The first mention in the historical record of cheese aged in brine, known today as “feta”, is in Homer’s Odyssey. In one of their first adventures after sacking Troy, Odysseus and his men find themselves on the island home of Polyphemus, the cyclops son of Poseidon. The Mycenaean travelers notice that they aren’t in some typical monster’s lair. Rather, it’s clear the cyclops is a dairy farmer and cheesemonger, and lives in a full blown cheese cave.
“We entered the cave, but he wasn’t there, only his plump sheep grazed in the meadow. The woven baskets were full of cheese, the folds were full of sheep and goats and all his pots, tubs and churns where he drew the milk, were full of whey. When half of the snow-white milk curdled he collected it put it in the woven baskets and kept the other half in a tub to drink for his supper.”
So while the threat of being devoured remained a threat for Odysseus and his men, Polyphemus is at least civilized enough to pair human flesh with finely brined feta cheese.
Making our own just like it is really an easy process, it just takes several days.
Homemade Feta Cheese
2 qts. goat milk, fresh or non-homogenized (very important)
1/2 cup greek yogurt or sour cream
1/4 teaspoon liquid vegetable or animal rennet
This is a goat or sheep milk cheese, and only milk that isn’t ultra pasteurized will work. Rennet is the same enzyme found in many animal stomachs, whose use as a container for milk is almost certainly the original pathway to human cheesemaking. This recipe uses liquid rennet, but if use the dry tablet version too. Substitute 1/4 of the tablet, cut off with a knife.
Start by culturing the milk. In a bowl, whisk the Greek Yogurt until thinner and more liquefied. In a large stockpot, heat the milk gently over low heat to 86F. Ladle a few cups into the yogurt slowly, while whisking, to combine. Add the liquid yogurt back to the pot and mix thoroughly with the rest of the milk.
Now cover the pot, and let the mixture culture for 2 hours.
When that time is almost up, dissolve the rennet in about 1/4 cup of room temperature water. This helps distribute it evenly. Stir the rennet/water mix into the milk with a slotted spoon to thoroughly combine. The pot should have maintained its temperature of 86F, but if at any point in this process you drop below that, use a very gentle low heat to bring it back up to temp.
Cover the pot again, and let culture for 1 more hour. Until the milk has curdled and separated from the liquid whey. When you tilt the pan lightly, the milk solid should stay roughly in place.
Now you cut the curds. Using a knife that can reach the bottom of the pan, slice lines 1 inch apart down the length of the curds, then repeat the process going 90 degrees the other way, cutting into a grid shape.
Now you stir those curds gently, for about 15 minutes, making sure to maintain the temperature. When 15 minutes have elapsed, ladle the curds into a double layer of cheesecloth over a strainer, making sure to reserve the liqiud whey.
Wash out the stockpot, and when most of the liquid has drained from the curds, tie the cheesecloth to a wooden spoon, hanging over the pot. Let drain at room temperature for 6-8 hours or overnight.
After that, you remove the cheese from the cloth, but it’s still not done. Cut the curd into thick slices, and set in a baking dish. Sprinkle both sides liberally with salt, and let drain at room temperature for 24 hours.
The next day, add 2 tablespoons of coarse salt to the reserved whey to make a brine. Pour over the cheese slices to cover, and let brine in the fridge or a cooler place for another 24 hours.
Now all the work is done. You could eat your cheese now, but you’re much better off waiting a bit longer to get the right aged flavor of feta. Remove it from the whey and set in a dry dish in the fridge, covered for 4 days.
And now, you have feta. Same as the cyclops made and ate, at least until those Mycenaean jerks poked his eye out. This cruel breach of hospitality norms cost Odysseus another decade lost at sea,and set back artisan cheese making in Ancient Greece generations.*
Look out soon for some great recipes on what to do with this stuff, including marinated cheese and fried cheese (saganaki!)