Since 2002, feta has been a protected designation of origin product in the European Union. According to the relevant EU legislation, only those cheeses produced in a traditional way in some areas of Greece (mainland and the island of Lesbos), and made from sheep milk, or from a mixture of sheep and goats’ milk (up to 30%) of the same area, may bear the name "feta". However, similar white brined cheeses (often called "white cheese" in various languages) are found in the eastern Mediterranean and around the Black Sea. Similar brined white cheeses produced outside the EU are often made partly or wholly of cow's milk, and they are sometimes called "feta".
Feta is a Greek soft white brined cheese with small or no holes, a compact touch, few cuts, and no skin. It is usually formed into large blocks, which are submerged in brine. Its flavor is tangy and salty, ranging from mild to sharp. Its maximum moisture is 56%, its minimum fat content in dry matter is 43%, and its pH usually ranges from 4.4 to 4.6. Feta is traditionally categorized into "firm" and "soft" varieties, the former being tangier and considered of higher quality; the latter is so soft as to be almost spreadable, and is mostly used in pies, or where its cheaper price is a factor. When sliced, feta always produces a varying amount oftrímma, "crumble", which is also used in pies; trímma is not sellable and is usually given away for free upon request.
High-quality feta should have a creamy mouthfeel, and aromas of ewe's milk, butter, and yogurt. In the mouth it is tangy, slightly salty, and mildly sour, with a spicy finish that recalls pepper and ginger, as well as a hint of sweetness.
Traditionally (and legally, within the EU), feta is produced using only whole sheep's milk, or a blend of sheep's and goat's milk (with a maximum of 30% goat's milk). The milk may be pasteurised or not; most producers now use pasteurised milk. When the pasteurised milk has cooled to approximately 35°C, rennet is added and it is left to coagulate the casein. The compacted curds are then cut up, and placed in a special mould or a cloth bag to allow the whey to drain. After several hours, the curd is firm enough to cut up and salt; salinity will eventually reach approx. 3%, the salted curds are then placed (depending on the producer and the area of Greece) in metal vessels or wooden barrels, and allowed to infuse for several days. After the dry-salting of the cheese is complete, aging or maturation in brine (a 7% salt in water solution) takes several weeks at room temperature and then for at least 2 months in a refrigerated high-humidity environment, and as before, this takes place either in wooden barrels or metal vessels,depending on the producer, however, barrel aging is said to give the cheese a unique flavour and is more traditional. The containers are then shipped to groceries and supermarkets and the cheese is cut and sold directly from therein; alternatively blocks of standardized weight are packaged in sealed plastic cups with some brine. Feta dries relatively quickly even when refrigerated; if stored for longer than a week, it should be kept in brine or in lightly salted milk.
Feta cheese is first recorded in the Byzantine Empire under the name πρόσφατος (prósphatos, "recent", i.e. fresh), and was associated specifically with Crete. An Italian visitor to Candia in 1494 describes its storage in brine clearly.
The Greek word "feta" comes from the Italian word fetta ("slice"). It was introduced into the Greek language in the 17th century. Opinions vary whether it refers to the method of cutting the cheese in slices to serve on a plate or because of the practice of slicing it to place in barrels.
After a long legal battle with Denmark, which produced a cheese under the same name using chemically blanched cow's milk, the term "feta" has been a protected designation of origin (PDO) since July 2002, which limits the term within the European Union to feta made exclusively of sheep's/goat's milk in Greece. According to the 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.
When needed to describe an imitation feta, names such as "salad cheese" and "Greek-style cheese" are used. The European Commission gave other nations five years to find a new name for their "feta" cheese, or to stop production. Because of the decision by the European Union, Danish dairy company Arla Foods changed the name of their product to apetina.