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.
How to make feta an everyday eating experience
I don't want to make too much noise about this, but I'm not really sure why feta has stayed so accessibly priced when other sheep cheeses (with their very low yields and the bad dollar/Euro exchange) have shot up so much in recent years. But, all I really know is that it is both affordable and excellent!
There's feta with tomato sauce. Creamy, delicious with a slightly salty tang that melts (a little or a lot depending on how well integrated you want it) in the sauce. Easier still, when the good tomatoes start coming in this summer, you just cut up chunks of 'em, toss with some salt, some feta cubes, some fresh herbs (I like basil, thyme and/or mint), some olive oil, and let it stand for a bit. Then toss with hot pasta. When it's really at the height of the summer heat, this uncooked sauce is excellent. Cool. Easy. Good.