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Blessed are the cheesemakers: barrel-aged feta

Categories: Product stories

A rich, authentic version of the familiar Greek favourite from Oliveology

“My cheese, tis plenty” sang the cyclops Polyphemus to the sea nymph Galatea, in what is believed to be one of the earliest references to the cheese we now call feta (the play Philoxenus of Cythera by Theocritus). Homer refers to it also, when he describes Odysseus’s arrival to a cave laden with ewe’s milk cheese.

Whether or not Polyphemus’ “overflowing cheese racks” ever won the heart of Galatea remains in dispute. Some say she caved; some say the absence of a second eye remained insuperable. What’s not in doubt, however, is the future popularity of his ewe’s milk cheese. 

“In Greece we have it all day long. For breakfast, for lunch, as a snack, even as a dessert with some watermelon,” Marianna Kolokotroni of Oliveology says, cutting a pale, dewy hunk into generous samples. “Last night I had it with gigantes plaki”—Greece’s large white beans.

The real joy of feta
She sources it carefully: though supermarket supplies are perfectly nice, they are “mild, quite generic, and manufactured in large quantities” she explains, which means milk comes from many farms all over the country. The real joy of feta, she continues, is that it varies enormously between regions—even between cheesemakers in Greece.

“Feta is a generic name. It simply means sliced,” says Marianna. “The feta from Athens will taste very different to the feta of Peloponnese.” Not only does the country boast a dramatic range of landscapes, but the herbs and grasses which grow vary also, giving rise to distinct differences between milk.

“What the sheep and goats graze on—thyme, oregano—has an effect. Then there’s maturation”—a factor in all cheese-making, of course, but particularly relevant to the barrel-aged feta in Marianna’s fridge.  

Dating back centuries
At Oliveology, there are two kinds: the first matured for six months, the second for 12 months, in a birch barrel filled with brine: a tradition dating back centuries. This particular recipe has been around since 1937, when her supplier Kostarelos was first founded in Attica, a small town outside of Athens.

The story goes that as a young lad, Christos Kostarelos wanted to devote himself to cheese. His father obliged, with some large cauldrons and an annex room to keep him out the way while he churned. While Christos has now passed the casei-cultural reigns to his son, Kyriakos, his feta still cleaves to traditional methods.

The milk (a mixture of ewes’ and goats’—feta’s European PDO precludes cows’ milk) is thickened with homemade rennet—the recipe for which is a secret—at a medium-high temperature, then poured into moulds to remove the whey. After that, the remaining curds are salted and left to rest in a cold room for a while, before being put into the brine-filled barrels to steep.

Firmer and very strong
Sixty days is the minimum required for any raw cheese to be aged in Greece if it’s for sale elsewhere. Six months, of course, makes all the difference—12 months, Marianna tells us (though the taste says it all) is different again. “It is firmer and very strong. There is so much more to it, and the taste continues after you’ve finished it,” she says admiringly. “You don’t need to use as much.”

The six month is milder and creamier in comparison to its older cousin, but when measured against your bog standard feta, is far richer and deeper. Ten minutes previous we’d have balked at cheese pie for breakfast, one of the most popular daily uses for feta in Greece: now, with the salty, herbaceous flavour of barrel-aged feta still rolling around our mouths, we’re thinking again.