This Saturday night through Monday evening is Shavuot (Shavuos). For Jews around the world, it’s time to stock up on the Lactaid™. For a bit more about Shavuos and a vegan chocolate mousse recipe, all about dairy allergies (and a recipe for homemade Greek yogurt), and a fresh, healthy Mediterranean Shavuos feast with my mother-in-law’s Italian-Sephardic pickled eggplant just click on the links.
About once or twice a year I eat cheese. I’ll be honest, most kosher cheese (and many kosher dairy products) leave a lot to be desired. Often, what’s available is a pale imitation of real cheese. Quality kosher dairy also isn’t always easy to find. It’s challenging to get organic, raw and/or un-homogenized dairy products. And dairy products like desserts (something I avoid anyway), are loaded with corn syrup, skim milk powder, and all kinds of texturizers and fillers. We’ve been making our own out of frozen bananas for years–see this emergency ice cream recipe. There are some really terrific artisan dairy farmers and cheese makers in Israel, but most of the products don’t make their way to the U.S.
Overall, there’s a dearth of authentic kosher dairy, especially cheese. One man who’s changing that is Brent Delman, The Cheese Guy. I had wanted to do a more in-depth interview with Brent, and in fact had been planning to do so for a couple months, but I didn’t get around to sending him my questions until the last minute (all my fault) so instead he sent me an email to share with you, which I excerpt here:
My trademark is high end, small batch, primarily handmade, artisanal cheeses – particularly organic, kosher and low-fat. My cheeses are a blend of creativity and flavor – a colorful fusion of my Eastern European Jewish heritage, the ethnic Italian neighborhood that I grew up in and my proximity to Amish farm territory.
We partner with small and family owned dairy farms in order to produce our extra creamy jacks, crumbled blues, local sharp cheddars, tangy goats and imported Italian and European specialty cheeses. Some of our cheese wheels are naturally aged and washed with organic extra virgin olive oil by hand in our New York cheese cellar. This is done in order to give our cheese a complex flavor and sharpness usually found in European style cheeses. We are excited to be taking Kosher cheeses to entirely new heights.
Although Brent has a variety of American and English cheeses, too, I’m just going to list his Italian (including his Sardinian and Sicilian), cheeses, perfect to serve with a Mediterranean Shavuos feast along with a cheese from Greece, Bulgaria or Israel. All The Cheese Guy cheeses are certified kosher, the ones listed here are all OU and Chalav Yisroel (Check the packaging). Some cheese on this list is aged for 6 months or longer—if you’re going to serve a meat meal after a eating these well-aged, the laws of kashrus require a six-hour waiting period.
This is a semi-hard cheese aged 3-4 months, it is made from the milk of grass-fed cows in the northeastern corner of Italy – the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region. Sometimes compared to a young Asiago, Montaggio cheese has a mild, delicate, and somewhat fruity flavor with a hint of nuts. Montaggio cheese can be used to make the traditional Italian frico, or fried cheese. It also makes a flavorful fondue. All natural, hormone and antibiotic free.
Bastardo Del Grappa
Made in the mountains of the Grappa region of northeastern Italy. Cow’s milk. Creamy, full flavor, in the family of Normandy Brie. Light yellow color with uneven rind. Grass fed cows, all natural, hormone free, gluten free.
Pecorino fresco al Peperoncino
Fresh sheep’s milk cheese with red chili peppers, from Sicily. Mild, tangy and creamy table cheese with a bit of spice that does not overwhelm. All natural, hormone and antibiotic free, gluten free.
Pecorino fresco al Pepe Nere
Fresh sheep’s milk cheese with black peppercorns, from Sicily. A mild, tangy and creamy table cheese with a bit of spice that does not overwhelm. Is perfectly suited to make Caccio e Peppe. All natural, hormone and antibiotic free, gluten free.
This pecorino is a hard cheese because it is aged over 2 years (unlike the one above). Pecorino Romano is a fragrant, sheep’s milk cheese produced in Sardinia, Italy. Good for grating shaving on pasta, salads and for using in risotto dishes. All natural, gluten free and hormone free.
From the Lazio region of Italy outside Rome. It’s naturally low fat and low sodium. Similar to mozzarella, Smoked Scamorza has a buttery and slightly more bitter flavor than mozzarella. It also has a firmer texture than mozzarella. Its structure is typically in layers. Its taste is slightly sweet and savory. It can be eaten either uncooked as it is, or cooked in various dishes to add flavor as it is good for melting. Slice it thinly with extra virgin olive oil and fresh herbs.
Another person changing the kosher cheese scene is Elizabeth Bland. You can check out her web site and the cheeses she’s bringing to market.
Tigers: So, How Important Is What We Eat, Anyway?
What we eat (as well as how we eat it) is very important for our physical, spiritual, and even mental health. I think a lot of Jews (and a lot of people in general), sense this. That’s why we try all kinds of meshuggeh diets, each one more extreme than the next. We’re looking for answers and we “feel in our guts” that food is important.
Intrigued? Please check out this article at one of my other blogs, on Dr. Martha Herbert’s new book, The Autism Revolution. If a pediatric neurologist who teaches at Harvard (and runs a cutting-edge research center) has identified the link between brain and what we eat as vital to our well-being, it’s time for us to really pay attention. Also, I’ll shortly be reviewing another terrific book on anxiety and diet. I’ll be sure to link you.
It is really, really hard to change your diet. Ask anyone who’s been told by a doctor to avoid salt, meat, or sugar. Food is about so much more than nutrition. But I’m convinced that if you experience the results, you’ll make some changes. Sure, you’ll have a relapse or two. But the hardest part is that initial step.
I had a friend many years ago who would get brutal migraines ever time she ate chocolate or aged cheese, two of her favorite foods. She chose to have surgery on her septum (which didn’t work at all) rather than stop eating these foods even for a week! Now, for many people eating chocolate and dairy doesn’t trigger unpleasant symptoms. Others don’t know what’s causing their digestive problems, headaches, rashes, and so on (a lot of them don’t even realize it’s related to what they eat). But my friend knew. Like most of us, she was just so attached to the tastes and physical and emotional sensations she was used to that she would do anything to avoid changing how she ate.
Diet affects us at the deepest levels. What we eat literally changes who we are, after all, food molecules eventually become a part of us at the cellular level. For many years I was vaguely conscious of this, I had even become vegetarian for many years in response to this concept. Then the idea of food becoming our flesh began to take on a much more visceral reality for me via an unusual route.
A couple years ago, I went to sit shiva* with an older friend, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who was imprisoned in Siberia, who I had met a few times.
She told me details about her father’s life and wartime heroism, and I became fascinated with both his faith and bravery, as well curious about the testing ground for them, that was Siberia. I wanted to know, to feel, what this brutal, bleak, environment was like. Siberia apparently hasn’t changed all that much since then.
I read a bit about those imprisoned in Siberia, and then I read The Tiger, by John Vaillant, hands down the best book on the land and the mindset of non-native Siberians I’ve ever read. The author convinced me that being eaten by a tiger, becoming part of the actual beast, is perhaps the most horrible death imaginable. One’s body is shredded by claws and teeth, digested, and parts of it excreted. One feeds his own killer, and one’s very soul merges with the tiger. Of course, being eaten by a shark or a bear or ants is equally as chilling.
Judaism treats the meis, the deceased person’s body, so tenderly, with so much holiness, that the difference couldn’t be more stark. But the tiger, even one that willfully hunts and eats man, doesn’t have free will—he has to respond to his hunger and even his rage in the only way he knows how.
We do have free will, more than we think we do, about how, what, and why we eat. We get to choose—and this is one of the deeper essences of eating kosher. It’s about who we are, who we choose to be, who we identify with.
Kosher means “fit”. If you ask the average person on the street, they’ll readily admit that what we eat affects our bodies. If they’re up on the science, they’ll tell you that it can affect our minds, too. But most people will tell you it’s nonsense, food cannot affect our souls. Or, if they do think it can affect our souls, they’ll tell you that not eating animals, or eating only raw and living foods or a macrobiotic diet or so on is the way to go. (They all have valid points, by the way.)
I see it this way. If I believe that G-d cares that for me personally and has a commitment to me, and has for some reason beyond my ken chosen the laws of kashrus to best way to nourish a Jewish soul and body, then eating kosher makes sense. For me, over the years, it’s become something I feel in my bones: All people are created by G-d, each of us has a soul, and G-d has asked Jews to eat kosher (and all people to avoid treating animals cruelly in the production of food, though eating animals properly killed and prepared is okay).
My friend and writing client Minto asked me why, if kosher food is good for us, do Jews make and sell kosher candy and junk food (have you ever seen the kosher junk-food aisles?), and so on. He’s absolutely right to point this out. Is this what G-d intended kosher food to be? I believe not. Sure, having a festive, even a sugary dessert for the occasional simcha, is okay within reason. But over-eating, impulse-eating, binging, excessive gourmandism and gourmetism, and so on, are at the root of so many emotional and physical health problems in Jewish and non-Jewish Westerners. Judaism teaches that the health of the mind and body is intimately related to the health of the soul, and Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches that we need to eat mindfully.
I’ve finally got around to improving the functionality of HJC with a gorgeous new theme from WordPress called Oxygen. Everything’s not completely updated, but I’ve started, and hopefully it will make it easier for you to find what you’re looking for. Your feedback and advice is welcome, just comment at the end of this post or email me, Chaya Rivka, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Sitting shiva is part of Jewish mourning customs—for seven days, relatives and friends of the deceased and his or her immediate family visit family members, sitting on low stools as a sign of mourning. (They usually bring prepared meals, too).
Cow photo by Marijn at Stock Exchange.
Tiger photo by Patch at Stock Exchange.