Every time I visit Athens I come away with a renewed appreciation for the contributions of the ancient Greeks to human civilization. No, I'm not talking about democracy, the theater or even the Olympics. I'm talking about feta cheese.
To me, feta cheese -- sometimes referred to as the princess of cheeses -- is every bit as admirable as any other Greek invention, and it is surely just as ancient. It is likely as old as Greece itself. In his epic work, "The Odyssey," written thousands of years ago, Homer identifies perhaps the first known cheese maker in history, the cave-dwelling Cyclops Polyphemus, who satisfied his voracious appetite by making cheese from sheep's milk. The process he describes is much the same as that still used by Greeks today to make feta cheese.
In fact, the ancient Greeks considered cheese to be one of the foods of the gods, given as a gift to mere mortals when the son of Apollo, was sent down from Mount Olympus to teach the Greeks the art of cheese making.
Ever since, cheese -- especially feta cheese, has been the heart and soul of Greek gastronomy. Often a slab of feta served with a little olive oil and some oregano is the first food brought to the Greek table at meal time. In fact, for the Greeks, cheese has a place at almost any meal and at any time of day. Unlike the French who think of cheese as dessert or the Italians who regard it as an appetizer, the Greeks consider cheese a central, not a supplementary, part of a meal.
Now it is true that feta cheese does not approach the complexity of the great cheeses of France and Italy. But its simplicity is part of its attraction.
No wonder, then, that Greece waged a 16-year battle in the European Court of Justice to obtain protected status for the name feta. They were successful. Though other countries have their imitations, only cheese made in Greece can be legally labeled feta.
The Greek salad or horiatiki salata ranks right up there with the Nicoise, the Caesar and the Cobb as a culinary masterpiece even though in Greece it's known as a peasant salad. Recipes vary, but feta cheese, of course, is an indispensable ingredient. Though some unscrupulous tavernas, even in Athens, will try to pad the salad with cheap lettuce, an authentic version contains none, as in this recipe adapted from Gourmet magazine. This is the way they make the salad on the Greek island of Crete, which just last month set the record for the world's largest Greek salad, containing more than 1,700 pounds of feta.
1/2 green bell pepper, sliced
1/4 cucumber, sliced
1/2 small red onion, sliced
2 tomatoes, cut in wedges
1/3 cup pitted Kalamata olives
2 teaspoons finely chopped oregano
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 ounces feta cheese
Toss together all ingredients except feta cheese. Season with salt and pepper. Divide salad among four plates. Cut feta into four slices and place a slab atop each salad portion.