Graze Anatomy: What Does It Take to Make First-rate Goat Milk?

Ronit Vered
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Dr. Tzach Glasser and his herd of 220 goats on the road to the wild pasture at Ramat Hanadiv. Credit: Dan Peretz
Ronit Vered

It’s 6 A.M. in the goat pen. The unmistakable voice of Yemeni-born singer Shoshana Damari booms out at this early milking hour, and a rooster leaps onto the fence and preens itself to the sounds on the radio. A modest obituary notice is tacked to the office bulletin board: “Jamila has passed away,” it proclaims in big letters, and is undersigned by the (“sad and grieving”) staff that tends the animals. Jamila, who lived to the ripe old age of 15, will no longer lead the goat herd along the paths of Ramat Hanadiv Park, north of Caesarea. “She’ll be missed,” Dr. Tzach Glasser says sadly, as he notes a slight whiff of goats in heat (“It’s a very subtle scent. If you don’t know it, you won’t notice it”).

The curly-haired, goat-loving doctor picks up his shepherd’s staff and opens the pen’s gates. The herd – 180 female milk goats and 40 male goats – comes racing out, kicking up clouds of dust. The females all sport pink-and-blue collars, each containing a tiny GPS transmitter. They stop briefly at the watering hole – the goats all vying to reach the cool water first – then continue on to the wild pasture where they do their daily grazing. Researchers and volunteers from the area accompany the goats on their picnic.

“They eat the craziest things,” says Dr. Serge “Yan” Landau with a pronounced French accent. He should know: the Volcani Institute researcher is an expert in goat nutrition. “Terebinth resin, for instance,” he adds. “Terebinth leaves contain 20-percent tannins, a substance that’s also found in grape skins and creates a bitter sensation in the mouth. The goats also have an incredible ability to heal themselves – if they eat a plant that contains toxins, they immediately start chewing on another plant that contains the specific antitoxins needed to counteract them. Every goat species possesses an amazing mental database about the plants in its habitat.”

The Ramat Hanadiv herd, which grazes for four hours a day on natural pasture, is comprised of Baladi goats, Shami goats and goats that are a hybrid of Alpine goats – which have a relatively high milk yield – and the two local varieties.

“The mothers teach the offspring what not to eat and what’s okay to eat, and when – and the key parameter isn’t genetics, it’s their environmental education. If the mother grazed here in the park, she’ll pass on that knowledge to her offspring. That’s why it’s very important for the young goats to go out to pasture with the mothers,” explains Landau.

Sixty percent of the diet of the Ramat Hanadiv herd is currently based on natural grazing – a high rate in a country where most flocks raised for milk are intensively farmed and never taken out to pasture. But why is a dietary grain supplement also needed? “Because we’re not living in biblical times,” says Glasser. “Back then, a person could make do with a goat that produced a liter of milk for family use. The modern world is more complex.”

The Black Goat Law

The wood-fired oven at the Tishbi Bakery produces splendid breads.Credit: Dan Peretz

The 70 dunams (17 acres) of well-tended grounds around the crypt of Baron Edmond de Rothschild comprise just a small part of the beautiful 5,000-dunam park, filled with natural Mediterranean vegetation. The idea for the herd goes back to May 1980, when a large brushfire wiped out two-thirds of the park’s vegetation and threatened to reach houses in nearby Zichron Yaakov and Binyamina. Previously, in the era of traditional agriculture, flocks of sheep grazing in the wild areas controlled the kind of vegetation that easily catches fire. “Since 1952, the number of independent goat- and sheepherders in Israel has been plummeting,” says Dr. Glasser. “The Black Goat Law of 1950, which prohibits grazing goats without a permit in an area that does not belong to you, combined with the rise of modern industrial farming have contributed to the problem. Grazing lands that were thousands of years old were abandoned – and this leads to wild growth and the outbreak of fires. Even when they looked for herds to graze in the park, it was hard to find them.”

The collaboration between Ramat Hanadiv and the Volcani Institute – headed by Dr. Landau and Prof. Avi Perevolotsky – began in 2002. Glasser joined the project to establish the herd. “I was one of those doctoral students who never finished 10th grade,” he relates. “I was always interested in raising goats. I’ve been told that when I was 6, I brought home a lamb that I bought with a friend from a Bedouin – in exchange for two transistor radios – and couldn’t understand why my parents wouldn’t let me keep it in the house.”

Glasser got his bachelor’s degree from the Hebrew University Faculty of Agriculture in Rehovot and spent six months in France, learning the art of cheese making. His dream of starting a herd and making cheeses foundered, he says, when he discovered “that here in Israel you have to spend most of your time fighting bureaucracy and the authorities. Yan proposed that I join his research project here.”

The goats are sent to different sections of the park each day, where they naturally thin out the low vegetation. The Volcani Institute research project focuses on the goats’ diet. “We have nearly 250,000 goat mouthfuls recorded,” laughs Glasser. “In the early years, we physically followed the goats and used a tape recorder to document their every bite. Then things got more sophisticated – and we started monitoring their dung. To understand what the goats eat, we now examine the goat dung using infrared light.”

The project engineer is Hussein Muklada, who comes from a sheepherding family in Daliat al-Carmel, and brings with him the knowledge that has been passed down in his family and other local shepherds over the generations. “It’s amazing how much money is spent by modern research just to recreate traditional knowledge that was once common and has been forgotten,” sighs Glasser, as Muklada nods in agreement.

Another research project was launched in 2012 when the goat milking began. The goal is to examine how the natural grazing and specific local plants affect the quality of the milk. The goats “produce very high-quality local milk,” says Dr. Landau. “The tests consistently show that our milk is richer in protein and healthy fatty acids.”

“The Agriculture Ministry encourages big industrial farms, and most of the big dairies are trying to standardize milk production. I’m not sure the smaller farms will survive,” adds Glasser. “Uniform industrial feed for goats creates uniform milk, and I want milk whose flavor and quality are influenced by the variety of local plants consumed by the herd during winter grazing and summer grazing. I’m still optimistic, despite all the hurdles the state places in the way of those who want to raise animals and produce milk on a small, high-quality scale.”

The milk produced by the small operation in Ramat Hanadiv now goes to the Shomron Dairy in Binyamina, which was founded in 1953 by four families of Balkan origin. The milk is used to make a delicious yogurt that also has a wonderful texture. The dairy also makes various types of goat-milk yogurt from milk obtained from Tnuva, but the goat-milk yogurt it sells in 180-milliliter containers is made exclusively from the milk of the Ramat Hanadiv goats.

First the oven, then the baker

The night watchman is entrusted with starting to kindle the logs in the huge brick oven, which weighs dozens of tons. It’s only in the early morning hours, after it’s been burning for six hours, that the oven reaches the requisite heat – 300-350 degrees Celsius (570-660 degrees Fahrenheit) – and the first cycle of baking can begin.

The structure of the traditional oven dictates the order of baking: in the absence of digital regulation of the temperature and moisture, as in most modern industrial ovens, timing and various iron doors and chimneys play a crucial role here. They start with the breads – such as the baguette – that require a high heat, and then gradually move onto other types of breads and baked goods.

Local winemaker Golan Tishbi was determined to make his culinary dreams come true. He fell in love with the oven, which was crafted by the venerable French oven-maker Le Panyol – a company that has been making wood-fired ovens since 1840. First came the oven, then came the baker (Yuval Elhadef). And over the past year, having learned all the complexities of the oven, they have been baking incomparable breads with it (hardly any bakery can compete with the splendid crust this traditional oven gives the bread).

In recent weeks, in tandem with the grape harvest, they’ve also been experimenting with some interesting wine breads (breads in which the juice of different varieties of grape has been added to the fermenting dough). But on any day of the week, and especially as the weekend approaches, they bake an impressive selection of French and locally inspired breads. The silan (date syrup) and nut bread, which quickly became their trademark bake, is simply marvelous.

Like all genuinely good bread, these breads are still really tasty even after a day or two. They are also sold as quarter- or half-loaves.

Tishbi Bakery, next to the winery on Road 652 (between Binyamina and Zichron Yaakov). Tel: (04) 628-8195