Classic. Originally Published: Report, July 2007.
(2012 NOTE: In June, 2007 I spent a day at Titan Foods in Astoria, Queens…tasting Greek cheese with Titan’s owner, Costas Mastoras. The following excerpt from theReport focuses on what I learned that day about feta.)
Feta is the one Greek cheese we all think we know–but the feta field is fiendishly complicated, resulting in a wide range of feta choices at a place like Titan. To put it most simply for the taster/buyer: feta can be white, yellow-ish, hard, medium-hard, medium-soft, soft, creamy, salty, medium-salty, sour, medium-sour, hardly sour at all, bland, medium-intense in flavor, intensely sheepy-goaty. But how do you know which is which?
Mastoras really helped me wrap my mind around feta–which, though it owes its origins to the mountainous regions of central Greece, is made all over Greece today. There are many factors contributing to the ultimate taste of feta–starting with the kind of milk used in its production. Most feta is mostly sheep’s milk cheese–but there is often 20 to 30% goat’s milk in the blend. The results are pretty clear:
*More goat’s milk means whiter cheese, with more acidity, and a greater tendency towards dryness, crumbliness.
The typical color of goat’s feta
*More sheep’s milk means yellower cheese, with less acidity, a fattier, richer texture, and, usually more deep “barnyardy” flavor.
Richer, creamier sheep’s milk feta
Either cheese can be salty, medium-salty, or un-salty–depending on the amount of salt added to the milk by the cheesemaker.
Another key question, of course, is: where in Greece does that milk come from? Mastoras says that there is a kind of hierarchy in regional milk quality, based on richness, fattiness. The more of the latter the better:
*Milk from Macedonia is the lowest-quality; it generally takes 4.2 kilos of this milk to produce one kilo of Feta.
*Milk from Thessaly is better; it generally takes 3.4 kilos of this milk to produce one kilo of Feta.
*Milk from the Peloponnese is about the same; it generally takes 3.4 kilos of this milk to produce one kilo of Feta.
*Milk from Epiros is best; it generally takes 3.2 kilos of this milk to produce one kilo of Feta.
The next question is: what container was used to age the cheese? For there are three main options:
*Barrel Feta is the best of all, says Mastoras–though Diane Kochilas (Greek cookbook author) says it’s a dying art, and only a few producers in Greece continue to practice their art. Hurray for Mastoras–because he is one of them! He has an arrangement with a dairy owner in Epiros–which some call “the Wisconsin of Greece,” and others call “the Switzerland of Greece”–that enables Mastoras to call all the shots on the production of artisanal, barrel Feta. He follows the classic practices. The Feta, molded into huge triangular chunks that fit perfectly into the barrel, are aged in the barrel for anywhere from two weeks to about three months, without brine. Those barrels come to the U.S.–like to Mastoras’ store, Titan–where the shopkeeper removes the Feta, piece by piece, to put on display; once out of the barrel, the Feta may be put in brine in the display case, but it is not brine-aged in the barrel. That’s one reason why barrel Feta is often less salty, more refined; it’s also usually richer and creamier.
The mighty barrel feta
*Basket Feta, according to Mastoras, is the second-best option. It is held for a week in a basket mold, usually made of plastic today–which leaves its ridged imprint on the cheese–for a week or so without brine. Then it is dipped in brine, and kept there for about two months. Once again, in the retail store, it may be displayed in brine or out of brine. Basket Feta is usually a little saltier than barrel Feta, and possibly a little less rich.
A good example of basket feta
*Tin Feta, says Mastoras, is third on the quality totem pole–but, nevertheless, there is some terrific tin Feta out there. The timing details mirror those for basket Feta: one week in the tin with no brine, then two months in the tin with brine. However, the enclosed tin environment leads to a firmer feel, a more crumbly cheese. You may see Feta-filled barrels or baskets in stores today (as at Titan)–but you will not see tins; shopkeepers used to cut their hands on the edges of the tin, so now tin is outlawed for store presentation. Tin feta is now transferred at the factory to vacu-pack plastic, which may also contribute to its firmer texture.
No matter which aging system is used, you can count on shorter-aged Feta to be creamier, and longer-aged Feta to be drier but more intense in flavor. The genius balance occurs, in my opinion, when you get perfect long-term barrel-aging–leading to rich cheese that also has depth of flavor. Of course, not everyone agrees; in the north of Greece drier Feta is preferred. According to Mastoras, it is the Cretans, above all, who love their cheese soft and creamy. I guess I’m a Cretan!
I had the wonderful opportunity to taste six different Fetas with Mastoras. We started with three Fetas made by other producers, and finished with three Fetas produced by Mastoras’ dairy–named Arahova (for a nearby mountain), in a town called Preveza, in the region of…Epiros! Where else? (“Preveza is the only town in Epiros that’s near the sea,” Mastoras says, “so we get extra salty tang from the sea breeze!”)
The first Feta we tasted was the Agrafa Goat Feta ($6.29 per lb.), a tin-aged Feta from the Epiros region (but not Preveza)–and it is 100% goat, which is rather unusual. It was predictably white, firm, even hard, with low fat content, quite dry, medium-salty, with a touch of chèvre flavor. This is good Feta for crumbling over salads or other dishes.
Next up was the Valmas Mt. Athos Basket Feta ($6.49 per lb.), made in the traditional way that had been established by the monks at the famous Mt. Athos monastery on the Haldiki peninsula in the extreme northeast of Greece. This was an astonishing cheese. Very white, indicating a high goat’s-milk percentage–but medium-creamy at the same time, so you know there’s some sheep in there. Quite salty and quite sour–these two factors adding up to a mouth-zinging brightness that is absolutely extraordinary. Good enough–but then comes a bewitching barnyard-y undertaste. Jim Botsacos (chef of Molyvos in New York) said he’d “honor this cheese by serving it alone”–but allowed that it would be an awesome Greek Salad topper in a thick slice, sprinkled with dried oregano and olive oil. Be careful when you order this cheese from Titan: the store also carries a vacu-pack version of it, which is a little less bright, a little waxier. Make sure they know you want the non-vacu-packed basket version. If you’re an acid freak…this is your cheese!!!
Thirdly, we tasted a tin Feta–the Kolios Tin Feta ($4.99 per lb.), from a factory in Thessaloniki, one of my favoriteareas in Greece. But this Macedonian cheese was my least favorite in the group–kind of a middle-of-the-road Feta for those not prepared for the splashy wonders of better Fetas. Lower acid, decent salt, moderately creamy. It has an odd, slightly soapy-pickled taste–but Botsacos said that this would be a fine Feta for baking into northern Greek meat and vegetable pies.
Then the Arahova sequence began.
First up was a very soft Feta, short-aged and right out of the barrel: the Arahova Soft Barrel Feta ($6.79 per lb.), an absolutely delicious version of a rich and creamy Feta. (Again, Mastoras said “Only Cretans like this!”.) I loved its good acid, good salt, seductive texture and, best of all, its subtle underlying smokiness (it hadn’t been smoked, of course, but that taste appeared nevertheless). My Greek friends might kill me–but this stuff schmeared on a bagel with smoked salmon would be the Mt. Olympos of Greek-Jewish fusion!
Then we tasted Mastoras’ Mt. Olympos, his favorite Feta, the one he calls “The King.” It is the Arahova Barrel-Aged Feta ($6.49 per lb.), made from 75% sheep’s milk and 25% goat’s milk. It had a different look from the start–a little more yellow-ish, and with bigger holes or cracks inside the cheese. I absolutely loved its sheepy taste, trailing off into a long, complex sheepy finish. Good salt and good acid, too. What I didn’t love was its texture–a bit drier, less fatty than my ideal. But Mr. Botsacos was there to tell me that it’s a wonderful topping cheese for cooked dishes, baked onto a casserole of shrimp or other main-course items.
Lastly, Mastoras wheeled out an experimental cheese–the Arahova Lite Feta ($6.29 per lb.), though he made up that name on the spot. It’s not lighter at all in the usual ways–it is made from the same 75% sheep’s milk and 25% goat’s milk as the regular Arahova–but it is made with modern materials: molded in stainless-steel forms, and aged and shipped in plastic barrels. “Shipping wood barrels is costly,” Mastoras says–and the plastic barrel solution may be the wave of the future. You know what? This wave ain’t bad at all. In fact, I really like this cheese! In texture, it is halfway between creamy and crumbly, with a mild dose of salt and acid (I could use more, but this is good enough). Best of all, it has an absolutely lovely, deep, sheep-y taste. Fantastic cheese for topping your Greek salad!
One more Feta note: in the past I have also been very open to Bulgarian Feta and French Feta, both of which emphasize rich texture and deep flavor. However, they do not exist any longer–at least under those names. In 2006, the EU decided that only cheese from Greece may be called “Feta”–so now, if you want the other stuff, you have to look for “Bulgarian White Cheese” or “French White Cheese.” I think it’s kind of silly, since “Feta” doesn’t imply a geographical origin, like “Champagne” does. But the EU is no friend to cheese in general. Mastoras tells me that there used to be over 3000 Feta producers in Greece–many of them small artisans, making great cheese in their own homes. Now, he says, stringent EU regulations have whittled the number in Greece down to about 500 larger producers–some of whom are making great Feta, but you have to shop around.
A commercial feta…but most certainly Greek!