How can Greece have an economic crisis given all the Greek feta that I buy? I’m never without some in my fridge, but my usage spikes at this time of year, when the deluge of tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants and peppers makes feta a must-have. At $11 or $12 a pound, it’s the best value at the cheese counter.
My favorite brand remains the barrel-aged Mt. Vikos, which costs a little more, and I do love the creamy French Valbreso, which is entirely sheep’s milk. (Most Greek feta includes 30 percent goat’s milk.) But for high quality at a good price, I’m impressed with Arvaniti, a barrel-aged Greek brand that is relatively new to the U.S.
Maturing slabs of salted feta in wooden barrels is traditional but time consuming and costly. Many producers have abandoned this practice and instead pack the young cheese in tins or plastic tubs, but aficionados insist that barrel aging improves the cheese. As with wine, there is some beneficial air exchange, and because the barrels are re-used, there are surely some microbes that remain in the staves and influence flavor.
The Mt. Vikos spends longer in barrel than the Arvaniti—four months versus two months. Of course the Mt. Vikos people say that the extended aging is significant, and Arvaniti says it is not. In an e-mail, proprietor Michalis Arvanitis told me that after a couple of months in barrel, the feta changes so slowly that it may as well be transferred to the plastic tubs that it ships in. Both creameries get all their milk from the Macedonia region, Greece’s prime dairy area; the Mt. Vikos contains 80 percent sheep’s milk for extra creaminess and richness. The PDO regulations require a minimum of 70 percent. I don’t know Arvaniti’s sheep/goat ratio, but you can taste both brands and compare.
I look for feta with a pleasing salt level, an acidic tang, and a sliceable, creamy texture. The surface should glisten. If it’s not brine packed, I make brine for it at home, which helps preserve it. If you store it in plain water, the water will leach out the salt and the cheese will soon taste flavorless.
Make a 5 percent brine solution (roughly 1 tablespoon kosher or sea salt per cup of cold water). Stir the salt until it dissolves, then pour it over the feta. Make enough brine to keep the feta submerged. When you use the cheese, lift out what you need with a fork, not with your fingers. The feta will keep that way for weeks.
I crumble feta over slow-roasted tomatoes and roasted peppers. I also like it in pasta with fresh tomatoes or peppers; it makes a creamy sauce.
- For an easy hors d’oeuvre, put feta in a food processor with sliced garlic, a pinch of dried mint, some sliced pickled peperoncini and enough olive oil to make it whip. Process until smooth and spread on flatbread (see image above) or on thin toasts.
- You can also bake feta: put a slab in an oiled ramekin. Drizzle with more olive oil and sprinkle dried oregano or thyme on top. Add a pinch of hot pepper flakes or sliced pickled peperoncini. Scatter some halved cherry tomatoes around it. Bake in a moderate oven just until the feta quivers. Serve with Kalamata olives.
Many Whole Foods carry the Mt. Vikos feta. Several Bay Area stores carry the Arvaniti brand, although they buy it in bulk and repack it so you won’t see that name on the tub. Currently, customers for Arvaniti feta include Cal-Mart, Rainbow Grocery and 24th Street Cheesein San Francisco; Cheese Board in Berkeley; Country Cheese Coffee Mart in Berkeley and Kensington; Diablo Foods (multiple locations); Draegers (multiple locations); Farmstead Cheeses and Wines in Alameda; Lunardi’s in Los Gatos and Danville; Oliver’s Market (multiple locations); and Piazza’s Fine Foods (Palo Alto and San Mateo).
Arugula Salad with Watermelon and Feta
Watermelon with feta is popular in Greece, especially at picnics. In more formal settings, such as restaurants, the fruit and cheese might be tossed with arugula to make a salad. Servewith charcoal-grilled chicken, pork or lamb. From The Cheese Course by Janet Fletcher.
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 shallot, minced
- Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/3 pound watermelon, trimmed of rind
- 6 ounces baby arugula or baby spinach
- 1/4 pound Greek feta, crumbled
- 16 Kalamata olives
In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice, shallot and salt and pepper taste. Let stand 30 minutes to allow the shallot flavor to mellow. Taste and adjust the balance as needed.
Cut the watermelon into thin half-moon slices and remove the seeds, then cut the half-moons into roughly triangular pieces of manageable size.
In a large bowl, toss the arugula and watermelon with the dressing. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Transfer to a serving bowl or platter and top with crumbled feta. Scatter olives around the edge of the salad.