Cheese and Dairy, Jerusalem, Israel

Labne

In a country (and a region) so culinarily rich, and so agriculturally focused, it’s pretty amazing how lame Israel seems when it comes to cheese and dairy. The classic iconic representation of this problem is that when you ask for cheese in Israel you only have two options: “white or yellow”. White cheese is liquidy but thick like a cross between sour cream and cream cheese. Yellow is kind of like thin slices of provolone but with less flavor. Not exactly a cheese lover’s paradise.

It’s true that in recent years Israel is starting to develop a properly diverse cheese culture (no pun intended). But as that develops it’s more interesting than one would realize at first glance what has been in place for decades. Beneath the “white or yellow” lies a narrow but deep set of diverse cheese offerings (the bulk of them being in liquid or at least spreadable form).

Here are some of the mainstays of Israeli dairy consumption that you may not be familiar with:

  • Leben. This is kind of a drinkable yogurt. It’s tart, and thick. Not a super smooth consistency, but the texture adds to the deliciousness.
  • White cheese. As mentioned above, it’s like you mixed yogurt and cream cheese together. Relatively smooth consistency with only a slight “grain”. It comes with different fat content comes in 3%, 5% and 9%. I like to mix together white cheese and leben and then combine with some israeli salad, a chopped up hard boiled egg, salt, and pepper. Sounds gross (kind of looks gross) but trust me. It’s scrumptious.
  • Labne. This is basically a cream cheese made of yogurt. Similar to white cheese, but comes from the Arab cooking traditions (to the best of my understanding). The best labne I ever had was on my recent trip to Israel. Labne can be anywhere from creamy to hard enough to form into balls (covered with zatar of course). The labne I had was made from goat milk and had an incredible acidic component. But the best part was that the consistency was somewhere between the silkiest butter you’ve ever had and whipped cream. (I hate to mention the dreaded Cool Whip, but the consistency of this labne was like what you imagine Cool Whip’s consistency to be like by looking at the package before you taste it and realize it’s an unholy creation spawned by the devil). The combination of the silky texture and the incredible sharp taste blew me away. There was nothing I didn’t want to spread it on. (That’s labne pictured above drowned in super flavorful olive oil and zatar. Yum yum.
  • Butter. I think by default the butter in Israel has higher fat content than its North American cousin. And that’s a good thing.

There aren’t huge choices in Israel quite yet when it comes to cheese, but this tiny slice of the liquidy/yogurty/spready cheese spectrum is rich enough to distract you for some time until you realize almost nobody there has ever heard of Epoisse.

6 Responses to “Cheese and Dairy, Jerusalem, Israel”

  1. Yeah… like you are saying, you have to embrace it for what it is. I marveled a few times at the lack of even a decent fresh mozzarella. But the yogurt family of fine products is so highly developed. I love the labneh pressed in the textured baskets. You can see some in the foreground here. Israel (and the Middle East in general) is a great source of picnicy meals where you make one or two things and supplement the table with olives, and labneh and yogurt and pita and maybe preserved lemons and so on. I love that.

  2. ig says:

    I tried a wonderful cheesecake made from 5% white cheese and I would love to find out how to locate or recreate the cheese in Australia. Any suggestions?

  3. Janina says:

    I think you are not really fair describing the kind of cheeses we have here in Israel.What you describe was a fact years ago but today you can find lovely cheese here, goat cheese, white feta like cheese, chevre and other lovely things.Cheesemaking has become popular around here and there are many small dairies making great cheese.The better supermarkets also have quite a good variety of different cheese products.

  4. Ilana says:

    Coming back now from living in Israel for three months, I have to say I founf much more than white or yellow. I canĀ“t say, absolutely, that Israel has an amazing cheese culture, but I’ve been to some kibutzim in the middle of the desert with some of the most amazing fresh cheeses ever. The importing culture grows now, as well, so you can now get more variety.

  5. Jack Fromberg says:

    You should be aware that Israel has had for the last 5 years a diverse offering of cheese that are very much the rage in European countries.Where did you get this lame cheese offering idea?.You should get out a bit and look around for
    the many wonderful artisan cheesemakers producing great cheese.
    You can find a variety of aged sheep,aged goat,and aged cow milk cheeses, made with raw or pasteurized milk. Among the types are
    Gilboa-Manchego style, Tiltan- St.Maure, Tavor-Selles sur cher,
    Yuvalim- Roquefort,Yodfat- Pyrenees, Gilon-Pecorino.
    These are just some of the many styles of cheese you can find today in Israel. Don’t be surprised to find Buffalo Mozzarella, Soft ripened Brie,or a washed rind cheese like like Reblochon.
    It’s all there, waiting for your cheese adventure.

  6. Topaz says:

    After just coming back from Israel to Australia a month ago, I was actually stunned at the quality and flavour of dairy there. The first time I tried the %3 fat milk I had to double check the carton because it was so rich in taste, I thought it must be higher fat. The cottage cheese is also another winner in my book. Funny thing is, on my return I kept throwing out new tubs of cottage cheese, convinced that they were spoiled, when I realised I was not used to the difference in flavour!

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