Homegrown traditions

The village of Bat Shlomo harbors some heady surprises.

Even though only 14 houses make up Bat Shlomo, so many visitors stop there on weekends, that parking is hard to find. The quaint village just off the Faradis-Yokneam highway has not changed much since it was established in l889 on land bought by Baron Edmond de Rothschild. All those years ago, there were 24 families living in 14 houses - seven on either side of a single street - and the people made a living from farming and growing grapes for the wine industry centered in nearby Zichron Ya'acov, another of the baron's settlements. Present-day Bat Shlomo ("Daughter of Shlomo," in honor of the baron's mother, the daughter of Solomon (Shlomo Rothschild), still comprising the one street with seven houses on either side, is now a national conservation site. Some of the folks living in the red-roofed stone buildings still make a living from agriculture. Some of their neighbors - former city slickers seeking a quiet place on a hilltop - run art galleries and coffee stops out of their homes. In the old days, each family had fruit trees in the front courtyard and stone barns behind the house, which have since become artists' studios. The views from either side of the street are intoxicatingly inspirational. On one side it is possible to see Zichron Ya'acov and the sprawling winery perched on the mountain range in the near distance, then out to the Mediterranean coastline across a valley floor bedecked with grapevines. On the other side of the hill, the view encompasses many more grapevines below, while the surrounding rolling hills boast dense forests, many of them planted by the original settlers. Visiting the fourth house on the right side of the street is like stepping into a tasty time capsule. The home belongs to the Shwartzman family, and here one finds three generations of cheese makers, olive growers, and producers of pure olive oil. They sell their wares to the public through a shop-cum-museum, part of the Shwartzman abode. The house belongs to 80 year-old Shimon Shwartzman, whose grandfather was one of the original Bat Shlomo settlers and whose father, Zelig, spent all his life there before Shimon took over. Shwartzman and his son Ziv cling to the methods used by Zelig and his father before him and run their farm as in the days of yore. New innovations are left on the other side of the decorative wrought-iron front gate to their property. Mottled hens lay eggs in the corner of a courtyard packed with bits and pieces of farming equipment and an old wooden cart that was once used to transport metal milk churns. Shwartzman is hand milking his cows in the rear courtyard, where Ziv creates the Shwartzman cheeses in what he describes as "time-honored fashion." The methodology is guarded like a state secret. "If my grandfather and father worked this way, then why should I, the grandson, suddenly introduce an electric contraption and change the Shwartzman laws of nature?" asks Ziv. "After all," he adds, "there's nothing quite like milking a cow's udder by hand. As the quality of the milking, so the quality of the cheese." Crammed into the shop is a fascinating collection of Bat Shlomo memorabilia, ranging from framed photographs of the first settlers and fading maps, documents and certificates pertaining to the settlement during the Turkish rule and British Mandate period. Antiquated tools and household utensils, such as a 200-year-old samovar, hand churns for making butter, wooden agricultural tools such as forks and sieves, and a half-rusting primus stove are arranged on antique furniture brought to the house as a dowry by Ziv's grandmother when she wed Zelig. Pride of the collection, an old hand-operated record player of the type one associates with His Master's Voice of musical yesteryear, sits alongside a bulb-popping camera. A few old hammers and sickles surrounded by shelves stacked with colorful homemade pickles, specially prepared herbs, and olive oil add to the timeless atmosphere. Small tables and stools dot the shop for visitors to sit, mull over the memorabilia, and slowly take in the wonderful aromas of the Shwartzman cheeses and other products on sale. Behind the counter, beside her father Ziv, stands 14 year-old Mor'al, a fourth-generation Shwartzman in Bat Shlomo. There is nothing at all cheesy about Mor'al's professional sales pitch as she deftly wields an ominous-looking 10-inch knife and cuts small pieces of a large slab of cheese on the counter. The teen dangles slices of cheese before visitors' eyes and sweetly smiles as she says, "Taste it. I assure you it is delicious and you will want more." It appears that the future of the Shwartzman dynasty is in good hands, in the place where time seems to stand still as the calories march on.