A Bit of History
This cheese has its history hidden in the mist of time. Homer wrote about a similar cheese in the Odyssey as he describes the cheese being made by Cyclops from ewes milk. Since then similar cheese process has spread to the North and East of Greece and finally to western Europe and the North American continent.
The name 'Feta' appears to be of Italian origin (Fetta) and simply means slice, probably referring to the way the cheese mass was sliced and place in barrels to mature. The use of this name appears to be somewhat recent , only being used since the 17th century.
The cheese was traditionally made by the farmers in the mountains, primarily with ewes milk but also a portion of goats milk was added due to the tendency to have mixed herds in the rough terrain. The process has always been a rather simple one of using fresh milk, coagulating with rennet, draining the curds, and preserving the cheese with a combo of heavy salt and a light brine for aging. Before refrigeration this was the only way to keep cheese in warm climates.
Today this cheese is primarily made in large cheese houses with the milk being brought down to the valley from the high pastures. Occasionally however, it can still be found being made in those mountain pastures from a mix of sheep and goat milk.
Today the cheese is also made from cows milk as well as the traditional ewe/goat milk combination but since July 2002 only the traditional Greek cheese can be actually marketed as 'Feta' produced only in specified regions of Greece.
Variations in Style
Essentially the white brined style of cheese can be described as a simple white cheese heavily salted and stored in a light brine for maturation.
However, since it has migrated over a period of 2000 years or more, it has evolved into its various forms in different parts of the world. It has moved north from Greece into Bulgaria and other eastern European regions as well as east through Turkey, Iraq, and into Iran where it is called Lightvan cheese.
Here I will compare 2 of the better known styles:
- The classic Greek Feta Cheese which can only be called this if made in Greece in specified areas defined by the EU.
This cheese is normally of a very firm structure in which high acid has developed before storing the cheese in a light brine. The cheese must be made from sheep milk with a maximum of 30% goat milk optionally added. The cheese tends to develop a strong flavor (piquant) from natural lipase additions and becomes very brittle and crumbly on aging.
- Bulgarian 'White Brined Cheese' or 'Sirene' as it is called in Bulgaria, tends to not develop as much acid during its production and hence leaves a more elastic texture. This also tends to make the cheese more smooth and creamy since it also holds more moisture due to a much less aggressive draining than the Greek cheese.
This cheese tends not to crumble like the Greek style but needs to be cut into cubes or slices. When ripened for a few weeks it becomes quite spreadable, almost like a young Camembert.
As mentioned earlier the cheeses can also be made entirely of cows milk and the name associated with this is 'Telemes' (I have no idea where this comes from).
The cows milk tends to be less white than the ewe/goat milk combo and the flavor not as strong as the traditional cheese and when following the Bulgarian style guidelines below, it produces a wonderful creamy cheese. In most of western Europe and North America the large scale production is from cows milk. Cows milk will be my focus for this cheese making session, mainly because I like the milder creamy flavor and most of my cheese loving fans feel the same. Besides, the Jersey milk I have access to does such a wonderful job with this cheese.