Sometimes the Simplest…
Sometimes the simplest treatment is the best.
When I was in my late teens, I had an amazing chance to go on a concert tour in Romania, through Friendship Ambassadors. The goal was to introduce people to different cultures, through young people and music, and we did learn a lot about Romania and its culture.
Though we were, of course, eating hotel food, which is never really home cooking, we found certain standbys. One was mamaliga – a corn dish similar to Italian polenta, served with most meals (where an American restaurant would have the dish of mashed potatoes.) Another, next to the main dish at almost every lunch, was a little plate with slices of tomato and green pepper, and a crumbly salty cheese. Most of us didn’t like the cheese at first, until one of the adult chaperones with the group had the bright idea that, if it was served together, perhaps we should eat it together… and we found that a mouthful of the cheese with the moist sweet vegetable was a wonderful combination. Never did know what the cheese was – just that it was the same in every region of the country… clearly a staple.
Flash forward many years… I was living in a neighborhood with many Egyptians, and stores selling their Eastern Mediterranean foods. I had become friendly with one shopkeeper, because unlike most Americans in the neighborhood, I came in and asked about (and bought) the food – others just bought a soda or some such. So, one day, he offered me a sample of a cheese he thought I’d like. I tried it – and looked at him in surprise.
“I haven’t had this since I was in Romania!”
“That sounds right” he said. “It’s Bulgarian Feta – they eat it with peppers and tomato.”
Yes, they certainly do…
He went on to explain that the Greek feta Americans are used to putting in salads is really a cooking cheese. It’s wonderful in spanakopita and tiropites and many, many other recipes – but that this was the kind properly eaten in salads. It is very crumbly, but moister than the Greek feta, and I do prefer it in salads. (And, though I have moved several times since then, I do again live near a store where I can get it easily and inexpensively.) And I now know that this is a sheep cheese – which matters to people who have issues with the casein in cow’s milk.
Now – since that conversation, the European Union has ruled that only certain cheese made in Greece to certain specifications can be called “feta” – so those readers in the EU will find this as “Bulgarian White cheese” or some such name. The US tends to blithely disregard that… and, indeed, what we usually call feta is made here of cow’s milk, so is no closer to the designation than this is. But here in the US we can find this as Bulgarian Feta, simply a fresh brined sheep’s milk cheese that is as traditional in the Balkans as Greek feta.
Usually I just crumble it on my salad – you’ve seen many pictures of that, without comment. But… it’s August… and I have the first big beautiful green bell pepper, and a fresh, ripe tomato. (And a dinner that needed a bit of a lift, to tell the truth.)
So I pulled out the small plates, and sliced my vegetables and my cheese, and arranged the plates… and told Rich about riding the bus through fields and fields of corn (in the plains) and terrifying mountain curves (in the Carpathians) and along the Danube… Then pulling into a town, having this as part of a quick lunch, rehearsing in the concert hall (every large town had a House of Culture, as they called it,) and singing a concert that night.
Sometimes you can’t get any better than fresh ripe vegetables and good cheese. And a memory of the summer you were 17.