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Palestinians try cheese-making and produce a fine pecorino

Kamal Daher, one of a select few Palestinian farmers trained to makeItalian cheeses, holds scamorza in the ripening room of the West Bank's only Italian cheese factory in Tubas, West Bank.
Kamal Daher, one of a select few Palestinian farmers trained to makeItalian cheeses, holds scamorza in the ripening room of the West Bank's only Italian cheese factory in Tubas, West Bank. Dion Nissenbaum / MCT

TUBAS, West Bank — It's not exactly the romantic Italian countryside, but this tiny Palestinian sheep farm has become the unlikely headquarters for an unusual culinary experiment.

A small group of Italian agronomists is trying to transform this scruffy hilltop into the Palestinian Tuscany by setting up the West Bank's first Italian cheese factory.

Defying the skeptics — and there are many — the Golden Sheep cheese factory has established a small but growing business selling higher-end Italian pecorino, smoked ricotta, pear-shaped scamorza, a soft cheese, and, on an especially fortuitous day, maybe some mozzarella.

The thought of setting up an Italian cheese factory in the West Bank would seem fantastical from the start.

Why train Palestinians to produce an expensive foreign cheese that few Palestinians could afford — if they liked the taste?

"They think it's strange, but it's delicious," said Kamal Daher, one of three Palestinian farmers trained in the art of Italian cheese-making. "OK, it's an acquired taste."

Italian agronomist Stefano Baldini hatched the idea more than a decade ago as a way of helping Palestinian farmers and the anemic West Bank economy.

Baldini admits that Golden Sheep is not for everyone. The comparably expensive Italian cheese is made for middle- and upper-class Palestinians who have lived abroad, as well as the endless stream of international aid workers, diplomats and journalists now living in the region.

"We knew from the beginning that this kind of cheese would not be for the people in general," said Baldini, who spearheaded the idea as local director of Ucodep, an independent Italian group that sponsors small-development projects around the world.

At local tastings, Palestinians unaccustomed to hard, sharp, Italian cheeses tend to find it unpalatable.

"You had to see the faces of the people when they tasted it for the first time," said Matteo Crosetti, a Ucodep project coordinator in the West Bank.

But the cheese is proving to be increasingly popular with the target niche market.

"It's like going to Rome and finding hummus and falafel," Daher said. "For foreigners, it's like finding treats from home."

Baldini first tried to bring Italian cheese-making to the West Bank in 1996, when Ucodep sent two Palestinian farmers to Italy to learn how to make one of Italy's signature cheeses: mozzarella.

Back on the West Bank, they discovered that the local cow's milk wasn't well suited for mozzarella. The cheese was stone hard.

A decade later, Baldini tried again.

At first, even the Palestinians he wanted to run the cheese factory were skeptical.

Reluctantly, a couple of Palestinian cheese-makers went through training in Italy. Then Italian cheese-makers converged on this hilltop farm where they could instantly analyze the milk and figure out how to work with it.

The cheese factory is little more than an enlarged kitchen and a small pantry that has been converted into a rudimentary ripening room to age cheese.

Their cheese smoker is a hollowed-out refrigerator.

There are sporadic power outages that make it hard to keep a steady temperature in the ripening room.

In the summer, they throw water on the floor and wet blankets over the windows to keep ever-important humidity levels high enough for the aging process.

Faced with the challenges, Ucodep is now helping to dig an underground cave on the farm that they hope will become the new ripening room.

After some trial and error, Golden Sheep has established a reputation for producing good Italian cheeses.

"I can say that the quality of pecorino now is very, very good," said Baldini. "Comparing it with Italian pecorino, it is good."

A visiting reporter found the aged pecorino remarkably good. To cater to local tastes, the factory also makes a pecorino with a mix of the local thyme-sesame seed herbal mix known as zatar.

Even with a decent pecorino, Golden Sheep has few places to sell it. The cheese-makers have no license to sell in Israel, the market for 90 percent of West Bank exports.

In December, the World Bank noted that West Bank trade is severely constrained by increasing Israeli border restrictions to the east and inadequate Jordanian alternatives to the west.

For the West Bank economy to thrive, the World Bank reported, Israel would have to make it easier for Palestinian products to reach global markets.

Without a refrigeration truck, Golden Sheep sells few soft cheeses across the West Bank. And even getting the cheeses to West Bank stores is hampered by long delays at Israeli military checkpoints.

As for the mozzarella, well, they are still working on it.

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