The Old-school Israeli Cheesemakers Who Live in a Tent Off the Power Grid

The cheesy farm-to-table meal at the Goats with the Wind farm is well worth a trip to the Galilee

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Cheese at Goats with the Wind.
Cheese at Goats with the Wind.Credit: Dan Perez
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

The breakfast table, on a wood porch overlooking wild Mediterranean woodlands in the hills of Lower Galilee, is hidden from the world by a gorgeous snarl of natural vegetation and fruit trees. On the table is a pitcher of water gently scented with rosewater, along with dishes made of wood and eating utensils tied up with lavender stems. Daliah Zeldstein emerges from the kitchen with a bowl of pickled olives and an apology: “Usually we serve the fruit of our own olive trees, but there were few olives this year and they aren’t ready yet.”

The marvelous sourdough bread she places on the table wasn’t baked here, either, though for years the inhabitants of this isolated place did bake their own bread.

“Now we have bread from Asa’el,” she says with a shrug, “so why should I toil away every night when he makes such great bread?” Asa’el is Asa’el Maor, who two years ago opened a small community bakery in nearby Yodfat, a moshav, or cooperative village, where he uses long, slow methods to create traditional sourdough breads.

But with the exception of the olives and the bread, pretty well everything that will be served from this point on is produced, raised or picked in the area of the Goats with the Wind farm, located in the Misgav district. (The Hebrew name of the farm, Halav im Haruah, is a play on the Hebrew for “Gone with the Wind.”)

Cooking utensils at Goats with the Wind. Whatever the reason, the cheeses prepared there have a saliently distinctive taste.Credit: Dan Perez

To start, each guest is served a saucer of labaneh made from goat milk, with olive oil and winter za’atar (wild hyssop) leaves. The small ceramic dishes, with their modest, homey contents, are brought out of the kitchen on a large tray as though they were – as in fact they are – a classy appetizer with which to open the meal. The flavor of the labaneh created in this farm in northern Israel is nothing like any other local labaneh. Perhaps it resembles what local folk once produced here, each for their own households: an almost creamy-like consistency combined with the complex, rich, tart aromatic flavor of goat milk.

The labaneh is followed by warm slices of Isabella, a semi-hard goat cheese, and balls of fresh ricotta, prepared the day before, wrapped in green bugloss leaves. (Anyone who hasn’t tasted ricotta on the day after it is made will never know its characteristic flavor of subtle, natural sweetness, which crumbles pleasantly in the mouth.)

The selection of vegetables served by Daliah – a talented chef, who’s curious about the world around her – varies with the seasons of the year and personal inclination. In the last week of 2018 it included a salad of red cabbage with coriander and hushhash (bitter orange); eggplant fried with garlic and seasoned with mint leaves and peels of shamouti oranges from the grove on the farm; a delicate salad of blanched cherry tomatoes; and an unforgettable soup of nettles and oatmeal.

Labaneh at Goats with the Wind.Credit: Dan Perez

Daliah generally cooks and serves guests on her own, or with the help of one of the farm’s volunteer workers. Life on a livestock farm also unfolds at its own pace, but between one dish and the next we sit back and enjoy the quiet and natural vistas that are rarely encountered by people residing in modern, built-up locales.

The heart of the meal arrives on a large wooden tray, organized according to Daliah’s aesthetic sense, bearing organic cheeses manufactured at Goats with the Wind: Chevrieh (a wordplay combining the name of the traditional French goat cheese and the Arabic word for a dagger) wrapped in vine leaves; Faheemah, a ripe cheese coated in charcoal; a hard cheese with fennel seeds; ricotta smoked in a brick oven; and a marvelous Caprainho. The selection of cheeses manufactured on the small farm is a function of the size of its herd of goats, and of the fact that they are bred according to traditional methods and don’t always give milk. But each of the cheeses excels in its complex simplicity and unmistakable high-quality flavor.

Breakfast at Goats with the Wind. The life of the farm’s residents is cut off from the world, but the world and its complexities and diversity arrive at the farm in the form of volunteers.Credit: Dan Perez

The sources of inspiration were gathered overseas: Daliah and her husband, Amnon, made lengthy trips to small farms in Corsica, Sardinia, Tuscany and Provence in order to learn traditional production techniques. In time, though, their cheeses came increasingly to resemble the landscapes in which the couple grew up in the northern part of the country.

An outside visitor, even one who has made the pilgrimage to this farm over a period of many years, finds it difficult to put his or her finger on the exact reasons for this transformation – whether it’s due to the meticulousness of the small-scale production here; the natural feed of the herd, which goes to pasture twice a day; or the local and seasonal vegetation the animals nibble on the mountainside. But whatever the reason, the cheeses of Goats with the Wind have a saliently distinctive taste.

“At the age of 64 I have nothing but a few clothes and books,” Daliah laughs without a trace of bitterness. “Everyone from our generation has moved on. Dairies that started near ours grew with time and sell cheeses in supermarkets, and only we have remained in exactly the same place. We live in a tent, milk goats and make the same cheeses.”

The Zeldsteins started out in 1993 with five goats.Credit: Dan Perez

The Zeldsteins – she’s Haifa-born, he’s from the nearby suburb of Kiryat Haim – established this remote farm in 1993 with five goats. The teepee in which they lived at first was eventually replaced by a yurt; the herd of milk-givers grew; gray began to streak the hair of the impressive-looking farmers, always attired in work clothes rife with chic and a personal style; and the wooden poles and doors of the goats’ pen were gradually covered with splendid tribal paintings, inspired by ancient Egyptian and Mexican motifs – but there’s still no hookup to the national power grid and there’s no television. (“We watch sometimes when we visit our parents, and don’t fully understand what we’re seeing”).

The laborious circle of life here still follows the natural progression of each day and is subordinate to the annual cycle of seasons. And this is apparently part of the secret of the charm of this place and the secret, too, of the stability of its fine cheeses over the years.

The life of the farm’s residents is cut off from the world, but the world and its complexities and diversity arrive at the farm in the form of volunteers from all corners of the globe, who come to work and hone their cheese-making talents for short or long periods. Some return to their homelands to open eateries based, in part, on the knowhow and experience they acquired on this exceptional Israeli farm.

The farm's herd, out to graze.Credit: Dan Perez

One of the recent outstanding examples of this trend is Zak Stern, aka Zak the Baker, who is also chef and proprietor of one of the most talked-about restaurant-bakeries in the United States, in Miami, and volunteered for a year at the Zeldsteins’ farm. (“He left me a book with precise instructions for baking the sourdough breads he made here,” Daliah says.) There are many like Zak, overseas and here as well. Indeed, Goats with the Wind, like Shay Zeltser’s dairy in the Jerusalem Hills, is an almost obligatory stop for young artisanal, Israeli cheesemakers. Not that there are very many of them, a situation caused by impossible governmental regulation.

Two years ago, Daliah and Amnon opened a store in the handicrafts complex in Yodfat, where their excellent goat cheeses are on sale every day. (The cheeses are only available at the Yodfat store, though for a brief period they were sold in the Lehem Erez chain of bakeries, when Erez Komarovsky was still involved in it.)

The meals at the farm itself, which is a 10-minute drive along a dirt road from the moshav, are served on a reserved basis and with prior coordination, and not everyone can joyfully cope with that despite the Edenic surroundings: The unpaved trails to the farm are in poor condition, particularly during the winter rainy season, and not everyone can or is willing to pay the relatively high price for the singular raw ingredients featured here, which are processed and manufactured by slow processes and by hand.

Goats with the Wind, near Yodfat in Lower Galilee, open daily 10.00-16.00; meal of cheeses on the farm by reservation and prior coordination only (90 shekels – $25 – per person); phone 050-5327387;

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