“Take one of those cherry tomatoes,” urged my friend the vendor. “They’re sweeter than real cherries.” I popped one in my mouth. Wow! A burst of sweetness and tomato flavor. I bought a kilo.
Then I made my way to the Russian bakery, where they sell all kinds of sourdough breads. I bought a beautiful brown rye loaf sprinkled with caraway seeds. It was time to catch my bus and go home.
I like sitting at the shuk bus stop. Sometimes I think I’ll go there and just hang out on the bench, listening in on the conversations. Often, friends or relatives meet there accidentally, and then there are hugs and exclamations and all the news since they last met. And since this is Israel and nobody’s afraid to start up a conversation, total strangers talk to each other easily. The conversation can get fairly philosophical. Or heated, if politics come up.
This time, it was a couple of elderly ladies, one plump, with dyed blond hair and a floral print dress, and the other dark, thin and sort of sharp. Friends, apparently. They both spoke with strong Sephardic accents. They were talking about cheese.
“Taste some of this,” said the thin woman, unwrapping a block of white cheese and offering it to her friend.
The blond lady daintily broke a little corner off. “Mmm, delicious. What kind is it?”
“We just call it Iraqi cheese. A little of it on a slice of good bread, with a cup of tea – perfect snack.” She broke off a piece too, and the two sat there thoughtfully munching. “My mother used to give us that when we’d come home from school,” the thin lady added.
The blond woman’s bus pulled up and they said hasty goodbyes. I turned to the thin lady and asked her about the cheese. I’d never heard of “Iraqi cheese.” She pulled out her block of cheese again and offered it to me.
“Here, take some,” she said. “It’s hand made.” She saw the doubt in my eyes and added, “Kosher, of course. I keep kosher too.” I hesitated and broke off a crumb, feeling Western scruples about politeness and not appearing greedy.
“Take a good piece,” she said irritably. “How can you taste a little bit like that?”
She was offering me hospitality, never mind that we were strangers at a bus stop. So I took off bigger piece and ate it. Darn, it was good cheese. Firm, fresh, and a little salty. She pulled another block of cheese out of her bag and unwrapped it. This one was whiter, flabby, pierced with holes and much saltier.
Both are called Iraqi Cheese, she told me, only the firmer one is more expensive. I could find it at the little booth just at the entrance to the shuk. When her bus came, she was still telling me how her mother used to buy these cheeses back in the old country, paying the cheese maker later, whenever she had the money. “People trusted each other more then,” she sighed.
What could I do – I went back to the shuk and bought both kinds of cheese. Then I had cheese and tomatoes and Russian rye bread for lunch.
Who am I to ignore tradition and culture and hand-made cheese?