Cow or goat, goat or sheep? Brine or in oil, Danish or Greek? Crumbly or smooth, plain, sun-dried tomato or basil? Each time I buy feta there seems to be a new formulation or iteration! So today I’m on a mission to understand this salty-conundrum – what exactly is feta, and what do I need to know to make a good choice?
I’ve googled and wikipeidaed, checked my cheese books, and to be called Feta in Europe a cheese needs to be Greek and made of ewes’ milk, though it can have up to 30% goat. In New Zealand it can be any kind and you can usually tell by the price – cow being the cheapest, sheep or goat more expensive.
It can also be of one of two distinct styles in New Zealand- Greek or Danish. Greek is the the crumbly, open textured style, while Danish is its smooth, uniform cousin. Both are usually sold in thick slices, feta from the Italian word fetta meaning slice, and resting in some of their salty water brine. Unless of course they have been cubed and stored in oil – but today I’m just interested in the basics.
So in my search to understand this mystery I had a taste test. I chose two Kiwi and one Danish. A Greek-style New Zealand Blue River Sheep Feta from Invercargill, a generic Danish cows’ milk feta from MediFoods and a goaty version of this style – a Puhoi Vallley Goat’s milk Feta.
At first glance it’s hard to see how the two styles share the same name, they look so different – the Greek all crumbly ivory and the Danish pure white smoothness. Even the Danish one was bleached white, usually cow’s milk cheese is more creamy. I found out that the Dane’s bleach their milk for feta. Hmm not sure I like that!
But on first taste the over-whelming flavour is salt. Sure there was a sweetness to the cow, a dryness to the goat, and a creamy hint of lanolin to the sheep, but they were all pretty similar.
However after I soaked them in milk for 10 minutes, the characters of the milk came bursting out, and what had been three similarly salty cheeses, literally opened up and flowered. This is a trick I learnt in my research, soak the feta in milk or water for 10 minutes before eating, it draws out the salt, and uncovers the true flavour. It’s why feta in Greece tastes so good.
And wow what a difference!
The cow’s milk Danish was smooth and silky on the tongue, the salt had given way to a sweet lemony tang and a certain nutty umami end. Far, far better that it had been pre-soak, and good value considering a 200g slab was only $3.50.
Next the goat’s milk Danish-style from Puhoi, again the same smooth texture, but like pure silk there is a catch on the tongue, that dryness that you can get with goat. A green olive livelienss bursts out, not the sad pimento stuffed green olives, but the big, wonderful Sicilian ones, all fruity, lemony and salty.
Finally the sheep’s milk Greek and wow, this really was the pick – it crumbled onto my tongue, holding firm before collapsing and releasing a cucumber-lightness, all gossamer cool on a hot day. This was fragrant and sophisticated and the soaking had removed any hint of lanolin from the salted version.
What a wonderful journey these fetas had taken me on. I had to work to find their secret deliciousness. No easy cheeses on display, the soaking in milk had let me in to hidden chambers of flavour, shedding the sameness of the saltiness we usually associate and releasing beautiful floral and fruit notes, umami ends and delightful surprises.
I really urge you to try soaking your feta, have a little taste test and revel in your own cheese geekery to see if you too can release the lighter, elusive flavours hiding beneath the saltiness. Give it a go and tell me what you found, I’d love to hear.