Article and photography by Jim Bamboulis
For once, I was at the right place at the right time. Let me explain.
I was walking along Toronto’s Greektown in early April when I saw a local restaurant owner – and longtime friend of mine – walking to his car. We spotted each other and said hello. During the course of the conversation, he asked me if I was free later in the week and explained that a group from the European Union was in town to do a series of dinners featuring Greek feta and that his restaurant was on the roster. “Come”, he said, “it’s going to be an eight-course meal with wine…and they’re paying for it so why not, right?”
I accepted, obviously.
The following day was my Mom’s birthday. I decided to take her to a Greek restaurant in the east end of the city, a fair distance away from both downtown and Greektown. It was a Tuesday so the restaurant was pretty empty during the dinner service. We celebrated for a while and just when I asked for the bill, in comes a group of seven led by a long time friend of mine, Peter. He struts over to our table, we exchange our hellos then asks whether I’m coming to the big eight-course dinner the following night; adds that he’s organizing each dinner at each restaurant. The group with him is the EU contingent, ready to PR the hell out of Greek feta to a Toronto audience.
I arrive the following night with an empty stomach and expect nothing but an amazing meal from famed Toronto Chef Chris Kalisperas with a large group of people.
Part formal networking event, part party, the night is full of food, speeches, and presentations. The food, phenomenal of course. When the night ends, I shake Pete’s hand, as he casually introduces me to a few of the EU reps. After a few hellos and customary Euro cheek kisses, I head home with drowsy eyes thanks to a full stomach.
It turns out, I made an impression on the EU contingent. One week later, Pete calls me and asks whether I’d be interested in heading to Greece for a media trip. The blogger in the group, I’d be touring feta factories and helping promote Greek feta to an international audience. I whole-heartedly accept, obviously, as I’m always eager to promote both culinary and cultural stories and experiences, especially those that come from my ancestral homeland.
My Big Fat Greek Feta Life
Growing up Greek, feta was always around. In our family, it was what hot sauce is today; we put it on everything, from omelets and salads to orzo and beef stews. If it wasn’t in the dish, it was on the table as a meze. To this day, my perfect meal is still fresh bread with feta, sprinkled with oregano and drizzled with olive oil. That small tapas can last me all day!
But as a kid, I didn’t pay much attention to what kind of feta I was eating. Didn’t care about the nutritional values, what it was made with or where it came from. Feta was feta and I knew that I loved it. Over time, I not only began to meet people who didn’t like the cheese (a travesty, I know) but realized that it was being made throughout the world, and labeled as ‘Canadian feta’, ‘Bulgarian feta’, etc. I didn’t think much of it until very recently but it turns out, this is a very big deal.
Feta’s deep roots, a brief history
Feta has been a part of the Greek diet since ancient times and in fact, is described in Homer’s “Odyssey” which dates back to the 8th century BC. According to Homer:
“We entered the cave of Polyphemus, but Cyclops wasn’t there, only his plump sheep grazed in the meadow. The woven baskets were full of cheese, the folds were full of sheep and goats and all his pots, tubs and churns where he drew the milk, were full of whey. When half of the snow-white milk curdled he collected it, put it in the woven baskets, and kept the other half in a tub to drink.”
True Greek feta, the national staple of Greece has always been made exclusively from sheep or a combination of sheep’s and goat’s milk in the following regions of Greece: Peloponnese, Central Greece, Epirus, Thessaly, Macedonia, Thrace, Lesvos, and Kephalonia. According to the EU Commission, the biodiversity of the land coupled with the special breeds of sheep and goats used for milk is what gives feta cheese a specific aroma and flavor. Evidently, it’s not just the modern mountain nomads who’ve been making it this way but the ancient nomads as well who date back almost 3000 years.
What’s the meaning of PDO and how does it relate to feta?
Champagne is made in Champagne, France. If it’s made anywhere else in the world, it’s called sparkling wine. Feta entered the same sphere of conversation in 1994. At that time, several other European countries argued that feta was an Italian word meaning ‘slice’. The cheese itself was looked upon as a sheep or goat’s milk cheese that could be produced anywhere. The debate of feta’s origin went on for over 10 years before Greece won the fight for PDO status for feta cheese in 2005.
In other words, if it’s made in those particular regions of Greece mentioned above, it’s called feta. Otherwise, it’s called white cheese and in Canada where I live, it’s called ‘feta style cheese’. When you see the PDO label on feta, it’s real deal feta. Designation of origin identifies a product (in this case, feta) that originates from a certain region, area or country where the quality is due to a particular geographical environment and long-standing traditions that have been established by the region’s storied ancestors.
Imitated, yes. Duplicated, not so much
Unlike Canadian feta for example, which is made with cow’s milk, true Greek feta is made with a mixture of sheep and goat’s milk. The latter of which cannot exceed 30%. After pasteurization, cultures are added to separate the whey and the curds. The whey is then drained, the curd is placed in molds for a full day. Once firm, the curd is then cut into cubes and placed in either stainless steel containers or beech wood barrels for 72 hours. After that, the cheese blocks are refrigerated for two months before being packaged and shipped worldwide.
Here are some points to consider:
- Feta PDO production follows the strict EU quality and safety specifications under which a product can be recognized as a PDO.
- It’s produced from sheep and goat breeds that graze freely only in specific geographical regions in Greece where rich biodiversity, specific soil and ideal weather conditions are abundant.
- Modern tech methods are based on traditional production methods with roots in ancient Greece.
- No powdered milk, preservatives or colorants are used as Feta PDO is free from all antibiotic substances.
- The combination of the milk, production and maturation process must last for 2 months to give the Feta PDO that unique taste.
- Maximum moisture content – 56%
- Minimum fat content in dry matter – 43%
The PDO symbol guarantees that the quality, characteristics, and traditions of the product, coupled with the sustainable and responsible production of the product have not only been met but preserved. In other words, Champagne from Champagne, Feta from Greece, etc.
I visited 3 of Greece’s many feta factories
The nerd in me was uber excited to see the inside of a massive factory and get a glimpse into how a cheese I’ve been eating my entire life is made. We entered, washed and further sanitized our hands, and put on protective gear covering us from head to toe. Upon entering, the first thing I noticed was the efficiency of production and cleanliness of each factory. Nothing’s wasted, everything’s streamlined perfectly, making efficiency optimal.
As time went on, I started to appreciate more the passion and care that goes into not only running a plant but the extreme attention to detail that goes with it. After all, these are family-run plants and sure, mistakes along the line cost the company money but on a bigger scale mistakes also heavily impact the family name, traditions, and way of life. Here, feta is a religion, an identity, reflective of the soul of the ancestors and past generations who’ve perfected it. It’s a flavor of love, an aroma of tradition that pays homage to the land and the people who are connected to it.
Roussas Dairy S.A
Rooted in tradition, family-run and operated, with a reputation of sustainability and excellence, Roussas is a name known the world over for its passion for creating authentic, artisanal cheeses.
Here, quality products come from quality ingredients without the use of GMO’s. Here, pure, natural milk is sourced exclusively from Greek farms. On top of that, efficiency here is always top of mind as premium quality, most recyclable and environmentally friendly materials are used in the packaging process.
The story of Roussas goes back to the family’s nomadic Saraktsani ancestors who roamed the mountains of Central Greece with their sheep and goats. By the 1950s, their cheese making skill and mastery was turned into a business, since evolving from a small family business to an internationally recognized, cheese making powerhouse.
Everything is done in a modern, state-of-the-art, 10,000-meter squared plant that makes 15,000 tonnes of cheese annually. But don’t let the factory fool you. The family sees it merely as a way to enhance the traditional methods of authentic cheese making. Supply has to meet demand and these guys are not only meeting it but have stayed true to what it means to make authentic cheeses.
Pioneers in organic feta production, Roussas Dairy is also the main producer of portioned feta traditionally matured in beech tree barrels. So good and so popular, their global market reach and exports total 95% of its annual production to the USA, Canada, Africa, and Asia. In North America, look for the Mt. Vikos label at many major supermarket chains, including Sobey’s in Canada. For more info about Roussas Dairy, their list of products and where you can find them in your neck of the woods hit up this link to their site.
Exarhos Dairy S.A
Based in the heart of Greece, in the small village of Elassona near the base of Mt. Olympus, Exarhos Dairy has been churning out authentic feta since the late 1940s. And although their feta recipe has remained the same, their facilities have been dramatically modernized with the latest in tech and production. Yet, their history and connection with it is visible throughout the facility, constantly reminding each member of the team the vital role they play in keeping traditions alive and true.
Its 4800 sq. meter facility is equipped to collect thousands of gallons of sheep and goat milk from the heart of Greece’s mountainous region. These guys are all about maintaining the traditions of cheese making and using milk from a super specific region of Greece to create everything from feta and kasseri cheese to kefalotyri and even butter. The milk from this region is rich in both vitamins and flavor and when combined with the expertise of the cheesemakers, the final products are a true reflection of the family values that established the company from day 1.
Today, Exarhos products can be found in several European countries including Holland, Germany, Switzerland and, Italy. In Canada and the US, at the time this article was published, PDO feta from Exarhos can be found in supermarkets where Fantis Foods brand products are sold. They have offices throughout the continent so look for them in one of the big chain markets, especially where ethnic foods are sold.
Epirus Dairy S.A
Established in 1994, Epirus is the newest of the three factories and despite being the newer kid on the block, they’ve made a huge foray into minds and stomachs of feta lovers worldwide. Their state-of-the-art, almost completely automated facility is extraordinary.
Headquartered in NW Greece, Epirus has quickly become the second largest cheese production factory in the country, sourcing milk from over 1,400 sheep and goat herders and processing about 32,000 tons of milk annually. Here the free-grazing herds feed on the unique flora found only in the Epirus region of Greece.
Environmentally conscious, with incredible respect for the farmer and the land, Epirus is set to establish an organic farm by the early 2020s. 2,000 sheep and goats will produce 800 tonnes of milk using modern stabling, feeding and milking techniques with the health and wellbeing of the animal top of mind. Not new is the fact that Epirus already works closely with the farmer to provide the support they need, from improving milk quality to supporting any medical treatment needed for the herds.
Epirus products can be found in Australia, UK and in some stand-alone, ethnic food stores and restaurants in the USA. In California, parts of the Midwest and Atlantic seaboard, look for the products in both ethnic supermarkets, restaurants and medium-sized supermarket chains.
Feta is UBER good for you!
When you look at the nutritional facts, it’s easy to understand why Greek feta is both popular and widely imitated.
- 2x more Vitamin B12 than Cheddar cheese
- 4x more Vitamin D than Parmesan cheese
- 3x more Calcium than Brie cheese
- 2x more Iron than Blue cheese
- Contains fewer calories than many other kinds of cheese. For example, one ounce of cheddar contains more than 110 calories and 7 grams of fat. Meanwhile, one ounce of feta has 74 calories and 6 grams of fat.
For decades all I did was eat feta indiscriminately without giving it a second thought. It took a serendipitous encounter and several more fateful interactions in my 40s to propel me into the realm of what this ancient cheese was and is all about. The media trip itself was paid for by the European Union but all opinions in this piece are my own. I was not told to produce any content to promote my experiences.
However, I felt the cultural obligation to express my sincere appreciation for not only the cheese but also its origin, for the men and women who for generations have lived and breathed the mountains of Greece to help produce it. Those who respect the land and the animals who occupy it with them, those who keep it pure and extract only what they need to preserve not only their way of life but the soul of Greece, through one of its many national products, feta. I’ll even take a step further and say that in a time of ‘leave no trace’, you could say that these nomads of feta were among the original pioneers of responsible travel, and respectful occupation of their surroundings.
Do yourself a favor – look for the feta cheese brands mentioned above and purchase a container or two. Not only will you be spending your money on quality and value but by doing so, will be respecting and preserving the soul and culture from which this cheese has been sourced and produced for millennia.
Hey y’all. I’m Jim. That kid went on to spend 16 years in the broadcast media world before starting up Travel Mammal, a site dedicated to working with brands to promote travel, food, and cultural experiences.
I’ve created content and collaborated with everyone from Lonely Planet, Trivago, Nevada Tourism and The Weather Network to New Brunswick Tourism, Yellow Pages, Tourism Toronto, and Airbnb. Safe travels, y’all.