a bald man in a white coat holds up a large wheel cheese, smiling slightly
“I believe I’m putting my entire heart into what I’m making,” says cheesemaker Omer Seltzer. (Photo/Yarin Avni)

He went from herding goats in Israel to making ‘sublime’ cheese in Sonoma

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When Vivien Straus tips you off to a new local cheesemaker, it behooves you to listen. Why? Quite simply, Straus is the founder of California Cheese Trail, a map of the state’s artisanal cheesemakers, and she is part of the well-known dairy family. She knows of what she speaks.

That’s why I found myself leaving the house recently and braving an atmospheric river in pursuit of cheese.

Mt. Eitan Cheese is a new brand of goat cheese crafted in Sonoma County. The cheese has a distinctly Israeli identity. The company itself is named for the Israeli mountain near its creator’s childhood home, with varieties named Tamar, Gefen, Yael and Ady.

If there is such a thing as cheesemaking royalty, one could say Omer Seltzer was born into it. His father, the late Shai Seltzer, was a renowned cheesemaker in Israel. An adherent of the “Slow Food” movement, he started raising goats on a farm in the Judean Hills, outside of Jerusalem, in 1974. Often dressed in all white, with a flowing white beard, Shai Seltzer looked like he stepped right out of the Bible.

When culinary tours in Israel first took off, his goat farm, also called Mt. Eitan — in Hebrew, Har Eitan — was often a required stop. Those who tried his cheeses said they were other-worldly. It wasn’t uncommon for someone to say it was the “best cheese I’ve tasted in my life.”

It’s safe to say that in this case, the kid doesn’t stray far from the herd.

Omer, now 42, grew up on that farm with his sisters.

“I loved working with my family, and I loved the concept of drinking coffee together before dawn, arguing, and everyone having dinner together at night,” he said. “At night, we went to sleep thinking about the farm. It was very much who we were.”

When he got married, his wife Tal came to live there, too, and their four daughters, ranging in age from 2 to 10, were all born on the farm.

Even so, Seltzer the son didn’t start learning the art of cheesemaking right away. His father made it clear that cheese was his domain.

 

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“There were certain things he never let me do as I was growing up, he had to be the one in control,” Seltzer said. So, it fell to him to manage the goats.

“It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I started making cheese, and it took me awhile to understand the depth of it,” Seltzer said.

Furthering his cheese education meant leaving Israel; he studied at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo and in Provence, France.

Asking Seltzer to describe his cheeses is pointless.

“I can describe a painting to you. But when you see it, it might be completely different to you than what I described,” he said. “I believe I’m putting my entire heart into what I’m making, as well as the best of my knowledge into it, and giving it the time it needs. My hope is that it’s something that, once people taste it, they will understand. And if not, that’s OK, too.”

From the samples he shared with me, I truly felt I was being taken on a cheese journey, led by a master. Each of the five varieties I tried — from a hard cheese to a feta-like variety in brine to three incredibly creamy, soft cheeses — was subtly different from the next. The textures were among the most sublime I’ve ever experienced.

Straus’ Cheese Trail likewise gushes that Mt. Eitan’s cheeses are “unbelievable.”

“Each cheese has its own technique,” Seltzer explained. “And with each one, you try to highlight a different flavor in the milk, or lack of a better word, celebrate the technique. As I taste the milk, I use different techniques to emphasize or tone down anything I don’t think is right for that milk or cheese, one step at a time. That’s what I think the artisanal concept is. I’m not looking for the end result. I’m in it for the process.”

Seltzer wasn’t necessarily planning to uproot his family. But after his father passed away in 2020, he received a surprise when he tried to renew the lease on the land in Israel where he’d grown up.

“After 50 years there, the state decided it would be a nature reserve and wouldn’t renew our lease,” he said. Although he and his family looked at new locations, nothing felt quite right, so they decided to take a year off and travel.

When they arrived in Sonoma County last year, they fell in love immediately. They decided to stay and began making cheese in January. While Seltzer buys his milk locally, eventually he’d like to have his own farm and herd, so he can have better control of what his goats eat, like his father did.

In Israel, his father’s cheeses were always kosher. Seltzer has considered going for kosher certification here, but his cheese is kosher by his own definition. He only uses kosher rennet — the coagulating agent — and won’t buy milk produced on Shabbat. Nor will he work on Shabbat.

“It’s what works for me, and it’s the way I was raised,” he said.

Seltzer only recently started selling his cheese at Sebastopol Farmers Market. He works the booth himself. That’s by design.

“I want to have that contact with people. I don’t think it should be sold on a shelf,”  he said. “Cheese is a living thing and changes over time. It should be eaten fresh.”

The cheese also can be ordered through the Mt. Eitan website or picked up at the Sonoma Wine Shop and La Bodega.


Small Bites

In December, I profiled chef Jeff Banker, who was cooking brisket and latkes for a Hanukkah menu at Maybeck’s, a restaurant in San Francisco’s Marina District.

At the time, I reported that Banker considers himself a farm-to-table chef but he doesn’t mess with his mother’s brisket recipe, which uses ingredients such as Lawry’s Seasoned Salt and Lipton Onion Soup Mix.

Last month, Banker, his wife, Lori Baker, who was the pastry chef at the restaurant, and partner Aaron Toensing made the difficult decision to close Maybeck’s. It had been open in its new incarnation for only about eight months.

“Unfortunately, keeping Maybeck’s open in the current economy was no longer sustainable. We hope to see a new form of the restaurant at some point in the future,” they said in a statement on their website.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."