You all know the expression in English ‘as different as chalk and cheese’ – I’d reckon it must have been dreamed up to describe Feta cheese. Most Feta on sale is one-dimensional, chalky, overly saline and utterly pointless. The original barrel-aged Feta, hailing from Crete in the Ancient World, is ‘cheese’ – rich, creamy, textured and complex like an artisan’s cheese should be.
En-passent, I recall how I helped to introduce Barrel-aged Feta to the British-only cheese sellers, Neal’s Yard Dairy, back in the late 90s. I did this as a favour for one Sotiris Kitrilakis, a food historian and sourcer from Thesaloniki who we’d befriended at the Oxford Food Symposium through an introduction by Greek specialist and food writer, Rosie Barron. Rosie came to food through her first love, archaeology, realising how much food remains in digs can tell us about our ancient ancestors.
Not one penny, drachma nor dime changed hands and Neal’s Yard told me only a few weeks back how, +12 years on, they are still making good trade with their Barrel-aged Feta from the Peloponnese. Other stockists of this very special cheese are Turkish, Cypriot, Lebanese and Middle Eastern food stores like one of my real favourites, Green Valley, off the Edgware Road and 2 minutes on foot from Marble Arch. Their butchers smile and joke a lot and sell every part of the animal – I mean every part too.
Feta is an ancient food. Made with either sheep or goat’s milk, or a mix of both – really whatever the cheese-makers can access on the island of Crete. Cow’s milk would unlikely ever be available as there is insufficient grazing for such larger, cud-chewing beasts.
When you hear people refer to the Mediterranean Diet, they should actually be saying Cretan Diet – and they’d still be wrong, because neither would be a diet. They are a lifestyle that encourages good health and long life. Beware of any food brand selling you a product with Mediterranean Diet overtones - there’s no silver bullet to this Avalon.
The cheese, as I remember from Sotiris, is made from freshly gathered milk heated to no more than 36ºC – the curds are drained and cut. I simplify here. Then the young ‘cheese’ is placed in barrels topped up with brine. the barrels are sealed and left in a cool place – caves mostly – for a full 100 days.
There’s no looking into the barrels as they’re sealed completely tight and shut. Sometimes they break open the barrel at term and it’s full of mush – useless dairy waste, too salty for even their hungriest pigs and chickens. This makes it risky and is reflected in the price.
Barrel-aged Feta should be kept in the brine until you come along and buy a piece. Ask for a taste first to be certain this one’s to your liking. Buying from the barrel is best, but a Feta that claims barrel-ageing and carries the official PDOyellow/red EU roundel on the pack should also be a good no 2 option (just not as good as the former).
Feta is best eaten as part of a dish. We recently made a salad, inspired by Elizabeth Minchilli, a food writer based in Rome (http://wwwelizabethminchilliinrome.com/).
Farro, fresh mint leaves, fresh and unwaxed lemons and EV olive oil, stirred through with sweet, new season tiny tomatoes from Sicily and lastly strewn with broken morsels of the special Feta.
Farro, as I’ve already covered, was the grain that fed the marching Roman army – grains have been found on digs amidst Roman remains as far north as the Scottish borders. It’s an ancient wheat variety much like, but different to, spelt. Best to source yours in an Italian salumeria or fine food shop. Only ever buy Italian, unless someone convinces you otherwise. You’ll find bags of Farro alongside Fregola, Orzo and dried pulses on the bottom shelf - as if to make the point that this food is healthy, so bending down to take a bag is never a problem regardless of Date of Birth.
Faro is best washed through and left to soak for 3-4 hours – some say overnight, but for me that’s far too long. The soaked grains are then cooked in plain water – into cold, brought up to boil, then ‘frightened’ three times with just enough cold water to take it off the boil – then left to simmer gently for around 20 minutes. Check as you go to make certain it’s to your taste – al-dente takes 15 minutes, cooked through needs 20-25 – more minutes means mush. If in doubt, opt for al-dente everytime is my advice.
Drain and rinse in cold water to arrest a second’s more cooking. Drain again and leave to cool, dressed with a good splash of EV olive oil.
Next peel the skin (not pith) of the lemon – 4-5 pieces – slice and dice to the size of a Farro grain. Stir through. Squeeze the lemon – please buy the best you can find – Sicilian are around now , more expensive, but the prettier, better and tastier for that. Shiny, thick skinned supermarket lemons are as useful as chocolate teapot in the kitchen of the real cook.
Keep up the pace now, so next take the top leaves off the mint – again, best always to buy this from a Middle Eastern shop or street market and avoid the mint in a sealed plastic bag as found in the supermarket. Chop coarsely and stir through the Farro. Taste – adding more oil or lemon juice to taste. You’ll be unlikely to want salt.
Finally the best bit, that’s when you crumble the Feta in mouth sized, rough edged pieces – resist any temptation to even think of using a knife for that will quite ruin for ever the mouth feel of the cheese and the salad. Another tip is to always buy a third more than you think you need. Good barrel-aged Feta is a treat to be celebrated and it can take some hunting down.
Fresh, ancient and special – you feel it’s doing you good as you savour each mouthful. That’s the Minchilli Farro, Mint & Feta Salad. I found Elizabeth via friends on Facebook and like her approach to real food of her adopted country. I also learned in writing this, from an other friend-in-food I know in Rome, that Elizabeth had much to do with ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ which is partly set in Italy as we know.
Farro keeps for a good few days in the ‘fridge and is good added to just about any salad preparation. If it’s your first time with Farro, you’re sure to find its nutty taste pleasantly haunting – you might even dream about Ancient Rome tonight. Like I said, served like this, the full cream Feta won’t ever make you fatter – when did you ever see a corpulent Legionnaire or original Cretan islander?