A Nazareth Dynasty of Shepherds and Cheesemakers

In an age when most dairy products are made from industrially produced cow’s milk, the Shatiwi family of Galilean shepherds still produces traditional sheep’s milk cheese

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A sheep pen at the Shatiwi farm.
A sheep pen at the Shatiwi farm.Credit: Dan Perez
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

The season got underway a couple of weeks ago: Hisham Shatiwi, a fourth-generation descendant of shepherds and cheesemakers, can barely conceal his fatigue as he walks through a wide pen amid newborn lambs and sheep about to give birth. “I don’t sleep this time of year,” he says with a weary smile as he urges Shoko and Carmeli, the two tiny dogs that follow him everywhere, to quit barking so loudly.

In the Shatiwi family’s sheep pen, as at other modern dairy farms, yearlong milk production is accomplished with the aid of artificial insemination, but in late spring, the natural reproduction season, the lambing rate increases. Up until a decade ago, when the family built their large pen on the outskirts of Iksal in the Lower Galilee, their family pen was located on Mount Precipice on the southern edge of Nazareth, and the goats and sheep still grazed in the fields surrounding Nazareth.

“In the days of grazing, the milk was richer and more aromatic,” says Hisham’s brother Riyad Shatiwi, who oversees the dairy and the cheesemaking. “The goats’ natural instincts lead them to seek out the best plants for them to eat, and the milk has a totally different taste. But it’s almost impossible today to take them out to pasture. We’re a people that’s losing its roots. Yesterday we hosted my son’s preschool class at the farm, and neither of the teachers could tell a goat from a sheep.”

The family traded the wild pastures surrounding the farm on Mount Precipice (now used for raising beef cattle) for the neatly tended lawns of Iksal; a grove of Syrian olive trees from which the family makes its own olive oil; and a fruit orchard with various native varieties of fruit. Muscat and Dabuki grapevines wind around the fences of the farm, and at the edge stands a stable of Arabian horses, the family’s pride and joy. Abir, a white horse with a broad forehead, is the eldest at 18. In her younger days, she won all kinds of prizes at competitions. In the compartment beside her live Zahrat al-Karmel (“Flower of the Carmel”) and little Lula (“Pearl”) who is just three months old. In recent years, this gorgeous farm has become a place of refuge and relaxation for the extended Shatiwi clan (“We’re five siblings with 20 children among us,” explains 41-year-old Riyad. “And my grandfather had three different wives, so the extended family numbers almost 300 people”).

A round of sheep’s cheese with nigella seeds.
A round of sheep’s cheese with nigella seeds.Credit: Dan Perez

The ancient ways

The first of this Nazareth dynasty of shepherds and cheesemakers was Mohammed Shatiwi, the siblings’ great-grandfather, who sold fresh milk and traditional local cheeses to his neighbors.

His descendants now straddle the line between progress and preservation of tradition. In the great-grandfather’s time, there were about 200 dairy animals; today there are close to 700. They reside in an impressive pen and milking station that spreads over eight dunams. They also raise sheep for meat, and over the years, the breeds of sheep have evolved.

“Some of the goats here are the fourth generation of the goats my great-grandfather kept,” says Riyad. “But we no longer raise Baladi sheep. Because of the structure of its tail, the Baladi is hard to breed, and has gradually disappeared from the market. Now we breed the Assaf, which is a cross between the local Baladi and European sheep, and we also breed Marino sheep for meat.”

The Shatiwi family.
The Shatiwi family.Credit: Dan Perez

In the tiny cheesemaking factory, still located next to the family home in the Jabal Hamudi neighborhood, they use some modern machinery, but production is still very small-scale (Riyad, his wife Samia and cousin Wa’al are the only ones involved in this work). The process is still very close to the ancient ways of making yogurt, labaneh and jibni – the three most typical dairy products of the Levant.

In an age when most dairy products are made with cow’s milk from industrial farms, the Shatiwi family makes fantastic dairy products from sheep’s milk, with a relatively high fat content and an incredible taste. The creamy labaneh is so scrumptious you want to just keep eating it straight out of the container with a spoon, and the excellent yogurt, packaged in enormous buckets, is often used to make big trays of mansaf (a festive rice and meat dish) for weddings and other events in the area. The Shatiwi family’s jibni can be found on all kinds of fresh savory baked goods sold in the city’s bakeries. In addition to these three very traditional items, there is also a fresh, soft sheep’s cheese similar to Tzfat cheese, sprinkled with black nigella seeds.

The dairy products are currently sold almost exclusively at the family butcher shop, located within view of the original farm on Mount Precipice. “Except for a small grocery or two in the city, there is no outside marketing or distribution,” says Ataf Shatiwi, the father of the family, who rises at five every morning to supervise the milking and work in the office. “We’ve kept it boutique production, in order to ensure the quality, and we have people who make a special pilgrimage to come to us, not just from Nazareth, but from Tel Aviv and Haifa too.”

Shatiwi butcher shop and dairy farm, 3042/7 Nazareth; (04) 602-0559

Yogurt.Credit: Dan Perez