In This Article, A History Of Feta Cheese (Greek) vs Bulgarian Cheese (Sirene) and other white brined cheeses of the Balkans and Middle East.
Feta cheese is the most famous variety of white brined cheese in the world. However, very similar cheeses have been made around the Balkan region, eastern Mediterranean, middle east and beyond, probably since at least 8000 BC.
In this article & podcast episode we explore the history of white brined cheese as well as the controversial decision by the EU in 2002 that Feta cheese is a 100% Greek product and that the name “Feta” can only be used on the cheese if it is made in certain parts of Greece.
Podcast: History Of Feta Cheese (Greek) vs Bulgarian Cheese (Sirene)
In this episode:
- History of Greek Feta Cheese vs. Bulgarian Sirene Cheese vs Romanian Telmea and other white cheeses. Which was the original brined white cheese?
- We discuss the ancient history of Feta style cheese from the balkan region.
- Should the EU have made Feta cheese a Greek only designated origin product?
- We explain the origin of the name “Feta”.
- Plus, How Canada may have got it right when it comes to Feta cheese…
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The Below Is A Partial, Incomplete Transcript From The Full Podcast Episode
The Controversy – Introducing the topic
When we visited Bulgaria locals told us that Bulgarian Cheese (Sirene) was the best Feta cheese – that it was better in flavor and perhaps even that Bulgaria had been producing it for longer.
In popular culture, mainly as an easy way to communicate an idea, we’ve found the word feta used to describe brined white cheese, which is similar to Feta, in many countries. Romanian Feta – called Telmea. Bulgarian Feta – The Sirene cheese.
But, since EU regulations enacted a DOP/PDO status to protect Feta Cheese in 2002, only brined white cheese made to strict guidelines, and made in specific regions of Greece, is allowed to be called Feta Cheese.
WHAT IS FETA / SIRENE (Bulgarian Cheese)?
Most listeners will have tried feta already. its a brined curd white cheese made from sheep’s milk or from a mixture of sheep and goat’s milk. It is a crumbly aged cheese, normally at least 3 months aged, commonly produced in blocks, and has a slightly grainy texture with a salty hit.
The October 2002 European Union bill limits the term feta to mean a brined cheese mad only from sheep’s milk or a mix of sheep and goat’s milk, with a max 30% of goat’s milk. Feta must be made in certain regions of Greece, specifically: Peloponnese, Epirus, Thessaly, Central Greece, Macedonia, Thrace, plus the islands of Lesvos and Cephalonia.
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. Which is one of many reasons we’ll discuss why The name feta has become a protected origin product.
It should be noted that, at time of recording, the USA has not accepted this protected status and feta cheese purchased in the USA may not have been produced in Greece. Though talks are underway on a massive trade deal between the EU and USA that would potentially change this.
Sirene (Bulgarian Cheese)
Sirene Bulgarian Cheese can be made from a combination of goat, cow and sheep milk. There is no regulation on which, or the proportions. It’s is a little softer and wetter than feta cheese, but still crumbly and has a fat content of around 44-48%. It has a grain texture and slightly lemony flavor. I find it just a little creamier than feta, normally.
Bulgarian cheese is used for so many culinary applications, from salads to baked goods (like the Banitsa pastry), also in dips or added to other dishes. It may also be served as a table cheese.
Other White Cheese
In Romania, the equivalent cheese is called “Telmea”
Each brined white cheese from the Balkans and middle east are distinctly different but are made in a very similar way. The proportion and type of milk, the breed of animal the milk comes from, as well as the climate affect the final product.
In Lebanon, as well as having imported Greek Feta cheese, they also have Bulghari – which is a separate product that mimics the free use of milk that Sirene does – mixing in cow’s milk as well. So it’s also important to remember that our narrow English culture view of cheese history is not the only way of looking at this. Other cultures are very aware of the difference between white cheeses across the region.
It’s fair to say these cheeses all taste different, though similar. It’s like comparing Grana Padano to Parmigiano Reggiano cheese – similar style, but different taste. I can say with certainty that the “Salad Cheese” we get at our current local supermarket in portugal is absolutely inferior to the certified Feta from the same store. Of course, differences can also be down to production style and quality, so our personal test is just that – not of any scientific rigour.
I have to say I loved almost all the good quality Bulgarian Sirene cheese. And Good feta is great too. It’s hard to say one is better than the other when it depends on individual batches and production.
History of Feta Cheese & White Cheese In General
Though food historians don’t know the exact origin of white cheese, it’s believed that cheese making existed since at least 8000 BC and could have started very close to original domestication of livestock – so possibly even as far back as 10,000 BC.
The oldest reference to White brined cheese is said to be from famous greek writer Homer’s Oddyssey, from 800BC. And I quote:
“We entered the cave, but he 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,” Homer wrote.
Homer’s fiction suggests The Cyclops Polyphemus knew how to make Feta cheese – though it wasn’t called that at the time. The fictional description shows that Homer, and hence the people of Greece in general, were very familiar with the cheese making process and specifically white cheeses.
The ancient Greeks called the product which came from the coagulation of milk “τυρí,” (Tyri).
The name Feta translates as “slice” and began being used to describe the white cheese from the 17th century onwards, probably because of the way the cheese was sliced in barrels.
However, the word fetta – with two t’s – is the Italian word for slice, and etymologists confirm the word derives from the Italian and Latin before that, not from Greek.
The name Feta prevailed in the 19th century as the main term for the cheese in Greece.
Mass immigration from Greece in the 20th century to countries like Australia, USA, Canada and Germany helped spread Feta cheese and its production around the world and boosted its international profile.
At the same time, other cultures from around the region continued to make their own white cheese to their only local preferences, as they had done for thousands of years. Most have their own local names, but Feta became the generic term, especially in English, that was used to understand this general type of cheese as well as versions of it that were by the mid 20th century being made all over the world.
From Denmark, to the UK and USA, types of feta were being produced and marketed under that name. In Denmark specifically, their Feta was focused on Cows milk, quite different from the Sheep and goat milk feta of Greece.
In the 1990’s, Greece petitioned the EU to protect the origin of Feta by giving them a geographic designation and banning other cheesemakers from marketing under the name Feta. This bill was passed in 2002.
The History Of Feta Debate
So, the debate is, with so many white cheeses from the region and eventually worldwide, had Feta become a generic name by 2002? Or is it a Greek specific name that should be protected? Did they have a strong enough claim to justify this change – and is Feta really “Greek” when the origins of white brined cheese are so lost to history?
The first question to ask – If we are pinning the origin of the Cheese on greek mythology, rather than historic record, should we be also considering what was Greece in 800 BC when Homer’s book was written?
Looking at an historical map, you’ll find Greek settlements all the way up the Black sea coast through modern day Bulgaria and into Romania and beyond. It’s possible to consider this cheese was being made by locals in this region and the knowledge was passed on to Greek traders, prior to 800 BC.
Though given the belief in the food science history community that cheese was made since at least 8000 BC, that was long before there was any such country as Greece. It just so happens that Greece has existed in some sort of perpetuity of identity for longer than most of it’s neighbours. Giving it a longer historical claim than others simply for political identity, rather than any modern day geographical origin.
Something else to note, Cyclops Polyphemus from Homer’s story is said to have lived on the Island of Sicily – Yes, Sicily of Italian Mafia fame. In 800BC this was mainly a phoenician island, Greeks started to occupy it around 750BC. So a Greek presence may have been there in 800BC, but it wasn’t really a Greek island at the time. So the earliest reference to the cheese is not particularly anything to do with Greek culture, geographically.
If you turn up and find someone doing something, then claim it as your own, did you invent it? No. But the suggestion is that the Greek visitors to the Cyclops were well aware of cheese and cheese making when they arrived, hence why they could instantly recognise the process. The Greek sailors were completely familiar with cheese making. Even though it is also suggested elsewhere that the Cyclops had accidentally discovered the cheese making process.
So, none of this really settles a geographical origin, if anything it gives weight to the idea that this style of cheese is so pervasive in the region, perhaps even that a lone cyclops could discover it independently, that Greece’s claim on the name should not be geographical or a matter of ancient indeterminable history.
Secondly, It was also argued that the word Feta was Italian in origin. So, it could hardly be claimed that it was a Greek word and hence was a generic term. A bit of a flimsy argument in my opinion. As English is made up from many words that come from Latin, this line of argument leads us down a path that pretty much anything named in English using words derived from other languages, hundreds of years ago, would then have no right to be claimed as English.
Finally, the other most important consideration, in my opinion, is that of cultural identity and association.
Almost all Western European and international producers were using Greek iconography and colors to market their Feta cheese. Greek migration was also a major reason for the spread of Feta cheese to new world countries. Culturally, the use of the word Feta was tied to the use of Greece as it’s home. When it comes to other white cheeses like Bulgarian Sirene, the name is not even a fraction as successful.
Though some may use the phrase Bulgaria Feta for convenience, there is no specific cultural connection with the word Feta and with Bulgarian cheese. It’s been called sirene for a long time and Bulgarians, proud of their heritage, don’t seem to claim at all that it is anything but Sirene – only that it is better and perhaps been around longer in Bulgaria – though Bulgaria didn’t exist as a country until the 7th century AD, so it would have been non-Bulgarians living their who were making the cheese.
For the name, the biggest controversy was actually stirred up by western European companies, like Arla, A massive Danish Dairy corporation, who feared losing a lot of money if their Danish Feta lost the word feta from their marketing.
A war over marketing, origin and DOP status. The argument ended up being largely about commerce, rather than about heritage. Greece’s feta exports rose 85 percent between 2007 and 2014 – is this because consumers wanted the real thing? Or that consumers are just more aware of the product today? It’s great news for Greece either way.
Greece has the oldest written evidence of the knowledge of this cheese being made though it is widely agreed the exact origin of the cheese is lost to history long before any written record was made.
Greece also named and popularised Feta, to a point where culturally, even if the origin of the word is Italian, whenever we talk about Feta cheese, the association is first and foremost to Greece – to the point where even some locals in Bulgaria / Romania etc. Use terms like “Bulgarian Feta” to help identify their cheese to foreigners – even though they can’t print that on the label. In the United States, where name regulations do not apply, it’s often sold under the name “Bulgarian Feta.”
The job for Sirene cheese, may now be to create a name for themselves, as they have a fantastic product. Rather than leapfrogging off the success of Feta – easier said than done of course.
Although the word Feta cannot be used for non Greek cheese in the EU. Other countries did not fall under that jurisdiction. but In 2013, an agreement was reached with Canada in which feta made in Canada would be called “Feta style/type cheese” cheese, and would not depict on the label anything evoking Greece. I see this as a more sensible way of approaching the issue.
With some other protected products, like Balsamic Vinegar, the name can still be used for similar products, but to know it is of authentic origin from Emilia Romagna in Italy, it has the additional DOP or IGP on the label. The generic name lets the consumer instantly recognize the type of product by a familiar name, and the additional labelling terms inform if the product is a generic, or authentic product.
I think Canada has it right on this one. The name has become a useful generic term, just like “Cheddar cheese” and the historical origin is a little vague – more so than that of cheddar which we’ll do an episode on one day, but if you use images of Greece to promote a feta cheese made in the USA or Denmark, that seems misleading.
The cultural claim to Feta seems firmly Greek, but the word itself and the history of White Brined cheese make it harder to put all the eggs in Greece’s basket.