One of my favorite local delicacies is labneh, a spreadable yogurt cheese which can be made either from cow, goat or sheep milk and popular throughout the Levant, Turkey and Greece or where ever large populations from these area have settled. Bedouins also make it from camel milk but I have never tasted it as it is not sold through the usual channels. Recently we took a trip to Daliat El Carmel, a Druze village located in the Carmel Mountains in central Israel in search for some of the creamiest and most delicious labneh in the country
Outside the old village center of Daliat El Carmel, with its cobbled and winding streets, it is not a particularly picturesque town but people flock to the area for the traditional grill restaurants which are open on Shabbat and roadside stands selling olives ( manzanillo, suri and nubo), za’atar, olive oil, labneh and fresh Druze pita baked on a saj.
Every ethnic and religious group in Israel has a distinct attire making it easy to differentiate them from all others, like plumage on a bird and the Druze are no exception. In their case, the men don outstanding mustaches which are almost exclusively associated with them, especially among the more religious. Unfortunately they are not too keen on getting photographed and although I asked several people all of them turned me down with a curt no. Finally, on the way out of the village we stopped by a road stand manned by a gregarious and friendly Druze man whose only request was that we not photograph his wife who was baking Druze saj bread nearby, flipping the dough in her hands and using a pillow to bring it down on the saj.
After buying a jar of labneh preserved in olive oil we went for a walk near the Carmelite Monastary where Druze families were picnicking and others busy collecting wild edible plants such as arum and sorrel. In the surrounding hills, goats and cows were grazing in what looked like a typical scene from Scotland but alas the green in Israel is transient and will soon tire out during the monotonous summer days, turning a dusty yellow.
The pastures were blooming with anemones, in blues and reds, and among the flowers were clusters of Jerusalem sage which is used much like grape leaves and poisonous mandrake which shouldn’t be used at all.
Labneh is made from strained yogurt, or milk that has been digested by bacteria, producing lactic acid and a characteristic tangy flavor. For those suffering from lactose intolerance, yogurt and labneh can often be eaten without the symptoms associated with regular milk because much of the lactose is digested by the bacteria. For decades, in a haze of medical arrogance, antibiotics were thought to be the panacea of all health problems. However, bacteria which replicate and mutate without end eventually become resistant to a wide range of antibiotics so instead of eradicating them, a harmonic balanced must be established. Not all varieties are detrimental to human health, such as the probiotic bacteria in labneh which has been found to ease digestion. Mycobacterium vaccae is another strain of friendly bacteria which harbors in clean soil and affects the immune response in surprising ways- in this case it triggers a happier outlook on life.
I was more than happy to hear about this and I do hope it is relevant to my boys who are forever, digging, climbing, running, jumping and getting as messy as possible, like the free range kids all boys should be.
It seems to me, the dirtier they become the happier they are so perhaps there is some truth to this research, but I beg, please wash those hands before eating the labneh.
I serve labneh for breakfast, dusted with za’atar and a swirl of olive oil, the best I can buy, along with omelets, vegetable salad and homemade olives. Labneh is swiped like hummus, with pita bread or sticks of vegetables ( crudités) or added to vegetable sandwiches with cucumbers, tomatoes and zucchini fritters.
My favorite labneh is made from either sheep or goat, which have similar flavor profiles, although buffalo and cow labneh is also widely available.
Arabs of the area also make labneh which makes up an important part of their diet. At Ramle shuk a few months ago, I saw a young man sit proudly in front of an array of delicious salads and fresh bread which his mother prepared for his breakfast, all balanced on top of a makeshift table from old crates.
With Arab hospitality, he invited me to eat his breakfast, getting up from his chair to offer me all his food. I declined of course, but I did take just a small swipe of the labneh, how could I not?
Diversity in Israel
Who is this guy? Have no idea, but he was the only one who allowed me to photograph him (this was before stopping at the roadside stand) while visiting Daliyat El Carmel with his Asian girlfriend. I asked him how many years he grew out his dreads (rastas), care to take a guess?