Being the cradle of humanity the Middle East is considered to be the place of origin of cheese. However, the warm weather did not allow the development of gourmet cheese; and for years the regional cheeses were either very fresh or very salty like the Arab Labane (sour spread cheese made of goat and sheep milks), the Greek Feta or the Halumi of Cyprus.
When it comes to cheeses, Israel may be the last thing on your mind. But did you know that the country was active in cheese making? The industry was so prosperous that Josephus wrote that the ravine dividing Mount Moriah and Mount Zion in Jerusalem was called the “Valley of the Cheesemakers.” But the true and solid evidence for cheese making and commerce in Israel started only on the 16th century around the city of Zefat.
Unfortunately, the cheese culture in the holy city (or in the entire Israel) didn’t quite live up to its ancient reputation for many years. A very long time ago, there had been only “white cheeses” and “yellow cheeses.” Apart from their uninspired names, the taste was also nothing to write home about.
But nowadays — and quite happily — the “valley of the cheeses” has evolved into a “cheese country” as small boutique and artisanal dairy makers have revitalized the industry and brought renewed life into the Israeli cheese culture.
None of the Israeli cheeses have a protected commercial name, but with no doubt the first that is likely to have such protection is the cheese called “Zefatit” after the name of the ancient city of Zefat, which was one of the four Jewish centers that were never abandoned during the 2000 years of the Jewish Diaspora outside of Israel.
The Zefatit cheese is a salted fresh cheese made from pasteurized sheep milk in Zefat (Safed) for over a hundred years. Some say that it originates from an Arab cheese made in Acre, but nowadays you will find only unsalted similar cheese called “Gibne” (“Cheese in Arabic) in Arab farms.
The Israeli market is dominated by one huge dairy called Tnuva that produces most of the local dairy products, but two specialized manufacturers have arisen as the main competitors in specialized cheese (Gad and Yakobs). In recent years hundreds of little farms started producing quality cheese (mainly of goat milk), and you may find some fine producers when driving along the country.
A little more about Tnuva – it was first introduced in 1962, and it led a significant change in Israel’s cheese category. Before that, cottage cheese was virtually unheard-of in the country. But Tnuva has become a leading cottage cheese name that has been loved by many generations. More than fifty years later, Tnuva remains a favorite and a fixed item on tables of most Israeli homes, and is still is the best-selling cottage cheese in the country.
One cheese that you must not skip is the Israeli Cottage cheese. It is a very fresh cheese (even in best conditions it will not last more than a few days) made of low fat particles mixed in milk fat. Although found all over the world, Tnuva has succeeded where many other manufacturers failed and produces it without artificial processes. Take a treat and do not miss the 9% fat version while you are on vacation, you and can start the diet when you are back home.
Rami is an accomplished amateur cheese maker.