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.

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.

Let's see... there are all sorts of other options too. Scrambled eggs with crumbled feta and a bit of pan-fried broccoli (I like it with the edges of the broccoli slightly browned) and some roasted peppers. Years ago I came on a Persian recipe that used it with spaghetti and lentils, spiced with cumin. It's delicious. It's traditional in Greece to eat feta with polenta ( bobota ) and in spreads.

There are dozens of borekas (traditional phyllo dough pastries) filled with feta and various other fillings. For dinner it could be a dish of baked shrimp, tomatoes and feta. Get fresh shrimp, sauté 'em in the shell, remove, make a tomato sauce in the same pan, toss with pasta and some feta. It's also great with olive paste, or with finely-chopped, long, hot green chiles. It's excellent with garlic and herbs. I really like it crumbled on a salad of spring arugula along with fried capers and olive oil.

Okay, then there's the most obvious of all and the easiest which is the Greek tradition of just putting a slice (the name "feta" actually means "slice" after all) out on a plate to eat with just about anything and everything. And, in this vein, there's definitely the marination thing: good olive oil, good feta cut into cubes, good herbs of your choosing and a couple hours to a couple days of time for the flavors to meld.

To my taste, great feta should also be appearing regularly on cheese boards. It's fantastic with fruit; I love the slightly salty richness of the cheese when it's set against the sweetness of ripe fruit. In Greece you'll often have it served with watermelon, which I'm sure sounds strange but really is fantastic (along with a little fresh mint--it's really great!). Again, it's delicious with dried fruit--dates, pears, apricots, raisins, currants, or figs. The creamy texture of the cheese on the tongue works amazingly well with the dense texture of the fruit.

Ending here, I'll take you back to the beginning of a good day of feta eating. If you go to Greece don't be surprised if you're served feta for breakfast. It's quite common that thick slices of it would be cooked 'til warm in a frying pan along with a couple of sunny side up eggs and wedges of fresh tomato, a sprinkling of sea salt and few flakes of red pepper.

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