I went to buy some feta cheese today and noticed that there was both Greek and Bulgarian feta. I was wondering what the differences are between the two and can they be suitably substituted for each other?
Having worked for some time as a cheesemonger, I found that Bulgarian Feta was generally saltier and more assertive than many Greek fetas. I also found the texture to be a bit grainier with the Bulgarian feta and a bit more dense. However, my experiences are limited in that while I sold five different Greek fetas, I only sold one Bulgarian Feta. I'll also point out that while Feta is historically made with goat milk, it can also be made with sheep milk or cow milk as well, so one has to take the milk source into consideration also (for a quick overview, cow feta will generally be mellow and creamy, while sheep, and particularly goat feta will be more acidic. But even then, the brine can completely counteract these generalizations!).
In my experience, the only difference is country of origin. There can be bigger differences between different brands of Greek feta cheese than between any given Greek feta and Bulgarian feta.
The difference is that Bulgarian Feta simply does not exist. There is Bulgarian cheese similar to Feta and it's called Sirene, which has several different variations, depending on the milk used : originally it was made with sheep's milk, but nowadays it's mostly made of cow's milk, with the sheep's milk and buffalo's milk versions being considered delicacy.
(Real) Bulgarian Sirene is usually greasier, less crumbly and with more full-bodied taste than Feta, especially the Feta that isn't actually Greek. Sirene is known under the name Bulghari in Lebanon and Bulgarit in Israel, where they easily make difference between Sirene and Feta.
To sum it up, the difference between Sirene and Feta is just as the difference between Brie and Camembert - they are different kinds of cheese made in different geographic areas.
I will start by saying that the term "Feta" can only be used for a certain kind of cheese produced in the greek mainland or the island of Lesvos. Feta is a white cheese produced from a mixture of goats' and sheeps' milk (30% and 70% respectively) and then cured in brine for at least two months. There are lots of other things that have to hold true for a cheese to be considered "Feta" and to be able to have this name legally.
It is true though that because of the different diets of the animals in different parts of Greece, they can vary a lot in how they taste or on their texture (softer or more firm.) In addition the duration of maturing can make a huge difference in how they taste.
In the European Union the only cheese that can be legally called Feta is: 1) Greek 2) Adhere to the rules I stated at the begining.
That doesn't mean that there aren't other excellent white cheeses (made from goat, sheep pr even cows' milk.) But they cannot be called "Feta"
In the Balkans they have what they call "white" cheese and feta. The white cheese is more consistent with American style feta cheese (although less salty and not as dry) and Bulgaria is very well known for producing this style of cheese. The feta cheese produced in the region is nothing like American feta and is smooth and creamy (almost the consistency of cream cheese) and therefore you would never crumble it. Feta is typically sliced and eatin on the side or cubed and placed in salads. Also, feta can be made from cows milk, this was my favorite
I suspect when importers sell these two cheeses to foreigners they don't differentiate between the two types of cheeses. American feta isn't even similar to Greek style feta cheese. To be honest, I don't even remember seeing Bulgarian feta cheese, only French and Greek.
This question has become difficult to answer due to the politics that the EU plays with it's member countries. As you can guess EU countries are patriotic to their own countries interests much more so than to an actual "European UNION". The EU is an economic construct. Keep that in mind when asking this question, as some answers will come from patriotic Greeks, and Bulgarians, and even from people with those heritages even though they are not citizens of those countries.
On to the question at hand. The political answer, which is relevant to EU countries, is also an answer based on the legality of using the word "Feta". Why? Because Greece finally received "protected" status for the cheese called "feta", and with that, the only country that can produce this type of white cheese and call it "feta" is Greece. Other EU countries that also produce this very same cheese, even when using the same ingredients and processes, can not name their product "feta".
How is Bulgarian "feta" different or similar to Greek feta? The differences will lay in the base flavor profile of the milk used. Basically both of these cheeses are "feta", as they use the same basic recipe and process, as long as they are using at least 70% sheep mile and 30% goat milk. Cow milk "feta" uses the same process, but it's flavor profile is quite different.
Then again, which is a truer feta, a Bulgarian or French cheese using 100% sheep milk, or a Greek cheese using 70% sheep and 30% goat milk blend? The truth is that this salty white cheese, that the world has come to know as "Feta", has been made in the Balkan region for centuries. Bulgaria is in the Balkans as is Greece, as are all the countries formerly part of Yugoslavia, and Albania.
In Slavic speaking Balkan countries feta is simply called "sirenje/sirene". This word literally translates to "cheese", yes, simply "cheese". That's due to how old and indigenous this product has been to the whole Balkan region. This cheese is cheese to this region as the peoples of this region.
For Greece to claim that all "feta" style cheese is Greek in origin, and can only be truly called "feta" only if made in Greece, is simply putting politics and patriotism in front of historical reality. The word "Feta" came into the Greek language and lexicon only since the 17th century, not the thousands of years that Greece claims. And, it's largely agreed upon that the word "feta" comes from and Italian word "fetta" meaning "slice". Thus, even the word "feta" is relatively new compared to how long this type of cheese has been made in the region.
Greece is playing politics, rather successfully, in order to now corner the market on "feta" cheese, as it's become a very popular cheese around the world. In the USA, many restaurants serve "Greek salad". This salad comes with various ingredients as there is no universal "Greek salad" in the US, but the reason why it's "Greek" is because of the inclusion of feta cheese. I've seen "Greek salad" that is basically iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, and olives, with some crumbled feta cheese, and that inclusion somehow makes it "Greek". Global marketing is the reason why "feta" has become known as being "Greek".
I think the EU was wrong when they made their decision. But, if they feel compelled to throw Greece a bone, then they shouldn't exclude other Balkan countries who also have historical claim to this type of cheese. Let Greece keep and use the word "Feta" for this cheese made in Greece. But also allow other countries that also make this cheese call it "Feta-style" cheese. Forcing them to use a completely different word will also hurt their economies. Why should Greece's economy be any more important than the others?
I've eaten a lot of feta cheese in my 47yrs, and began eating it as a stable food in my diet since I was able to eat that type of food. Not all Greek made feta is identical. Not all French feta is identical. Not all Yugoslavian feat is identical, and not all Bulgarian feta is identical. Great, I say. This is how it should be, as long as the basic recipe and procedure is followed, the resulting texture and flavor profile differences is what makes it great to actually try different feta's. If all we have for feta is a Greek government mandated recipe, think how boring this type of cheese would be. Having various levels of sheep to goat milk, or all of one or the other, adds it's own unique character to this type of cheese. The different grasses and varying minerals and content in the water the sheep and goats consumer will directly translate to the flavor profile of a particular feta. Why limit this to only one country, especially since a whole region has claim to it? Even French feta adds it's uniqueness to the world of feta. I really like the creaminess and sweetness of French feta. But, it's not the best feta for certain recipes and uses. That's the beauty of allowing variation. I'm all for the product having a specific base that must be honored so that it can be called a "feta", like using only sheep and goat milk. There's even room for cow's milk feta as long as the producer clearly shows on the packaging that they are not selling a true sheep and goat feta, but a different cow milk type feta.
Again, the problem is politics, patriotism, and protectionism where it doesn't belong.
It originated in the geographical area of Macedonia and was made by then Bulgarians living in that geographical area which today is divided between the Republic of Macedonia, Greece and Bulgaria.
So you can call it 1. Siren(y)e 1. Bulgarian White Cheese 2. Macedonian White Cheese 3. (Just)White Cheese
Being a great fan and quite familiar with both kinds - Greek Feta and Bulgarian White Sirene (spelled as " 'sireneh "), by eating them both with great pleasure for decades, I could say, that there are so many kinds of these cheeses, depending on the region, process/producer, season, breed/breeding, grass/grazing, etc., that sometimes even the best professional can't make the difference between the Bulgarian and the Greek version.
My opinion is that Feta and Sirene are just two names in different languages of two same things. Yes, Bulgarian sirene is a little more greasy and non-crumbly. And I prefer the taste of Bulgarian sheep white cheese Balkan than every Greek Feta. Cow's cheeses are almost the same.
I remember the times thirty years ago when white Bulgarian sheep sirene in tins and especially the more famous Bulgarian Yellow Cheese - the legendary Kashkaval, or in Greek - Kasheri, branded RODOPA - the single Bulgarian state producer at that time, was sold more or less legally on Bardari Market in Salonica and other markets and all Greeks used to search and buy them as the best quality cheeses at incredibly low price. Greek tourists in Sofia used to go back home oftenly with one or several blocks of kashkaval each. Now there are many Greek producers who managed to achieve the taste of these popular cheeses and to fill the market with high quality production, though at ~50% higher prices than the Bulgarian ones.
These two cheeses are the most popular on Bulgarian and Greek market, and also in all other Balkan countries, thousands of tons are been eaten, and the great Bulgarian Shopska Salad or Greek Horiatiki or Tirokafteri Salads are impossibly to be made without a goodly piece of white/feta cheese, seasoned with a cup of olive oil, though there are lots more great and expensive cheeses produced by diaries from both countries as types of Gruyer/Graviera, Mozarella, Parmigiano, Blue and Green Roquefort, Brie, Camembert, Gouda, Cheddar, Gorgonzolla, etc.
My beloved Greek friends are very sensible, emotional and jelaous when they patriotically defend their confidence that the white cheese is invented by ancient Hellens, but the truth is that there are no certain evidences where exactly the first feta cheese has been produced - on Greek, or Bulgarian or even on Turkish territory. Some evidences show Thracians and Slovians and even the Huns, as ancient producers of cheeses as well, so speaking without hard evidences in hand, is nonsense.
Let's just sit all together around the rich table near the beach of Kassandra and to meet the sunset with icy divine wines, wonderful cheeses and sweet talks.
The real Bulgarian sirene and yogurt have another very small ingidient that makes them specific and different. This is Lactobacillus delbrueckii subspecies bulgaricus the bacteria that turns the milk into cheese or yougurt.
As a Bulgarian born and living in US, I can say that the white cheese we all know is just WHITE CHEESE. FETA is a name imposed by the Greek companies in US already years, so everybody accept that all white cheeses are FETA, or all "Greek Yogurts" are "Greek", although the original yogurt comes from Bulgaria (check Whole Food, $5, glass jar). There is a slightly difference as the Bulgarian one is more smooth as a texture (buy from local Bulgarian or Arabic markets but insist on Bulgarian made). Some say that is salty, the all you need is to keep it in tap water a night and the next day will be smooth as cream cheese but with much more less fat, 12%. The White Cheese is known as one of the less cholesterol cheeses in the world along with the Parmesan and the Fresh Mozzarella.
My experience has shown me that the main difference between Bulgarian and Greek Feta cheeses is that the Bulgarian is more creamy and tasty than the Greek version. For example, a week ago I went to the grocery store in Grand Cayman to look for Greek Feta cheese, in order to make the famous Bulgarian "Shopska" salad. Well, I just made the salad and ate some of it, but the salad does not taste authentic. The only reason why I bought Greek Feta is that there isn't any Bulgarian Feta sold here. As I had done several years ago in the U.S., I will never repeat my purchase again, because I just find the Greek Feta as having a fake (not as strong) taste compared to Bulgarian Feta. It looks the same (well - drier), but I can't seem to taste the aroma as I can with the Bulgarian. Normally, I can eat "Shopska" salad every day, but it turns out that I would rather not eat it at all, unless made with Bulgarian Feta. I have to mention that I am a Bulgarian so I might be biased, but my wife is from the Carribbean and she feels the same way. She just never even wants to taste the "Shopska" salad I make if I don't use the Bulgarian Feta for it. The same goes for all my friends that have tried both kinds. Again, this is just my own experience and it is mostly based on the Greek Feta sold outside of Europe and the Bulgarian Feta sold in Bulgaria and the U.S. (specialty stores).
When it comes to Yoghurt, I have similar experience, except for the fact that I like Greek yoghurt better than Greek Feta. I just don't understand why they always strain it. Bulgarian yoghurt is the best tasting one in my opinion as well. I have tried many different kinds of yoghurt since I now live outside Bulgaria, but none of them compares, save the Greek one. However, when I make yoghurt using Greek one as a base, it does not become as tasty as when I make yoghurt using Bulgarian one as a base. Not to mention that there are some specific things prepared from yoghurt in Bulgaria, such as, Tarator (cold summer soup) and Airyan (cold drink made by mixing water and yoghurt), that just do not taste right if prepared with yoghurt other than Bulgarian. Bulgarian yoghurt just seems to be a bit more sour and flavorfull.
And just so that I don't come by as bashing all things Greek, I would like to mention that I love Greek food and the country of Greece as well! Just try both types of Feta and make up your mind which tastes better for you and you will be set. In theory, they can be used interchangeably.
Well, cow's milk is a no-no for me - this is a Balkan cheese, so whether greek or bulgarian it should be made with sheep and/or goat's milk. Sheep and goat's live in mountains, not huge industrial scale cow herds. The worst are the cow's milk 'feta' style cheeses made in denmark. Too soft and foamy, none of that fresh fizz or tanginess you get with sheep and goat. In my opinion the Bulgarian sheep sirene is the most consistently good, but some Greek 'aged' goat/sheep feta are just as good.