by Oded Schwartz
Jews had to wait for a long time for Moses to come down from Mount Sinai; on their return to the camp, they were too hungry to wait for the long process of preparing a meat meal so they drank milk. So goes the tale that associates the serving of dairy dishes on Shavouth.
The origins of the custom are suggested in the Bible, in the passages of "kid in its mother's milk". The passage appears in the Bible three times (Exodus 23:16, 34:26 and Deuteronomy 14:21); twice it is mentioned in conjunction with the harvest celebration - Shavouth - Chag Ha'bikurim, is the festival that celebrated the beginning of the grain harvest. This indicates that an ancient pagan tradition of eating milk or milk products at the celebration of the harvest. The Jewish tradition absorbed the custom and gave it a new meaning associating it with the other significance of the holiday - Matan Tora - the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. As usual in these cases there is another, more practical reason. The holiday is celebrated at the beginning of summer, when nature is at its most generous, the grass is green and tender and the milk is rich and plentiful.
The first time that cheese was mentioned in the Bible is in the list of foods sent by Yishai, to the battlefield (Samuel 1, 17:18). An action that decided the fortune of the battle,because the messenger, the future King David, slew the giant Goliath with a well aimed single stone.
Cheese is mentioned only once more in the Bible (Job 10:10), but probably, like all over the Middle East, goat and sheep curds and cheeses constituted the main animal protein supply in the poor man's diet. We do not know how the cheese was shaped - although it was probably drained in reed or straw baskets, which shaped it into flat cakes, and gave it a characteristic pattern.
Curds and young cheese were probably eaten in the milking season and the surplus was preserved for use throughout the year. Salting and drying cheese in the sun produced a durable and
concentrated food that could be either dehydrated or grated into or on food. Dried cheese was so important in Talmudic time that there is a special dispensation to carry a cheese
grater on the Shabbat (Sabbath 16:2).
Fresh salted curds were also preserved in oil. Even now, one of the most delicious Middle Eastern fresh yoghurt cheeses (labane) is still preserved in fragrant olive oil. As a result of the way that butter was churned in the Middle East an interesting by-products was created. Unlike in Europe with its cool climate where butter was made from cream, in the hot climate of the Middle East,
soured milk or yoghurt was used. The churned yoghurt was poured over a layer of bulgur, which absorbed the curds and liquid leaving the butter on top - easy to collect, melt, clarify and store. The bulgur mix was then shaped into a ball and dried in the sun. These were eaten in hard times.
Dairy products were also essential to the weekly diet of the Ashkenazi Shtetl. Meat was expensive and in many isolated communities the Shochet rarely visited so the tendency was to eat meat only on Sabbath and holidays.
Dairy products have another advantage - they can be served with fish in the same meal - although in some Orthodox communities they can't be served in the same plate. This flexibility is still maintained by the popularity of dairy restaurants in thelarge Jewish centres of North America where dairy restaurants still serve bagel and lox along side gefilte fish, cheese blintzes,
milk-based barley soup and cheese filled Danish.
As milk is kosher only if supervised or milked by a Jew, many households kept a milking animal, usually a goat although milch cows were occasionally kept. Nevertheless milk was rarely drunk on its own by adults though it was drunk with coffee or chikorya - a drink made from the roasted root of the chicory plant (cichorium intybus). Milk together with barley, noodles or potato was used to make satisfying, nourishing soups. The cream was skimmed and was made into sour and Smetana and buttermilk. However it was mainly made into a range of fresh soft cheeses; hard mature cheese was rarely used.
Curd cheeses were used intensively as a base of a vast range of dishes such as sweet & savoury kugles, noodle dishes, feather light semolina dumplings, puddings, desserts, as stuffing for pancakes and Kreplach. The list goes on and on but it is much better described in a charming monologue by Shalom Alechem - Mata'amim shel chalav (milk delicacies).
For Shavouth, triangular cheese Kreplach was made. This tradition is a reference to the numerous times the number three appears in association with the giving of the Torah: three parts of which were given to Israel (Torah, Prophets and Hagiography (writings); it was given to a triple nation: the nation was comprised of thee classes Cohen, Levi and Israel; the nation sprung from the loins of three Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob); the Torah was given to Moses who was the third born in his family; and it was given in Sivan which was the third month in the ancient Jewish calendar.
Fresh curd cheese was also used for cheesecake - one of the definitive dishes of the Ashkenazi Kitchen. But what is a Jewish cheesecake? Is it the fluffy, lighter than light creation which is so popular in Israel and North America or the dense, tart and lemon scented cheese cakes that are favoured by German Jews.
After many years of research I've come to a conclusion that there is no definitive Jewish Cheesecake and therefore the Cheese and Passion Fruit Cake is my own version. It is quick and easy to make and the results are light, fragrant and refreshing.
And finally, there is also a tradition, probably Medieval, of serving cheese and milk products on Chanukah. The origins of this custom are ancient and obscure. A Medieval Jewish folk tradition associates Chanukah with the story of Judith; a daughter of the Hasmonean dynasty who served cheese that was probably preserved in salt to a Greek commander. As a result he got very thirsty and consumed too much wine that put him to sleep. Judith used the opportunity to behead him, thus saving the nation from destruction.
Oded who is the author of seven books is best known for his hugely popular cookery and food-related writing. Oded's first book 'In Search of Plenty - a history of Jewish food' (1992) was short-listed for the British Andre' Simon award and won a special mention in the international "Lenghe Ceretto Prize" for food and wine culture. He now lives in Cape Town and contributes occasionally to Al'Hashulchan (a leading Israeli food & dining magazine). He is still researching and writing about the history and culture of Israeli & Jewish food.