Most Israelis do not refer to soft white cheese (gvina levana) by its various trade names. Instead, they refer to it by its fat content: nine percent and five percent. Eaten with a teaspoon, mixed with fruit or vegetable salad, spread on bread or crackers, and used in a variety of pies and pastries, this is one of the most in-demand foods in Israel.
Interestingly, the people responsible for introducing this all-Israeli cheese to the region were members of a German Christian society, the Templers. The Temple Society (no connection to the Order of the Templar Knights) was established in 1861 by Christoph Hoffmann, who believed that his followers should settle in the Land of Israel in order to prepare for the second coming of Christ. The Templers first came here in 1868, shortly before the beginning of Zionist resettlement, when the area was still part of the Ottoman Empire. These hard-working, god-fearing settlers established several urban and rural settlements (notably in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Haifa) and engaged in commerce and agriculture. They built impressive churches, community halls, schools and houses in the best tradition of German architecture. They grew and exported Jaffa oranges and were responsible for introducing the domesticated honeybee, modern horse-drawn carriages, and, most importantly, modern dairy farming based on cow milk. Local dairy products at the time came entirely from sheep and goat milk.
With the advent of Zionist immigration and the growing demand for milk and dairy products, the Templers became the primary suppliers of dairy products to the Jews of Palestine. When unable to deliver their fresh milk to the market, they made butter and soured milk products rather than let the milk go to waste. The fresh soft cheese was modeled after Quark, a popular product in Central Europe (known in German as Weißkäse, literally white cheese).
By the mid-1930s the number of Jewish dairies rose and the Templers’ dairy farms lost their supremacy. In addition, many Templers pledged their allegiance to the Nazi regime in Germany, and the Jewish community of Palestine boycotted all Templer goods and services. To utilize the huge amounts of unwanted milk, the Templers established two modern dairies and sold their products mainly to the British Army. By the early 1940s, the British authorities had the Templers of Palestine (whom they suspected of aiding the Germans) interred and subsequently deported, first to Cyprus and finally to Australia. They were never allowed to return.
Following the establishment of the State of Israel, dairy farming became a major sector of Israeli agriculture, and the huge amounts of milk being supplied by the moshav and kibbutz settlements were used to make dairy products, mainly soft white cheese. Inexpensive, simple to produce and nutritious, this cheese soon became an important staple in the years of austerity and rationing. Later on it was perfected and now has a smoother creamier texture.
Admittedly, soft white cheese was not invented in Israel, but Israelis are probably its most devout consumers worldwide. This status and its colorful local history make gvina levana a uniquely Israeli food product.