No longer cheesed off
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With Shavuot approaching thoughts turn to all things dairy. And it is an area close to the hearts of many Israelis.
The depth of love was evidenced by last year’s demonstrations over the high price of a staple food — cottage cheese. The Government eventually intervened to reduce prices but there remained a resentment of dairy industry giants like Tnuva and supermarket chains who were accused of inflating their profit.
The result has been a boost for Israel’s thriving artisan cheese making businesses which already number close to 40. And this Shavuot Israelis will travel to farms across the country to buy unusual cheeses for the festivities.
But until about 30 years ago Israel’s cheese makers could have been described — at best — as unsophisticated.
Their dairy industry had one of the highest dairy cow yields in the world, producing cottage cheese and soured milk products of a high standard.
But the only indigenous cheese of note was Safed, a soft silky cheese when young, but when aged, hard and salty — ideal for grating. Other local cheeses were predominantly bland, yellow, sliced and processed. Trade policies restricted the importation of foreign cheeses so there was little to inspire.
But in the 1980s, some kibbutz kitchens experiencing financial difficulties started to experiment with cheese production. Israel’s gastronomic scene was starting to burgeon and small boutique cheese-makers began to emerge predominantly using goats’ milk.
One of the first producers was artist Shai Seltzer — known to some as the Godfather of cheese. The former botanist, moved to a farm in a local beauty spot called Sataf in the Jerusalem Hills to enjoy the quiet life and founded his farm in 1974. A local monk gave him his first lesson in cheese-making and he has been raising goats and producing yoghurt and cheeses similar to cheeses like Tomme de Savoie and Gorgonzola ever since.
Seltzer compares his cheese-making process to painting a watercolour — starting with a wet canvas and slowly but surely, adding colours to create a masterpiece: “With artisan cheese, one begins with the milk and then the specialist enzymes, yeasts and bacteria are added, and slowly but surely, the unique cheese is created.”
“Milk is the ultimate food and the foundation on which life is developed,” says Seltzer. “We then carefully nurture this base to create our cheeses.”
Seltzer is totally hands on, tasting the cheese at every stage of preparation, adjusting and refining as he goes.
Seltzer explains the location of his farm has a huge affect on his goats’ milk.
“The cheese we create is an expression of the land on which it is created,” he says. “Month to month, year to year, according to the weather, what the goats are eating and the land on which they are grazing, the cheese changes. Our cheeses are an expression of the Judean mountains.”
After solidifying, the cheeses are salted and aged. A process known as affinage. The affinage process gives the cheeses their flavour. Some are coated with coal powder, others with grape leaves or wine barrel residue. This varies according to the desired characteristics Seltzer wants to produce.
The affinage process takes place in a natural limestone cave next to the mountainside on which Seltzer’s 170 or more goats graze. These goats have adapted to their lush, mountainous surroundings producing high quality, fatty milk.
Seltzer travels the world learning about cheeses, wines and new preparation techniques. “Cheese making is a way of life, we live within the cheese making process,” he says. “I travel from Europe to Africa to Asia, tasting, smelling and learning as I go.”
His farm has become a firm fixture on the circuit for foodies and professional chefs alike. The Seltzer family serve their range of cheeses to visitors alongside kosher wines advising on the best pairings.
Seltzer himself has also inspired others such as Daniel and Anat Kornmehl — thought by some to be the finest makers of goats’ cheese in Israel. Daniel Kornmehl spent time with Seltzer learning how to make cheese before he and Anat set up by themselves in 1997. The agriculture science graduates now produce a range of French-inspired versions of Brie, Cambembert and Tomme cheeses on their farm in the Negev.
Another favourite is Eretz Zavat Chalav u-Dvash in Petach Tikva. Founder Aharon Markovich was raised on a religious Zionist farm and has chosen to raise sheep rather than goats as their milk doesn’t have the same heavy aroma. He produces 40 different types of kosher cheese.
No longer the land of bland yellow cheese, Israelis celebrating Shavuot this year will be spoilt for choice.