What Picnic Dreams Are Made Of: Cheese, Bread and Olives at Israel's Northern Tip

A trip to three small food producers in the Hula Valley, where you can get everything you need for a picnic. Just bring the wine.

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Labaneh in the making at the Schwartz farm.
Labaneh in the making at the Schwartz farm. Credit: Dan Peretz
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

The cheese

One’s eyes are first drawn to the labaneh “wall of fame.” Hung on one wall of the former kibbutz dining room – which has been turned into a privately owned cheese-making plant – are spotless cloth bags full of white yogurt. The bags hang for 24 hours on the white tiles, during which time the liquids drip from them and the milk proteins clot and turn into a soft, slightly sour and wonderfully tasty cheese.

Labaneh, produced by a traditional method that has been used in this region for thousands of years, and semi-hard Tzfat cheese were the first two local cheeses produced by the Schwartz family. Over the past seven years, traditional European cheeses made by various techniques have been added. In France and Italy hardscrabble farmers age cheeses in caves and stone cellars hundreds of years old; in Israel loaves of cheese are aged on wooden shelves that were installed in the refrigerators of the kibbutz dining room, and the sight is no less beautiful.

Hard cheese at the Schwartz farm.
Hard cheese at the Schwartz farm.Credit: Dan Peretz

Oded Schwartz, a warm and emotional romantic, is descended from founders of Moshav Sde Eliezer in the Hula Valley. “My grandfather, Yaakov Schwartz, came from Hungary as a Satmar Hasid in 1948. He and Grandmother Sarah settled on the land in 1953, began raising sheep for milk, and for years provided milk to Tnuva. My father, Zvika, returned to the farm in 1974, the year I was born. I have two other brothers who also live on the moshav, but I’m the only fool who went back to agriculture.”

The decision to process the milk produced by the family farm into cheese and to market it independently was made during one of the many crises caused by a surplus of milk in an industry regulated by quotas.

“Grandfather was already on his deathbed,” says Oded, “when he said to me: ‘If you continue like this you’re better off taking the milk and watering the olive trees with it.’ We decided to start a dairy. Father left the sheep pen and devoted himself entirely to the work of the dairy and cheese production. Today we have 700 milk ewes in the herd, and we use only our own milk.”

The herd and the dairy are located in Sde Eliezer, while cheese production has moved to Kibbutz Yiftah, on a mountain range near the Lebanese border. In addition to labaneh and Tzfat cheese, there is a selection of complex cheeses covered with white or charcoal mold, and in the past year aged-hard cheeses as well, including Tomme. As yet there is no factory outlet adjacent to the cheese factory, nor are there tours of the dairy, but the cheeses can be found at Shalom Alechem, the bakery in Kibbutz Hulata.

Zvika and Oded Schwartz.
Zvika and Oded Schwartz.Credit: Dan Peretz

The bread

A yellow iron gate separates Yesud Hama’alah – a moshava (rural settlement) established in the late 19th century on the banks of Lake Hula – and Kibbutz Hulata, whose young members worked for the settlement’s farmers in the early 20th century. Early in this century the two adjacent communities became one contiguous built-up area, and only the yellow iron gate marks where the moshava ends and the kibbutz begins.

Amit Barnea.
Amit Barnea. Credit: Dan Peretz

Amit Barnea owns the tiny, charming artisanal bakery located on the kibbutz. “I sat down one winter day with friends in Yesud Hama’alah, and someone told me about a bakery that had operated there for decades, until in the 1980s industry became the deciding factor. Everyone spoke with longing about the pleasure of buying hot fresh bread straight from the baker, and I thought it was very romantic. I actually wanted to open the bakery in the moshava,” he says. “I searched for a long time, but it was easier to rent a space in Hulata, one of the first kibbutzim to become fully privatized. I found this place, which one of the kibbutz members had turned into a pastry shop.”

Barnea was born on Kibbutz Mahanayim in 1978, trained as a cook and worked for several years in the kitchens of Tel Aviv restaurants before returning to the north. “And then came that winter day with friends in Yesud Hama’alah. I’ve been baking bread alone at home for almost 18 years, and in 2011 I opened the bakery.” He calls it Shalom Alechem. “I did everything myself, with a tiny budget and used equipment. At first, I tried to bake breads from local flour only. But there’s no stability; every time you get flour it’s something entirely different. You can’t rely on it. I began with whole grain sourdough bread, rye bread and spelt bread. Slowly but surely, demand grew, as did the variety.”

Bread on display at the Shalom Alechem bakery in Kibbutz Hulata. Tempting fragrances.
Bread on display at the Shalom Alechem bakery in Kibbutz Hulata. Tempting fragrances.Credit: Dan Peretz

Five years later, the rural family bakery, painted in pale shades of pistachio, brown and gray, is bustling. The tempting fragrance of hot dough and yeast cakes fill the air. In addition to the breads (French-style sourdough, rye bread and bread made with dried spinach with black sesame seeds, which has a complex and interesting seaweed taste), the bakery offers sandwiches and fine coffee. A refrigerator is filled with cheesesfrom the Schwartz farm and Nevo Cohen’s pickled olives. In other words, wine is the only item missing for a proper picnic in the beautiful valley.

The olives

Olives pickling at Ahla Zayit in Sde Eliezer.
Olives pickling at Ahla Zayit in Sde Eliezer.Credit: Dan Peretz

In Efrat and Nevo Cohen’s backyard in Sde Eliezer there are almost 150 blue barrels, filled with thousands of kilograms of pickled black-green olives. They look wrinkled and taste wonderful. “It’s no wonder that there aren’t many people who have turned traditional olive pickling into a business,” says Nevo, who sports gray dreadlocks and a thick white beard. “You have to be a fool to do it. We do everything by ourselves; only during the harvest season are we joined by 20 workers, and then we all work from 4:30 A.M. until midnight.”

Thirty years ago Nevo bought the plot on which his olive trees grow. “At the time it was still possible to buy a farm; during the period of huge debts in the moshavim [cooperative farms] they were being offered at very low prices. After I bought it I was left without money to build a house or infrastructure, and for reasons of ideology I wanted to build by myself, from recycled materials.”

Ninety percent of the unusual plot of land belonging to Efrat and Nevo is composed of recycled tiled roofs, metal, pipes, glass and trash thrown out by factories and private individuals. The result is a colorful and eclectic maze of twisting curved walls, embedded with sculptures made of colored mosaics. “We don’t watch television, and on long winter nights I work on the place,” he says.

Olives pickling at Ahla Zayit in Sde Eliezer.
Olives pickling at Ahla Zayit in Sde Eliezer.Credit: Dan Peretz

Nevo works as the community’s maintenance man and there are the olive trees, too. Almost 40 dunams of Suri olive trees (from a local subspecies originating in one of the Arab villages of the Lower Galilee), which are used to produce olive oil and mainly, pickled olives. “We live like in the past, from the fruit of our land, at a time when there are no longer any small farmers living off their land in the moshav. Most of the land is leased, as in the other moshavim, to two or three large farmers who cultivate all the land.

“The pickling process takes almost half a year; we pickle the old-fashioned way, with only salt and garlic. There’s nothing else. I don’t know how the government approves the junk that’s in canned olives. Caustic soda is a chemical substance used to open blockages. But the slow process – I open all the barrels once every two months to strain the olives and change the water, until Efrat packages the olives that are ready in jars and bottles – is the reason why almost nobody wants to do this work.”

Schwartz cheeses: info: 054-800-7606; Shalom Alechem, Kibbutz Hulata, 052-699-1774; Ahla Zayit, Sde Eliezer, (04) 693-1823