Israel has come a long way since the days when the only thing locals knew of cheese was its color. There was a time in our collective history when cheese came in two forms, white and yellow.
Enter Eli and Dudu Basher, the owners and founders of Basher Fromagerie, the first cheese shop of its kind in Israel.
Born into a culinary family in Jerusalem, they are third-generation restaurateurs.
Their father ran a restaurant that was established in 1948 in the current flagship location of their fromagerie on Etz Hayim Street on the indoor main drag of the Mahaneh Yehuda market in Jerusalem.
It wasn’t until Eli discovered the exciting and dynamic world of cheeses in Europe that the idea came to establish this haven of cultured milk products. Like most love stories, his began on a trip to Europe in the early 1990s where he met his fate in a fromagerie in France. There he became fascinated by not only the complex varieties and flavors of these exotic cheeses, but also how they were paired with an array of wines and other accoutrements. He was hooked and had to take this newfound love back to his homeland to share with his fellow Israelis.
On his return, with such a strong impression of what he found in Europe, he transformed the family restaurant into what is now known as Basher Fromagerie in 1992.
Today a bustling cheese shop (which has no kashrut certificate) with what seems like an overwhelming variety of different and often unpronounceable giant wheels of cheeses, Israel’s first fromagerie had humble beginnings, offering brave customers a selection of about 10 cheeses that were all imported mostly from France.
Basher admits that the idea really started to catch on with locals about five years after the shop first opened its doors in the shuk. He credits this to the general wanderlust of Israelis and the growing number of cooking shows and celebrity chefs that have emerged in global and Israeli pop culture in the last two decades. It also didn’t hurt to have a significant and growing French immigrant population with a demand for a higher quality and broader selection of cheese.
Eventually, the idea grew from just being a place to get high-quality cheese to selling what he calls “a culture of cheese” (pardon the pun), which expanded the shop’s inventory to include all of the necessary items to accompany his dizzying array of cheeses. As good cheese comes with good wine, they also offer dozens of types of Israeli wines – plus extras, such as a rainbow of shiny plump olives, fresh breads and smoked fish. Single-malt whiskeys are also available for purchase to heighten their customers’ dining experience.
Basher has expanded to eight locations throughout Israel including shops in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Ra’anana and three in Jerusalem, and a branch in Beersheba is opening soon. Regaling their loyal customer base with more than 1,000 types of exclusive cheeses from Europe (and Israel of course), Basher stresses that he provides these shops only with cheeses that are local from the places they are made. In short, his cheddar comes from Cheddar in England, the Roquefort comes from the Roquefort region of France, the Edam comes from Edam in the Netherlands, etc.
A taste of some of the world’s best cheese comes at a price. Basher understands that his cheese doesn’t come cheap, but he stands behind his more than 1,000 products and assures me that what one gives up in quantity one more than gains in quality. The taxes are an issue, too. Basher notes that cheese isn’t the only expensive import item here in Israel. He believes that each customer will be able to find the right cheese for their budget and taste buds.
Deep-pocketed customers interested in experiencing the most expensive cheese containing real truffles can indulge in a kilo of Gruyère with truffles for just NIS 550 per kilo. Alternatively, they can walk away with a package of “kash” cheese (a salty cheese typically found in Romania) for just NIS 29 a kilo.
In between these extreme cases, the shop’s top sellers are the Gruyère, which comes in four varieties, followed by cheddar.
“Everybody loves cheddar, even the French!” Basher exclaims.
Parmigiano Reggiano, Brie, Camembert, Manchego and the Pesto Gouda (this is the green one) also vie for position among the top sellers at the fromagerie.
More than 1,000 types of cheeses is a lot for a fromagerie. He explains, “In Europe, cheese shops only offer customers a small selection of cheeses that are local to their particular area.” Basher understands that Israelis are a bit hutzpanim (cheeky) so his idea, as he put it, “was to cram all of Europe into one freezer.” It’s up to the staff and the customer to navigate through the seemingly endless wheels of cheese to find the right one for them.
“Everybody has different tastes. While one may find pleasure in more mild and creamier cheeses, another one won’t be satisfied until they can get their hands on the most pungent and “stinkiest” of cultured milk products. Luckily, the often-crowded shop comes fully equipped with 10 full-time employees, each well-versed in the fromagerie’s massive inventory and groomed to handle their throngs of customers. The employees slice up literally thousands of samples to ensure each potential customer finds their optimal match.
On a typical Friday, the shop is literally packed with shoppers and employees shouting over one another as the exchange of cheese samples over counters with stacks of what seems like hundreds of cheeses.
Ido, one of the 10 employees, estimates that he must have given out nearly 10,000 samples of cheese during his three years working at Basher. Working 10- to 12-hour shifts, he explains that the most important part of his job is to understand what the customer wants. Once that is established, the decision-making process requiring the customer to navigate through the massive variety becomes less overwhelming. A love of cheese is also something that he brings to his work. He admits that he often snacks on the inventory and scoffed at the idea of ever getting tired of being around all this cheese.
Ori, one of the newer members of the team, has been employed at the fromagerie for only two months. He comes from a food service background, but the world of cheese and working at Basher is a humbling and enjoyable experience. He’s eager to share his newly acquired knowledge, yet is aware that he still has much to learn as he anxiously awaits serving the masses come Shavuot.
Speaking of Shavuot, since this is the holiday where it is customary, although not mandatory, to dine on dairy products, the fromagerie has taken measures to cope with this special time of the year. They begin to prepare two months in advance, hire and train more employees, and of course, stock up on the quantity of cheese but also on a selection of higher-quality cheeses to meet the demands of these seasonal cheese enthusiasts that flock in droves prior to the holiday celebrating receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai.
What’s the next step for this cheese empire? “Every city in Israel with at least one cheese shop,” the fromagerie proprietor beams over his collection of massive cheese wheels.
“Cheese is a journey, it’s an experience.
There’s always something new and something else to learn,” he says.
“The world of cheese is infinite and is constantly changing.”
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