For almost 30 years, Dror and Sarah Friede have lived in the tiny community of Ezuz, in the furthest western reaches of Israel’s Negev Desert on the Egyptian border. Dror tends to about 100 goats, while Sarah makes yogurt and cheese in a makeshift kitchen next to their home. They produce yogurts flavored with coffee and mint, semi-hard and ripened artisanal cheeses, and labneh—a strained yogurt with a creamy texture—mixed with za’atar and olive oil. They sell these freshly made dairy products out of their shop, located in a converted Ottoman-era railroad car.
“Looking back over these years, we felt the drive of something we felt compelled to do,” Dror told me last week as we sipped coffee lightened with fresh milk from their goats. “Sometimes it’s been really tough, but we are here from choice. We have hardly any neighbors, we live in temporary homes, but our children learned about nature and every day they had an afternoon meal with their parents.”
Sarah, a native of Kenya, says that their desert farm in Ezuz, with its palm- and acacia -covered veranda overlooking the Sinai, reminds her of Africa. Just 80 kilometers from their farm stands Mt. Sinai, where Moses delivered the Ten Commandments. This weekend, the holiday of Shavuot commemorates that ancient event; one of the holiday’s traditions includes eating dairy products, so the Friedes are gearing up for a busy several days.
“People will come down from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to buy our cheese,” said Sarah, taking a break from making her labneh. “This weekend will be the busiest of the year for us.”
Shavuot promises to be a banner year for Israel’s boutique cheese-makers, some three dozen small businesses that dot the country. This year marks an unusual confluence of events. In addition to the holiday’s culinary traditions, and the fact that this time of year typically brings a surplus of milk from cows, goats, and sheep, politics will play a role: Last summer, consumers in Israel upset over the price of dairy products led what were dubbed the “cottage cheese protests.” Government action eventually led to lower prices, but Israeli resentment remained against the big dairy companies, such as Tnuva, as well as supermarket chains that were accused of inflating their profit margins. As a result, this year many Israelis are looking to smaller dairy companies, and going directly to the source to buy their products.