Will our feta fetish ever end? Sales were already growing in the UK when at the start of 2021 the salty, tangy cheese became the star of the biggest viral recipe sensation yet. A block of feta, baked with tomatoes then stirred through pasta: this was a rare example of a TikTok recipe that was actually worth making. It sent sales through the roof, even sparking a feta shortage in the States.
This summer, feta was back, whipped into a creamy dip – try Ravinder Bhoghal’s recipe topped with confit tomatoes in her book Comfort & Joy and you’ll see why it’s such a hit, with the tang and freshness of yoghurt but the salty, savoury body of cheese.
All very modern, but feta has been around for thousands of years. An early version made a cameo in Homer’s Odyssey, when Odysseus and his marauding crew, not content with blinding Cyclops Polyphemus, stole his cheese as well.
Feta matters to the Greeks. If you’ve visited you’ll know that tavernas serve up a paving slab perched jauntily atop a rubble of cucumber, tomatoes and olives. Not for them the discreetly crumbled or cubed feta of our Greek salads. Feta accounts for 70 per cent of the cheese eaten in Greece, and 10 per cent of Greek food exports.
But much of the cheese eaten around the world under the name feta isn’t made in Greece – it’s a local, more or less approximate version. Even here, until 21 years ago, anyone could make a white brined cheese and call it feta: Judy Bell of Shepherd’s Purse near Thirsk had been producing the excellent sheep’s milk Yorkshire Feta since 1989. Then in 2002 feta was awarded a Protected Designation of Origin, and in Europe at least, only Greece was allowed to call its cheese feta.
Yorkshire Feta became Yorkshire Fettle, but this wasn’t enough for the Greek producers, and last year the cheese was renamed Mrs Bell’s Salad Cheese. The same year, EU courts had ruled that Danish cheesemakers had to stop labelling cheese as feta, even when it was being sold outside the EU in countries where local producers could use the name.
To be fair, the rules in Greece, too, are rigorous. Just being made in the country isn’t enough; it must come from one of six of Greece’s 13 regions – Macedonia, Thrace, Epirus, Thessaly, Central Greece, the Peloponnese – plus the department of Lesbos, which forms a seventh approved area.
Then there is the milk. It must be made from sheep’s milk alone, or sheep’s milk and up to 30 per cent goat milk. Pure sheep’s milk gives a stronger flavour, while some goat lends sweetness, and most of the feta you can buy in the UK is mixed goat and sheep, with the exception of Odysea and one version by Marks & Spencer. The animals are traditional breeds, small and tough, adapted to thrive grazing the limited but diverse flora of the areas. No cow’s milk is allowed, although you will see that most of the cheaper feta-type “salad cheeses” are made with cow’s milk, as well as some of the more expensive feta-style cheeses.
Feta making starts much like most cheeses, culturing and coagulating the milk (sometimes with calcium carbonate added for a firmer set – sheep and goat’s milk has a notoriously delicate curd), and then ladling into moulds where the whey drains. Then the distinctive feta process starts, with the slicing and dry salting of the young cheese. Purists would leave it at that, but these days most producers use a brine bath. The “ripening” process, a fermentation that produces the distinctive sourness, starts at a cool room temperature followed by chilling, for a minimum of two months.
This last stage is where it gets interesting for us consumers. The container holding the cheese used to be a wooden barrel, but now is often a metal vat. Nothing wrong with metal, but to connoisseurs, it’s the wood where the magic happens – and why wood-aged feta costs more. According to Patricia Michelson, of the La Fromagerie shops and cafés, some of London’s finest cheesemongers, feta takes on the microorganisms of the barrel “to give the cheese its wonderful flavours and breakdown in texture. This tradition is so vital in getting that softness, as well as the crumble, and the salty sweetness with hints of spice to the cheese.”
Want to know more? Feta packs have to display both the red and yellow PDO badge and the blue, green and white Greek AgroCert logo. Underneath is the POC code starting POC: this is unique to the producer. Check on fetapdo.eu , and you’ll be able to find the name of the maker (occasionally the packer or trader) if it isn’t already listed on the back of the pack. There you’ll also find the FE code, which means the pack is traceable back to a batch.
To a food nerd like me this is satisfying stuff. Supermarkets are notoriously secretive about the manufacturers they use for their own brand products, but for once the details are there, if you want them.
In the meantime, there is feta to be tasted, both actual Greek feta and a few of the bargain basement wannabe-fetas to see if they can compete. Can they? No, not for complexity or balance of flavours. Even so, those cheapos would grace a weekday lunchbox happily –although as they are milder, I’d find myself using more. To bake à la TikTok, opt for a standard Greek feta – heat would make that slightly processed flavour stronger – and the same goes for that delectable whipped feta. With the most expensive, barrel-aged feta you’ll have a proper weekend treat – but save it for your salad.
The value-for-money taste test
Asda Just Essentials Greek Style Salad Cheese
85p for 200g (42p/100g)
Tastes processed and has a faintly bitter aftertaste. I don’t think Zorba would even give this the time of day.
Lidl Milbona Greek Feta
£1.79 for 200g (90p/100g)
There’s a stick-to-your-teeth dryness to the texture and a flat sourness to the flavour. A dull cheese.
Yamas! Greek Feta
£2.25 for 200g at Morrisons (£1.12/100g)
Funky, with a gentle tang and mild saltyness. But it left my mouth dry, and the texture is rather grainy.
Asda Extra Special Barrel Aged Feta
£3.20 for 200g (£1.60/100g)
Full-flavoured and a touch goaty – not for everyone, but we loved it for the lemony tang. You’d need less in a salad, so it would go further.
£3 for 200g at Ocado (£1.50/100g)
A 100 per cent sheep’s milk feta which is funky and salty in a good way, with a nice creaminess, though it’s still a good crumbler.
Epiros Original Feta
£5.25 for 200g at Ocado (£2.62/100g)
Lovely salty tang, though the salt content is relatively low, and a creamy texture with a gorgeous fermented flavour. Not cheap, but worth it.