The art of cheese

Aharon Markovich makes uniquely Israeli cheeses on Moshav Nehalim.

Aharon Markovich makes uniquely Israeli cheeses on Moshav Nehalim. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Aharon Markovich makes uniquely Israeli cheeses on Moshav Nehalim.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Aharon Markovich, inspired cheesemaker, fulfills every description of an artist. His creations reflect his personality and world view. He’s temperamental, a perfectionist. He insists on the very finest raw materials. He is almost obsessed with his creations, which happen to be cheeses.
“I’m a little meshuganeh,” he says with a shy smile. “Thank God, I have a wonderful wife who doesn’t let anything interfere with my work.”
“I do my best to keep a clear field around him,” laughs his wife, Tami. “He built everything you see when you come to the dairy – the landscaping, the shop, everything.”
The dairy is a green place that exhales peace and beauty. Fragrant bushes of rosemary, basil and lavender line the front path. Overhead, a leafy grapevine rustles.
Goldfish swim in a cool artificial stream that runs down to a waterlily pond. Yellow and orange nasturtiums cluster close by. And in the fenced garden around the shop, sheep graze and occasionally send up a “baa.”
Born on Moshav Nehalim, near Petah Tikva, to Holocaust survivor parents, Markovich is comfortable with Yiddish and English, but his great love is the Land of Israel.
“From my earliest years, I was strongly attracted to nature, agriculture and animals, especially sheep,” he says. On finishing his army service, he returned to the moshav, married, and bought a small flock of sheep.
He began making cheese with milk from his own flock, but when business expanded, he was obliged to buy supplies from a trusted farmer. The early years of tending sheep set his lifelong pattern of doing everything by hand. Refusing to milk his sheep mechanically, he tended and milked them himself, and began making simple cheeses at home. His main business was selling sheep’s milk to Tnuva, but as the milk was expensive, the company eventually stopped buying it.
“Like many things that seem disastrous at first, this actually opened a new way for me,” he reminisces. “I began making different kinds of cheeses, more sophisticated ones than the homestyle soft ones I’d made until then.”
Twenty years ago he traveled to France to tour dairies and observe the French methods of cheesemaking.
“One of the cheesemakers I met works according to a 300-year-old tradition of recipes handed down from father to son. I didn’t learn how to make cheese in France; I returned with the idea of establishing my own tradition. Why should I copy another nation’s cheeses? I’d rather create my own.
I asked myself, what could be more Israeli than the Seven Species? So I decided to call the dairy Eretz Zavat Halav Udvash – the land flowing with milk and honey – and make cheeses associated with the Seven Species. My cheeses have Hebrew names, many of which recall water, for the streams that flow in Nehalim.”
He taught himself to make a variety of sheep’s-milk cheeses. Today, the dairy produces 40 styles of kosher cheeses, from fresh, soft and spreadable ones to mature, semi-hard ones to aged, hard yellowed cheese. Markovich still raises his sheep, traveling to supervise personally and even delivering lambs.
Some of his cheeses mature in a wrapping of grape leaves, fig leaves or edible flowers from his own garden. The cheese takes on a subtle flavor from the herbal wrapping. Other cheeses incorporate local wines or olives. Still others are marinated in beer to recall barley (one of the Seven Species). Milk is pasteurized, as required by law, but unlike commercial dairies, the cheesemaker doesn’t separate the fat from the milk. These whole-milk cheeses preserve the flavor and character of the sheep’s milk intact.
“I want the flavor of the milk to dominate,” Markovich explains. “My cheeses don’t have the heavy, ammonia-like flavor of a ripe French Camembert. That ammonia flavor means that something’s gone off. I don’t export my cheeses. I don’t even like to sell them if the customer says they’re not going straight home – I don’t like to think that the cheese is getting overheated in the car. They aren’t exactly supermarket cheeses.”
However, he has traveled to Brazil and taught a cheesemaker how to make his style of cheese.
“A light unto the nations,” he jokes.
“Now they’re making my cheese in Brazil.”
A dairy in China has also asked him to visit and teach a workshop there.
Speaking of himself, he says, “I have two problems. One is that I’m a perfectionist.
Everything has to be just so. It’s not easy, working with me. However, I like working alone. The second problem is that I’m not commercial-minded. Every cheese is the product of my two hands; there is no machinery in my dairy, and I don’t stretch the milk out by separating the fat for some other use. And I’m not interested in making simple cheese. Whatever’s different, complicated, hard to make, that’s what I like. I don’t make what others make, I create cheeses to please myself. For instance, I discovered that the nasturtiums growing around the shop are edible. They taste a little peppery, like rocket. So I created Avivit, a cheese covered in these peppery flowers.”
Markovich, like a true artist, cares about his works with ardor. “In my shop, there’s only one rule: You must taste. You’re not obliged to buy, but you must taste the cheeses. I’ll tell you how crazy I am – once a month, we do a cheese tasting and sale at Tel Aviv University.
I give a talk, explain the different styles and how to store the cheese at home. Once a man wanted to buy several kinds. I offered to lend him a platter for serving, but he said he’d serve them on disposable plates. I refused to sell him my cheese. Go to the supermarket for your cheese, I told him. You wouldn’t serve wine from a paper cup, nor should you serve Markovich cheese from a disposable plate. Aesthetics are important to me – the involvement of all senses in the cheese. Still, my reward, my greatest satisfaction, is seeing people enjoying the work of my hands.”
The shop is open every weekday, from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. (closing early on Fridays, and closed Shabbat and holidays). It is kosher-certified.
It will be open on Succot, without a succa on the grounds. For more information, call (03) 933-2797 or visit its Facebook page: