Today, with the American mania for all things Mediterranean, it's only natural that the cheese (which, incidentally, is lower in fat than most other firm cheeses) should be more popular than ever.
he Langas factory turns out about 250 tons of handmade feta each year, between December and the end of June. Production is supervised by a wiry Ionian named Gerasimos Theodoratos, who learned the cheesemaker's craft from his father and grandfather on his native island of Cephalonia—long famous for its cheeses—then made feta in the U.S., Canada, and Sardinia for decades before returning to Greece.