Exploring the Potential of Feta

Vassilis Roussas , a cheesemaker in the region of Almyros in northern Greece. He's translated his passion and commitment to preserving traditional techniques into some really incredibly good feta. Vassilis' cheese meets all of the criteria for what great feta should be:

It's mostly sheep's milk. While you can produce a feta-style cheese out of cow's milk--every mass-market cheese distributor in this country sells one--making feta from cow's milk is like making fried chicken from pork. While fried pork might be very good in its own right, they're just two different things. The best fetas are made mostly or completely from sheep's milk, along with the addition of a moderately small proportion of goat.

The percentages will vary a bit through the course of the year, but right now the feta we're looking at is about 80 percent sheep's milk, 20 percent goat. Sheep's milk is the most costly of the three major cheesemaking milks, and the primary contributor to feta's character and flavor. It's by far the richest of the three; used for feta, it translates into a much softer cheese with a great creaminess that basically melts on your tongue as you eat it. You can spot it visually by looking for its pale white color. By contrast, cow's milk (which has much more beta carotene) will yield a yellower feta, which can only actually be white if it's been bleached. Feta made from cow's milk has a totally different (almost hard) texture and a very different flavor that's usually overly tart, and it can be quite salty.

The sheep graze in the open. While the food world is talking a lot of late about grass-fed beef these days, there's a lot to be said for cheese made from the milk of pasture-fed animals. The sheep that contribute milk to Vassilis' feta graze in the open pastures in the mountains near Almyros. Open-air grazing consistently seems to yield (there are exceptions) more flavorful milk and more complexly flavored cheeses. The same approach contributes to the wonderful flavor of so many of our cheeses, like the mountain Gruyere aged for us by Rolf Beeler in Switzerland; the wonderful Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese from Wisconsin; our organic farmhouse Parmigiano-Reggiano from the hills outside of Modena, and many others.

It's barrel-aged, and it tastes better. What do bourbon, balsamic, and feta have in common? The best of them are all barrel-aged. Different woods, different flavors, same idea. Barrel-aging allows for natural maturing of what's inside. Air moves, if slowly, and flavors concentrate and mellow over time. While a pound of aged bourbon goes for about $20 to $80, and the same volume of the best traditionally made balsamic sells for the hard-to-get-one's-mind-around $1,000, you can still get a pound of barrel-aged feta for a mere $15.

Unfortunately, about 99 percent of all feta that comes to the U.S. --even from Greece--is aged in tins these days. But the traditional, and best, maturing is done in birchwood barrels. The barrels allow the cheese to breathe during the aging, enhancing the flavor and contributing a wonderful balance and complexity. And, although hardly anyone knows it (though you do now), better feta should be matured for a good six to nine months before it's made available for sale.

Proper aging like this allows the feta to undergo a "secondary fermentation" making a creamier and more complexly-flavored cheese. Visually you can see the signs that the secondary fermentation has taken place; a well-made feta should have a series of small eyes or holes speckled throughout. Every time I eat it I'm impressed anew with how nicely balanced it is--never salty, really rich, with a really long and pleasantly savory finish.

Can you really taste the difference? Of course you can! Compare a typical supermarket feta made from cow's milk to the artisan barrel aged sheep's milk stuff we're getting from Vasili Roussas and you'll taste the difference without even trying.

NEXT : How to make feta an everyday eating experience 1 2 3

Presented by

Ari Weinzweig is co-founder of Zingerman's Community of Businesses, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is also the author of Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating. More

After graduating from University of Michigan with a degree in Russian history, Ari Weinzweig went to work washing dishes in a local restaurant and soon discovered that he loved the food business. Along with his partner Paul Saginaw, Ari started Zingerman's Delicatessen in 1982 with a $20,000 bank loan, a staff of two, a small selection of great-tasting specialty foods, and a relatively short sandwich menu. Today, Zingerman's is a community of businesses that employs over 500 people and includes a bakery, creamery, sit-down restaurant, training company, coffee roaster, and mail order service. Ari is the author of the best-selling Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating and the forthcoming Zingerman's Guide to Better Bacon.

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