The cream of cheeses

When sampling Israeli cheeses, aim for white rather than yellow

By Nathan Jeffay, October 28, 2010
Israelis tend to favour white, soft cheeses - they bought a massive 77,000 tonnes last year

Israelis tend to favour white, soft cheeses - they bought a massive 77,000 tonnes last year

The Israeli hotel breakfast is a true delight. But more often than not, tourists from overseas do not get the full experience.

As well as all the other delicacies there is generally a large range of cheeses. Many of them are unfamiliar to non-Israelis, meaning that they play it safe or skip the section altogether. Some complain that if they taste a cheese they enjoy, they have no idea what it is called so are unable to request it elsewhere.

Ran Buck, Israel's most famous cheese expert and owner of 27.6, the country's only cheese-shop chain, says that the best way for British visitors to enjoy Israeli cheeses is to leave their preconceptions at the airport. "When Brits think of cheese they think of yellow cheese, but when you stop an Israeli in the street and say: 'What cheeses are produced here?' they will never mention yellow cheese."

Last year, Israeli shoppers bought just 23,500 tonnes of hard and semi-hard cheese compared to 77,000 tonnes of soft and fresh cheese. It is their vote on what local produce tastes best.

Israel's cows generally do not get fed grass, and while their milk is of a high quality, its flavour is not strong enough to produce impressive hard or semi-hard cheeses. Rather, their milk makes excellent soft and fresh cheeses.

This is why, according to Buck, if you want to enjoy Israel's cheeses, you need to be adventurous and learn to identify what is what.

During a tasting session for this article, Buck was impressed most by two fresh cheeses, Bulgarit and Tsfatit.

Bulgarit, which simply means "Bulgarian", is a salty white cheese, usually made from a combination of two of the three Israeli-produced milks - cows', sheep's and goats'. It looks similar to Feta, but has a less crumbly consistency.

At the breakfast buffet you may find Bulgarit served as a large rectangular piece from which you can slice or cube and eat with olive oil, olives and spices. To make matters more confusing, you may find up to three different types of Bulgarit, as it is sold with fat contents varying from five per cent to 24 per cent, and many Israelis have a strong opinion about which they prefer. Generally speaking, the firmer the Bulgarit, the higher the fat content.

Now for the shocker. "In Bulgaria there isn't a 'Bulgarian' cheese like this - it's what we Israelis invented," says Buck. "It seems that some Bulgarian guys who came here decades ago, made some cheese of a general kind they were familiar with, and called it Bulgarit."

Buck's other recommendation is also an Israeli invention - Tsfatit, named after the northern Israel city of Safed, from which it hails. You can identify Tsfatit from the way it wobbles slightly on the plate, like jelly. Some people say they find this consistency a little off-putting. It is either served ready-sliced or as a large round piece. You will find a plain Sfatit and a variety with caraway seeds.

Any buffet will include several bowls of soft cheeses. One will be gvina levana, which simply translates as "white cheese" and is similar to American sour cream or French fromage frais. Similar-looking but with a stronger smell is labaneh, which is actually not a cheese but strained salted yoghurt. There will also be vast quantities of cottage cheese, which in Israel is not considered the preserve of slimmers and is much tastier than in other countries. A survey by the Israeli Dairy Board found that 67 per cent of Israelis think that cottage is the best Israeli cheese, so it is worth a taste to find out what all the fuss is about.

It is with the most familiar and safe-looking cheeses you may want to exercise caution. Gvina me'usehenetis is a processed yellow cheese with light brown rind and a smokey smell. It is a blend of cheeses melted down with artificial smoke flavour added. "I would never touch something like this," says Buck.

He is more accepting of the most common yellow cheeses: the Tnuva brand's Emek - "like very, very, very mild cheddar" - and its Gilboa which has a similar appearance of a generic yellow cheese but has more of a Swiss-style taste.

"But really I don't understand why people would come to Israel and eat yellow cheese," adds Buck.

Last updated: 11:30am, October 28 2010