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The Ancient Greek Roots of Feta, The Oldest Cheese in Recorded History

feta cheese ancient Greece
Credit: Pixabay/DanaTentis

Feta is the soft white “king” of Greek cheeses, renowned around the world. Its origins can be traced back to ancient times as the first mention of the famous cheese is as old as Homer’s Odyssey. In fact, it’s the oldest cheese in recorded history.

When Odysseus and his men enter the cave of Polyphemus, the Cyclops, the first thing they notice is the smell and sight of the rich, white cheese made with goat and sheep’s milk in brine:

“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,” Homer wrote.

According to myth, the Cyclops Polyphemus created the cheese which was later to be dubbed feta purely by accident.

He had been transporting the rich milk that he had collected from his sheep in leather bags made of animal stomachs when one day he realized that the milk had curdled.

The origin of feta cheese is indisputably Greek

It had taken on a solid form that was not only tasty but, most importantly, was conservable for some time. Given that the Odyssey was written in the eighth century BC, the origin of feta must be seen as indisputably Greek.

The ancient Greeks called the product which came from the coagulation of milk “τυρí,” meaning “cheese.”

Feta cheese is first mentioned during Byzantine times and was called ‘prosphatos’ (meaning recent or fresh) and associated with Crete.

Pietro Casola, an Italian traveler visiting Heraklion in Crete in 1494, distinctly described the production and storage of feta in brine.

However, it was in the 17th century that Greeks started using the name ‘feta’ (literally meaning slice), which may refer to the practice of slicing up cheese to be stored in containers or cutting it into thin slices to be served.

The name feta came into widespread use in the nineteenth century. Ever since, it has characterized this tangy cheese that has been prepared for centuries using the same general method and whose origin dates back to the earliest days of human habitation in Greece.

Feta gets “Protected Designation of Origin” (PDO) status

Greece applied way back in 1994 for the European Union’s coveted “Protected Designation of Origin” (PDO) status for one of its national treasures.

It was argued by several other European nations that feta was simply derived from the Italian word “feta,” meaning “slice,” and that the product was a generic term for any sheep or goat’s milk cheese that could be produced just about anywhere.

After years of debate about its origin with other European Union states, such as Germany, France, Denmark, and the UK, Greece finally won its fight for PDO status for feta cheese in 2005.

Not only is feta now recognized as the ultimate Greek cheese, but we can also discover that its roots actually stretch all the way back into antiquity.


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