I cannot stand cottage cheese. I was sure I was the only one in the country, but in the course of writing this article I found the only other person not to like it.
For in Israel, cottage cheese, or just “cottage,” as it’s known here, rules. It is home, it is childhood, it is our past, present and future dreams, and it is absolutely everywhere.
In honor of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which is celebrated this Thursday and marked by eating copious amounts of dairy delights (hello there, delicious cheesecake!), we set out to get the lowdown on the most Israeli cheese of all.
“The history of cottage cheese in Israel is very extensive and is related to many social, economic and political issues,” explains Michal Levit, a big cottage lover who is the public programs and library manager at Asif, a culinary institute and NGO dedicated to cultivating Israel’s food culture.
“It’s one of my favorite things in the world, and I learned how to eat it from my big sister. I have a slice of bread with thin pieces of avocado with salt and lemon, and then cottage cheese on top of that,” she excitedly tells ISRAEL21c.
“It’s been an inseparable part of the food culture in Israel and the food culture in the kibbutzim, where every dining room tray was laden with a fresh cow’s milk cheese,” she says, referring to gevina levana (white cheese).
“So its popularity has a lot to do with the fact that Israelis have loved fresh cheese from the very beginning of Israeliness.”
While gevina levana was always here, the seemingly omnipresent cottage cheese — with all its lumps — only made aliyah years after Israel’s establishment, in 1962.
A gamble that paid off
According to Tnuva, the Israeli dairy giant responsible for introducing Israelis to cottage cheese, one of the firm’s managers spent a few months in the early Sixties in the United States, where he happened to taste cottage cheese.
He worked his way through all the cottage cheeses he could find there, and then brought up the idea at a company management meeting.
Those managers who had never seen cottage cheese were aghast at the sight, but others were willing to let him try. They decided that the cheese that would best suit Israelis’ palate would be one that is in between the very soft and very chalky version, and they were right – the cheese became a great hit, and has since been produced by several manufacturers.
The logo for Tnuva’s cottage cheese is almost as famous in Israel as its taste. The packaging has for decades exhibited various iterations of the original design – a little house and a cow – created by the very same people responsible for the state emblem.
“The thing with cottage cheese is that it is identified with the Tnuva food conglomerate, which pushes the whole idea of ‘the cheese with the home,’” Levit notes. “You really see it on the packaging and in ads over the years.”
The simplicity we yearn for
“It’s something that you really miss, even though most researchers would agree that it’s something that denotes some kind of simplicity.”
Tel Aviv University Hebrew literature professor Yahil Zaban, who writes about the poetics of food, agrees.
“Look, it’s not some sort of quality cheese. It’s standard, mass-produced and deeply tasteless, just something that you spread on bread,” he tells ISRAEL21c.
And yes, you guessed it, he is the only other person in the country not to like cottage cheese.
“It’s not an Israeli invention and exists elsewhere in the world. But here it developed some kind of status that has to do with the ways in which we attempt to symbolize outlooks and values using foods,” Zaban tells ISRAEL21c.
“Since the cheese is simple and popular, it’s viewed as a representation of Israeliness,” he explains. “Cottage cheese really is a worker’s food, of old-time kibbutzim and of simple households. That’s what it symbolizes. It’s cheap, easy to buy and represents Israeli simplicity, directness and folksiness.”
Cottage cheese protests
The word “cottage” itself, he adds, “is very interesting, because in English it’s a type of cheese that comes from the countryside. Here it’s also a cheese that seemingly comes from the countryside and is eaten in the city, but it also represents the dream to live in a cottage – a big country house with a garden, which in itself is a small-scale representation of Zionism, to have your own land, something green to call your own.”
That’s why, Zaban says, the rise in cottage cheese prices a little over a decade ago sparked an actual protest.
The protest took off in 2011 after an Israeli man named Itzik Elrov started a Facebook group calling on Israeli consumers to boycott cottage cheese after it reached what was considered to be an astronomical price – 8 shekels (about $2).
This sparked a general outcry over the cost of living in Israel and was soon followed by huge social justice protests that saw people camping out in tents for weeks in protest over unattainable real estate.
The hike in cottage-cheese prices, Zaban notes, was doubly hurtful.
“It was a double hit. Not only is this the standard, staple cheese that every household buys, and once the price goes up it’s something very, very noticeable, but it also made people realize that their dreams for a cottage house or even an apartment of their own is no longer viable. It’s really no surprise that it led to the housing protest.”
Nowadays, the majority of Tnuva’s shares belong to the international Bright Food Group based in Shanghai. But according to Zaban, this hasn’t stopped cottage from being associated with the Israeli home gracing its packaging.
“For people to mind, they’d have to notice it. But that’s what symbols do. They hide the facts or simply create new ones,” he concludes.