(April 29, 2014 / JNS) Standing alone against the desert landscape, Kornmehl Goat Cheese Farm & Restaurant is modest, lacking artsy adornments and embellishments that tourists often favor. But situated about 30 miles south of Sde Boker, the home of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, the farm is a striking example of how the once vast desert region that most tourists simply ignored is blooming today.
Owners Anat and Daniel Kornmehl are considered by many chefs to be the finest makers of goat cheese in Israel. People flock from across the Negev, as well as other parts of Israel, to taste the farm’s camembert, Tommes de Pyrenees, Edna, and their hard Alpine-like cheese called Adi, named after one of their goats.
Come Shavuot, when families focus on dairy at their festive meals, the establishment becomes even more popular.
The Kornmehls, both agronomists trained at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, started the farm in 1997, five years after they acquired their first herd of goats. Anat Kornmehl said after she and her husband graduated, they went to Australia and New Zealand to find an idea for something to do in the agriculture arena. When they returned, she started working at the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture guiding farmers on how to raise goats and sheep.
“We started to get more and more into it,” Anat Kornmehl recalled. “We started raising our own goats and milking them and then processing the milk into cheese and selling the cheese.”
That was 20 years ago in Jerusalem. But the red tape, Anat explained, was frustrating. With limited land, they struggled to let their goats graze naturally. The Kornmehls believe that the health of their goats affects the quality of their cheese. The goats are antibiotic and hormone free and the Kornmehls give constant attention to the goats’ living conditions and food. The move to the Negev made their organic dreams possible.
The Kornmehl’s land is leased from the government. The couple manages waste carefully to protect the fragile environment and minimalize damage to the land caused by the herd.
Daniel and Anat emphasize traditional values of cheese making, while adapting them to the local environment. They create cheeses that are personal interpretations of famous French varieties. Anat Kornmehl said the Negev, with its low humidity, is conducive to raising goats.
It has also been conducive to raising children. A mother of three kids aged 17, 13, and 10, Anat Kornmehl said the youths help out on the farm and enjoy the animals. They also get extra time with their parents that they wouldn’t otherwise have.
“They have the quiet and the family things we do together. Because we work on the farm, we are available for the kids all the time,” she said. “Some parents, they take their kids to school, go to work, come back at night. It is not that we work less; we work a lot. But we can stop at any time of day to be with the kids, assist them.”
The couple’s son, Michael, described his life as “nice and sweet,” and said the biggest challenge is transportation. No public transit passes the Kornmehl farm and it can be hard to visit friends or participate in weekend activities. But he has gotten used to his role with the dairy.
“Sometimes I walk with them [the goats]. I take them up to the milking shed, close the gate and help feed them,” Michael said, noting he also works in the restaurant, usually selling the cheeses or washing dishes.
Does he play with the goats?
“There is not much to play with them,” he said with a laugh. “Goats are stubborn.”
At one time, the Kornmehls had more than 100 goats. But last year, they took a sabbatical to Australia and cut their herd to only 47. Each of the 40 female goats that is of age to bear kids produces roughly 700 liters (185 gallons) of milk per 9 to 10-month season. One liter of milk is equivalent to 1 liter of yogurt; 6 liters of milk makes about 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of brie or other milky cheeses; and eight to 10 liters of milk makes about 1 kilogram of hard cheese.
The Kornmehls allow their baby goats to nurse directly from their mothers in the first two months. Then they wean them, and the rest of the milk is for the farm. People who visit the restaurant can see the milking process in action. Anat said children visitors love the roaming goats and learn—often for the first time—that milk does not grow on a grocery store shelf.
The restaurant—famous for its pizza, filo dough filled with two types of goat cheese and fresh red pepper, and knafeh made of Kadaif noodles, cheese, and pistachios—uses only local produce and wine. While not kosher certified, all of the Kornmehl farm products are kosher and they do not operate on Shabbat.
Brent Delman of Yonkers, NY, who is known as the “Cheese Guy,” said several factors can affect the taste of cheese, from the type and breed of the animal to the land on which they graze and even the air they breathe. He explained that sheep and goats tend to have more fat in their milk and that it is higher in protein.
“It lends itself to a different taste, usually stronger, tangier, maybe even gamey,” Delman said.
In the U.S., cow cheese tends to be the most popular, produced predominantly in Wisconsin, California, Vermont and New York. Cheddar is the most popular American cheese, said Delman, though more mozzarella (because of pizza) is consumed more than any other type.
For years, salty cheeses such as feta and spreadable cheeses modeled after German quark were available in Israel. But Delman, who visits Israel regularly and has a son in the Israeli army, said Israel is trending now toward specialty cheeses and boutique cheeses, like those produced by the Kornmehls.
He said as more kosher artisanal and specialty cheese makers, like the Kornmehls and him, enter the marketplace, observant Jews will have the opportunity to add new flavor to their meals. On Shavuot, Delman recommends combining honey or date spreads with cheese, recalling the biblical reference to Israel as a land flowing with milk and honey.
The Kornmehls offered a special Passover menu last month and will likely provide specialty dishes for Shavuot, too. They will not, however, be shipping their cheeses to the States. If you want to taste their delicacies, you’ll have to take a trip to southern Israel.
Maayan Jaffe is a freelance writer in Overland Park, Kan. Reach Maayan at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter, @MaayanJaffe.