Feta and Terroir
Terroir is a French term, now frequently used in English, which is sometimes erroneously and simplistically translated as the physical place where a product is produced. However, terroir is a multifaceted concept that encompasses not only geographic, but also biological and human characteristics that influence a variety of produce – from wine to meat to cheese.
In the case of cheese, three chief factors comprise terroir: the environment, the producers, and the animals. This includes the unique flora on which the animals feed and climate in which they are raised; the manner in which the producers treat the animals and the production practices they employ; and, not least, the breed of the animals themselves, which affects the chemical composition of the end product.
The unique terroir of feta cheese, particular only to feta produced in Greece, is worth exploring. Greece’s soil, climate, flora, and, indeed, the collective historical knowledge of its people, all influence the end product that is feta cheese.
Even within Greece, feta cannot be produced just anywhere. According to Greek and European law, the milk used to manufacture feta cheese must come exclusively from sheep and goats that graze in the Greek regions of West Macedonia, Central Macedonia, East Macedonia, Thrace, Epirus, Thessaly, Central Greece, Peloponnese, and Lesbos, an island in the northeastern Aegean Sea.13 These areas have a temperate Mediterranean climate with anywhere between 275 and 325 sunny days per year. More than two-thirds of these areas are mountainous in terrain, hospitable to little more livestock than the sheep and goats raised there.
The climate and terrain of these areas within Greece are home to indigenous flora upon which the sheep and goats graze, certainly affecting the flavor of the end product. There are anywhere between 900 and 1,200 native species of plants found in Greece, with 6,000 species found overall. Moreover, the flora found in rocky, mountainous areas is particularly rich in rare, endemic species.
The temperate climate, ample sunshine, and freedom to graze on a plethora of native plants all contribute to feta’s terroir and these factors undoubtedly affect the composition of the sheep’s and goat’s milk, and therefore the taste and quality of the feta cheese produced from it. Indeed, if the goats and sheep used in feta cheese production were fed grain or were not raised in these specific conditions, it can be inferred that the chemical composition of their milk would be affected, thereby affecting sensorial characteristics. In a relevant French study, the cheese of pastured cows was compared to that of cows fed hay and raised indoors. The cheese of the pastured cows was higher in saturated and monounsaturated fatty acids than in the cows fed hay indoors. Moreover, the cheese from the indoor hay-fed cows were found to be on average, firmer, less creamy, less elastic, and less yellow than the pasture cheeses.
While there are no known studies that analyze the chemical composition and sensorial characteristics of Greek feta produced according to the aforementioned government-mandated conditions compared to so-called feta cheeses produced on a large industrial scale in countries such as Denmark and the United States, it is reasonable to assume that the outcome of such an exercise would produce similar results to the French study.
But would it be prudent to conduct such a study comparing the influence of terroir on Greek feta to the brined white cheeses of Denmark, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom, among other countries? Even a casual observer would note that in many of these countries, the feta-like cheeses manufactured are often produced with cow’s milk, which is itself illegal in Greece. Moreover, the industrial-level production of these cheeses by huge multinational corporations is a far cry from the small-scale shepherds that produce most of the milk used in Greek feta.
In sum, the terroir of Greek-produced feta cheese is unique for a variety of reasons – from the climate and flora to the livestock used – and we can assume this distinctive terroir indeed affects the composition and taste of the end product.