Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Mt. Vikos Barrel Aged Feta

Good things come from wooden barrels. The greatest of spirits, of wines, of vinegars, and more include barrel aging as a component of their taste. Wood is flavorful as a spice, for lack of a better term. Even meats take on the flavor of its smoke so well.

I was in Whole Foods yesterday and saw their feta section. They have three cheeses labeled feta, one from cow, one from goat, and one from sheep milk. As an opportunity to taste the difference between the three animal's milk, I couldn't pass it up, but as an example of feta, I don't think so, except perhaps the sheep. One block over, at a great ethnic market (we have some great ethnic markets in town) they carry Bulgarian, French, and other peoples' takes on feta.

"Any attempt to trace feta's origins leads a researcher straight into quicksand."

At Mt. Vikos, a Greek company that makes an acclaimed barrel-aged feta, the production process lasts a minimum of two months. It begins with pasteurized milk from local herds of sheep and goats that graze freely on pastures near the dairy. Greek regulations require that feta be at least 70 percent sheep's milk, with the remainder goat's milk. Sheep's milk is richer and more desirable, but sheep are shy producers, so supplementing with goat's milk is allowed.

After the bacterial culture and rennet are added, the milk coagulates in less than an hour. Cheesemakers know when the curd is ready to cut. With a wire implement, they cut the curds into relatively large cubes, then transfer them to perforated molds for draining. Over the next three hours, the cheesemaker will jiggle, massage and gently press the curds to assist the draining and help them knit together into a wheel.

Next, the thick round is cut into three fat, pie-shaped segments, and these wedges are flipped a couple of times to encourage more draining. The next day, the segmented rounds are packed in wooden barrels with sea salt between the layers. After 24 hours, the wedges are rinsed and nestled in a second set of birch barrels that have been rubbed on the inside with a fresh cheese made from the feta's own whey. Then the cheesemaker fills any gaps with whey, seals the barrels and transfers them to a room kept at about 68 degrees to cure for 15 to 20 days. Finally, the barrels are moved into refrigerated storage, where the cheese continues to develop, albeit more slowly.

Prime age

Although the cheese is ready at two months, Mt. Vikos founder Sotiris Kitrilakis likes to hold onto it for at least four months. "Ideally, the cheese should be eaten between 6 and 12 months old," writes Kitrilakis in an e- mail.


Most feta today is aged in tins, which doesn't allow for the same sort of flavor development. Because barrels are permeable, allowing oxygen in, barrel- aged feta can mature like wine.
The Greek Cheese Page


Cheesenet on Feta

Feta can be whipped with olive oil, garlic, oregano and hot peppers to make the spicy cheese spread known in Greece as htipiti.

David Rosengarten on Mt. Vikos feta