I see all festivals through a prism of wine and food. Shavuot is no exception. It is, among other things, a harvest festival celebrating the first fruits and the grain harvest. At Shavuot, what could be more appropriate than to enjoy a selection of Israeli cheeses, a hunk of bread, with olive oil drizzled on it of course, washed down with some Israeli wines. These are the four products that really symbolize the culinary revolution in Israel more than any others.
Once there was a choice of only white cheese, yellow cheese or salty cheese in Israeli supermarkets. Quality wines were few and far between. Olive oil was something one bought in a soft drink bottle in local Arab villages. And bread was called ahid, a rather basic version of black bread.
In the early 1980s a few small dairies were founded that specialized in producing handmade goats’ cheese. Barkanit in the Jezreel Valley, Ein Kammonim in the Lower Galilee and Shay Seltzer in the Jerusalem Hills were the pioneers that started the gourmet, boutique cheese revolution.
The wine revolution started with the Golan Heights Winery, and the whole industry responded by moving to quality. The gourmet bread revolution started with Lechem Erez (Erez Bread) on the initiative of the famous chef Erez Komarovsky. Zeta from the Lower Galilee, Halutza from the Negev, both now large producers, and Eger from the Mount Carmel area heralded a revival of quality Israeli olive oil.
Today there is no lack of specialist dairies, boutique wineries, regional olive presses and artisan bakeries that have sprung up all over Israel. The large producers and major brands have also responded, so production of cheese, wine, bread and olive oil in Israel today is unrecognizable compared to even 15 years ago.
There is a connection between these products that runs like a thread from ancient Israel to modern times. The Persian poet Omar Khayyam summed it up correctly writing romantically about: “A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou.” Go to Tuscany today, and they will say that the holy trinity of wine, bread and olive oil is the basis of the Mediterranean diet.
However, this all began in the Bible, when wine, bread and olive oil were the three mainstays of the economy. Wheat, vines and olive oil were among the Seven Species blessed in ancient Israel. When the spies sent by Moses returned after scouting out the Promised Land, they returned with a large bunch of grapes to illustrate that this was a land “flowing with milk and honey.” This image of two men carrying a large bunch of grapes on a pole between them is preserved appropriately in the logos of both Carmel Winery and the Israel Tourist Board.
So I recommend that this Shavuot represents an opportunity to celebrate the flowering of gourmet Israel with these four most fundamental regional and historical products.
The world of cheese is probably more complicated and varied even than the world of wine, which is complicated enough. In other words, it is a difficult world to learn, but there are basic guidelines for matching cheese and wines that may be followed:
❊ Red wines do not go with soft, fatty, creamy, salty or smelly cheeses. Often dry white or even sweet wines will be far better combinations.
❊ Try to match the acidity of the wine and the cheese.
❊ Try to contrast the saltiness of the cheese.
❊ To simplify the issue, most cheeses can be placed in the following categories:
A hard cheese that is firm and not aged too much will go well with a medium- to full-bodied red wine. Cheddar and Parmesan are classic examples of fine red wine cheeses. However, if the cheese is older and more pungent, the wine needs to be more mature and less tannic to avoid a clash. For this you will need older vintages.
This is the hardest category to find a match. A creamy, fatty cheese will make most reds seem like water. The fat in the cheese will neutralize the tannin. Alternatively, an oaky and tannic red wine will taste slightly metallic when these cheeses are ripe and runny. A pasteurized Brie or Camembert would best be served by a lightly oaked Chardonnay with good acidity. If you prefer a red wine, then one that is soft, full of fruit and with no astringency will be adequate.
Salt accentuates tannin, so the myth that red wine goes with all cheeses is shown to be most false when a red wine is matched with a blue cheese. Sweet dessert wine or fortified wine are far better matches. The salt and sweetness contrast to enhance both cheese and wine.
This category produces Israel’s finest cheeses. They have a strong character but can go with either white or red wines. The classic combination for a young goat’s cheese is a varietal Sauvignon Blanc. An aged goat’s cheese can be matched successfully with a mature, well-structured but not tannic red.
Cooked cheese goes better with white wine. A cheese sauce, such as Mornay, will usually be matched well with an oaky Chardonnay, the weight of the sauce being matched by the intensity of oak. For a fondue, a Sauvignon Blanc is recommended.
For a quiche, I recommend an unoaked Chardonnay.
Pizza is best served with a young, fruity red with good acidity and bold fruit.
Finally, with a New York cheesecake, there is nothing better than a fortified Muscat.
Shavuot does not just have to be an excuse for an annual cheese and wine tasting, but it can also be a celebration of the four products that connect modern gourmet Israel with our biblical roots. A glass of wine, a slice of cheese, a hunk of bread, a drizzle of oil… and thou.
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine for international and Israeli publications.