"It's not surprising that we're witnessing a cheesemaking resurgence of sorts in that part of the world."
Last week, there was an interesting story from the McClatchy newspapers about a group of Italian agronomists helping some Palestinian farmers set up an Italian sheep cheese operation in the West Bank. The dairy goes by the name of Golden Sheep, and produces a small variety of Italian cheeses like pecorino (a generic term for an aged sheep cheese), smoked ricotta, and scamorza (a close relative of mozzarella).
The economy in the West Bank is, for obvious reasons, relatively stagnant, and the agronomists at Italy's Ucodep have launched this development project to help get some money flowing. The target market for the cheese is middle and upper class Palestinians who have lived abroad, as well as foreigners (journalists, diplomats, etc.) stationed in the West Bank.
It's a smart idea to target this admittedly small, but niche, market, and bring them some of the more Western tastes they may be craving.
Across the West Bank barrier, there are some interesting cheeses coming out of Israel these days as well. Hameiri Cheese, a 160-year old producer in the northern Israel town of Safed, makes and sells delicious fresh sheep's cheese similar to unbrined feta. Barkanit, a 30-year old producer also in the north, makes some really nice French-style sheep/goat cheeses like the Selles-sur-Cher-esque Shahat.
The area is, in fact, likely the ancestral home of cheese. Legend has it that the first cheesemakers were Middle Eastern nomadic goat herders who carried milk around in sacks made from the the stomach's of kids (young goats). These stomachs contained the milk-curdling enzymes collectively called rennet, and they would curdle the goat milk contained therein, creating curds and whey—cheese's famous precursors. So it's not surprising that we're witnessing a cheesemaking resurgence of sorts in that part of the world.
But we're not quite at critical mass yet, as evidenced by one of the funniest lines in the McClatchy article:
At local tastings, Palestinians unaccustomed to hard, sharp, Italian cheeses tend to find it unpalatable. "You had to see the faces of the people when they tasted it for the first time," said Matteo Crosetti, a Ucodep project coordinator in the West Bank.
Apparently the Italian cheeses at Golden Sheep can be quite strong-tasting for the locals.