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The (Israeli) Cheese Factory
Israeli food culture is on the rise, as are wine tours, agri-tours and other forms of foodie-tainment along the highways and back roads leading from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to the Golan Heights.
While artisanal cheesemakers in Israel may not have the celebrity marquee status of Haim Cohen, Moshe Segev and other chefs reshaping international notions about Israeli cuisine, they are providing a much-welcome public service.
Many of the nation's highest-profile restaurants (Herbert Samuel and Carmella in Tel Aviv, for example), as well as larger wineries with tasting rooms, make the cheeses available and gorgeously presentable on their menus.
The open-air markets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and the Golan Heights just would not be the same without cheese vendors who provide the spontaneous joy of memorable things to spread on warm, fresh-baked bread from neighboring carts and bakeries.
However, unlike the wineries and the restaurants' sophisticated settings, the world of Israeli cheesemaking is an all-ages affair. In fact, between the deft storytelling talents of the cheesemakers -- like Shai Seltzer's Jerusalem mountain compound and Ein Camonim's Avrutzki family -- and the process of making cheese, the experience can be quite kid friendly, especially among households bent on getting their children off of peanut butter and jelly and into more grown-up fare.
Ein Camonim, located in the Upper Galilee (Acre-Safed Highway 85, between Hanania Intersection & Nahal Amud) and founded 20 years ago by Amiram Avrutzki, is one of Israel's first boutique cheesemakers, as well as a well-oiled machine, in terms of how it ethically raises prized breeds of goats.
Smells Like a Winner
While the barns and fields have a bit of a strong aroma, you will be disarmed by his daughter's affectionate tour of the facilities and the goats' wide-eyed sense of wonder and friendly demeanor.
Any discomfort with strong smells will also be rewarded when you return to the shop and restaurant area for an epic tasting that runs about $25 and includes fresh-baked rolls and their made-on-site olive oil.
Their very happy goats produce a sweet, rich milk that flows, with the Avrutzkis' skilled hands, into 30 kinds of cheeses made on the premises, including French-style cheeses. They also offer ice cream made on sight with local fruits that even the fussiest children of all ages will enjoy.
For those who want to take their passion for cheese further and are enjoying a longer stay in Israel, Ein Camonim offers cheese workshops as well.
Though one would not guess it at first, thanks to his rugged Mt. Eitan enclave near the Jerusalem-area village of Sattaf and his bearded, casual appearance, Seltzer is one of Israel's leading cheese experts (www. goat-cheese.co.il), a member of the Italian Academy of Cheese and a cheesemaker/ farmer since 1974.
Any first impressions, however, will fall away after an afternoon with him. He is both lively and methodical when discussing how he makes his cheeses, his breeding of the ideal goat for Israel's climate and perfecting the art of affinage (maturing and aging cheese).
"We have no advertising for our farm, Saturday is the only day we are open to the general public, and our dairy is kosher," says Seltzer as he cuts up his perfect circles and passes slivers out to his rapt group.
"It is interesting that so many locals preparing for Shabbat will come in on Fridays to both buy and eat cheese. Purity is also important to what we feed the goats, which is why we are not certified organic, as the different things our goats eat will result in what makes the flavors of our different cheeses special.
"Each cheese I am serving represents different plants eaten by different goats," he notes. "It is also fascinating to taste how what plants goats eat in different times of the year affect output."
Zeltzer goes on to explain that his goats are particularly drawn to medicinal plants and herbs, which have in turn generated interest from various universities and medical institutions, such as the Beit Egon Institute for the plants and resulting cheeses' applications to digestive issues, fertility and diabetes.
"Take a bit of the Bulgarian cheese under your tongue and let it melt," he says with encouragement as we bite into morsels similar to feta. It goes down almost like a salty white chocolate.
We drink his formulation of yogurt between bites to clean the palate. Unlike other plain yogurts, his variation has the light sweetness and consistency of crème fraiche.
Other unusual creations we sample are cheese with a chalk rind (which he says is digestive and absorbs "bad" bacteria in the stomach), cheese with a grape leaf rind cover, and his versions of Camembert, Manchego and Gouda.
"It is art I take so seriously that I travel the world to find bacteria to perfect the colors in my spectrum."
A visit to the HaMeiri Cheese shop in Safed, in contrast, is more of an opportunity to learn about the history the biblical town's food culture than the actual process of cheesemaking. Furthermore, the cheese it is famous for is rendered from sheep's milk.
"My great-great grandfather came here in 1840, in the years after the tragic earthquake and subsequent Arab attacks almost destroyed the Jewish community in this area," current owner Meir HaMeiri details.
A visitor is captivated and surrounded by hundreds of photos telling the story of the city's history through family eyes. Though HaMeiri was at one time concerned that the nearly 200-year-old legacy would die with him, his son, Yaniv, recently returned from Tel Aviv to enter the family business, keeping the dream and the landmark dairy alive.