The big cheese

Eli Basher of Basher's Fromagerie is a consummate connoisseur, as well as an engaging entrepreneur.

Stroll down the main artery of the shuk as you walk up from Rehov Agrippas toward Jaffa Road, and about halfway up on your right-hand side is Basher's Fromagerie. The exterior is lined with a glass-fronted case filled with Israeli salads; on the other side, a second case is filled with a wide variety of soft white cheeses. If you continue into the shop through a narrow passageway, you will find yourself in the midst of the most delectable collection of kosher hard cheeses. Go on, taste. Everything is fair game. Tell Eli Basher (who says he loves cheese so much he would happily take a wheel to bed with him and cuddle up with it all night long), the owner and cheese aficionado, which tastes you are after, and immediately you will be presented with a medley of paper-thin slices of aromatic treats. Basher and I sit down in a café in the shuk to talk cheese over a cup of coffee. Across from me sits the cheese king of Israel, an articulate, attractive man of indiscernible age who dreams of cheese and of turning Israelis into proper cheese consumers - and so far the plan is working. Like a beautiful painting, cheese needs to be admired. The artistry of cheese is often lost on the glutton. Basher wants his clients to taste every cheese in his arsenal, the different aromas and textures. He shows me a large wedge of Emmental, every crater proudly displaying its dimensions. I ask if the holes add to the flavor. "No, they are for beauty," he says. "This is artwork." To me, it is more about alchemy. The holes are created by the gases produced inside the Emmental while it ages. With every turn, the cheese is compressed, losing more of its milk volume, and the air bubbles expand. Basher is right, though. I feel an irrational urge to stroke the inside of those craters, all pungent and glossy. Tasting cheese, like tasting wine, has more dimensions than our standard Western definition of four flavor sensations: salty, sweet, bitter and sour. With cheeses, you push your flavor receptors much further. There is earthy, nutty, grassy, acidic and citrusy, all in varying combinations. Given the opportunity, let go and the taste will transport you. In fact, the Basher taste sensation has expanded to shops in Tel Aviv and Rishon Lezion, though I wouldn't give up the shuk experience for a minute. At Basher's, you will find more than 850 varieties of cheese, including many imports from Europe, where cheese culture is passed down genetically like blue eyes or an aquiline nose. Basher's love of food is also hereditary. His grandfather opened Basher's Restaurant in Mahaneh Yehuda 60 years ago, and it ran as a successful business under both his grandfather and father. When Eli's turn came to run the business, he had already been bitten by the cheese bug, and he turned the eatery into an emporium. He had traveled through Europe, tasting cheeses as he went. Basher is as passionate about his consumers as he is about his cheeses. He loves his clientele. Every visitor to his store is welcomed with a warm smile and handed a piece of cheese to sample. If you aren't given a piece of cheese immediately, it is because Basher or his staff is taking a minute to look you over. Based on your age, your nationality and your heritage, you are bound to have distinct cheese tastes, and at Basher's they want to initiate you into the cheese world slowly. As Basher says, "Cheese, like chocolate, should leave you with a smile on your face; and a cheese that may make my day, may ruin yours." The staff at Basher's are very conscious of their consumers and what their tastes may be. The cheese presented to an elderly Frenchman is worlds apart from that offered to a young American girl because their palates are worlds apart. Basher wants every individual to experience the pleasure of discovering new flavors and textures. According to Basher, the future of Israeli cheeses is promising. The milk in Israel is among the best in the world, and the water is of superior quality. However, European cheese makers have been at it for generations. They are born with a reverence for cheese and for their parents' recipes. They waver neither from the method of preparation nor the ingredients. In Israel, we pioneers still lack a tradition to follow when it comes to cheese. However, this in no way should put one off Israeli cheeses. Traditions are born from pioneers, and with time and patience Israeli cheeses will find their position in the world market and pride of place on Basher's shelves.