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Few people in the U.S. realize just how great great feta can be--I really do think it's one of the world's top ten or 20 cheeses. That said, the reality is that feta is all too often politely, but firmly, pushed off to the side as sort of a low-class pretender to the upper classes of the cheese world.
It's just this quiet, unspoken bias, a prejudice, some sort of "cheese profiling" that keeps feta out of the realm of classics like Roquefort, English farmhouse cheddar, Parmigiano Reggiano, and Stilton. It's not French, it's not fancy, there's no famous wine pairing for it, it comes in brine instead of surrounded by the romance of a carefully washed natural rind, and you really don't ever see it sold with the elegant labels like the ones that adorn old-style Camembert.
Worse still, the feta field has been cluttered up by substandard copies that come from almost every cheese making country you can imagine. Far more shops have sold feta from France, Denmark, Bulgaria, or North America than they have the Greek original. This issue has gotten a bit of a boost in the last few years. After being copied--usually not very well--all over the world for decades, the name "Feta" is now protected. According to EU law, it must come mostly from sheep's milk and only from Greece.
This is no small thing in Greece. As Diane Kochilas wrote in the New York Times, "If there were a culinary equivalent of the Elgin Marbles for the Greeks, that would surely be their white, tangy national cheese, feta. But unlike the famous carvings from the Parthenon, which Lord Elgin carted off two centuries ago, the country's national cheese was recently returned to Greece by the European Union."
The bottom line? If I had my way, people would start to put feta up there on their lists with all the other greats. It's already, as you can tell, on mine. For what it's worth, too, I can tell you that feta--from the same artisan source we buy from at the Deli--is one of only four non-British or Irish cheeses that they sell at Neal's Yard Dairy in London. So when you next think about the great cheeses of the world, at least give good feta a chance to get to the top.
But there are radical differences from one feta to another. If one stops to think about this, it's probably pretty obvious--what traditional food item (or any product for that matter) can you think of that doesn't appear in the marketplace with a wide variety of quality options? Everyone knows that raw milk farmhouse cheddar is likely to be radically better than some factory version.
But the problem is that, when it comes to feta, there's generally been very little discussion of one brand being different or better tasting than another. Recipes just call for "feta" as if it were some generic, insurance-subsidized drug. My point here is that, in real life, there is a huge, huge range of feta qualities you can choose from. And what you pick is going to have a radical impact on your eating experience. The best fetas, quite simply, taste way, way better! That's all there is to it!
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