Barrelled alive: Feta with a capital F

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Smgreeksalad0001.jpgDid you know that 2008 is the official year of Feta cheese?

Neither did we, until we read it in the in-flight magazine on our way from Thessaloniki to Crete for a conference on ‘the Eastern Mediterranean diet'.  This strengthened our resolve to find a Feta-maker and learn all about this crumbly white cheese, which most of us know from its prominent role in the ubiquitous ‘Greek salad’.  And why is it getting its own special year this year?
A couple of weeks later we struck gold in Olympia, a small modern town in the Peloponnese which has sprung up next to the ancient city of Olympia (birthplace of the Olympic Games no less) to sell fake ancient Greek statuettes and the like to the swarms of tourists who descend on the actually rather fantastic archaeological site.  Our hosts, Susanna and Theodore Spiliopoulos at Hotel Pelops, not only taught us lots about Greek cooking but also kindly arranged for us to visit a small, traditional Feta dairy a few miles out of town.

The George Bournas dairy is one small building set all by itself among the gently undulating fields of vegetables, pasture and olive groves which cover this part of the Peloponnese.  Inside we were greeted by the unmistakable milky smell of cheese-making and found Andonis Nikolopoulos hard at work making the day’s batch of Feta together with one other colleague. 

Smfetamaking10001.JPGBetween the stages - forming and cutting the curds, draining the whey, filling the moulds etc - he found time to tell us all about the cheese and show us around.  Despite our incessant nit-picky questioning (“what temperature is that exactly?”, “how long do you leave that there?” “why do you do that?” etc etc), Andonis remained patient and good humoured throughout, and helped us understand why Feta is a very special cheese…

It is particularly special right now of course, it being the Year of Feta and all.  This is because Feta attained protected status within the EU a few years ago, which means you can’t sell something called ‘Feta’ unless a) it was made in certain parts of Greece, and b) it was made in the traditional way using pure natural ingredients, as now set out in law.    

The results of this are a) I feel I should now be giving (the real) Feta a capital ‘F’, and b) more importantly perhaps, all sorts of former ‘feta’ producers are now out of business or having to call their white cheese something else, like, er, ‘white cheese’ (as they've always called it in Turkey).  A great many of these are in Greece itself of course, but feta has been big business elsewhere.  In 2006 Dutch, Bulgarian, Romanian and Danish companies controlled 50% of the billion-dollar feta industry.  (You can thank the in-flight magazine for that gem of a fact.)  So you can imagine that it was no easy task for Greece to win the PDO (‘protected designation of origin’) status for its own, beloved Feta.

So now when you buy Feta you're guaranteed to be getting at least 70% sheep's milk in your cheese, with the rest being goat's, and certainly not cow's.  And there'll be no nasty additives or powdered dairy products of any kind, as there were in the bad old days when anybody could make 'feta' and put anything in it.

Smfetapiece0001.jpgBut there are other reasons Feta is special.  It’s the first cheese we’ve come across which is matured in barrels, and it seems something very special goes on while the cheese is sitting in its own juice in sealed wooden barrels.  Without this unusual stage it simply wouldn’t look, feel or taste like proper Feta, which should be soft, firm, crumbly, tangy, salty, sour and creamy all at once.  Not all Feta gets this old fashioned barrel maturing in its own whey, so Andonis' Feta is paticularly special. 

But we should begin at the beginning:  To make Feta, this is the process Andonis starts every day between January and June (and less frequently the rest of the year when there’s less milk):

Heat your raw, live sheep’s & goat’s milk, add rennet and yoghurt, cut the curds that form, remove the whey, put the curd in moulds and add salt.  Wait a bit, put it in barrels and seal it up tightly.  Leave it to ferment for a few weeks, check for explosions, store in a cold place for three months until it’s safe to eat.  Phew.

(Actually, it’s much more complicated than this.  Read to the bottom, or click here if you just can’t wait).

You’d think from all this that Andonis must be a wisened old village man steeped in traditional expertise from decades of Feta-making practice.  Not so.  Andonis comes from Athens, where he worked in a paper bag printing factory for many years.  Three years ago, when the number of his offspring went up another notch and money became tighter, Andonis and family moved out here where his father-in-law (ie George Bournas himself) runs this small dairy, to become the third generation in the family business.  He much prefers his new rural, cheesy life; “Athens is full of madness,” he warned us.  He’s learnt everything he knows about cheese-making on the job.  Perhaps I too could be a cheese-maker one day…

Smbournasyog0001.jpgAnd it’s not just Feta on which Andonis is now an expert, as the dairy also makes two kinds of delicious yoghurt (regular and strained, which is for making tzatziki), golden sheep’s butter (which goes to the best pastry shop in town for use in baklava, as we also saw in Turkey) and mizithra.  

Mizithra is known in the trade as ‘gold’, as it’s money for nothing - cheese made from leftovers.  All that whey left over from the Feta-making this morning, along with the skimmed milk and buttermilk left over from the butter-making, will be heated up again, coagulated with more rennet and formed into 20 balls of hard sheepy cheese for grating over pasta which he can sell for €150.  The only catch is he has to age it for a year first.  There’s no waste in this dairy - everything gets used.  Any whey he can’t use up this way goes to local farmers to feed their animals.

Smfetabarrels0001.JPGAndonis left us with a couple of Feta-buying tips:  Firstly, get the real stuff straight from the barrel, made from natural products (not powdered milk and the like) and sold in big cubes, not the pathetic flat squares sold in plastic packaging, which is more expensive and less tasty.  It went without saying it should be Greek.  Secondly, get Feta made in March or April (therefore first ready for sale from around June-July) as this is when the sheep had the best stuff to eat in the fields - all the new, sweet spring herbs, grasses and flowers.

Back at Hotel Pelops, Susanna added to this her Feta-eating tip:  Try it with some yoghurt on ‘savor’, a delicious dish of fried aubergine and rich tomato sauce which Suzanna showed us how to make (recipe here soon).  The combination of the sweet, savoury aubergine dish with the tangy Feta and creamy yoghurt was absolutely fantastic.  I think we’ll be making this every summer from now on.

It’s 2008 - Year of Feta!  If there was ever a time to develop a Feta fetish, this is it.  Go and buy some real Greek barrelled Feta with a capital F!

Fetafication: what Andonis actually does:

  1. By 9am he has collected sheep’s milk, and maybe a little goat’s, from 12 or so farmers who regularly supply him, twice a day, with their yield.  Each farmer has between 30 and 200 sheep.  The milk is raw (unpasteurised) and “alive”, and must be used very quickly before it “dies”.
  2. The milk is heated in a huge vat to 60°C, at which point he turns off the heat and waits until the milk reaches 66°C of its own accord.  This is not hot enough to pasteurise, ie “kill”, the milk.
  3. The warm, still “alive”, milk is then pumped over into another, wider and shallower, vat, into which he adds the required (very small) amounts of powdered rennet and their own “live” yoghurt.
  4. After 45 minutes or so the curd has formed, which he cuts with a huge harp-like wire cutter into small pieces.
  5. Squat, cylindrical metal containers punctured all over with holes (like colanders) are placed in the vat with the curds and the yellowish whey (which forms inside the colanders) is pumped back into the first vat, leaving the white curds behind.
  6. He then lines up the colanders - to now act as moulds - on a gently sloping, rimmed, metal table and scoops the curds into them, using what looks like an old olive oil tin with a small plank strapped to it for a handle.  Each one must be totally filled.
  7. Hundreds of common flies buzz around the room closely inspecting the cheese-making process, but not one seems to land in it.  (Andonis regularly deep-cleans the whole premises to kill off the lurking flies’ eggs, but they always come back…)
  8. After an hour or two the curds have sunk half way down the moulds and lots more whey has run off, been collected and pumped over to join the rest of it waiting in the first vat.
  9. The rounds of curd are sprinkled with salt on both sides and left out overnight for the salt to diffuse in.
  10. The next day the now compact curds are unmoulded, cut into large wedges and packed into barrels made of a hard wood called ‘oxsia’, which are the traditional Feta container.  Old barrels are best, Andonis told us, as they’re fully hydrated and therefore don’t suck in water from the cheese.  (But they get very stinky by the fifth or sixth use, at which point they’re discarded.)
  11. The barrels are loosely covered with wooden lids and left out another night, during which time the cheese expresses more whey so that by morning the wedges are surrounded by their own liquid.  I’d always thought Feta was a brined cheese, but it turns out the really traditional, artisan way to do it is in pure whey, not salty water.
  12. On day three air is vacuum-pumped out of the barrels, they’re sealed shut very tightly and then rolled over to the barrel room, where they stay at a constant 20-22°C for 10-20 days.
  13. During this time, we were told, the “cheese cooks itself” as the bacteria and yeasts in it “do all the work”.  It must be some kind of anaerobic fermentation.  
  14. Whatever it is, it produces gas, as when Andonis comes to open the barrels they “explode like volcanoes”.  Sadly our visit did not coincide with a barrel-opening moment.
  15. Andonis checks that the microorganisms have done their work well and that the cheese has developed the right flavour.  If so, the batch of barrels is transferred to a fridge temperature cold storeroom (elsewhere) for three months of further aging.  Water may be added to the barrels at this point if there is not enough whey.
  16. The three months of cold storage is essential, we were repeatedly told, to stop the fermentation and to ensure any nasty microbes, which may or may not be present, are killed.
  17. At this point Andonis takes breaks from cheese-making to drive round the region in his refrigerated van selling his Feta to small supermarkets and shops.  Anything not sold within six months is stored in a weak salt solution.

Smfetamaking20001.JPGStill not bored?  Read about our dairy adventures in France, Poland, Romania, Turkey and Italy!

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