Recently, I sat down with the hospitable Mor Kagan, the manager of the visitor center at the Jacobs Farms cheese dairy. The visitor center is adjacent to Jacobs dairy in Kfar Haroeh, a religious moshav just outside Emeq Hefer and a few minutes off Route 4, to learn more about the gourmet cheeses I constantly encounter at wine functions.
The Jacobs Farms cheese dairy evolved from their family's cow milk dairy in 1996. The five Jacobs brothers, Eran, Asaf, Nadav, Roi and Shaul, formed the dairy as a partnership on the moshav their grandparents, Yitchak and Ruth Jacobs, had helped settle in 1936 (http://www.jacobs-d.com).
The families of the five brothers are intertwined in the dairy. Some cheeses will have names cheese lovers won't recognize like Omer, Ophir or Amit which aren't named after traditional cheeses but children of the brothers.
The family also runs a thriving artisanal bakery which shares shelf space in the dairy visitor center along with their own yogurt, local wines, beers and other culinary treats that complement their cheeses.
Starting with cow milk from their own pasture fed cows the Jacobs added goat and sheep milk cheese sourced from local farmers. In fact, with about 30 cheeses in their portfolio, there is seemingly something for any turophile (cheese lover).
Mor walked me through a sampling of their selections adding insights into their particular cheeses as well as feeding my evolving appetite to expand my knowledge about cheese in general.
The color of cheese naturally comes from what the animal eats. When cows graze they often eat grass closer to the ground and even ingest some soil. Thus their grazing is richer in Vitamin A rich carotene which gives cow milk a yellow or orange hue.
Goats tend to eat sweeter top grasses or strip bark from trees which result in more acidic and pungent cheeses and are more identifiable as being "goaty" or what can be described as earthy, herbal or grassy.
Some diners gravitate towards goat cheese because they also have the lowest natural fat content of the three animals and for some are easier to digest.
Although goat cheeses are often thought of as being flaky crumbly feta-like cheeses, like cow and sheep milk cheese goat cheese can come in all forms from soft to hard, young and aged as well as spreadable cheese.
Sheep like goats eat top grass and both are sometimes used as natural lawn crews. Since they eat similar parts of grass blades sheep milk cheese is most often white like goat cheese.
Sheep milk cheese is the highest in fat which contributes to making sheep's milk cheese rich, buttery and generally less aggressive in flavor.
Of course stinky blue cheeses are the exception to many rules and many cheeses might have color from different additives like nuts, fruit, veggies, wine or ash from different sources. The outer rind of a cheese might have its own distinctive color or flavor or both.
We sampled seven different selections of Jacobs cheese.
The "Alpinit," a yellow cow milk cheese, looked like and had the taste of Swiss cheese. By the way if you ever wondered why Swiss cheese has holes, it's caused by particular bacteria used in making Swiss cheese that leave pockets of air in the cheese.
The size of the holes (air pockets) can be controlled by the cheese maker by adjusting the acidity levels, the temperature the cheese is made at and controlling under what conditions it matures.
This cheese was little tart and seemed like a good match for a hoppy beer, or acidic white like Pinot Grigio or maybe even a slightly sweet Gewurztraminer though for reds a Pinot Noir might do.
The second cow cheese was a white Camembert with walnuts. Camembert is often matched with Bordeaux reds and the addition of tannic walnuts to this cheese could even make it a more perfect match for tannic red wines.
The third cheese we tasted was a specialty mix made for the holidays of sheep and goat cheese.
With a streak of ash made from roasted chestnuts, this cheese was firm and less pungent. It was a nice cheese to eat on its own but I could see it as pairing with an unoaked or lightly oaked Chardonnay which retained a bit of acidity. Or possibly with a partial secondary fermentation which had some creaminess or body to complement the cheese although this is an good all-purpose cheese that isn't too funky, acidic or fatty yet still flavorful.
The fourth cheese was a goat cheese "Omer" and as expected goat cheese was easy to recognize by its more assertive aroma.
In general, the higher acidity of goat cheese matches well with more acidic wines like Sauvignon Blanc which also shares grassy, herbal notes but often the hops of beers play well with different cheeses (ask a Belgian) and I tried the locals Alexander's internationally award winning Black porter with its deep chocolate and espresso notes and it married particularly well with the "Omer" and another other goat cheese, acobs version of an even more fragrant and funkier French Saint Maure.
A goat cheese with a red wine rind seemed to beg for red wines but I think like most cheeses a white wine serves it better. The acidity of white wines tend to play off the acidity of cheeses.
Reds can too often overpower a cheese. If you want a cheese to support the wine you are enjoying it's not so much an issue but if you have a cheese you want to feature or to share the stage with the wine than tannic red wines might match better with fattier cheeses as the fat will help tame the tannins and acidic cheeses should have more acidic wines so the wines don't taste flat.
Sweet or fortified wines can be a nice counterpoint to funky cheeses and the intensity of the sweetness or higher alcohol can help match the intensity of the funkiness.
With most food and wine pairings you will find out what works best for you and these rules are guidelines not restrictions.
One thing to note – cheeses are best stored cold and they can open up when served like a wine and often get richer and more complex as they open up and warm up.
Our last but not least treat was a goat milk "Lactic" cheese having a higher concentration of creamy lactic acid which makes me crave a more buttery Chardonnay to match it with though I think a semi-dry white's slight sweetness would also shine here.
Open as early as 7am each day, the Jacobs dairy visitor center has a steady flow of traffic from tourists and locals until it closes at 6pm on weekdays and 2pm on Fridays and being kosher it's closed on the Sabbath.
If you can't make it to Jacobs Farms in Kfar Haroeh, their blue and white packages of delicious cheeses and yogurt can often be found in their own section in the dairy aisle of better markets throughout Israel.