How to look for the best feta cheese

Try a barrel-aged version of Greece’s famous cheese, says Patrick McGuigan, and you’ll discover the difference in flavour is an eye opener.

The cheese expert explains what to look for in a good feta cheese and the most delicious ways to cook and serve it. Plus, Patrick shares his favourite fetas from Greece and a few artisan feta-esque cheeses made in the UK.

How to look for the best feta cheese

Feta cheese: a Greek classic

Crumble feta into a salad and you’re following a tradition that stretches back thousands of years. Some cheese historians claim an early forerunner cameo-ed in Homer’s Odyssey, which describes the cheesemaking exploits of the cyclops Polyphemus before he discovers Odysseus hiding in his cave. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well for the one-eyed cheesemaker.

Quinoa, feta, pea and mint salad with lemon and chilli

The cheese is a jewel in Greece’s culinary crown, with a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), meaning it must be made in Greece with sheep’s milk, plus up to 30% goat’s milk. The higher the ratio of goat’s milk, the whiter and more piquant the cheese, while 100% sheep’s milk fetas are ivory and richer in flavour.

"The cheese is a jewel in Greece's culinary crown."

Roll out the barrel

Most feta exported to the UK is made industrially, aged in metal tanks for just two months, giving a cheese that’s fresh and salty but lacks complexity. Fetas aged in traditional beechwood barrels are more interesting. The wood imparts yeasty, fruity notes and the longer they’re matured, the more intense they become, developing barnyard and lanolin notes. Roussas feta from Odysea is aged this way for eight months, while Maltby & Greek imports kostarelos 12 month barrel-aged feta. Both are full of character and can hold their own on a cheeseboard, drizzled with honey and served with thyme leaves.

How to use feta cheese in cooking

Feta’s tang is also the reason why it holds its shape when heated. Cheeses with high acidity don’t melt but soften and caramelise. Roast a block with  tomatoes and chilli, then mix with pasta (a viral sensation on TikTok) or whip the cheese with greek yogurt, olive oil and lemon juice to make a dip. Watermelon and mint are refreshing counterpoints in salads, while sharp, dry white wines are perfect for piercing the creaminess. Try flinty assyrtiko.

British “feta cheeses” aka the pretenders

There are many British versions of feta, which can’t be labelled as such because of the PDO. Fetish from White Lake and pickled ewe’s cheese from Homewood Cheeses are both buttery and crumbly sheep’s milk alternatives made in Somerset. There’s also graceburn, made from raw cow’s milk by Blackwoods in Kent, which is marinated in rapeseed oil infused with herbs, garlic and pepper. Poor Polyphemus would have loved it.

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