Aging Adds Complex Flavor to Feta Cheese
For six wonderful but arduous years around the turn of this century, I was CEO, artisan cheesemaker, and chief bottle washer at Ladybug MicroCreamery in a rural town near Blacksburg, Virginia. Since I closed my business during the winter because our local markets were slow or nonexistent, my husband and I were able to spend a couple of winters working at the Hawai’i Island Goat Dairy; we fell in love with the Big Island. When we were offered housing in exchange for work at another farm near the goat dairy, it was an offer we couldn’t refuse, and we sold off, packed up and spent 3-1/2 unforgettable years on the island.
Before we left home the first winter, I held back a wheel of feta cheese and left it in brine for four months. When I opened the bucket upon our return, the top of the brine looked truly gross, exhibiting several different colors and varieties of molds floating around. However, I’m also a pickle-maker and knew that if I scooped off the molds on the surface, my prize deep in the brine might be just fine – and so it was. In fact, it was outstanding – much better than my usual feta because it had some age on it! When making the cheese for market I could barely keep enough in stock and rarely got to age any. While sales of other cheeses would rise and fall, demand for feta was always strong.
Feta was originally a sheep milk cheese, and most of my European customers (many of them faculty and students at Virginia Tech) preferred feta made from either sheep or goat milk because of the blandness of cow milk feta. Americans (at least outside of big cities) had a hard time getting anything but cow milk feta until recently – I don’t remember ever consuming feta as a child. But with the rise of the popularity of goat cheese over the past couple of decades, feta cheese has become a common staple in U.S. refrigerators. Even some of the “country people” who came to my farmers market booth were looking for feta, and often little children sampling my products would choose the salty, piquant goat feta over other, blander cheeses. I also found this to be true when selling cheese for the Hawai’i Island Goat Dairy.
According to Feta and Related Cheeses, Feta cheese is believed to date back to Homeric times and is probably the cheese made by the Cyclops Polyphemus and ancient Greeks. According to a source dated 1889, “One of the most widely circulated cheeses in Greece is Feta cheese, the technology of which is the most simple and known to every one of the shepherds…” The word “feta” can be translated from Greek as “slice”: the traditional method involves cutting the cheese into slices, which are laid out on tables for a one- to two-week dry salting process before going into a storage container with brine. According to the above book, the Greeks make about 135,000 tons of feta cheese annually, with 97% of the production being consumed by the Greeks, who each eat more than 12 kg (27 pounds) of feta per year.
Most Greek feta is produced in mountainous and semi-mountainous regions of the country, using milk from indigenous breeds of sheep and goats, over 10 million individual animals (estimated at 6.7 million sheep and 3.7 million goats). These animals generally are low-volume producers with short lactations, with primary production between January and July.
Certainly the traditional Greek product is quite different from the product sold as Danish feta. The Danish make most of their “feta” from cow milk using a highly mechanized process beginning with ultrafiltration, which basically reduces milk to a curdy stage they call “pre-cheese.” Then they add cultures, lipase, a bleaching agent and rennet, and move the curd on in a continuous automated process. Interestingly, much of the Danish “feta” produced is exported to the Middle East.
As one might expect, there is an ongoing international dispute over the use of the name “feta.” Though mine was more or less a traditional Greek style cheese made from goat milk, ultimately I gave my feta cheese a different name to honor the Greeks’ claim. My process differs from theirs in that I salt whole 2.5- to 3-pound wheels, made in Kadova molds,  by dry rubbing salt into them for a couple of days before brining the wheels whole. The final product is less salty than a true Greek feta, which I prefer, and also was better suited to the tastes of my patrons.
To “spice up” cow milk feta, lipase is often added to the milk. I added a small amount of kid lipase to my goat milk feta because the Amish folks I bought milk from insisted on adding lime to their feed to reduce the capric flavor in their goat milk, which was not appreciated by their community. My theory about adding lipase to cheese is that it helps to replace some of the natural lipase enzymes that were present in traditional rennet but are not present in the highly-purified factory-made rennet products that most of us use. However, feta cheese is supposed to be “piquant,” and it is those outlaw enzymes that produce the piquant character. Lipase is also typically added to Romano cheese and some people add it to “quickie” mozzarella so that it will taste like something.
As mentioned above, aging is another way to add flavor to feta. As with most cheeses (and wines), aging allows more complex flavors to emerge as enzymes work their magic over time. Since we add purified ingredients to pasteurized milk, aged cheese made from pasteurized milk is more predictable than that made from raw milk, but a well-made raw milk feta, aged at least a couple of months, is food for the gods. e
1 R. K. Robinson and A. Y. Tamime, Feta and Related Cheeses. New York: Ellis Horwood Ltd, 1991.
2 ibid., p. 49.
3 ibid., p. 51.
4 Frank V. Kosikowsi and Vikram V. Mistry, Cheese and Fermented Milk Foods. Westport CT: F. V. Kosikowski, LLC, p. 500-506.
5 When the Threlfalls at the Hawai’i Island Goat Dairy wanted to try Kadovas for their feta, we ordered awesome (expensive) rectangular Kadova molds from Glengarry. They make perfect slices with a smooth rind.
Adapted from an article originally published in The Home Dairy News in March-April 2006.