A little slice of Europe

In opening his café and gourmet cheese shop Cohen’s Deli, Shimon Cohen has revived a family tradition.

Shimon Cohen: ‘Tradition is the key to a good cheese.’ (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Shimon Cohen: ‘Tradition is the key to a good cheese.’
Shimon Cohen is the go-to guy in Jerusalem when it comes to cheese.
Not only was he born and raised on the stuff, but he makes a living from it, and he enjoys every minute of the enterprise. As the co-owner of Cohen’s Deli with his younger brother Yehuda, the 36-year-old is a maven of Emmental, a guru of Gouda and a pro of Pecorino.
Located at 24 Hizkiyahu Hamelech Street (near the German Colony), Cohen’s Deli is a cafe as well as a gourmet shop. But don’t let the name mislead you – there is no meat at Cohen’s. The café specializes in high-quality imported cheeses – and they’re all kosher.
“In Europe, delis sell cheese,” Cohen explains; hence the name. But it’s more than the large selection of cheeses that gives this café-cum-eclectic- emporium its Continental flavor. In addition to the dairy delicacies, which Cohen goes to Europe about once a month to select, the shop sells Israeli boutique wines, fresh olives, olive oil, fresh bread, coffee beans, ground coffee, jams, cookies, croissants, muffins and chocolates, all of which are made by local vendors.
Thick wooden floors and wooden shelves, laden with the homemade products, exude the aura of an authentic European deli. Not to mention the redand- white striped awning in the front, the colorful flowerpots and the red-and-white checkered tablecloths on the five small round tables – three inside and two inside.
“We did all the décor ourselves,” says Cohen with pride. “We built everything – the floor, the shelves, and we had some other help with the construction.
My sister Roni is the vice president of a jewelry factory, so she gave us ideas about the interior design,” he says. “And I studied industrial design,” he adds as a modest afterthought.
But the café/deli has a longer family history than its current incarnation.
In the 1950s, the store was a wine and cheese shop owned and operated by the Cohen siblings’ grandfather Yehuda.
The elder Cohen ran it for 20 years until he died. The family then rented the premises to an Italian couple, who ran it as a pasta restaurant for 20 years. When they moved to a larger space two years ago, the family didn’t want to rent it again, so Shimon Cohen and his brother decided to keep up the family legacy and reestablish their grandfather’s business.
“We thought we’d focus on selling cheese,” says Cohen. “My father had two restaurants in Jerusalem – Atlantic and Elat Hayam. When we were young, he would travel to Europe and always came back with cheese, so we grew up with a fine taste for cheese. We thought it was a good idea to open a cheese shop.
And the area has a lot of Anglos, so we opened for business.”
And they are doing very well, he reports.
It all comes down to the cheese. The wide selection of fine cheeses includes Gouda from Holland; Gruyere and Emmental from Switzerland; Brie and Mimoulette from France; and Ricotta, Fleur de Cabra and Pecorino with truffles from Italy.
“I fly to Europe about once a month to check the cheeses, particularly the small dairy farms in Provence and Tuscany,” says Cohen. “We have an importer here in Israel. I give him the information, and he imports the cheeses and gets the certificates from the rabbinate. Someone from the rabbinate goes to oversee the milking process.” Then the cheeses are certified as kosher.
“Most of the time I make regular trips to the dairies on the French Riviera and the Italian Riviera, but sometimes I go to taste new cheeses at other boutique dairies,” he says.
He explains that he always has to sample the latest batches of his selections. Like fine wine, even though they are the same type of cheese as before, “they don’t always have the same taste,” he says.
What makes for a good cheese? “Tradition is the key to a good cheese,” says Cohen. “Many years, centuries, of making it and perfecting it.”
With a hard cheese, “the key factor is how much time it’s been sitting and aging until it’s ready. It takes about five years to mature. During that time, the water evaporates, and the fat of the milk remains,” he explains.
“With a soft cheese, the quality of the milk is very important,” he continues.
“Also important are the traditions and the person who makes the cheese – his knowledge of bacteria, etc.”
He adds that it’s hard to start to work in the cheese industry from scratch.
“Israeli cheese is good quality, and we want to support it,” he says.
Traveling to Europe to check out the cheeses is just part of Cohen’s work.
When he’s back in Jerusalem, he goes to Mahaneh Yehuda every morning to select the loaves from Dekel bakery, which makes the bread for them daily, and to choose the vegetables for the cafe. He stresses that he always opts for baladi, or natural, vegetables that have not been exposed to pesticides.
And then, from 7:30 in the morning to 8 in the evening Sunday through Thursday, and on Friday from 7:30 a.m. to one hour before Shabbat, he, his brother, their cousin Tomer and four waitresses are on hand to serve their customers.
The café offers salads, freshly made cold or grilled cheese sandwiches, cheese platters and quiches (mushroom, onion, eggplant or zucchini), as well as coffee and homemade baked goods. Patrons can go up to the large glass-enclosed cheese counter, taste the cheeses and then select what type they want for their sandwich or platter.
For novices and aficionados alike, “We can explain everything about cheese,” says Cohen.
That formula seems to be working well.
“Many people love it here,” he says. “Most of our clients are regular customers. They come every morning. They get to know each other. Some do business together. They have coffee and talk. In the afternoon, others come to buy the cheeses and other products.”
Cohen is clearly a man who loves what he does. When asked what problems or difficulties he encounters in his job, he thinks seriously for a moment and replies, “None.”
“It’s hard work, but it’s a pleasure,” he says. “I meet a lot of people. And it’s very interesting work. Cheese is something living. It’s deep. There is a lot of philosophy behind it – the story of how the cheese is made, the tradition, the different cultures, how they make the cheese. The culinary world is fascinating. This work is very gratifying.”
It is evident that for the Cohen family, as well as their clientele, this charming little slice of Europe is a little slice of heaven. •