Flavored white cheeses.
Flavored white cheeses. Photo by Baruch Na'eh
Text size
Dror Artzi
Picking wild hyssop to garnish labaneh. Photo by Dror Artzi

In Biblical times, one of Jerusalem’s nicknames was - apparently - “valley of the cheese makers.” Cheese culture in the Holy Land hasn’t necessarily lived up to its ancient title throughout the ages, but in recent years dairies from the nation's relatively lush north as well as the arid south have revitalized the industry with quality cheeses made from cow, goat, and sheep milk.

Artisan cheeses aside, when walking into your local grocery store, travelers are met with a wall of cheese products. Many vary in taste from their equivalent abroad, and some don’t really have an equivalent overseas at all.

Take for example, gvina levana, or “white cheese,” which is a soft, bland cheese that is like a mix of cream cheese and yogurt. If it's just basic cream cheese you're looking for, that can be found under the name gvinat shamenet.

Fat content varies: most spreadable cheeses are available in 3 percent, 5 percent, and 9 percent varieties while hard, sliced cheeses, known simply as “yellow” cheese (their taste can be as bland as their name), can go as high as 28 percent fat.

In addition to a variety of nutritional variations, Israeli supermarket cheeses come with some surprise flavors.  Don’t assume you’re walking away with the regular, plain flavor – look twice when grabbing a container of cottage cheese or you may wake up the next morning to an olive-flavored breakfast.

Speaking of cottage cheese, Israelis are rightly proud of the rich, fresh kind found here. Made without artificial processes, “cottage” as it’s referred to, should be consumed within a few days of purchase. If you doubt Israelis’ passion for their cottage cheese, take note of the massive social justice protests that were sparked last summer when the Tnuva dairy producer, based in the Galilee and holding a near monopoly on dairy products, raised the price by a few shekels.

Additional popular cheeses include the Mediterranean staples feta and yogurt (pay attention to the packaging of the latter because many yogurts can resemble, for example, a single serving of “white” cheese).

White or bio yogurt is similar to a tart Greek yogurt, but you can also get plenty of sugar-drowned fruit flavors as well. In a similar vein, “Bulgarit” cheese is related to feta in its solid but creamy consistency but has a sharper bite compared to feta’s milder edge.

Additional unique, regional cheeses include Zefatit, a salted fresh cheese made of pasteurized sheep’s milk that has been produced in the ancient northern city of Zefat (Safed) for hundreds of years, hence its name.

Labane, an Arab cheese made of sheep or goat milk, can be quite salty and sour and comes in a range of consistencies from soft to thick, sometimes even formed into balls.  Doused in olive oil and sprinkled with the spice za'atar (hyssop), it’s a must-eat.  Again and again.