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A Soft Food Falls on Hard Times

Curds and Whey: Anger in Israel over the 40% price hike in the cost of cottage cheese prompted several dairy companies to lower costs. Image by Nathan Jeffay

Never, since the time of Little Miss Muffet, have curds and whey attracted such attention.

As Arabs ignite pro-democracy demonstrations across the Middle East through Facebook, Israelis, too, are turning to the networking site to bring about social change. Their end game: to cut the price of cottage cheese. And it seems they’ve succeeded.

Almost 105,000 people have joined a Facebook group for people promising to shun cottage cheese throughout July, and their boycott is dominating Israel’s national media.

The price of a 9-ounce container had increased by almost 40% in the past three years, to about $2. The increase was primarily due to the removal of government controls on dairy products in the past year. But on June 29, all that changed. “The Israeli consumer has said his part and proved its power to bring about real and unprecedented change,” said Arik Shor, the CEO of one of Israel’s most popular cottage cheese brands, Tnuva Dairy, in a joint statement with Zehavit Cohen, CEO of Apax Partners Israel (Tnuva’s largest shareholder), after announcing the lowering of cottage cheese prices across Israel by about 20%.

But still, how has a food so bland, which most of the world considers the preserve of dieters, provoked such national passion?

The answer is that a combination of factors — history, identity and taste — has put cottage cheese on a pedestal in the mind of the Israeli public. “It’s almost like someone is messing with your mother’s milk,” said Israel’s leading sociologist of food, Nir Avieli, a lecturer at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

The cottage cheese romance has its roots in the beginnings of Zionism. One of the pioneers’ greatest hopes was to be able to find nourishment from the land. They arrived with the biblical description of the land “flowing with milk and honey” in their minds and with the pessimistic predictions of what they would achieve reverberating in their ears.

Dairy farming was seen as one of their greatest against-all-odds achievements (since nobody expected cows to thrive under Israel’s climate conditions), and cottage cheese became regarded as one of the milk’s simplest but finest products. “There was traditionally pride in Israel’s cows, pride in the milk and pride in the ability to turn it into cheese,” said Zali Gurevitch, a retired sociologist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

This history means that Israelis now see cheese as part of their national heritage. And it also means that people now think that if cottage cheese was readily available in much harder times, it’s paradoxical that in much more prosperous times, it’s becoming a luxury item. “It is crazy that 70 years ago, people could enjoy cottage cheese after a day draining swamps, but today, when we have so much more and our dairy industry is so developed, it’s becoming too expensive for many families,” Haifa housewife Hadas Gibing said while shopping in a local supermarket before hearing of the cuts.

But the passion toward cottage cheese goes even deeper. “Cottage cheese is the symbol of the Israeli home,” said Israeli chef Erez Komorovsky, founder of the Lechem Erez chain of bakeries. It is sold with imagery of a house, and it is a staple of the two home-based meals of the day — breakfast and dinner — as opposed to the main meal that is eaten at midday and often at the workplace. Also important in Komorovsky’s analysis: “It is soft, and we live in a hard place.”

Avieli observes that because Jewish dietary laws force separation of meat and milk, in Israel, unlike in other places, meat and milk are seen as “opposites.” This makes cottage cheese a staple dairy food, “just the opposite” of a meaty lunchtime dining-out food like steak, and strengthens its association with home and family. As such, Israelis have viewed the hiking of cottage cheese prices as an “attack on the most intimate private sphere of home, women and children.”

In Avieli’s telling, cottage cheese has long been a kind of culinary security blanket for Jews in the Middle East. In its blandness, cottage cheese contrasted the more traditionally Middle Eastern dairy bread topping labneh, a salty strained yogurt, as well as much of the other food in the region. “Cottage cheese is not the spicy food of here, but the bland, calming food which tames the wildness of this place,” he said.

Of course, all this in the national psyche would do little to make Israelis care about cottage cheese if it didn’t taste good — but it does. In contrast to America, where yellow cheese reigns supreme, the Israeli Dairy Board has found that only 6% of Israelis said that yellow cheese is best, while 67% chose cottage as their favorite cheese.

The archetypal Israeli cottage cheese, made by Tnuva, is very different from its American or European equivalents. Komorovsky says that the key qualities are that it’s “much softer, with much smaller grains, and much tastier.”

Instead of the curd “grains” being suspended in whey-based sauce, the whey is much thicker, meaning that the curds and whey together form a substance that is creamier and more spreadable than other cottage cheeses. Sandwiches are less liable to go soggy, meaning that pita bread with cottage cheese is a very common sight in an Israeli child’s lunchbox.

But isn’t cottage cheese just cottage cheese, made more or less the same way the world over? Not according to Ran Buck, a human encyclopedia of Israeli cheeses. Israel’s most famous cheese expert and the owner of 27.6, the country’s only cheese shop chain, he knows all the industry secrets. But when he has tried to find out about Tnuva’s cottage cheese recipe, he has met a veil of secrecy. “I just don’t know — they don’t want to talk about it,” he said.

Fortunately things have fallen into place. For a time, the unique taste that helps make cottage cheese such a national issue also threatened to undermine the boycotters’ endeavor. “Everything the protesters say is right,” said David Azriel, another Haifa shopper. “But I’m traveling abroad to family, and they will kill me if I don’t take some, so I can’t boycott. They say they can’t get anything like Israeli cottage.”

Nathan Jeffay is the Forward’s Israel correspondent.

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