When Daphne Zepos died, too young, in 2012, she left behind a cheese-import company and a business partner dedicated to perpetuating what they had started. Essex Street Cheese Company introduced many Americans to fine Comté and aged Gouda hand-selected from the best French and Dutch cellars.
A year after her death from cancer, Zepos’s business partner Jason Hinds traveled to the Greek island of Sifnos to assist friends and family in spreading her ashes. While there, he had an epiphany. To honor his colleague’s memory, he would add a feta to the Essex Street line. Zepos was Greek, after all, and feta fit perfectly with the core mission of Essex—to identify and import gold-standard versions of cheeses that had become commodities in the U.S.
Hinds tasked a well-known Athens chef with finding a world-class feta that Zepos would have been proud to represent. The chef sent samples, Hinds narrowed the list to two producers and returned to Greece to visit both last year.
One of these fabulous fetas was made by 23 nuns in a mountain monastery near Thessaloniki, but they couldn’t produce enough. The cheese Hinds selected instead comes from a third-generation producer on the island of Lesbos who had never exported before. Essex Street Feta debuted in the U.S. earlier this year, with a percentage of sales going to the Daphne Zepos Teaching Award.
Greek feta, by law, must contain at least 70 percent sheep’s milk. Most producers use goat’s milk for the remaining 30 percent, but a higher proportion of sheep’s milk yields a creamier cheese. Mt. Vikos, a brand I admire, contains 80 percent sheep’s milk. The Essex Street feta is pure sheep’s milk (as is Trader Joe’s Greek feta, an excellent product at a great price).
In Greece, where feta is a household staple, merchants display it in its brine and portion it to order. Feta out of brine declines quickly. To encourage American cheesemongers to do the same, Hinds commissioned a potter on Sifnos, where Zepos spent many summers, to produce a decorative blue-and-white bowl large enough to hold the entire four-kilo tub of feta. Every retailer who buys the cheese receives a bowl. This sounded like a brilliant idea to me—and a great talking point for merchants.
Alas, the shop where I bought the feta—twice—was selling it pre-cut and wrapped in plastic. No bowl, no brine. When I asked the clerk about it, she said selling it the Greek way was too messy. Plus, there wasn’t enough brine to give some to each customer so the staff would have had to make more.
A few days later, from Cowgirl Creamery, I got some Essex Street feta in brine. The difference was apparent. The plastic-wrapped feta was oddly lemony, leaving a prickly sensation, as if it was re-fermenting. The feta in brine had a more conventional flavor profile, although it reminded me more of tangy Bulgarian feta than the mellow Greek feta I’m accustomed to. It had a pronounced cultured-milk taste, similar to cottage cheese. Not surprisingly, it was creamier than the pre-cut feta as well.
If you buy Essex Street feta (or any feta) without brine, Hinds suggests making a 5 percent brine solution to store it in (about 3 tablespoons salt per quart of water). Make enough to cover the feta and keep your fingers out of it. Use a clean fork to lift the feta out of the brine.
Look for Essex Street feta at Bi-Rite, Cheese Plus, Cowgirl Creamery, The Market Hall and Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco; Diablo Foods in Lafayette; Driver’s Market in Sausalito; Woodlands Market in Kentfield; Cowgirl Creamery in Pt. Reyes Station; DTLA Cheese, FOOD and Urban Radish in Los Angeles; Wheyward Girl Creamery in Nevada City; Cheesemongers of Sante Fe; and Fromagio’s Artisan Cheese in Anchorage.
Lamburgers with Grilled Red Onions and Feta
Elevate your Labor Day barbecue with juicy lamburgers topped with Essex Street feta. From Eating Local by Janet Fletcher.
- 2 pounds freshly ground lamb shoulder
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt
- 1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 6 half-inch-thick slices red onion
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 1/3 pound crumbled feta, at room temperature
- 6 hamburger buns
- Ground sumac (optional)
- 2 tomatoes, cored and thinly sliced
Prepare a moderate charcoal fire for indirect grilling or preheat a gas grill to medium (375˚F to 400˚F), leaving one burner unlit for indirect grilling.
Put the meat in a large bowl and add the oregano (crumbling it between your fingers as you add it), the salt, hot pepper and black pepper to taste. Work the seasonings in gently, then, with moistened hands, shape the meat into six patties about 3/8-inch thick. They should be a little wider than your hamburger buns as they will shrink in diameter when cooked.
Use toothpicks to skewer the onion slices and hold the rings together. Two toothpicks per slice, inserted from opposite sides, will do the job. Brush the onion slices on both sides with some of the olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
Grill the onion slices first: Place them directly over the coals or flame and cover the grill. Cook until nicely colored on both sides, about 5 minutes, then move to indirect heat until they are softened but not limp, about 5 minutes longer. Keep warm while you grill the burgers.
Grill the burgers directly over the coals or flame—lid off on a charcoal grill, lid on for a gas grill. Cook until they are done to your taste, which you can best determine by touch. A rare burger feels soft, with no spring-back. A medium burger will offer some resistance to the touch, but will not feel firm. A well-done burger will be firm to the touch. Cooking time depends on the heat of your fire, but a medium burger will take about 10 minutes. A couple of minutes before the burgers are done, top with feta, dividing the cheese evenly.
Toast the bun halves on the grill, cut side down.
To assemble the burgers, sprinkle the bottom halves of the buns generously with sumac. Top with sliced tomato and sprinkle with salt. Remove the toothpicks from the onion slices and put a slice on top of each tomato. Top the onion with a burger, sprinkle with sumac, then cover with the top half of the bun. Serve immediately.