The people of Israel have a long history as shepherds. Many of our forefathers, among them Abraham, Moses and David, took care of their herds with the nurturing qualities that later proved crucial for leading the burgeoning Jewish nation.
While modern Israel today may lack the leaders of yore, they do not lack fine goat and sheep farmers.
As Israel becomes sophisticated gastronomically, consumers are favoring goat's and sheep's milk cheeses over cow's milk varieties. Unlike their bovine counterparts, most goats and sheep are free to roam and graze, antibiotics aren't usually a part of their diet, the cheese and milk contain less lactose and the taste is unmistakably distinct.
As enthusiasm grows among consumers, Israeli cheesemakers have become more creative and also more hospitable, with many offering country dining with their delectable cheeses. Owned by some of Israel's most interesting personalities, the following is a partial list of popular sheep and goat farms throughout Israel.
Eretz Zavat Chalav u'Dvash (Land of Milk and Honey)
A favorite among locals and tourists is Eretz Zavat Chalav u'Dvash, located on Moshav Nechalim in Petach Tikva, about 15 minutes from Ben-Gurion Airport. While it's one of the most urban-tinged dairies, the atmosphere is quaint and relaxing, with Israeli background music mixing with chirping birds. A colorful, lush garden adorned with a fish pond opens to an outdoor patio with sheep grazing nearby.
Aharon Markovich, the personable founder who grew up on a religious-Zionist farm, decided to raise sheep rather than the more prevalent goats.
"Sheep milk doesn't have the heavy aroma of goat cheese," said Markovich, who is quick to offer a container of fresh sheep's milk for customers to try. "Cow's milk is flavorless."
Markovich abides by the adage that rare is better. Sheep produce about half the amount of milk that goats produce, and the results truly are exquisite. The milk is sweet and creamy.
The Markovich dairy produces 40 different kinds of kosher cheeses -- fresh, semihard, hard and ripened - but Markovich gets annoyed when people ask him to categorize his cheeses according to well-known kinds, such as Camembert, tomme or feta. While he has mostly taught himself traditional techniques, he refused to bow to European traditions. He makes original cheeses using unorthodox ingredients: wine, fig leaves, rosemary, bay leaves, to name a few additives and, of course, "lots of love and soul."
The morning buffet brunch features flavored cheese balls, breads, Greek salad, roasted peppers, marinated eggplant and spicy carrots, but the highlight is the opportunity to create a cheese platter from among the dozens of cheeses sold at the deli.
Brunch: 9 a.m.-2 p.m. (Friday brunch is closed to children under 12); deli: 9 a.m.-7 p.m. (closed Shabbat and holidays). Kosher certified. For more information, call (011) 972-3-933-2797 or visit http://www.2eat.co.il/eretz.
Located near the Ela Valley, not far from Beith Shemesh, the Zook Farm offers a taste of rustic Israel. Reaching the farm is an experience in and of itself. A kilometer-long road leads to picturesque, delightfully landscaped outdoor seating areas adorned with roses and vines. At the Zook Farm cafe, open to the public on weekends, cheeses and homemade delicacies are served on red-and-white checkered picnic tablecloths at a site overlooking the barns and bushy hills.
The Zook brothers, Yiftach and Tomer, grew up on a farm and are now at the helm of a fraternal food dynasty. Their other brother is culinary star Nir Zook, the namesake of the famous Zook Compound in Jaffa, home to the exclusive Cordelia restaurant. The Zook Compound is the only venue aside from the Zook Farm where the Zook brothers' cheeses are sold to the public.
A delightful brunch experience goes for NIS 100 ($24) per person, and it includes homemade merlot and high-grade cheeses made from whole goat's milk: delicate tzfatit; brittle, aged Roquefort; and earthy tomme. Cheeses come with an array of dips and appetizers, including labane, feta cheese spread, eggplant in cream, artichokes, roasted peppers, fennel, hummus and tahina. Scrumptious gingerbread cookies and coffee top off the meal, which is best followed with a walk along the surrounding prairies.
A new addition to the goat farm landscape of Israel, Goat Path, was founded about a year ago by the Saban and Einy families, who make a large variety of whole milk goat products: gouda, cheddar, emmental, labane, yogurts and yogurt drinks. A lovely country cafe in a wooden cabin is open on weekends. Visitors are welcome to visit the goat pens and tour the wineries and boutique shops in the Tal Shakhar farm, where the dairy is located not far from Beit Shemesh.
Fridays, holiday eves, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.; Shabbat and holidays: 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sundays-Thursdays (limited menu): 8 a.m.-3 p.m. For more information, call (011) 972-52-258-9900 or (011) 972-8-949-5964.
Located in the Negev, overlooking ancient farm ruins, Kornmehl farm was founded in 1997 by husband-and-wife team Anat and Daniel Kornmehl, both graduates of the agricultural science department at Hebrew University. Daniel Kornmehl studied cheesemaking in both France and Israel, and the farm employs the French cheesemaking tradition, while preserving the unique flavors of the Israeli desert. Cheese varieties include their version of tomme, Camembert and Brie.
Visitors are welcome to watch the afternoon milking at 4:30 p.m. and learn about the cheesemaking process.
Cheeses are sold daily from10 a.m.-6 p.m. For more information, call (011) 972-8-655-5140 or 011-972-52-2788051.
Sataf: Shai Seltzer
Shai Seltzer, a fixture in the Israel cheesemaking community with his famous long, white beard, is certainly a candidate for the godfather of modern Israeli goat cheesemaking. This Israeli veteran and award-winning goat farmer and cheesemaker has been raising goats for the past 32 years in one of the most beautiful areas in Israel: Sataf in the Jerusalem hills. Following ancient tradition, the gourmet cheeses are aged in a dark cave, and they are sold only on-site on weekends, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.