These Rare Cheeses Age in a First Temple-era Cave in the Jerusalem Hills

At this farm in the Jerusalem hills, profits take second place to the production of rare goat cheeses with complex flavors.

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Rare cheeses ageing at Har Eitan Farm. Some are as much as five or six years old.
Rare cheeses ageing at Har Eitan Farm. Some are as much as five or six years old.Credit: Dan Perez
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

The best days for taking a trip are the days when weather forecasters warn people to stay home. Only rarely do serious warnings about “a major storm” turn out to be correct here, and they often actually provide an unforgettable backdrop for roaming the roads.

One Thursday last month was one of those days: a dramatic gray-black sky, soft mist wrapping the woods, and a rich, damp scent of evergreen needles and sap. At this time of year, blossoming almond trees line the road to the Har Eitan Farm near Sataf Springs in the Jerusalem Hills, home to the Seltzer cheese-makers. A heavy rain had left a snow-white carpet of petals that had been swept down from the trees – a breathtakingly beautiful sight.

Standing at the entrance to the goat pen, Omer Seltzer takes advantage of a lull in the rain and opens the gate. The 180 Seltzer milk goats are going out to roam, despite the weather forecasters’ doomsday warnings.

Granite cheese.
Granite cheese.Credit: Dan Perez

Goats and goatherd set out to the sound of bleating and the ringing of bells. Omer – who stays behind this time – splits some wood with an ax and puts on a kettle for tea. The metal stove stands in a lean-to with tangled vines, next to a rock wall from which a spring gushes.

Shai Seltzer, one of the pioneers of artisanal cheese-making in Israel, has two sons and a daughter. In the 1970s he established his isolated farm on the remains of an ancient settlement. Moni (Ramon), the younger son, is a teacher who gives lessons in agricultural sustainability to preschoolers and dreams of creating urban gardens on the roofs of senior citizens’ residences. Raya, his daughter, is completing a doctorate on beekeeping, and Omer, the eldest, who was born in 1981, has been carrying on the work of his charismatic father for the past six years.

“I’m the exclusive creator of the cheeses,” says this shy, slender man in a soft voice, choosing his words carefully and speaking as little as possible. “Because it’s a long, slow and complex process, which has to be carefully supervised all the time, it’s hard to have two people in charge. You need one cheese-maker with a vision.”

The son continues to make some of the cheeses his father produced; they could become an important contribution to Israeli culture. Moni, a wonderful white moldy cheese named after the younger son, is among them. “There were also Raya and Omer, but I don’t make Omer any more. It was a cheese with an extreme taste, typical of my father and less typical of me. And it seems arrogant to me to produce a cheese that’s named after yourself,” says Omer.

Tamar, a yellow-orange wheel of semi-hard goat cheese, which is sold at a relatively young age and excels in a rich milky flavor, is another cheese that bears the imprint of the founder. “Tamar is entirely my father’s cheese,” says Omer. “It’s produced by a technique he likes – and I don’t like as much – and is a seasonal cheese. We produce it only for three weeks at the beginning of the winter, when the sira kotzanit, a thick and thorny plant, comes to life and the goats devour its buds.”

Omer Seltzer. A cheese-maker with a vision.
Omer Seltzer. A cheese-maker with a vision.Credit: Dan Perez

Shai Seltzer, sporting a long, white, biblical-looking beard and always dressed in white, created and sold goat cheeses with complex flavors at a time when few people produced them, and even fewer ate them. Omer learned the profession from his father and traveled abroad to complete his study of cheese making and the relevant technology. He is aware that nuances of flavor that are obvious to the palate of someone who takes care of goats may not cater to the taste of most of the public.

A living product

“For years when I worked alongside Dad, I also found I could distinguish the niceties of the quality of the cheese and the milk, ostensibly the same milk from the same goat, almost mystical. But even a day like today, cold with easterly winds, affects the goats’ milk. The flavor, texture and aroma of cheese produced in a dairy like ours is affected by dozens of components, from the weather and the seasons to the cheese-maker’s preferences.

“In a sense, the final product doesn’t interest me. It’s part of the magic that simply happens. I’m interested in the process,” Omer says. “Artisanal cheese is not a laboratory product. Cheese is a living product: We’re dealing with bacteria, which are subject to environmental influences. The cheese-maker has a certain amount of control, the ability to monitor and to decide what he wants, and still the work of the dairy is a continual experimental process.”

Omer Seltzer continues to produce semi-hard and soft cheeses, including unusual and delicious cheeses wrapped in grape leaves or coated with charcoal. But his true love is for hard cheeses with complex flavors, which age in a limestone cave carved into the rock. According to the family, the cave dates to the First Temple period (960 to 586 BCE). Entry to the small cave is reserved for a few – not for reasons of prestige, but because the environment must be monitored.

Entering the cave is a memorable experience: round, square and rectangular loaves age on wooden shelves, seeming to merge with the surface of the rocky background and giving off a special fragrance.

Rare cheese library

The Seltzers' goat herd.
The Seltzers' goat herd.Credit: Dan Perez

Granite is a summer cheese with a delicate saltiness, produced only in the course of a few weeks in summer, when the composition of the milk is right for it. On its surface is a very thin network of charcoal veins that look like delicate ink drawings. Rakefet is a hard, blue-veined winter cheese, and Olivia is a family of hard cheeses that are produced during the olive harvest.

“During the season when the goats eat olives that have fallen to the ground, and in the process of chewing their cud spit out olive pits, the entire structure of the fat in the milk changes, and as a result the structure of the fat in the cheese and its texture also changes,” Omer explains.

On the shelves in the cave you can also find cheeses from the Olivia family that have been ageing for a year or more; the milky flavor and solid surface of the young cheeses has been replaced by sourness and a coarser texture. They also produce Tomme cheese.

“Tomme is a generic name for a family of cheeses, and when you say Tomme, you have to add the name of the producer,” says Omer. “It’s different everywhere; my father made a Tomme that was different from mine. Mine is sweeter and more delicate, and is produced from a different fermenting agent, with a different technique and at a different pace from my father’s.”

Some of the shelves in the rare cheese library are devoted to hard cheeses, one to two years old, and even five and six years old. I like the taste of the older ones less; the total breakdown of the proteins leads to a flattening of flavors, at best, and at worst to a bitter-strong flavor that scorches your throat. But it turns out that they have regular admirers who enjoy them with strong digestifs.

For economic and commercial reasons, most Israeli manufacturers cannot allow themselves to keep cheeses for a prolonged period of time. But aged cheeses are part of the family’s agenda and vision. Profit is unimportant compared with intellectual interest and the pursuit of complex and interesting flavors.

At one time, these excellent cheeses were sold in chef’s restaurants and delicatessens, but now can only be purchased in the dairy’s shop, which is open on weekends. There is also the option of eating them on site, along with a bottle of wine. It’s best to visit on Friday, when Omer, the shy working man behind the counter, has more time than on Shabbat to explain and offer tastings.

Har Eitan Cheese Farm. The dairy’s store in Sataf is open on Fridays and Saturdays from 11 A.M. until half an hour before sunset. Price: 28 shekels for 100 grams, which offers an opportunity for a broad tasting of young and aged cheeses. For information: