The Traditional Palestinian Cheese-making Method That Keeps on Giving

Tasting traditional dairy products made from milk churned in a goatskin in the Palestinian village of Susiya is an unparalleled experience

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Cone-shaped kishk curds.
Cone-shaped kishk curds.Credit: Dan Perez
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

Up until five years ago, the women of the Palestinian village of Susiya in the West Bank would churn sheep’s milk in a traditional churn made of goatskin. The villagers – who face possible expulsion from their homes because of an ongoing conflict with a nearby Jewish settlement, also called Susiya – were not connected to basic infrastructure like electricity and water. Now they obtain electricity from solar panels installed by aid groups near their encampments and makeshift houses. The traditional churns have been replaced by small, stainless steel churns powered by electricity.

“Of course I’m happy that their lives have become easier thanks to modern technology,” says Yonit Crystal, who specializes in the preservation of traditional crafts and conducts guided tours on the subject. “Poverty, hardship and a complex and impossible political situation are certainly part of the reason they’ve kept up traditional lifestyles and customs in the southern Mount Hebron area, but it saddens me to know that within a few years, there will be no one left who knows how to churn milk the traditional way. It’s already hard to find anyone who can make this kind of churn. To do it, you have to skin the goat in a certain way and then know how to sew it the right way, and the generation that knew how to do this is disappearing. If I were the culture minister, I would pay these women to keep working with the old churns, so that the traditional production techniques for the characteristic dairy products of the area wouldn’t become extinct.”

The group of 12 men and women who signed up for Crystal’s tour about the traditional production of dairy products chuckles at that remark, assuming the speaker must have meant it in jest. It’s hard to believe that our current culture minister would put any time and energy into preserving the cultural heritage of a Palestinian village that gets no help from the Israeli administration and is repeatedly subjected to harassment by Jewish settlers. But Crystal, endearingly, isn’t joking. She first came to the area, one of her favorite parts of the country, when she was a child, brought along by her mother, a weaver who came to learn the traditional local handicrafts. In 1996, she and her husband, with their donkey, set out to trek on foot from Jerusalem to southern Mount Hebron (“I don’t get why everyone thinks we’re crazy. People go off on long backpacking trips all over the world, but they don’t think of doing the same thing in the place where they live”).

Crystal lived in the Susiya area for several months and learned from local women about spinning, cheese-making and building taboun ovens. She wrote about this fascinating trip and her encounters with Jewish and Arab residents of the area in an article on her website. A similar trip with her family nearly a decade later, in 2005, inspired her to devote herself to preserving disappearing crafts that connect the landscape to the people in it.

“I hoped to repeat the incredible experiences I’d had with women who taught me knowledge that was accumulated over hundreds and thousands of years and illustrated their cultural heritage,” she says, “but wherever I looked I ran into the same answers – ‘My grandmother used to do that, I don’t know how,’ or ‘No one does that anymore.’ I kept seeing that the old people who are still with us are the last link in a chain that’s on the verge of being broken for good.”

Today her energies are focused on locating men and women who can pass on traditional knowledge to future generations; she also gives courses and workshops in skills like basket-weaving, knitting, embroidery and traditional food preparation. When the latest calving season began, and when she learned that the women of Susiya wished to form a collective that would turn traditional crafts into a source of income, she returned after an absence of several years to lead tours that include observing and preparing kishk, a dried, low-fat salty cheese (also known as kashk, yogurt curds, laban nashef, ja’ajil and jamid, among other names).

Coveted calories

We enter the encampment that serves as the home of one of the village women and her family. Usually, the various stages of fresh dairy production take place outdoors, but in the scorching sun, the small group shelters in the shade of a canvas awning. Our hostess picks up the churn – made from a whole goatskin – inserts the rayeb (sour milk from the previous day’s milking, which has had time to curdle), and then blows air into the mouth of the churn to inflate it. “The rayeb already contains the fat,” says Crystal. “We live in a time when excess fat is considered a problem, but in the premodern age, every food item that contained a lot of calories was coveted. There’s an Arabic proverb that says the rayeb, which is rich and tangy, is something you give to people you want to honor.”

The cheese-maker hangs the churn on a stand made of three pieces of wood and starts to swing it back and forth with even movements; we hear the milk-yogurt sloshing inside. Strong and skilled, she can churn this amount of milk in half an hour. But the women in our group, who take turns trying this ancient craft previously unknown to them, discover just how arduous the monotonous and meditative task is. The leather churn is smooth and moist (the goatskin “breathes,” which helps the milk retain its cool temperature). Their hands quickly tire as we absorb the bracing, intoxicating fragrance of sour milk. The task of churning has traditionally been reserved for women, and the male visitors, under the watchful eyes of the men of the family, also refrain from trying it.

After more than an hour of intensive churning, the rayeb separates into zebda (a rich cream resembling sour butter) and shanina (low-fat yogurt). Zebda is ultimately used to make samna (clarified butter) and the shanina is used to make the kishk in a long and involved process that lasts almost three weeks. “All the traditional dairy products were designed to meet the need to preserve milk out of season,” Crystal explains. “In the premodern world, before there were refrigerators and artificial insemination, milking took place over a period of four months per year – sometimes as much as 100 liters of milk per day, depending on the size of the herd – and since the protein and fat in the milk are vital for nutrition, they had to be preserved.

The idea is to make products for the short term, like yogurt and labaneh; for the medium term, like jibni and kerisha, a local cheese that’s similar to ricotta; and for the long-term, like samna and kishk. In the course of the season and the long process of making the kishk, you also eat the byproducts, like zebda, which doesn’t keep that long, and gafes, the salty white curd that is eventually used for making the cone-shaped curds of the kishk that’s dried in the open air.”

A magic spell

Zebda: This word has cast a magic spell on me ever since I was a child, thanks to the heroines in the novels of the Countess de Sagur, the Russian-French writer who would run off to the peasants at churning time to eat thick zebda with black bread and forest berries. I didn’t know what zebda was exactly (and forest berries weren’t too common in Kfar Hess, where I lived in the 1970s), but that didn’t stop me from dreaming about the taste. I later discovered that the word zebda appeared locally on eshel (a kind of buttermilk) containers,but that proved to be a sad misnomer. Once you taste the real thing, you can’t help but reflect sorrowfully on what the modern industrialized era has wrought when it comes to milk and milk products.

During the long, relaxed hours of producing the various items (in Crystal’s workshop there is no such thing as accelerating the process or using pre-prepared materials), you have a rare opportunity to taste traditional dairy products at different stages of production. At the end of the tour, the women of the family set out a simple meal on straw mats. It was one of the most wonderful meals I’ve ever tasted: fantastic pitot from the taboun (because of the poverty and difficult conditions, Susiya is one of the last places where bread is baked in a genuine traditional taboun heated with sheep’s turds); fresh zebda, soft-boiled eggs scrambled with zebda, sliced vegetables; and whey, traditionally considered the most inferior milk product, but nonetheless absolutely delicious.

Yonit Crystal – preservation of traditional crafts, (04) 670-8184, Educational tours through July, reservations required.

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