Udderly Delicious

Time for the annual Shavuot-in-Israel dairy blog! The holiday where we celebrate eating cheesecake and dairy products (or so it seems) is bearing down hard upon us. Actually, Shavuot is the holiday 50 days after Pesach (Passover), commemorating the end of the barley harvest and beginning of summer, as well as the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses by G-d on Mount Sinai. Because milk is sometimes used as a symbol for the Scriptures (providing us babies spiritual nourishment), we eat lots of dairy and stay up all night studying the Scriptures, reading the book of Ruth, and discussing how bloated we feel after consuming so many milk products. Uuuurrppp -Pass that bowl of whipped cream, please-

It’s also the time when Israelis make their annual pilgrimages to local dairy farms. Goat farms and pasture-fresh goat milk dairies and restaurants are ubiquitous throughout the Galilee region of Northern Israel. All are independent, family-owned and run. Some are Bedouin Arab, some secular Jewish, some following the strictest of Kosher laws. Some offer tours of the cheesemaking process and some have petting zoos attached where little children run around petting the goats and helping with the milking. Each has its own flavor (pun intent ended).

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Galilean goatherd in the wadi below our house

This year I selected two different places, each with their own vibe and each within a fifteen minute drive of home. Due to the easing of the COVID-19 quarantine restrictions, all the local roads (many one lane in each direction!) were p’kock and each place jam-packed with locals satisfying their ‘pent-up-for-way-too-long’ and ‘just-let-me-out-in-the-fresh-air’ desires.

Yesterday, my girlfriend, Hadassah, and I decided to take a short morning tiyuul to Kibbutz Shomrat, just across the highway from Akko. (O.K., so we wound up picnicking at nearby Achziv Beach, visiting a distillery, and making new friends at a small kibbutz cafe on the Lebanese border and didn’t get home til after sunset, but we had a blast!!!)

Alto Dairy on Kibbutz Shomrat had been highly recommended as a gourmet Kosher establishment. We found it was a lot more than that. Shomrat has a guesthouse (motel); individual family tzimmerim (lodges); a gourmet restaurant and cafe. It is also the home of the Mazan family’s Alto Dairy. Run by the lively matriarch, Ariel Mazan, she prides herself on the traditional techniques she learned in Europe and the highest standards.

Alto (Italian and Spanish for high, as in their quality) specializes in both hard and soft cheeses made from pasteurized goat milk, which is mild, healthy and easy to digest. They offer over 20 different products including yogurts; two types of bleu cheese; camembert with nuts; camembert in ash; chèvre with herbs or garlic or seeds; salty cheeses; pecorino – all up for tasting. I must admit, this was by far the best dairy I’ve tried here to date. Their Tom cheese is soft and mild, buttery and yet flavorsome. (Even better than the San Francisco, Cowgirl Creamery Tom…. did I just say that????)  I bought a ton. And the goat cheddar -WOW!!!!! Flavor explosion. I bought two tons. And yogurt, and chèvre, and bleu, and halloumi (for sautéing). Their prices were very reasonable, but I wound up spending a small fortune anyway.

Alto has a small cafe-style seating area indoors as well as an adjacent covered-porch sit down restaurant. All the food is beautifully presented and kosher dairy – no meat products are served and they are closed on Shabbat. They offer cheese and wine platters, of course, but their Israeli breakfast is something else. Traditional Israeli dishes with a gourmet twist: stuffed mushrooms with pureed fresh beets and melted cheese; salad with pear, pecan and bleu; roasted eggplant slices on fresh whole-grain sourdough – topped with melted cheeses; a croissant stuffed with wilted spinach and cheese and a perfectly poached egg; shakshuka with lots and lots of cheese; savory quiches; and yogurt parfaits to name just a few items.

The atmosphere is family-friendly, laid-back and very casual with nice views of the farm, fields and coastal plains between Akko and Haifa. You can take a pre-arranged guided tour of the establishment enabling you to learn the entire cheese-making process from udder to shelf. Not only will you learn the nutritional advantages of goat milk and the different types of cheeses, but how to serve and cook with them!

This morning John, Max and I visited a popular hangout for the locals. Located off Route 85 between Karmiel and the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), there is a signpost for Ein Camonim, another family-owned goat dairy and restaurant. I first heard about this place from my California-Israeli acupuncturist who was good friends with the Ovrutsky family. Very small world.

Ein Camonim does not have Kosher certification because they are open on Shabbat. Still, it is all natural and dairy only, with a store and adjoining restaurant. They, too, sell a nice variety of hard and semi-soft cheeses as well as goat yogurt. I love their chèvre dipped in volcanic ash and their gouda. The fresh homemade ice cream is to die for creamy, sweet and well-balanced with absolutely no “goaty” taste at all – a hallmark of freshness. It comes in several different flavors and all products are available for take-away.

There is indoor seating in the restaurant as well as dining alfresco under the pine and oak canopy. This place, so typically Israeli, is about as relaxed and mellow and casual as it gets. Jeans, tee shirts, shorts, boots or bare feet – we’ve seen it all. But I’ll save the most interesting surprise for last….

It’s mostly frequented for lazy brunches and long lunches. Yes, there is the requisite cheese platter with local boutique wine pairings, but the Israeli breakfast (not cheap) is simple, fresh food from the local gardens served in huge amounts. Olives picked and cured on site; fresh hummus and simple chopped veggie salads drizzled with fresh olive oil; chavita (kha-vee-TAH) – the flat Galilean omelette, and shakshuka served with fresh warm bread made on the premises. And there’s cheese pizza for the kids. Totally filling. Very plain. Most Israeli.

The part that was so shocking to us the first time we visited, was not just the cats and dogs wandering the premises, visiting the tables. It wasn’t that patrons brought their dogs, who were welcome to loll under the tables, It was the peafowl!!! Peacocks and peahens seem to have the run of this establishment. They wander freely about the tables, inside and outside of both restaurants, occasionally jumping up on the uncleared tables to snatch morsels of food. It’s just part of the charm of the place: it’s a rural, local joint with absolutely no pretenses – and by now we’re used to such… It’s Most Israeli!!!

Have fun eating your cheese this weekend. I’m off to prepare my own cheesecakes and cheese blintz souflée toped with raspberry puree and fresh goat yogurt. Have to put the fridge full of dairy products to use!!!!

To my Jewish friends and family, Happy Shavuot! Chag Shavuot sameach (khag shah-voo-OAT sah-MAY-akh)!!!!! and to my Christian friends and family, Happy Pentacost!!!! And pass me another hunk of brie, please –