The other day, a bite of local, raw goat milk cheese reminded me, suddenly, of the rapturously exquisite goat’s milk cheese I tasted a year ago in Israel, in the foothills West of Jerusalem at Shay Seltzer’s famous goat cheese farm, Har Eitan. The cheese is made from the freshest milk of a much-loved herd of goats that have roamed those hills for over thirty years. It is lovingly turned into cheese and aged in a cave in the ancient hills. It’s even won awards in France! People from all over the world come to study with Shay. When I was there, he had students from Thailand.
I wondered if the combination of ancient land, beloved goats and devoted humans was what made the difference in flavor, allowing the cheese to absorb the sweet earthiness of fresh milk infused with hot days, cool cave, ash and Holy Land chaparral fed by history, mulch and dung, to express the minerals laced with stories embedded in the Earth. I thought of the goats roaming those hills, and all they brought with them encoded in their rich milk, including their thoughts and games, and the microbial tinge of the dust on the skin of their udders as they’re milked, and even the clay lodged in the goats’ hooves, along with the weeds and grasses that they love to eat. Surely countless things contribute, things we can only guess at, perfecting the unique deliciousness of those particular cheeses. I imagine they contain snippets of conversation and birdsong, and the breeze off the distant Mediterranean.
I wondered if the contrast of sweet freshness with centuries of strife somehow finds its way into the milk of Shay’s cheeses, too, as it sits in that cool cave, and whether there are ancestral strains of meaning coming to life in the protected darkness that cause the cheeses to respond with the release of their full flavor in ways that our newer, imported goats and our lack of caves cannot replicate, but that our tongues recognize nonetheless. And I wonder if the mighty presence of today’s harsh imposition of the Occupation adds another flavor to the ash-dipped rinds, as if to remind us that harm sometimes seeks transmutation and can nourish our appetite for honest talk until the past and present meet on our tongues so that we might speak them.
Small things can give big flavor, transporting us to a time out of mind, or maybe a mind out of time - that feeling when we taste something alive, as all food should be and once was. When time hangs, suspended, even if only for that moment of first taste on tongue, the sensation of texture and temperature that overtake all other sensations, that split-second where there is no sound, no motion, only flavor. There is a moment of stillness then, just long enough to recognize the experience and savor it, before the world starts moving again.
That’s what Shay’s goat cheese tastes of: the full flavor of timelessness, when everything is possible, and our hearts turn to gratitude as the day cools. We are at peace then, linked to that sensory confluence because we remember something independent of our fly-in-a-bottle-thinking-mind pinging against everything that trouble us.
When the cheese leaves its place, that rich peace begins to unravel with each successive layer of packaging and each dusty mile as the finished cheeses suddenly find themselves bouncing to market in the back of an old truck, encased in a metal darkness instead of the quiet, earthen one. In the place of silence is a cacophony of engines, and the grains of dust that sift in, kicked up by worn tires and a driver in a hurry to get from the dirt road to the paved one. There’s news on the radio and it likely isn’t good, as traffic slows to a crawl approaching the first check point - implacable reminder of the power of the State with all its dirty secrets of who will benefit and who will die. Teenagers in uniforms cradle semiautomatic weapons while inspecting paperwork and the carefully wrapped cheese, still full-flavored but a little less exuberant now, having accumulated notes of uncertainty and sorrow.
Diminished flavor means something has been lost – rattled, sanitized, taken somewhere far from home, and the silence of possibility becomes a silence of defeat or perhaps complicity. These are the microbes of doubt that distract us just long enough to make us forget just what it was that tasted so good. Too late. We are easily overwhelmed: too burdened to pick up that piece of plastic lying on the ground, or that crushed water bottle. There are too many anyway, and not enough days to gather them all. They find their way to the Pacific Gyre or catch on that coil of barbed wire over there.
Pleasure is a sensory indicator of aliveness and living food wakes up our cells, including our immune system, along with the subtle zing of mysterious interconnections between flavor, kinship, memory and place. Soil, food, health and peace are inextricably linked. It matters which motes of dust we ingest, and which microbes we feed, including microbial hope and relatedness that conjure the landscape we all once shared, before that fork in the road that took us so far from home.