For almost 30 years, Dror and Sarah Friede have lived in the tiny community of Ezuz, in the furthest western reaches of Israel’s Negev Desert on the Egyptian border. Dror tends to about 100 goats, while Sarah makes yogurt and cheese in a makeshift kitchen next to their home. They produce yogurts flavored with coffee and mint, semi-hard and ripened artisanal cheeses, and labneh—a strained yogurt with a creamy texture—mixed with za’atar and olive oil. They sell these freshly made dairy products out of their shop, located in a converted Ottoman-era railroad car.
“Looking back over these years, we felt the drive of something we felt compelled to do,” Dror told me last week as we sipped coffee lightened with fresh milk from their goats. “Sometimes it’s been really tough, but we are here from choice. We have hardly any neighbors, we live in temporary homes, but our children learned about nature and every day they had an afternoon meal with their parents.”
Sarah, a native of Kenya, says that their desert farm in Ezuz, with its palm- and acacia -covered veranda overlooking the Sinai, reminds her of Africa. Just 80 kilometers from their farm stands Mt. Sinai, where Moses delivered the Ten Commandments. This weekend, the holiday of Shavuot commemorates that ancient event; one of the holiday’s traditions includes eating dairy products, so the Friedes are gearing up for a busy several days.
“People will come down from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to buy our cheese,” said Sarah, taking a break from making her labneh. “This weekend will be the busiest of the year for us.”
Shavuot promises to be a banner year for Israel’s boutique cheese-makers, some three dozen small businesses that dot the country. This year marks an unusual confluence of events. In addition to the holiday’s culinary traditions, and the fact that this time of year typically brings a surplus of milk from cows, goats, and sheep, politics will play a role: Last summer, consumers in Israel upset over the price of dairy products led what were dubbed the “cottage cheese protests.” Government action eventually led to lower prices, but Israeli resentment remained against the big dairy companies, such as Tnuva, as well as supermarket chains that were accused of inflating their profit margins. As a result, this year many Israelis are looking to smaller dairy companies, and going directly to the source to buy their products.
The smaller farms offer an unprecedented variety of items for Israelis, who were once accustomed to having extremely limited choices in the dairy department. “When I went to Israel in the 1970s,” said Dorothy Harman, a close friend of mine in Jerusalem, “there was only Tnuva yellow and white cheese in the supermarket.”
As more small producers have opened up, Israeli cheeses have gotten more sophisticated. These days, people are even starting to talk about regional taste differences among cheeses produced in different parts of Israel. Erez Komorovsky, one of Israel’s leading chefs, says, “I think you can start mapping the different flavors because of their terroir.”
“These are the new pioneers,” said Michal Neeman, business development manager for food and beverages at the Israel Export and International Cooperation Institute. Israel’s boutique cheese-makers, she said, “are connected to the land and to the ingredients. They make their products with their heart and soul.”
The Friedes’ good friends Daniel and Anat Kornmehl live about 50 kilometers away, just south of Sde Boker—home of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who dreamed of making the desert bloom. Daniel and Anat herd goats on land leased from the government, and their Kornmehl Farm includes a simple outdoor restaurant as well as a cheese factory in a mobile cooling container.
They are considered by many chefs to be the finest makers of goat cheese in Israel. When Meir Adoni, the master chef behind Tel Aviv restaurants Catit and Mizlala, came to New York last year to prepare a dinner at the James Beard House, he served Kornmehl cheeses. Their products include everything from a Camembert-type goat cheese wrapped in grape leaves to a delicious hard Alpine-like cheese called Adi, named after one of their goats. “You don’t want to use recipes when making cheese,” Daniel noted. “How you process the milk and the acid is important. I have a vision of a cheese I want to make, the taste, texture of the cheese and even of the shape of the cheese.”
The Kornmehls were inspired to become cheese makers by Shay Seltzer, who changed careers after the Yom Kippur War in 1973: Previously a botanist at Hebrew University, he moved to the Judean Hills outside Jerusalem, where he now raises goats in a meadow, making Tommes De Pyrenees, gorgonzola, and other cheeses with the milk. “I came here because I realized during the war that everything I did in my life was slipping through my fingers,” Seltzer recalled while making yogurt, using a generator for electricity to heat the milk to the right lukewarm temperature before inserting a culture, thus transforming the milk, giving it texture and a certain tanginess. “Here I simply raise the goats, and with the milk I make the cheese.”
Daniel and Anat, both agronomists by training, met Seltzer many years ago; Anat had been visiting his farm, and then introduced him to Daniel in 1993. When Seltzer offered to teach Daniel cheese-making, he accepted, staying for several months. In 1995, he left with Anat to open a dairy near Latrun, and from there moved to the south. “Shay paid me in goats, becoming the nucleus of our herd,” Daniel recalled with a laugh. The Kornmehls looked at various sites until they came to the Negev, with some help from the government. “I’m not a Zionist,” said Daniel. “I just like the desert. We can’t have permits to build a factory here so we stay small and anyway we don’t want to become big. We want to stick to artisanal cheese-making. Industrial farming is not our style.”
Not all of the cheese makers are working in the desert. In fact, northern Israel has a long history of dairy foods. The northern city of Tzfat, for instance, has long been known for Sfattit, a mild curd cheese molded in a basket that gives the cheese distinctive circular striations. It is still made there today—as well as elsewhere outside the north, including the Friedes’ farm in the Negev.
Sfattit from the south may not taste exactly the same as Sfattit from Tzfat; regional differences are becoming more pronounced in Israeli cheeses. “The cheese of the Negev has a different flavor from that of the Galilee,” said Komorovsky, who teaches out of his house on the Lebanese border.
Avinoam B. Brakin, a cheese-maker in the Galilee, agrees that different regions and even different seasons create different types of cheese: “In the winter, the green grass in the fields is different from the summer where there is no taste of green,” he said. “In Israel, we really have two seasons, summer and winter, and the grass and thus the milk and cheese taste different.”
Brakin has been in the business for decades: He finished his military service in the 1970s and returned to his family dairy farm in the Galilee. There, a volunteer from France showed him how to make cheese.
“In 1978, people didn’t know what goat cheese was,” said Brakin. So he took his Volvo station wagon and brought his cheese to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, assuming the people were more sophisticated than in his village. “I feel it is a privilege to teach people about good cheese,” he said during a recent tasting of his cheeses in Tel Aviv. His Barkanit Dairy now has 450 goat and 250 sheep grazing freely, and with an export license, he sells his certified kosher cheese in the United States as well as Israel: His French-styled goat and sheep cheese are sold at Fairway, Wegman’s, Central Market, and Costco. (The other Israeli cheese sold there is Pastures of Eden feta, a slightly larger producer.)
Across Israel, as people prepare for Shavuot, they’ll be able to sample the diverse flavors of a booming market for boutique cheese-makers. It’s a far cry from the block of mass-produced supermarket cheese that was once all they had available.
Joan Nathan is Tablet Magazine’s food columnist and the author of 10 cookbooks including King Solomon’s Table: a Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.