Not a Single Word About Cottage Cheese

In Clil, no one cares about consumer boycotts. Off of the electricity grid, beyond the bus routes, the village's residents make and sell bread, cheese, wine and more.

The road to the village of Clil, in the Western Galilee, is narrow and winding. The scattered stone houses blend into the surroundings - old-growth forest and fields, terraces and olive groves on the slopes of the Yanuah ridge. Around 120 families live here. The nearest city, Nahariya, is 15 kilometers to the west. You cannot get there by bus. Visitors must come by car or via a NIS 80 taxi ride from Nahariya. "The price for Tel Avivans," villagers repeatedly told me with a smug grin.

We went there on Tuesday: the photographer Yaron Kaminsky, whose home in Mitzpeh Abirim is a 30-minute drive from Clil, and I, who took the train from Tel Aviv to Nahariya. We came in the wake of the consumer protest that has led thousands of Israelis to boycott cottage cheese, the most basic of local staples, over its high price. We looked for, and found, people who severed their link to cottage cheese long ago, for whom severing the link from the supermarket chains and big food producers is a way of life.

Smadar Yardeni in Clil - Yaron Kaminsky - June 26 2011
Yaron Kaminsky

Clil was founded in 1979 as a Jewish ecological community. Years before the concept of organic vegetables reached Tel Aviv they adopted a new diet and a new way of life. They bought the land from locals - Druze as well as Christian and Muslim Arabs - and have always endeavored to live alongside these neighbors in peace. They also kept the settlement's original name. Clil is derived from Hirbet [ruins] Kalil. It was inhabited until the Middle Ages.

Today Clil is home to artists and artisans - musicians, writers, cooks, therapists, carpenters and potters. The most famous of the lot are singer Amir Lev, who lives there with his partner, and the chef Erez Komarovsky, who has since left. The village is not connected to the national electricity grid. Some residents generate electricity using solar and wind energy. Others use conventional generators, in part for the air conditioners in their bed-and-breakfasts. Water and waste are recycled. Cell phone reception is poor, because there is no large antenna nearby.

Locavore's paradise

Our first stop is at Smadar in Clil, a restaurant owned by Smadar Yardeni. She and her husband, Yossi, who were among the founders, moved here from Jerusalem 30 years. They lived in temporary quarters, building their home over the course of seven years using stones from the rubble of long-demolished buildings. The hollow trunk of a carob tree, their shower in the early days, still stands in the yard, where Yardeni now grows tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, cucumbers, watermelons, melons, pumpkins and herbs for teas and cooking. She gets her bread from the local bakery and milk from a nearby dairy, filling in as needed with produce from local open-air markets.

Yardeni's culinary reputation has spread beyond the village. On the menu: organic sprouts, natural yogurt, fresh goat cheeses, vegetables with toasted seeds, Moroccan bread baked on stones, homemade jams and honey. At one point she sold some of her own products to supermarket chains, but that ended when she was forced to shut down her goat-milk dairy.

"It ruined us financially," Yardeni said. "Working with the chains was a strategic error. They acted as a monopoly and there were always surprises. They paid us what they wanted to, when they wanted to, under vague terms.

"We decided our place is our strength, where we develop what there is with all our soul, and this is what we work with. We have connected to the foundation and the source. We know where food comes from and we don't get confused," Yardeni said.

Her hens roam free, and in addition to providing the eggs for the omelets served at the restaurant they also eat leftovers from the place. "One family from Tel Aviv told me that before they came here their children had only seen chickens on an iPad," Yardeni related.

The restaurant's wastewater drains into a pool in the yard, where it is purified by aquatic plants, leaving no trace of its origins.

"We have everything here," Yardeni said. "It's paradise. We squeeze the citrus fruits from the orchard, we pick grapes and harvest olives in season. We make terrific smoothies from our mango tree in summer."

What you will not find here is cottage cheese. "I haven't been there for a long time," Yardenis said. "We work with people, not numbers. Once milk belonged to the farmers, now it's just shares in the stock exchange. People are disappearing, and only numbers remain." Yardeni said that she is fed up with the big dairy manufacturers, but she prefers to keep her opinions to herself and to focus on what she does best, cooking.

But because cooking alone doesn't provide a decent living in such an isolated place, Yardeni offers guest accommodations as well. Environmentally sound, of course, with the plant-treated wastewater used for irrigation. "We have simplicity. No plasma screens, but open vistas," she said. One of Israel's high-circulation newspapers gave her facilities a high ranking a few years ago. "They put me in the "shanti" category," Yardeni related with a grin of embarrassment.

The staff of life

A 10-minute walk from the Yardenis, after an impressive cypress stand, is the Silvermans' family bakery, which opened just last month. Sisters Emily, 34, and Talia, 30, run it. A few years ago they returned home, to start families, after spending time in Tel Aviv and New York.

"Bread is the basis. The foundation. Every home must have bread," Emily said. Despite not having a steady supply of electricity they bake fine, tasty bread that they sell to their neighbors and the vicinity at bargain prices. "We do everything by hand. At night we make the dough. Before dawn we start baking. Every loaf receives attention," Emily said. The bread-making takes 12 hours from start to finish. The oven is gas-fueled.

"We live in a health- and environmentally conscious village. We know that bread is just water, flour and salt, nothing else," Talia said. "You really have to know what they're putting in the bread you buy at the supermarket: preservatives, fortifiers and sugars. You won't find those here," she added.

They buy their flour from a man who grows organic wheat and grinds it himself. "Our motto is to do everything with what we have and to use local produce as much as possible, to create good, high quality products at reasonable prices," Emily explained.

Talia added: "Everything there is in nature, we know what to do with it. For us, this is obvious." They add local sage and other herbs to their bread and make jam from mulberries and loquats that grow nearby. "Every period and season has its product and it specific use. This is the basis, just as it is with the local Arab villagers," Emily said.

Under his vine

From the smiling young sisters' bakery we continued to the local winery. Kobi Yaari, 50, a rugged type who dresses stone as a hobby, began it in 1998, with a friend who was a Ph.D. in biochemistry. Six years later he began producing wine in commercial quantities and selling it to fine restaurants around the country - including in Tel Aviv.

"We make very few bottles, around 3,000 a year but all of them are fine," Yaari said. His wine is also handmade. The meticulous process begins with the grapes, grown locally and picked and sorted by hand, by Arab women from the village of Maghar. The wine is aged in choice wood barrels at the winery.

Yaari, who came here with his wife 20 years ago, burning with ambition, has woken up a bit from the dream of total disengagement from the world. Now he wants his own farm. "I didn't understand what it means to live in a place like Clil, I was young," he said. "At first I was thrilled, I was happy to be cut off from electricity and bureaucracy. Later I realized that I had unwittingly become a private electricity company, and was paying double for it," Yaari said.

Next to the wine bottles on his table is a dish of olive oil. The trees that produced it could be seen out the window. "The real meaning of 'Every man under his vine' (1 Kings 4:25 ) is to be a slave," he said, bursting into rolling laughter. "It isn't easy. It's very hard to produce your food alone." His family, it would seem, easies its pain with liberal quantities of wine. Local, of course. "We drink a bottle a day, on average," Yaari said.

He admits that the family still buys groceries, at the supermarket in the Druze village of Yarka and the Kibbutz Kabri grocery. "I've discovered that nature isn't only romantic, that's it's also a war that enters your home and includes scorpions, mosquitoes and gnats. Like every routine, here too daily life takes its toll."

To conclude the visit, Yaari to share with us the secret of life. "That's how life is - sometimes you're depressed, sometimes you're happy. We are trapped in time. The main thing is what you do along the way. That's the whole story: If you've got through it, great," Yaari said.

Milk with a heart

After a short visit at the local apiary, skipping the jam workshop, we reached the last stop on our tour: Liza, a boutique dairy, named after one of the milch goats, that produces excellent goat-milk cheeses. Dana, the owner, did not want to be interviewed but eagerly agreed to show us her cheeses. On condition, of course, that we do not photograph her next to them. Yogurt, tomme, labaneh and Circassian-style cheeses are quickly stacked at the stand, just a few meters from the goats and their shed, where she sells them. Dana came to Clil 30 years ago, after living in Tel Aviv and Jaffa. She declined to give further details about herself or her partner, Amir Lev, whose music studio is above the goat shed.

Dana and a business partner from the village of Abu Sinan have a herd of 25 goats. She recently downsized, in part because of the rising costs of feeding the goats. Dana sells to locals, to bed-and-breakfasts, to tourists.

Life in Clil, Dana said, is very good, particularly in winter. In summer, she said, "It's terribly, terribly hot and dry and there's no air-conditioning." The flies that fill the traps hung around the yard don't make coping with the heat any easier. Nor do the dogs and cats lying around in near stupor, trying in vain to chase them away.

The cold yogurt Dana served us did help to cool things off, but the diet cola during the trip back to Tel Aviv was even more effective.