The Startup Nation has morphed into the Food and Wine Nation.
If you want to see how, go north. There, amid newly planted vineyards and refurbished grain mills, you’ll find a new generation of Israelis channeling their passion, energy and creativity toward eating and drinking.
Perhaps it’s because so many young people are discouraged by politics. Perhaps it’s part of the worldwide rediscovery of sustainable foodways. Whatever the reason for the revolution, each time I go to Israel I am surprised about the energy, creativity and general development of Israeli cuisine. Youthful chefs are reaching back in history for inspiration and, at the same time, reaching toward the future.
My trip last month to the Yarden Vintage International Culinary and Wine Festival in the Golan Heights was the perfect example. There I found young Israelis exploring who they are and what their land is. In wine, it means developing the soil as well as the roots of the vines; in food, it means knowing what each chef’s often multistranded roots are so that he or she can adapt to the land where they live.
As my husband and I headed up from Tel Aviv to the Golan Heights Winery for the festival, we stopped at Galil Mountain Winery, a stone’s throw from the Lebanese border. There we had a tour, as well as a barrel and varietal flight tasting of merlot, viognier, shiraz and blends of the wines located on this 200-acre newcomer. Micha Vaadia, a philosophical winemaker, explained that Galil was “regaining their wine culture” by making a partnership between the local volcanic soil and three wild varietal grapes growing since biblical times.
For 1,300 years, since the Arab caliphate period, the land has pretty much been barren. What makes the work so challenging, according to Vaadia, is that each region has different soils, and so experimenting with many types of vines is necessary to determine which will perform best in the soil. While a country like Italy, for example, has a map of what grows well in each region, Israel is just relearning which varietals flourish in each soil type. And, of course, there is the unpredictable factor of weather.
After the tasting, we drove right into the vineyard to have a vegetarian lunch, underneath a tall pistachio tree, not far from nectarine and apple orchards. We ate many Middle Eastern salads with batata, sweet potato pancakes, a delicious recipe from the Tel Aviv vegetarian cafe Orna and Ella. All of it, of course, was accompanied by the Galil pinot blanc and shiraz wines.
The food and wine festival, which only takes place on stellar vintage years, opened with uncorking and tasting Yarden’s top-of-the-line wine, Katzrin. Its flavor was deep and rich, full bodied and dark red in color, but it still needed five, 10 or even 15 years of aging to reach its full potential.
Outside, about 35 sous chefs from some of the best restaurants throughout Israel — and from as many ethnic backgrounds — were cooking Israeli foods to pair with the wines.
Erez Komarovsky, who brought good bread to Israel with his Lehem Erez bakery chain and who knows real, rather than trendy, talent, wanted me to see what the country’s young sous chefs — 72 of them in all throughout the festival — could do with Israeli cuisine.
“These are the chefs that do all the work,” he said. “We have been working on this festival for five years.”
For a day and a half, I tried the impressive offerings from this diverse group of young Jewish and Arab-Israeli chefs. Their backgrounds reflect the mosaic of Israeli peoples and foods today — Swedish, Yemenite, Algerian, Moroccan, Polish, Palestinian — all from mixed cultural marriages, all influencing what has become the lexicon of Israeli cooking. It was proof, beyond a doubt, that Israeli food has more than come of age.
The festival began with a barbecue of sorts, including grilled lamb chops with rice, mint and cilantro from Liad Yehy of Herbert Samuel restaurant in Tel Aviv.
I also tasted grape leaves stuffed with sweet breads and veal cheeks, drizzled with a bright yellow amba (pickled mango) and fresh red tomato purée, as well as a sea bass with mouffleta, tahini and tomato amba, from Itsik Ruham of Jerusalem’s Machneyuda Restaurant. This innovative nonkosher restaurant in the Jerusalem Mahane Yehuda Market opens, as a nod to kashrut, at 9:30 p.m., an hour after sunset on Saturdays, and has been a catalyst for all kinds of pubs there. Its English branch, called The Palomar, a narrow bar-like restaurant in Soho, London, recently won the Tatler Restaurant of the Year Award and the GQ Food & Drink Award for Best Restaurant.
Going back to biblical roots, Adon Shipun, who just two months ago opened a bakery on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv, took spelt and barley kernels, toasted them in a coffee roaster, then ground them with a small mill and turned the resulting flour with salt, water and a sour starter into large loaves of bread studded with peanuts, all baked on black stones from the Sea of Galilee. Not only does he make barley bread, the food of the poor mentioned in the Bible, but he also adds seaweed, spinach and sweet potatoes to his bread dough — but never sugar.
A diverse assortment of Israeli foods and wines were showcased at the recent Golan Heights festival. Photo by Allan Gerson
An architect, Shipun went to France to work with a baker in a small town in Brittany whose family had been making bread from these flours for 400 years. Shipun stayed at the bakery for a year and a half, then switched professions — going from pen to pan. With ingredients sourced from Africa, he showed me a chickpea flour from Ethiopia with red pepper and ground with lots of spices.
The flavor and the ideas that most impressed me, however, came from the food made by two young women, the sous chefs from Dallal, a bakery café in the Neve Tzedek area of Tel Aviv. The young women made various desserts during the festival, my favorite being an intense cherry soup with kirsch liqueur and a floating island of whipped egg whites with fresh cherries. They also made a kind of ice cream cone out of just-picked grape leaves that they first caramelized, then roasted and curled, then stuffed with a rice pudding made of coconut milk, a little vanilla extract and a touch of sugar.
As delicious as the food was and as great as the people were, I really came home with a new appreciation of Israeli wine.
Golan Heights Winery is a powerful newcomer to the Israeli wine scene. In 1882, the Rothschilds gave a push to the wine industry in Palestine, importing vines from France and, later, America to produce wine in the towns of Rishon LeZion and Zichron Ya’akov. The Carmel Wine Co. was born in the late 19th century, and today it remains the largest producer of kosher wine in the world.
When I lived in Israel in the early 1970s, there were only Carmel and a few other wineries. But when Israel’s — and the world’s — passion for good varietal wines increased, four kibbutzim and four moshavim got together in 1978 and started growing grapes on the Golan Heights, captured during the Six-Day War. This joint venture has become the Golan Heights Winery, located in Katzrin. Little by little, as interest and passion for good wine grew, these vineyards expanded and now compete with the boutique wineries that are slowly sweeping the country.
“Based on the tastings that I did on my one and only trip to Israel, I would recommend the best of the wines to anyone regardless of whether they were interested in kosher wines,” Michael Franz, editor of Wine Review Online, said of Golan Heights Winery’s offerings.
Today, the winery includes Gilgal, Yarden, Golan and a joint cooperative venture with Galil Mountain Winery. It has distributors in China, Poland, France, Russia, England, Germany, Switzerland, Vietnam, Sweden, Italy and, of course, all over the United States, many of whom came to the festival.
In between tastings, we went on tours of the Golan Heights Winery and the vineyards. The first was a behind-the-scenes tour of the winery facility with Michael Avery, a strapping young winemaker from Australia. What stood out for me was the high-tech sorting mechanism. I knew that as soon as the grapes are picked, only a Sabbath-observant Jew can make the wine in order for it to be kosher. It used to be that Jewish women from Katzrin would separate the good grapes from the bad, remove the twigs and generally control the picking; now, optical grape sorting by machine replaces hand sorting — picking 10 times as many grapes with much more accuracy.
At the festival opening, we listened to Victor Schoenfeld, a California native and graduate of the UC Davis oenology program, who has been the head winemaker here for the past 25 years. The topic was planning for the future at the winery.
He explained that leaf rot hit the Israeli leaves in 2003. As the rot worsened, the winery made a decision in 2007 to plunge in and enrich its soil — providing for deeper roots — change all the vines and replace them with disease-resistant plants from throughout the world.
Then it waited to release the Katzrin — its most expensive wine, made from cabernet sauvignon and merlot — until now. The price in Israel for the just-released 2011 vintage is more than $100, and about $150 in the United States. As the wine was poured for everyone in the room, the excitement was evident on the faces of all these young, intelligent winemakers.
The next morning we took a jeep tour of the Yonatan Springs Vineyard, less than a mile from the Syrian border. Afterward, we sat there, sipping wine. The vineyard manager raised his glass to us and said, “Here, we drink wine. Over there, it is a different story.”