Milk, Sweat and Tears: This Israeli Couple Revamped an Aging Kibbutz Dairy

After learning the art of cheesemaking in Italy for two years, Tamir Peretz and Dana Tal opened a small dairy near Hadera. Their aged cheeses soon started flying off the shelves

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The Little Dairy, Kibbutz Givat Haim Ihud
The Little Dairy. “Both of us live and breathe food.”Credit: Dor Kedmi
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

It’s a dramatic moment when the cheesemaker plunges the knife into a seven-kilogram (15-pound) block of cheese. The large, round block – 35 centimeters (13.8 inches) in diameter – was placed in a dry aging cooler in September 2020, well over a year before, and its maker had not probed its innards to discover its secrets since.

“These days I hardly ever get it wrong,” says cheesemaker Tamir Peretz, “but making aged cheeses is frustrating by its nature. If something goes wrong during the process, the cheesemaker doesn’t find out until eight months or a year later. I’m not a tortured artist in my nature, but in the years when you learn the profession, that’s what you become.”

He adds, “because I’m not from a family that has been making cheeses in the same place for 150 years, I had to learn the tricks of the trade not only by trial and error, but also through studying biology and chemistry – you have to understand the processes and what causes them – and by means of apprenticing myself to people who were born into those kinds of families and acquired the knowledge more intuitively.”

Tamir Peretz. Credit: Dor Kedmi

The young cheesemaker runs his hand intently across the rind, almost as if trying to grasp its essence, and at the instant when the knife slices it open he is absorbed in observing the perforated crater that is seen for the first time, then sniffs the pale yellow half-moon attentively.

“The holes in the cheese tell the story. The log I keep contains a record of every stage in the process of manufacturing the cheese on September 3, the day I prepared the block and put it into the dry aging cooler, but the holes also reflect the conditions that existed on that day. The cheese is an ID card of the landscape of its environment and of the decisions I made that day about the milk and the lactic acid cultures.”

Local chefs and food buffs – who in the past two years have been treated to small, experimental editions of the cheese made by Peretz and his companion Dana Tal – waited impatiently for the opening of the Little Dairy, a new boutique venue in Kibbutz Givat Haim Ihud, near Hadera.

It’s not every day that a new little dairy opens in Israel. Local regulations, which obligate even smalltime food manufacturers to install industrial infrastructure, is very strict and does not encourage businesses aiming to manufacture high-quality cheeses using slow, traditional methods to flourish. There aren’t many young people who seek their vocation in agriculture or in the small-scale production of food that is both healthy for people and beneficial for the environment; other professions are more economically rewarding in our era. And it’s not every day that a kibbutz dairy that had made simple cheese for decades is transformed into a place where cheeses are aged in complex processes that produce equally complex flavors. And it’s rare still that a dairy opens in Israel that seeks to produce quality cow’s milk cheeses; in recent decades most of the boutique dairies in the country have focused on sheep or goat milk.

Milk, sweat and tears

Credit: Dor Kedmi

Born in 1986, Peretz grew up in Kibbutz Givat Haim Ihud, where his father worked for 40 years as a cook in the dining hall. Tal, born three years later, is from Kfar Tavor, a village at the foot of Mount Tabor in the Lower Galilee; her ancestors were early agricultural pioneers in the country. The two met during a post-army trip in Australia, and since then have shared their lives and a passion for this labor of love. Some people dream of becoming doctors, lawyers or actors – and some dream of being boutique food manufacturers.

“Both of us live and breathe food,” Tamir says. “When we returned from the trip, we already knew this was the direction, but it took us time to formulate the concept and to understand what exactly we wanted to do. Dana worked for a food magazine and studied psychology – not with the goal of becoming a clinical psychologist, but in order to deal with the management side of a future business. I studied biochemistry and food technology at the [Hebrew University’s] agriculture department in Rehovot. While studying, when it was clear that our direction was cheesemaking, I got a job at Jacobs Dairy Farm, not as a food technologist, but as a simple production line worker earning a meager salary.”

In the summer of 2017, the couple went to Italy. “At a certain stage I realized that if I want to make cheeses that are special, I need to go back to the source,” Tamir explains. “That’s because in Israel, things are run by inertia: most of the dairies make the same limited number of items that have become part of the consensus.”

The first stop on the journey was the Valle d’Aosta region, in the northwest. “We worked for four months on a small dairy run by a charming 76-year-old man. He takes care of 38 cows, and his wife raises 50 goats. We specialized there in fermenting and ripening fontina cheese, a traditional cheese of ancient lineage that is made from cow’s milk, and in the production of toma di capra cheese.”

The Little Dairy.Credit: Dor Kedmi

From a region nestled between Italy, France and Switzerland, the two continued on to Piedmont. Dana enrolled in the Slow Food Movement’s University of Gastronomic Sciences in the city of Bra; Tamir worked in the dairy of a local cheesemaking family. “Despite the romantic image, it was really no fun,” he recalls with a smile. “It’s almost a year of getting up at 4 A.M., surrounded by tough production workers who don’t even speak Italian, only Piedmontese. But it was the best school in the world, and it was there, paradoxically, and because of the difficulties, that I acquired my Italian, with blood, sweat and tears.”

From Piedmont they proceeded to Lago Scuro, on the border of the districts of Lombardy and Elimia-Romagna. “Both of us worked there for the cheesemaker Fabio Grasselli, who was my greatest influence and taught me everything I know about natural lactic acids. His family has been making cheese since the sixteenth century. I held his apron for him – there is no other way to express the respect I have for him and for his knowledge. But after four months he said I was ready to embark on an independent path of my own. We started to run the tiny dairy of a Michelin restaurant whose cheesemaker had run off. Every day I received 200 liters of the highest-quality milk possible, produced by cows that graze in a natural pasture in the mountains, and I made incredible cheeses alongside the major disasters and terrible mistakes of beginners.”

The couple returned to Israel in the summer of 2019, settling in Givat Haim Ihud. The small kibbutz dairy, which had operated for decades, was on the brink of closure – part of a pattern seen in other kibbutzim in recent times. The kibbutz dairies – which supplied yogurt, Tzfat cheese and other fresh dairy products exclusively for the kibbutz members – were established to take advantage of the surplus milk that exceeded the quotas laid down by the Dairy Board. “If you were allotted 100 liters of milk a day and you produced 103 liters, it was better, instead of paying a fine or selling the excess milk at a loss, to establish a dairy to meet the needs of the community,” notes Tamir. “But when the kibbutzim collapsed [economically], the dining halls couldn’t meet the production costs, and the dairies shut down one after the other.”

The Little Dairy.Credit: Dor Kedmi

“To establish the Little Dairy from nothing was the hardest thing we’ve done in our lives, almost on the brink of the impossible,” says Dana. “It’s not just the battle against the Health Ministry’s regulations and other state bodies – that was actually relatively easy to handle, because we’re using the infrastructure of an existing dairy. But it took us two years to persuade the privatized kibbutz, which is today our partner, that the business has economic and cultural potential, and that there’s also a place for richer and more complex cheeses.

“At first they were suspicious of the cheeses, but within a short time – because you quickly get used to the good stuff – they started to disappear from the shelves of the kibbutz minimarket, and now from the shelves of the new dairy’s store, too. People occasionally ask if there’s Tzfat cheese, like the veteran cheesemaker who worked here for decades used to make, but they also wait impatiently for the date when the blue cheese ripens.”

The choice to produce cheese from cow’s milk is an advantage – because there are hardly any local dairies that use cow’s milk to make quality cheeses, and the market is hungry for them – but also a disadvantage. Cow’s milk is an inseparable element of the Israeli ethos – it gave way to the Tnuva food conglomerate and the place of milk in the new Hebrew industries of the state’s first decades. But in recent years it has also become a symbol of food better not to be consumed, for reasons of morality and quality.

The Little Dairy.Credit: Dor Kedmi

The large, mechanized kibbutz dairies were the leaders of the trend in Israel. They are responsible not only for our problematic attitude toward farm animals, but also for the poor quality of the industrial milk we buy in the supermarket today, a liquid that barely evokes the taste of the product of cows’ udders. “Cow’s milk cheeses suffer from a bad reputation,” Dana notes, “and not just because of lactose intolerance. The image that clings to them is of simple, noncomplex cheeses, as if they are all cottage cheese. People say, ‘I don’t eat cow’s milk cheese,’ not understanding that a wide range of complex cheeses with a rich taste can be made from cow’s milk.”

Tamir says, “Israel doesn’t have a tradition of quality cheeses made from cow’s milk. The fatty acids of goat’s milk and sheep’s milk imbue that milk with a more dominant flavor, which consumers have learned to like and to associate with quality, and not everyone gets cow’s milk of the quality that I get every morning.”

The primary motive for resuscitating the small kibbutz dairy, the cheesemaker says, was in fact the quality of the milk from the cows in the kibbutz he grew up in. “I get fresh milk every day, ten minutes after milking. The percentage of fats and solids doesn’t fall below 4.2 per liter, which is a proportion other dairies in Israel can only envy; they receive generic milk, low in solids, which has been mixed from a number of cowsheds. It’s true that the Givat Haim dairy barn is large and industrial, and most of the milk goes to Tara [a dairy manufacturer] and isn’t available to the home consumer as milk in its own right, but it’s proof that things can be done differently when there are people who care. They invested here over the years in herd genetics, the animals have relatively comfortable conditions - they’re not crowded like in other large cowsheds, and they get quality feed. And that’s shown in the quality of the milk and in the price it fetches in the market.”

Credit: Dor Kedmi

If you want to conjure up the flavor of the lovely poetic phrase “flowing with milk and honey,” you can do no better than to taste the succulent, liquid texture of the “Noga” cheese that Peretz makes. The creation of lactic cheese (the fermentation process starts with natural bacteria that live in the environment, rather than enzymes or lactic acid) is inspired by the Italian robiola, which is mentioned in writings from the Roman period. But the source of all the components, as Peretz notes with pride, is within a 100 meter radius from the dairy. In the slow production process – 24 hours in which the whey drips into the pan – he sometimes adds a bit of honey, which has been harvested from the hives that abut the beautiful organic vegetable garden created by one of his classmates, from which he also picks a little rosemary to add to the cheese.

“Gali,” inspired by Toma cheese from Piedmont, and “Nili,” whose inspiration is fontina cheese from the Alps, are the two main items Peretz is currently producing, by meticulous handiwork in small quantities. They are named after children born to kibbutz classmates of Peretz’s; it’s only Mika, the toddler daughter of Dana and Tamir, for whom a cheese worthy to bear her name has not yet been found. “Gali” is aged in three kilogram (6.6 pound) blocks for at least three months, and “Nili,” the flagship cheese, is aged in seven-kilogram (15.4-pound) blocks for six months to two years. All the cheeses, relatively young or more aged, are rife with a range of delicate, marvelous sweetish-fruity flavors.

“Naomi” is a blue mold cheese – Peretz himself produces the lactic acids and most of the fungi he uses. “You have to know the milk very well before you start to make lactic acids by yourself instead of using commercial brands. I started with recipes I learned in Italy, but each place is completely different in terms of the bacteria populations that live there and the processes they set in motion.”

Not long before the dairy opened for a trial run, the cheesemaker was beset with melancholy. “Capitalism and agriculture, or the small-scale manufacture of food, don’t go together. I feel that on my flesh in Israel. In the present-day world, an organization needs to be economic, otherwise it implodes, and that scares me. I manufacture a little – part of my ideology is to manufacture by hand and not with the aid of machines, with a corresponding volume of output. I really can’t say whether it’s economically viable in this small country. I don’t want to be a large-scale cheesemaker. Tnuva will not be here. I want to make a living and take my wife to Italy twice a year. I just want to be left alone to work quietly and make good cheeses.”

“You’re just letting the difficult last two years get you down,” Dana says affectionately, but categorically. “We make good cheeses, and there’s no way that quality, devotion and singularity don’t have a place in this world.”

The Little Dairy, Kibbutz Givat Haim Ihud (next to the cowshed), open Wednesday through Friday. Phone: 054-4610424

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