Friday, January 30, 2015

Goat Cheese Paradise - Shvil Izim

One of my favorite parts of visiting other countries is getting to know farmers. While I don't hold anything against large, mechanized farming, I'm a lot more interested in farmers that are more attuned to the environmental limits of their work, and are willing to challenge the conventional wisdom of modern agriculture.  Progressive farmers always offer a unique perspective, leaving you with new ideas and inspiring you to update your long-neglected blog.

Welcome to “Shvil Izim” or “Goat Path” a wonderful family-run goat farm, specializing in Agrotourism. Located in the serene rolling hills of Moshav Tal Shachar – Central Israel – Goat Path offers an excellent refuge from the busy streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Similar to Kibbutz, Moshav are communities organized around farming, where cooperation and democratic values are central to the community. In contrast to Kibbutz, however, each farmer owns and manages their own farm.

Two of those farmers are Ruth and Alon, the couple that started "Goat Path" farm in 2004. I had contacted Ruth a couple weeks ago about the possibility of attending one of their cheese-making courses. I’m expecting to have copious amounts of goat milk when the snow starts to melt in the Afghan central highlands, and what better way to preserve it than with some tasty chevre and feta.  So when Ruth graciously agreed to host us, we scheduled our visit to “Goat Path” as our first stop on our itinerary.

We visited the farm on an unusually rainy Friday, so the farm wasn't as packed as it would have been otherwise – Friday’s are their busiest days. We started out with a brief chat with Alon. He told us more about the farm, his background, and farming in Israel. Like pretty much any other country, small farmers often struggle to cope with the regulations and taxations of central governments that have little interest in the needs of small farmers.

According to Alon, he needs about 400 goats to have a herd that is economically viable. With only 40, the farm relies on people like us who are willing to pay a premium to try excellent cheese right at its source.

After the intro talk, we headed to the pen where Alon keeps his Alpine goats – one of the best breeds out there for milk production. On average, he gets about 3 liters per day, though some of his best performers can produce up to 6 liters. There were heaps of fodder everywhere, which explains why the goats look plump and healthy.

Alon then picked five goats and brought them up to the milking platform. Being a small farmer doesn't mean you have to neglect ag technology. The farm has a mechanized milking machine made by Afimilk that individually tracks each goat's production with chip technology. That way, Alon can identify goats that may show signs of trouble or ones with excellent production traits.

This time, however, went the old-fashioned route. Equipped with surgical gloves and a hair net to filter the milk, we sloppily started milking one of the goats. We only needed about a litter, so with Alon’s help we got there pretty quickly.

We then took the precious milk back to the farm where the magic began. Alon told us we were going to make Circassian goat cheese – a simple fresh cheese that requires less than an hour of preparation. We began by warming the milk to about 80 degrees C. Although it’s not needed, we added a tablespoon of yogurt to activate some cultures and then another tablespoon of vinegar to generate curds. I was surprised at how quickly the whey started to emerge. With great care, we took out the whey and filtered the curds. To finish it off, we added a pinch of salt, zetar and nigella seeds. So simple and yet so delicious.

Waiting for us to finish up a wonderful day was a plate of 5 different locally-made cheeses, ranging from fresh to several months aged.

All in all, a plate of cheese paired with delicious local wine was the perfect way to end our lesson - and a rainy Friday.  If you're looking for a place to reconnect with nature and enjoy local cheeses, give Alon and Ruth a visit. They'll be happy to show you around what's become their business and home.