by George E. Johnson
When Brent Delman was growing up in Cleveland, his culturally Jewish family, like their Eastern European forebears, ate lots of soft, fresh cheese—cream cheese, sour cream, cottage cheese—without worrying much about whether it was kosher. After all, cheese is just curdled milk, and as long as it’s not eaten with meat, what could be treif about it?
In some cases, it is that simple—at least for the soft cheeses common to traditional Eastern European cuisines. As long as the other ingredients (the bacteria cultures, acid and salt) are kosher and the cheese is prepared using sterilized equipment, these cheeses are considered kosher (and many carry kosher certification).
But as Delman—a specialty foods supplier—learned when he went into business making and selling kosher cheese as The Cheese Guy in 2008, hard cheeses such as gouda, cheddar and blue cheese are another story. “It’s all about the rennet,” Delman says. Historically, rennet —a complex of enzymes found in the lining of a calf’s stomach—was required to coagulate milk and ripen it into hard cheese.
The problem with rennet is not, as you are probably thinking, mixing milk and meat. The rabbis long ago ruled that the amount of animal enzyme required in cheese-making is too miniscule for that. No, the problem was that hard cheese was made by non-Jews. Going back to Talmudic times, the rabbis feared that the rennet enzyme they added to the milk might come from a non-kosher animal or an animal that was not properly ritually slaughtered, or that the cheese might be otherwise contaminated. As a result, they prohibited cheese made by a non-Jew, which they called gevinat akum (literally: “cheese of star worshippers”). To ensure that non-kosher ingredients were not used, a rabbi was required to add the rennet and supervise production of the cheese, in effect making it “Jewish cheese,” as it has been called for centuries.
Although generally this meant that Jews simply did not eat hard cheese, there was one notable exception. In his commentary on the Talmud, the medieval scholar Rabbenu Tam records that the Jews of 12th-century Narbonne, in southern France, did in fact eat gevinat akum, hard cheese made by non-Jews. Why? Because it was made not from animal rennet, but from plant enzymes. Nevertheless, the legal codes of Maimonides in the 12th century and Joseph Karo in the 16th—not Rabbenu Tam—carried the day in the Jewish religious world. To this day, most Orthodox Jews follow legal codes that basically outlaw cheese made by non-Jews, even if the cheese is made using non-animal enzymes.
Of course, there’s more than one opinion on the matter. Because all hard cheese made in the United States is produced using microbial or plant enzymes, some argue it’s a non-issue. Many Jews who pay attention to kashrut—for example, the rabbis of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly—believe that if the hard cheese is made from these rennet substitutes, the problem of eating “non-Jewish cheese” simply goes away. Even some kashrut agencies run by Orthodox rabbis (for example, Tablet-K and K-ORC) certify hard cheese made by non-Jews using microbial or plant enzymes without requiring a rabbi to add the rennet, so long as the ingredients and the facilities are kosher.
But the strictures against “non-Jewish” hard cheese have shaped the Jewish diet. According to the late food historian and rabbi Gil Marks, historically, “all the Jewish cheeses in northern Europe were the curd type.” For centuries, he notes, “many eastern European meals consisted solely of potatoes or black bread and curd cheese.” Think cottage cheese blintzes, latkes (originally made from curd cheese, according to Marks), borsht with sour cream—all the foods that kept Tevye the Dairyman in business.
American Jews, coming mainly from Northern and Eastern Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries, brought their cheese-eating habits with them. And eventually, they wanted to eat hard cheese, too. Although consumption of kosher hard cheese has been growing for some time, until about a decade ago, there was no real appreciation for good cheese in the American kosher market, according to Y. Levy of Kosher Today, a publication of the kosher food industry.
A number of factors are changing the market for kosher hard cheese. First, there are many more kosher-keeping Jewish “foodies” than there used to be. Leah Koenig, author of The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook and the forthcoming Modern Jewish Cooking: Recipes & Customs for Today’s Kitchen, says many kosher consumers are now more food-conscious. They “are not content with the same old, lesser-quality products they’ve purchased in the past,” Koenig says.
Kosher cheese producers are responding to the demand for finer cheese. Among them are Delman, whose New York-based The Cheese Guy sources kosher cheese from farms as far away as New Zealand and Argentina; Jennifer Bice, whose Redwood Hill Farms produces prize-winning kosher goat cheeses in Sebastopol, California; and Mark Bodzin, a New Jersey deli counter clerk, who used Kickstarter, an online crowd-source funding service, to fund runs of kosher cheddar at Vermont’s Shelburne Farms creamery. These purveyors all see the “kosher” label as an additional indicator of quality, such as vegetarian, hormone-free, humane, organic and other attributes that younger generations of Jewish consumers are looking for—and one that is a selling point to non-Jewish consumers who are picky about their food’s pedigree.
Entrepreneurs such as Delman have created a new business model. They find farms making superior non-kosher artisanal hard cheese that are willing to periodically convert to kosher operation and local rabbis to supervise production and add the rennet, and then they ship or hold the cheese in cellars to age. The result is kosher versions of well-known non-kosher hard cheeses such as Pecorino Romano from Sardinia and Reggianito Parmesan from the Pampas of Argentina. A quirky variant on this theme is the Seattle- and New York-based Beecher’s Handmade Cheese Company, an otherwise non-kosher artisanal cheese maker, which makes special kosher runs of its very popular cheddar/Swiss gruyere Flagship Handmade Cheese. Why? Beecher needs kosher cheese for the kosher company that manufactures its cheese crackers.
The kosher stuff comes at a price. Beecher’s Kosher Flagship Cheese sells for $24 a pound; The Cheese Guy’s cheeses sell for as much as $25 a pound. But the long lines at Delman’s Riverdale Sunday Market cheese stand and at cheese-tasting events at Manhattan’s iconic Zabar’s specialty food store suggest that the market is ripening, like Bodzin’s Shelburne Farms kosher cheddar currently aging in their cellars.
My Brother-in-Law Dani’s Circassian White Cheese Torta
This is a very popular cheese in Israel, and it’s easy to make. It is semi-hard, salty, mildly spicy, somewhat crumbly, and goes terrifically with bread, vegetables and fish. My brother-in-law Dani starts preparing his cheeses after Passover, making a number of variations, and stores them in the refrigerator in preparation for Shavuot.—George E. Johnson
3 ¼ quarts of raw or whole milk
½ cup plain yogurt
4-6 tablespoons vinegar
3-5 tablespoons salt
One of the following flavorings: 3-6 tablespoons olive tapenade (to taste) / 3-6 tablespoons pesto (to taste)
Equipment: 4-6 quart pot / 3-4 inch mold / thermometer
Heat milk in pot almost to boiling, 194-200°F. Turn off heat when it reaches target temperature. Add yogurt, stirring the mixture with a wooden spoon as you add for about one minute. Add vinegar. Vinegar will cause casein in the mixture to separate into small white balls (casein) and green colored water (whey). Wait 10 minutes. If separation does not take place, add a half tablespoon of vinegar at a time until separation occurs. Add salt. Strain out the water. Place two molds with holes on the bottom on a plate. Then spread a half-inch layer of white cheese balls along bottom of mold. Add first layer of spice (olive tapenade or pesto). Then repeat until mold is filled. No need to press. Cheese will stick together. Place molds in refrigerator. Occasionally remove any liquid from the plate. Cheese is ready in three to six days.