In Greece, feta is so beloved that it’s a cornerstone of history. In Homer’s “The Odyssey,” written near the end of the 8th century B.C., the Cyclops makes a sheep’s milk cheese that is believed to have been the creamy white, salty confection.
Transporting his flock’s milk in skin bags made of animal stomachs, so the story goes, the one-eyed giant found that the milk had curdled and taken a solid, decidedly delicious form.
West Sonoma County farmers Missy and Joe Adiego won’t be using skin bags, but for all other purposes their new feta, launched this month, is as close to the original as many Americans will see outside of traveling to Europe.
Crafted from 100 percent sheep milk in small batches at their Petaluma/Bloomfield creamery, it’s all natural, offering a creamy texture with just a bit of classic firmness and a traditional salty finish.
As the only dairy selling sheep milk as a bottled, retail specialty in the United States, Haverton has been recognized for unique products since opening in 2010.
The product line now contains butter and ice cream, all made from pure milk supplied by their pasture-raised flock of more than a thousand East Friesian sheep.
The “pure” is an important distinction for the farmstead creamery, which won first place in the 2015 American Cheese Society Awards craft butter category and was a finalist in the food category for the 2015 Martha Stewart American Made audience choice awards.
“We wanted to offer a true local sheep milk feta cheese, one that is from right here and not imported,” said Missy Adiego.
“Some companies use frozen milk, but we milk in the morning and make the cheese that same day.”
Pure sheep milk
Carr Valley Cheese and Hidden Springs Creamery, both in Wisconsin, make pure sheep milk feta, but under the American Cheese Society sheep’s milk feta guidelines, domestic feta can be, and most often is, made with cow milk, goat milk or a mix of sheep and cow milk.
In 2005, the European Union decreed that only Greek cheese made from at least 70 percent sheep’s milk can rightfully bear the label “feta,” yet those rules don’t apply in the United States.
Part of the reason for the scarcity is cost. Haverton’s artisanal feta is made-to-order with a light brine of a 30-day shelf life, and an 8 oz. package rings up at $10.50 to $12, depending on the retailer.
“The price reflects our milk yield,” Adiego said. “Our ewes only produce half of what a goat does per day, and even less than what a cow does.”
But consumers can enjoy higher nutritional benefit, she noted. Sheep milk contains almost twice as much protein and Vitamin D as cow milk, plus substantial amounts of vitamins A, D, E, B12, folic acid, zinc, magnesium and phosphorous.
It also has less milk sugar than cow’s milk and is naturally homogenized, which makes it easily digestible and a good alternative for lactose-intolerant people.
Then there’s the authentic feta flavor, which can be described as having an appealingly “barnyard” tang versus the more mild, grassy taste and crumbly texture of cow milk feta.
Making the delicacy seemed like a natural evolution for the small company, where the Adiegos do mostly everything themselves, from milking to crafting to packaging the finished goods by hand.
For the past five years, much of their milk has gone to Bellwether Farms in Valley Ford, to make raw sheep milk farmstead cheeses.
Now, the couple is keeping more milk for their own recipes. And they are using the same small vat they use to make their butter.
“Our family loves feta,” Missy said.
“So we decided to play around with some recipes and were amazed at the results. We eat it on everything now, from salads to homemade pizzas.”
Haverton Hill Creamery, 5110 Bloomfield Road, Petaluma, 665-5457, havertonhill.com. Check the website for retailers.