Mmmm Shavuot. The sweet smell of cheese blintzes and the sound of butter crackling in the frying pan fill the house. Bright red strawberry preserves are on the table, ready to be served with the delicious filled crepes. Why do we have the tradition of eating dairy foods during Shavuot? Shavuot is a celebration of the Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah to the Israelites. King Solomon described the pleasure of Torah as “honey and milk are under your tongue” (Song of Songs 4:11). The first iteration of this celebratory meal was homemade goat cheese, sweetened with honey or fruit. We can explore those primeval flavors as we indulge in the sweet study of Torah on Shavuot night.
One of the first animals domesticated by early humans was the goat. In Jericho, evidence of goats kept by Neolithic farmers demonstrates that they were part of the household between 8000 and 9000 years ago. Goats were the main providers of milk in Ancient Israel. Milk, butter, and cheese were available seasonally, in the spring and summer.
Goat cheese has been made for as long as goats have been domesticated. In Ancient Israel, raw goat milk probably curdled naturally. This process occurred thanks to two benign bacterial strains: Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. These are soil-based probiotics, which are often present in the milk. The curdled milk was poured into a cloth bag. The whey (residual liquid) was drained out of the bag, and the remaining curds were pressed into a soft cheese. Equally old was the tradition of storing milk in goatskin containers. Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus are present on the skin of the goats. These bacteria combined with the raw milk in the warm Mediterranean climate, causing it to ferment. The milk curdled quickly, and was transformed into laban, a thick, sour milk. A hard cheese was made with fermented laban. The laban was poured into molds and left to harden in the sun. Israelite shepherds accidentally discovered another way to make cheese. When they heated the milk, they stirred it with fig tree branches. Only a few drops of fig sap needed to get into the milk in order to coagulate it. Fig sap contains ficin, an enzyme whose clotting activity in milk is thirty to one hundred times that of animal rennet. The Mishna and Talmud describe using the sap of fruit trees to make cheese. This process of making cheese was adopted instead of using animal rennet in order to comply with the prohibition of mixing meat and milk. This recipe has been recreated at Neot Kedumim, Israel’s Biblical Landscape Reserve.
Ancient Israelite Cheese from Neot Kedumim
- 1 Quart goat milk. You can buy goat’s milk at Whole Foods, or order it online.
- 1 fig branch thoroughly washed. Cut it right before using.
Pour the milk into a pot. Squeeze 5 drops of sap from the fig branch, being very careful not to touch the sap. Fig sap may cause a rash, like poison ivy.
Heat the milk until it boils, stirring it with the fig branch.
Once the milk has curdled, allow it to cool.
Strain the curds through a cheesecloth.
Goats are very curious, intelligent animals. Their favorite way to eat is to explore their surroundings, tasting weeds and shrubs. They like to taste a variety of plants. The plants consumed by the goats influence the flavor of their milk. If they eat bitter weeds, their milk will be bitter too. Eating a variety of weeds gives their milk a more complex flavor.
Milk from goats has small, well-emulsified fat globules. This means that the cream does not rise to the top as it does with raw cow’s milk, but rather remains mixed in with the milk. As a result, goat’s milk does not need to be homogenized (mixed so that the fat droplets do not separate from the milk). It is more similar to milk produced by humans than milk from a cow. Due to this, goat milk is a good choice for young children, people who are ill, and anyone who has trouble digesting cow’s milk. Goat milk contains 13% more calcium than cow’s milk, 25% more vitamin B6, and 47% more vitamin A.
I learned how to make my own goat cheese from my friend Freyda Black. Freyda bought her first Nubian goat from the partner of a chef at the Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, New York. She taught herself how to make cheese. When she took some of her home made chevre to the Moosewood chef and his partner to have a taste, they told her it was better than the award winning cheeses from France and Germany.
Freyda Black’s Goat’s Milk Ricotta
- 1-gallon goat milk (whole or skim)
- Apple cider vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon Baking soda
Pour the milk into a very heavy bottomed pot, or double boil it over a low flame. Slowly heat the milk to 186 degrees Fahrenheit.
When the milk is 186 degrees, pour in 1/4 cup of apple cider vinegar while stirring.
Stir until the milk starts to curd. You should see large curds. If it doesn’t start to curd, add more vinegar, one teaspoon at a time.
Put cheesecloth over a colander. Pour the curds and whey into it.
Gather up the ends of the cheesecloth, and drain for no more than one minute.
Pour the curds back into the pot and add one half teaspoon of baking soda. This will neutralize the acid and stop the curdling.
Freyda Black’s Goat’s Milk Queso Blanco
Repeat the process for Ricotta.
Omit the baking soda, and allow the Ricotta cheese to drain overnight.
This is a recipe that Sephardic Jews brought to the New World from Spain and Portugal. They would pair the queso blanco with sweet preserved fruits, such as pears and quinces. In South America, the queso blanco was also served with guava preserves.
For an authentic Ancient Israelite Shavuot experience, flavor your homemade ricotta or queso blanco with raw bee’s honey, or Biblical date “honey,” available online
Have fun preparing it with your family, and eat it while it’s hot!
If you would like to meet Freyda Black and her Nubian goats, please come to Germantown Jewish Centre on June 5th, from 10:00 AM to 1:00 PM. She will demonstrate how to make fresh goat cheese. There will be goat milk, cheese, and whey for everyone to taste. Free! Everyone welcome!