Saving Greece, One Bite at a Time

Real Greek Feta is all sheep milk cheese, smooth and creamy.
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My youthful wanderings landed me on the Greek isle of Hydra, where I spent two glorious months running a pension, a small bed and breakfast in an old sea captain's house with a fig tree in the courtyard. Each day, I would go down to the docks and buy calamari and clean them and serve them to my guests. It was this that gave me my love of the Aegean, and its people and food, though I am not so fond of food with tentacles anymore.

And so it pained me when Greece began falling apart. I thought the days of bad government were over when the generals lost power, but the corruption of the officials I heard about from Greek friends in New York made me wonder if things had gotten worse over the years. The economic crash, the streets filled with people howling over haughty bureaucrats in Brussels, the kids without jobs, all made me wish to do something, though as a cheesemonger in New York, I knew not what.

Then a friend, a chef, sent Pantelis Rapanakis to meet us, and we began a new friendship that I will tell you about. He is a remarkable fellow, and his mission is to save feta cheese, the real feta cheese made of sheep milk in the old style.

But let me digress a moment and tell you about feta. When asked my favorite cheeses, I often demur, as I find I disappoint people with my mundane answers, which are true enough but not 'exotic' enough, by which I mean I love the classics: Parm, Stilton, mozzarella, and so on, and into this group I must include feta.

Some think this ancient cheese traces its roots to the domestication of animals, but at the very least it's been known since Homer's time, described in The Odyssey. But I prefer to think it older yet, when the gods sent Aristaeus, son of Apollo, to teach the Greeks the art of cheesemaking.

The word feta, which means slice, originated in the 17th century, and probably refers to the slicing of cheese to be placed in barrels. The richness of the sheep milk, and the flora the animals eat on in the rocky hillsides of Greece, define terroir, with their briny salty tang. Families have made feta for generations, carefully storing the crumbly blocks in oaken barrels, which themselves impart their unique flavor to the cheese.


But though Greece produces around 70,000 tons of it, the economic collapse has seen the domestic market plummet. There are cheaper, knock-off cheeses (like those made here in the USA from cow's milk, for example), and so the livelihood of those that breed sheep or make the barrels is now threatened after centuries of tradition.

Enter Pantelis, who after his studies at the University of London returned home to Greece, where things were improving as the country was then entering the European Union. In 1982, he and his friend Kostas Tsakmakidis founded a company to bring modern methods to this ancient industry. In 1990, he helped the Greek Ministry of Agriculture register Feta as a protected designation of origin in Europe (PDO), enhancing its impact in the European market. They built whey processing plants and brought Feta into the modern age. And all this time, Pantelis continued to play world-class soccer!

The next step was to re-introduce real Greek Feta to the international market, and this led Pantelis to me at Murray's. We have now begun to help him, and with support from the EU, begun the education and marketing of real Greek Feta in this country. This is all sheep milk cheese, smooth and creamy -- the one you want on your Greek salad, with a slice of watermelon on a hot summer night, or in any number of recipes.

We went to Greece to visit last October to see the feta production first hand in Larissa. We found some great new olive oil and toured the agora (market) in Athens; the olive museum in Sparta; the old olive mills in Crete. We are bringing these foods to New York and to Murray's shops in the more than 100 markets we will have across the country by year end.

In a recent Bloomberg article, Megan Greene wrote that Greece isn't turning the corner. The economy shrank 5.3 percent in the first quarter of this year, and this quarter will be the 20th quarter in a row the economy has shrunk. But there have been some signs of hope, and their credit rating has actually just been raised. But we believe the real solution, be it in Greece or here at home, is to free up the entrepreneurs to do their thing, and that includes making the old -- like Feta cheese -- new again.