Part of the joy of living in Israel is the opportunity to spend weekends discovering the country’s hidden gems, only unearthed through opportune conversations or chance encounters on a morning hike.
Hiking through the Jerusalem hills, wooden signs adorned with an image of a goat lead the way to a dairy, nestled in a cavernous hollow close to the Sataf springs. Owned by cheese “artist” Shai Seltzer and his sons, the dairy has been creating mouth-watering goat cheeses for close to 40 years.
A former botanist, Seltzer received his first lesson in cheese making from a local monk and has continued to learn about techniques ever since. He has become somewhat of a jet-setter, attending international conferences on artisanal food from Europe to Africa to Asia, tasting, smelling and learning as he goes. “It is a way of life,” he said. “We live within the cheese making process.”
Seltzer explains that the process is akin to painting a watercolor. One begins with a wet canvas, and one by one the colors are added to create a masterpiece. Likewise, with artisanal cheese, one begins with the milk and then the specialist enzymes, yeasts, and bacteria, and slowly but surely, the unique cheese is created. “Milk is the ultimate food and the foundation on which life is developed,” says Seltzer. “We then carefully nurture this base to create our cheeses.”
Seltzer’s cheeses are made with painstaking love. He tastes the cheese in every stage of preparation, adjusting and refining the process as he goes.
“The cheese we create is an expression of the land on which it is created,” says Seltzer. “Month to month, year to year, according to the weather, what the goats are eating and the land on which they are grazing, the cheese changes. We can give a name to each type of cheese, but it is incomparable to cheeses created elsewhere. Our cheeses are simply an expression of the Judean mountains.”
Alongside the natural limestone cave in which the cheeses are stored to mature and ripen, over 170 goats graze on the mountainside. These goats have adapted to their lush, mountainous surroundings and produce high quality milk, rich in fat and dry matter (milk content excluding the liquid). The Seltzer family has developed a range of cheeses they serve to visitors alongside specially selected wines that bring out the unique flavors in the cheese.
“Wine and cheese make a wonderful pairing once you discover the perfect match,” explained Seltzer’s son, Omri.
Omri Seltzer produces overflowing cheese platters with the paired wines. “Here in Israel we have wonderful wines, but we chose the award-winning wines from the Golan Heights Winery both due to their depth of flavor, and also, in our opinion, because they are the best kosher wines.”
Being a kosher dairy has not limited Seltzer, and he says that their farm is one of the few places that observant Jews are able to sample hand crafted, artisanal food served with high quality, internationally acclaimed wines.
The first cheese group to be sampled is the Seltzers’ range of soft cheeses. These are deliciously decadent, creamy cheeses with flavors that coat the tongue and melt in the mouth. There is a scrumptious fresh cheese wrapped in vine leaves which adds yet another dimension to the flavor and then there is the crumbly “Mony” cheese, which has a much softer, delicate taste.
The soft cheeses Omri pairs with a Gewurztraminer. The Yarden White Gewurztraminer is what can be described as an off-dry, fruity wine that noticeably enhances the cheeses’ flavor. The fruitiness and tart acidity of the wine cuts through the creamy cheese, refreshing the palate and allowing the individual flavors in the cheese to be fully expressed.
Proceeding to the hard cheeses, the platter Seltzer produces is laden with cheeses of a range of colors, textures and sizes. These cheeses have tough rinds which absorb the earthy aromas of the cave in which they are stored. “Michal,” a young, hard yellow cheese, both crumbles and melts in your mouth. But that is only half of its charm. An exhale through the nose completes the tasting, leaving the tongue with a robust flavor majestically capturing this rich cream of the goat’s milk and the gentle bitterness and earthy flavors from the seven months of fermentation in the farm’s cave.
These harder cheeses need a fruity, fuller bodied wine to complement them, and Seltzer pairs them with the Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon or the Yarden Pinot Noir. The Pinot Noir’s fruity notes of sour cherry and raspberry are delicious on their own, but paired with these hard goat cheeses they develop into a well-rounded wine filling the palate with its elegant finish. The Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon is also a full-bodied wine fit to pair with the strongest cheese. It is deliciously complex and in addition to its noticeable fruity character, its earthy and oak notes complement the earthy flavors present in the cheese.
Ending the tasting with the special Yarden Heightswine, Seltzer produces their masterpiece, a cheese aged for four and a half years in their cave. This aged cheese, hard like the rind of Italian Parmesan but crumbly like shortbread, is an ecstatic collision of sharp nutty flavors with gentle creamy tones. It has a subtle sweetness, and for this reason is delightfully paired with the Yarden Heightswine, a sweet dessert wine.
The Yarden Heightswine has deliciously concentrated flavors with a long finish and aromatic hints of litchi and summer fruits. The Heightswine is a sweet wine that leaves even the most ardent “dry-wine fan” hankering for a second glass. Paradoxically, sweeter wines are often paired with sharp, blue veined cheeses as they break down the salinity and sharpness of the cheese, creating a perfect balance.
For visitors traveling the beaten paths of the Jerusalem Hills, the Seltzers’ farm is a highly recommended pit-stop to tantalize the taste buds. For those wishing to recreate the experience at home this Shavuot, presenting a smorgasbord of carefully paired cheeses and wines will delight guests and elevate this dairy-themed festival to new levels.