Say cheese, it’s Shavuot
Food for thought

Say cheese, it’s Shavuot

Once the rabbis decided to celebrate the wheat harvest with dairy, the cheesemakers got creative

Phyllis Glazer is an American-born food journalist based in Tel Aviv, Israel. She is the author of several cookbooks that have been published in Hebrew, German, and Italian, and appears frequently on television and radio in Israel.

feta cheese (photo credit: JJ Harrison/CC-BY-SA-2.5)
feta cheese (photo credit: JJ Harrison/CC-BY-SA-2.5)

Word has it that for the last month, Israel’s cows, sheep and goats have been working overtime. No wonder; on Shavuot, beginning sundown on Tuesday, Israelis purchase and consume nearly 50% more dairy products than usual.

In ancient times, the Jewish harvest became a joyous pilgrimage festival celebrating the annual wheat harvest, when farmers would travel from throughout the country to the Temple in Jerusalem to offer a basket of their crops.

After the destruction of the Temple and the dispersion of the Jewish people, the scholars of the Talmud infused the holiday with new meaning; the ancient harvest festival coincided with a “spiritual harvest” — namely, when the Torah was given to Moses and the Israelites. Legend had it that the children of Israel ate only dairy products to purify themselves for this miraculous event.

That may be. But with the recent purchase of the famed Tnuva conglomerate (controlling over 70% of the Israeli dairy market) by China’s state-owned Bright Food Group for $2.5 billion, I find it comforting to know that there are still family-owned boutique dairies.

One of these is the three-generations-old Jacob’s Dairy, dating back to 1936, when Ruth and Yitzhak Jacobs arrived from Germany and settled in Kfar Haroeh in Emek Hefer, a virtual wilderness at the time. The couple grew their own food and raised cows in their backyard, hand-milking and producing their own cheeses to feed the family,

Decades later, their son Shlomo, his wife Roni and their five sons are all involved in the family business. Two of the boys studied traditional cheese-making in France and Italy. The others deal with production and marketing. Modern equipment has replaced hand-milking, and today the dairy produces about 25 different cheeses, including hard- and semi-hard mature cheeses, mold cheeses, soft cheeses and yogurts from goat, sheep and cow milk.

Each of the grandchildren has a special cheese that bears his/her name. This Shavuot, they created a fabulous hard cheese marinated in The Golan Winery’s merlot wine.

Here’s something you can do with feta cheese, and it’s easily served when entertaining, or stuffed in a sandwich. I like to make it just as guests arrive, so the marinade is still hot, but it’s just as good made in advance, when the marinade lets the cheese absorb the flavors. Store in an airtight mason-type jar in the refrigerator for 3-4 days. (The leftover marinade is delicious as a dressing for potato salad).

Feta Cheese in Olive Oil Marinade (serves 4-6)

  • 300 grams feta cheese
  • 1½ cups extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 sprigs fresh thyme, each broken in half
  • 1 sprig fresh rosemary, broken into pieces
  • 1 cup lightly packed fresh basil leaves or ½ cup fresh sage leaves (or a combination)

1. Cut the cheese in half lengthwise and then crosswise into cubes or slices. Place in a jar.

2. Heat all the ingredients except the basil until very hot. Remove from heat, add the basil leaves and pour over the cheese. If available, add red peppercorns as a garnish.

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