Many people associate feta with Greece, and rightly so--feta has been made in Greece for thousands of years. It's even thought that feta is described in Homer's Odyssey. Feta has been registered as a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) product, and so according to European Union law, the only true feta is that which is made in Greece.
However, many Balkan countries as well as others (like France, Israel and the United States) also produce feta, although according to the EU Protected Designation of Origin regulations, it should be called a "feta-style" cheese or go by another name.
What is Feta?
Wherever feta is made in the world or whatever you call it, the basic characteristics of feta don't change--it is salty and tangy with a creamy and crumbly texture. It's a simple but amazing tasting cheese. There are slight variances, however, in flavor and texture, depending on what type of milk is used (cow, sheep or goat) and where the feta is made.
Traditionally, feta is a sheep's milk cheese. Often, some goat's milk is blended in. Feta is classified as having between 45 and 60 percent sheep's milk or goat's milk. Less often and much less traditionally, cow's milk can be used to make a feta-style cheese. The better tasting fetas are cured in a brine and aged four to six weeks, essentially pickling the cheese and intensifying the salty and sharp flavor. You can find feta in square blocks packaged with the brine or already crumbled without any liquid.
What are the Varieties?
It is impossible to precisely say what each feta from a different country tastes like, but these general guidelines can be helpful when shopping for feta.
Like so many types of cheese, the best way to find your favorite feta is to sample many different brands.
- Greek Feta: Traditionally made from sheep's milk, although sometimes a little goat's milk is blended in. Salty and tangy, with a lemony flavor, and usually rich and creamy, although versions with more goat's milk tend to be more crumbly. Unfortunately, this cheese may be hard to come by because of the unpasteurized milk restrictions and high demand in its own country.
- French Feta: Most often made with sheep's milk, sometimes from the excess sheep's milk that is not used for making Roquefort. French feta is typically mild and creamy. Some goat's milk feta is also made in France and can be slightly drier and tangier.
- Bulgarian Feta: Made from sheep's milk. Creamier texture, but the saltiness varies. Sometimes it has a little bit of a grassy or "sheepy" flavor mixed in with a yeasty, tangy finish.
- Israeli Feta: Full-flavored, creamy and usually not overly salty. Most often made from sheep's milk.
- American Feta: Can be made with sheep, goat or even cow's milk. Usually, the predominant flavor is tangy and the texture is less creamy and more crumbly.
You may also come across feta from Italy, Germany, Denmark and Australia.
How Long Will it Last?
Feta is a great cheese to always keep in your refrigerator because it rarely goes bad (and can be used as a quick appetizer, or put on so many dishes like pizza, pasta and salads for more flavor). Keep the feta in its brine in a covered container and it stays fresh for weeks or even months. If the feta tastes too salty, rinse it with water before serving.