HomeJune 2014The White Stuff

The White Stuff

In honor of the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, with its tradition of eating dairy foods, I decided to write about the dairy section in Israeli supermarkets.
Perhaps what is most striking about the Israeli dairy case is the size of the products: there are no gallon milk containers (the largest size is two liters — around half a gallon), there are no mounds of large hunks of cheeses and the various kinds of cottage cheese (differing mainly in fat content) only come in one size: 250 grams (one cup). My wife says that this is a throwback to a time when Israeli refrigerators were small.
Most Israeli milk is sold in one-liter plastic bags (milk is also available in cartons and plastic jugs). The bags are fairly sturdy, though they can feel a little slimy to the uninitiated (this is because, while chances are good that they will make it into your refrigerator without springing a leak, there might have been a leaky bag in the supermarket’s bin). You need to buy a plastic milk-bag holder if you are going to buy the milk bags. The fancy ones come with a sharp edge upon which you can snip off a top corner of the bag before pouring; for those with non-fancy holders, a scissors does the job nicely, and the desperation method of biting off the corner works as well — though less nicely.
As is true of Jews the world over, Israelis are partial to cheesecake at this time of year. However, rather than cream cheese (which has grown in favor only recently), the main ingredient in Israeli cheesecake is “white cheese.” A mark of white cheese’s popularity is that it comes in sizes ranging up to 850 grams. White cheese is similar to cream cheese, but it has the consistency of thick yogurt. My daughter Rebecca, our family’s white cheese fan, likes to use it as a dip for pita or chips.
Hard cheeses occupy relatively little space in the Israeli dairy case. The Tnuva dairy giant (which monopolizes Israel’s dairy industry) mainly pushes its two “yellow cheeses” (akin to “American cheese”): Gilboa and Emek. Surprisingly, almost as large as the hard cheese section is the feta section (also known as “Bulgarian cheese” here). Whether they get it from cow’s, sheep’s or goat’s milk, Israelis eat large amounts of feta cheese — in salads, but also with fruit and especially with watermelon.
Labaneh and leben, exotic items in the States, are much more popular in Israel. Labaneh, sometimes known as yogurt cheese or strained yogurt, is often eaten for breakfast with olive oil and bread. Leben, which is technically “coagulated low-butterfat milk” (whatever that means), is similar to yogurt. And here is an interesting Israeli dairy-case story. I noticed that the same company (of course, Tnuva) makes two lines of leben. One line comes in slick colorful containers, while the other line comes in simple white plastic boxes. Other than a very slight price difference, the two lines of leben seem identical — and yet it is precisely the “no-frills” line that is more expensive. I asked Tiran about this (he and his brothers own and run my supermarket — it is part of Givat Ze’ev’s small-townness to note here that a few years ago Tiran married my neighbor’s daughter Oshrit and I went to their wedding). Tiran said, “Don’t you know?” He then pointed to the tiny “badatz” seal on the no-frills package. “Badatz” (the acronym in Hebrew stands for “high court of law”) is an ultra-Orthodox seal of kashrut. Tnuva’s regular leben only has the supervision of Israel’s chief rabbinate, which obviously is not good enough for a lot of people.
Endnote: My wife, Sarah, eats 3-percent cottage cheese for breakfast every day. She says that “it is rich and creamy and is the perfect food.” Sarah also says that it epitomizes for her what the Bible means when it refers to the land of Israel as a “land of milk and honey” — an excellent quotation upon which to end this survey of the Israeli dairy case.
Happy Shavuot!


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