Feta, the soft white “king” of Greek cheeses, is renowned worldwide for its exceptional quality. Its origins can be traced back to ancient times, with the first mention of this famous cheese dating back to Homer’s Odyssey. In fact, feta holds the distinction of being the oldest recorded cheese in history.
Legend has it that when Odysseus and his men entered the cave of Polyphemus, the Cyclops, they were immediately captivated by the aroma and appearance of the rich, white cheese made from goat and sheep’s milk soaked 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 accidentally stumbled upon the creation of feta. While transporting the milk he had collected from his sheep in leather bags made from animal stomachs, he discovered that the milk had curdled, transforming into a solid form that was not only delicious but also had a remarkable shelf life. Considering that the Odyssey was written in the eighth century BC, the indisputable Greek origin of feta becomes evident. The ancient Greeks referred to this product, resulting from the coagulation of milk, as “τυρí,” meaning “cheese.”
During Byzantine times, feta cheese was first mentioned and was known as “prosphatos,” meaning recent or fresh, and was closely associated with the island of Crete. In 1494, Pietro Casola, an Italian traveler visiting Heraklion in Crete, provided a vivid description of the production and storage of feta in brine. However, it was not until the 17th century that Greeks began using the name “feta,” which literally translates to “slice.” This name may have originated from the practice of slicing the cheese for storage or serving it in thin slices. The name “feta” gained widespread usage in the nineteenth century and has since become synonymous with this tangy cheese. For centuries, feta has been prepared using the same traditional method, dating back to the earliest days of human habitation in Greece.