When I lived in Los Angeles, there was a game my daughters, girlfriend, and I used to play. It was called “Searching for Jason (Schwartzman).” We’d casually scout him out at record stores, museums, clubs, and on the street. He was one of our favorite actors, starring in many Wes Anderson films. Seeing film, television, and recording stars was no biggie in our area. They were everywhere. But this passtime was different. Not in a stalker kind of way, just a really fun game. Sometimes we got lucky. One of my daughters even got a selfie with Jason. Another struck up a conversation with him at Amoeba Records in Hollywood. And another daughter was good friends with his dog-sitter.
Fast forward to life in Israel. Around the holiday of Shavuot, my son was given a few days army leave. During Shavuot it is customary to pig-out on dairy products (celebrating both the Land of Milk and Honey and the giving of the Torah to Moses – the milk of the Word). So, we decided to take a field trip to a dairy and restaurant I’d heard of at the little moshav of Bat Shlomo: Schwartzman Dairy, to be exact. Who knows? Maybe I’d chance a surprise Jason sighting!
Bat Shlomo (Solomon’s daughter, named for the niece of Baron Rothschild) lies just south of the Carmel Mountain Ridge, about fifteen minutes from our beloved town of Zikron Yaacov. We pass the exit on the freeway all the time, but as often is the case when you live somewhere, we had never taken that detour to explore – until now. What a treasure the place is! What a history! What a view! And what cheeses! Some of the best in Israel so far….
Situated on a hilltop, overlooking vineyards, olive groves, and wheat fields, we were greeted at the little hamlet by a farmer on a tractor. He welcomed us by telling us the history of Bat Shlomo and proudly explaining how everything eaten at the restaurant is grown on the property.
Moshav Bat Shlomo was founded by a small group of European immigrants in 1889, under the patronage of Baron Edmond de Rothschild. The leaders of this village were the newly married Transylvanian couple, Zelig and Chasida Schwartzman, along with and 64 other pioneers. Theirs was a tough plight as they struggled to build homes and farm amid the roving Arab and Bedouin bands. Regularly, their animals would be stolen, their houses and fields burned during nighttime raids. A watchtower was erected outside the property to insure 24 hour surveillance. The local Ottoman police were sometimes helpful in chasing off and, at times, killing the bandits.
The Jewish Effendi – a wealthy Arab (Yemenite) in those days, and friend of the pioneers, Mahmoud Sa’id, helped Zelig Schwartzman legally buy formally undeeded Arab lands – at exorbitant prices. He also gathered together a group of Arabic speaking men to help guard the settlement and settle any disputes between the pioneers and the nomadic desert tribes. Pillaging and looting were the legacy of these Arabs from ancient times. They would stop just short of murder for fear of blood revenge. So it was with great daring, chutzpah, and steadfastness that these Yiddish-speaking young Zionists worked the land and raised their families. Over a period of many years of backbreaking work, they planted mulberry trees (they had hoped to raise silkworms); they planted vineyards; they cleared the rocky land; dug wells; raised livestock (and kept fresh fish in the stocked fish pool); built stucco homes with red tiled roofs; and created livelihoods.
According to a 1922 census by the British Mandate, Bat Shlomo had a population of 66: 53 Jews and 13 Muslims living together. Today, the original street still exists, with all of the original 14 homes preserved and modernized, or in a state of renovation. Surrounding each home, are lush, verdant landscaped gardens. The crown jewel is the old synagogue, still in use today after over a century. It is a beautiful little village, with many of the residents direct descendent of the original pioneers.
In the center of the main avenue, is Schwartzman Dairy and Restaurant. Going here is an authentically Israeli experience, and a favorite hang-out of locals. Off the beaten path, known by word of mouth. Max and I made the cheese and gift shop our first stop. It was the most eclectic place, literally filled to the rafters with historical memorabilia, photos, and products made on the moshav for sale. Because sheep, goats, and cows are still housed out in the back sheds, there was a plethora of products from salves and soaps to woolens. Also available were a variety of honeys and honey products from local hives; date and carob syrups; different types of olives and made-on-site olive oils. We were able to sample their local reserve and estate wines: Cabernet Francs; Cabernet Sauvignons, all very expensive. There were spices. There were herbal teas, natural remedies, sauces, jellies, tapenade, nut butters and oils, dried fruits and all kinds of jarred relished and pickles – all made on the farm. Add to this an odd assortment of antiques, scales, photographs and other ephemera. It was so crowded with products and visitors that it was a bit claustrophobic, but totally worth it. Would I spy Jason crouching behind the counter or munching on cheese at one of the small tables?
The main attraction of the Schwartzman Dairy Store was the cheeses! Oh my goodness!!!! That’s all I can say! Cheese heaven!!!! The two gentlemen behind the counter were none other than the grandsons of Zelig Schwartzman. They sliced up generous samples of sheep milk cheddar, goat toms, parmesan, feta, ricottas, and various other dairy delights. After sampling and purchasing several varieties, some herb-laced, others with nuts and other savories (warning: very expensive! but worth every shekel), we decided to have lunch in their restaurant.
Adjacent to the shop, in the garden patio, covered with a varied assortment of tarps for shade, was the dining area. Crowded with locals, and totally mismatched eclectic, Max commented that this was “so typically Israeli. As far as ambiance, it can’t decide what it wants to be,” which for me, adds to the charm of the place. The tables are an odd assortment of picnic tables, long farmhouse tables and benches, metal fold-outs and cafe bistro tables and chairs. Persian and Arabic carpets as well as Indian fabric, Mexican rugs and vintage American cloths cover the floors and serve as tablecloths. There was a large aviary inhabited by an odd assortment of finches, cockatiels, lovebirds and doves in the center of the restaurant. Old farm equipment and tiki torches mix with totem poles, Israeli flags, old army paraphernalia and twinkle lights which hang from the trees. There are old Purim and Sukkot decorations hanging, leftover from bygone holiday celebrations. The walls are crowded with fabulous old pictures from the early days of the moshav and vintage 1960 Israeli travel posters. An accordion player and violinist serenaded the guests with Broadway show tunes, Israeli folksongs, Yiddish melodies, and popular American hits from the 1950s-1970s as well as cowboy music and a couple random Tschaikovsky melodies. Strange, but fun. And no local Israeli restaurant would be complete without an assortment of dogs, chickens (and a goat!!!!) strolling through the premises! I searched in vain for a glimpse of Jason enjoying the local delicacies behind the large fern…. nope, just a mannikin clothed as a pirate. How random!!!
Max and I decided to split a Druze-style roll up: we had had others through the years, but this was the absolute best we’d ever tasted. A soft warm, herb-studded dough with fresh melty sheep cheeses, labaneh (the closest way to describe it is a salty thick sour cream), and zataar served with a side of olives and a chopped Israeli salad. For dessert, we tried my two favorite sweets in Israel: knaffe and malabi. Totally decadent and fattening beyond words. Total taste sensation. Sheer melt-in-your-mouth goodness. This did not disappoint. The knaffe was made with homemade halvah on the bottom, rich, salty, melted goat cheese in the middle, and crunchy strawlike phyllo dough threads on top. As if this is not enough, it is then saturated with a sweet syrup. Aaaahhh!!!!! The malabi is best described as a light panna cotta, like a sweet dairy jello. It is usually topped with rose syrup and crushed coconut and peanuts. This version was entirely different. The custard base was much richer, and the toppings included carob syrup and crushed pistachios. I can’t wait to go back for more – after I lose 10 pounds.
We had to take a stroll through the village outskirts to walk off all those calories. Amazing views, almost like Tuscan hills. The farmers were still working to bring in the wheat harvest, bundling up the golden bales in the fields. Peacocks strutted freely along the grounds, and the peals of children’s laughter could be heard in the distance. From the hilltop, the brilliant blue of the Mediterranean sparkled in the distance. It was the most peaceful, beautiful place. I can’t wait to go back. Maybe next time I WILL find Jason-