Ups and Downs with Feta

Cheese & tomatoes

The same purchase provided the high and low moments on Planet Cheese last week. The high was finding Vermont Creamery goat feta at Oxbow Cheese Merchant in Napa, my neighborhood shop. Vermont Creamery makes some of my favorite bloomy-rinded goat cheeses (Bijou and Bonne Bouche among others), and a sublime cultured butter as well. But I didn’t know the creamery made feta.

That’s because they keep most of it in New England and supply it primarily to restaurants. But what a tasty feta this was--one of the few made in America that I consider worthy of a Greek salad.

Feta is challenging to make well in this country because we don’t have the rich sheep’s milk that gives Greek feta—the best, in my opinion—its creaminess. By law, Greek feta must contain at least 70 percent sheep’s milk; the remainder is goat’s milk. Try to make feta with goat’s milk alone—or, worse, cow’s milk—and you end up, typically, with a crumbly, granular result.

Vermont Creamery’s brine-packed feta is chalk white, moist, gently tangy and not too salty. It’s not as creamy or briny as Greek or French feta, but it has a clean, bright, mild flavor that I think many consumers might prefer. 

“Salt is a convenient disguise for flavor defects,” says Vermont Creamery proprietor Allison Hooper. “I think a lot of feta tastes like a salt lick. Ours has just enough salt to make a brine. Our objective is to make feta that is high in moisture and easy to slice.”

Buy feta in brine and it will last for weeks, ready to toss with tomatoes and cucumbers or fresh spinach, beets and red onion. I like to slow-roast halved plum tomatoes and then grate feta over the top.

And now for the low point. Vermont Creamery feta is expensive—I paid $24 a pound—so Bay Area retailers have not picked it up. How can it compete with Greek and French feta at half the price? Hooper acknowledges the problem but says her goat’s milk is “crazy expensive” and feta involves a lot of hand labor. For now, The Shed in Healdsburg is the only other Bay Area source.

Apparently enough consumers are willing to pay a premium for a fine domestic artisan feta. A few years ago, Hooper raised the price she paid to her milk suppliers and had to raise the price of the feta. To her surprise, demand only increased. If you can’t get to Napa or Healdsburg, Redwood Hill Farms goat feta is an excellent and widely available domestic alternative.