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Like many Israelis, to me, cheese has always come in just a few varieties: yellow, white and Bulgarian. "Gourmet" cheeses always seemed too elitist, too expensive and frankly - too stinky.
This all changed one day as I was walking in the Mahaneh Yehuda market in Jerusalem and my friend took me into Basher's cheese stall. As my friend was searching for the perfect cheese for her quiche, the owner, Eli Basher, was standing behind the counter in a smart white jacket more fitting for a Parisian fromagerie than a stall in the shuk; he was handing out thin slices of a variety of cheeses.
I don't usually like raw cheese, but I felt obliged to at least try the one he was handing me. It had a rich yellow hue with black specks that turned out to be truffles; as I let it melt in my mouth, I was astounded. The flavor was vibrant without being strong, it was cheese - but better than cheese. It was fantastic, and for a whopping NIS 850 per kg., it had better be!
I didn't buy any truffle cheese but, I must admit, my interest was piqued and I asked Basher if he would teach me about his trade.
Basher's shop is called "Basher - The King of Cheese," but really, Basher is more like the Buddha of cheese. It is not a food for him, it is a passion. He believes that the essence of cheese is to create incredible culinary experiences. He doesn't recommend one type over another. If you ask him which is "best," he will tell you that there is no "best," as eating cheese is a personal experience. Cheese that will make one person smile will make another grimace.
Some people like milder kinds that taste of rich milk, and some think the stinkier the better (who knew that "stinky" was an official term used for cheeses?).
Basher's family has had the same stall in Mahaneh Yehuda for 65 years. It was a restaurant until 10 years ago when Basher convinced his family to convert it into a cheese shop. The official address is Rehov Etz Hayim 53, but in the shuk, an address is kind of meaningless. Basher's stall is about halfway through the covered part of the market on the right side if you enter from Rehov Agrippas. If you have trouble finding it, just ask around - because everyone there seems to know him.
There is a glass case with soft cheeses and a variety of salads in front of the shop. You need to squeeze between the glass cases to enter the store itself and reach the cheese counter. The walls are lined floor to ceiling on one side with cheeses, and on the other side with wines (because who could have fancy cheese without wine?).
Basher does a brisk business, and the counter was lined with people the whole time I was there. From the easy banter with patrons, it was clear that most people were steady customers.
Until very recently, all of the best cheeses used a non-kosher animal-based substance called rennet to help the cheeses set. In the last few years, the majority of cheese makers have switched over to a synthetic version - and therefore it is much easier for cheeses to obtain kosher certification. This has led to a virtual explosion of high-end kosher cheeses on the market, and Basher's shop boasts over 800 varieties. All of the cheeses in Basher's shop are kosher with at least a rabbinate certification. Unfortunately for those who only eat mehadrin cheese, most of the best varieties are still out of reach - and this is not likely to change in the near future.
Basher goes to France every three weeks in search of the most delicious cheese. He comes back with his best finds and sells them in the shop. Paris is the mecca of cheese, with people from all over the world making pilgrimages and sellers from all over Europe peddling their merchandise. The shop in Jerusalem has become a virtual cheese EU. My two favorites of the day were the sage cheddar from England and manchego from Spain.
The staff at the shop is just as helpful as Basher, and also very knowledgeable. Basher's shop is a family affair, with his brother Dudi working beside him. And I met his mother as she stopped in for a visit. Everyone there seems to have a smile on their face and they take the time to answer questions and give people samples as well.
With Basher as my guide, we walked through the world of cheese: how it should be served, which wines go best and when to serve it.
For instance, a cheese platter can be either an appetizer or dessert. For an appetizer, warm up some brie with nuts and crackers; add some fruit and, voila! It's dessert. Europeans have an interesting custom where cheese is only put on the platter in odd numbers: five or seven pieces on a tray, but never four. Basher did not know why, but he assured me that no one in all of Europe would be caught dead serving six pieces of cheese on a platter at one time.
When you are preparing your platter, make sure that the cheeses have been out of the fridge for at least two hours before serving, as cheese should be room temperature - never cold. Cut it in slices, wedges or chunks, and arrange the pieces artfully on a platter. A visually pleasing display adds to the experience.
Ever wonder which wines to serve with your cheeses? Thankfully, the rule is relatively simple: Soft, mild cheeses go best with white wine and hard or stinky cheeses go best with red.
And did you think fondue was a relic of the Seventies? Don't be so quick to dismiss it. With the right cheeses, some crusty bread and a delicious wine, it is a special treat and a fun way to spend an evening with friends. At Basher's, there are two different prepared fondue cheese mixes. One is a relatively inexpensive Israeli cheese and the other is a French mix with a hefty price tag - but I was assured that it tastes unbelievable.
Basher's last piece of advice was that cheeses should be served beginning with most mild one to the strongest. That means take you should go for the Camembert first and leave the blue cheese to the end. This is meant to gradually warm up your palate to appreciate the cheeses. As he said this, I realized that that was exactly what he had done for me. All of the cheeses I tasted when I first arrived had been soft, young and mild, and we ended with cheeses which were strong, hard and stinky.
Still, my opinion of strong or stinky cheeses has not changed - I am just not a fan. But I have learned to appreciate the nuances of various cheeses and will definitely be expanding my cheese repertoire. Bon appetit!n